There can be no argument now that the rising tide of fascist and white supremacist ideology in this country has reached a tipping point. In Charlottesville it was the Alt-Right, in El Paso a lone gunman, and in Oregon the Proud Boys – add to this a recent string of foiled mass-shootings, and it would be impossible to argue that the political far right has not escalated the conflicts in this country. Historically when the far right has sought political power, it has done so primarily via violence, and although the same can most certainly be said for elements of the far left, there has only briefly been a radical far left in this country who viewed violence as a means to an end. The era of the Weather Underground is gone, but never has the era of the Ku Klux Klan or white supremacy been snuffed out in the United States, from Jim Crow to Oklahoma City to a Walmart in El Paso. A literal civil war was not sufficient to exorcise these elements from society, evidenced not by monuments to the failed Southern rebellion, but the actions of individuals like Timothy McVey and the numerous perpetrators of the church, synagogue, and mosque shootings in the past three years. A resurgence of xenophobia now combines the worst elements of racism with the empowering elements of political rhetoric – and in this country, political rhetoric echos in church sanctuaries.
When in the past nationalism of the sort we see today has spiked, organized churches are routinely slow to respond to the surge of intolerance and hatred. German Christians as a whole did little to thwart the efforts of the Nazis in the 1930’s, as did few Catholics when faced with the crimes of the Nationalists in Spain and the military junta of Argentina. In a moderately more distant past, one questions the dissonance required for self-identifying Christian empires like those of Belgium in Africa or Brazil in the Amazon, many of which were regularly endorsed by a church or denomination. On the one hand these states seemingly professed to follow the teachings of Jesus, and in the same breath systematically exterminated the respective native populations of their empires. We do not regularly list Leopold II of Belgium and the Pedros of Brazil among the villains of modern history, but their crimes are no less repugnant than those of Hitler and Pol Pot.
Fear often plays a large role in the muting of conscience, in particular the fear of political retribution and, more importantly, the fear of social retribution in the loss of congregants. Here we see the intricate connections between politics and social forces laid bare, for where some have shown that Christianity can be inclusive in its interpretation, others hold that no such interpretation is possible, the former connecting with a novel way of understanding, the later with a traditional way. Neither is superior to the other, for neither is likely to preserve an original understanding or the complete truth. Pastors must be mindful of their flock’s natural political inclination in the same way politicians necessarily become more malleable the closer they are to reelection – without the congregants, just as the electorate, there is no hope of preservation. But unlike politics, religion claims knowledge over the ultimate questions of existence, not merely the next political term, and so the truth of any interpretation represents no less than the absolute truth. For traditionalist practitioners in particular, their claim to the absolute truth is central to their faith, and anything that brings question to their interpretation is viewed not as an opportunity for growth, but instead as an existential threat. As such, the traditionalist is inclined to wield the mantel of authority over matters of cultural and political opinions, often with the same exclusionary attitude as they have towards faith. This allows the dissonance of the mind cited before for Belgium and Brazil to exist within much smaller communities of believers, and so where to some the Bible appears to represent an inclusive message of love, to others it represent a justification for exclusivity.
Nationalism is perhaps among the most well known examples of exclusivity, the notion being that their are those who belong (“nationals”) and those who do not belong (“foreigners”). The word “nation” itself comes from the Latin natio, meaning “people,” and thus nationalism inevitably defines the differences between people based on their national affiliation. In times of documented destruction and strife, this form of exclusivity can deaden a nation to the empathy necessary for seeing the state of others as being little more than a displaced state of self – and so suffering in others can be justifiably ignored, by this logic, since it is not my problem. It is exclusive. Little wonder that among the most despicable acts of inhumanity, few voices rung out in opposition. One powerful example comes from the genocide of the Caribbean basin, for of those who witnessed the Spanish Crown’s conquest and occupation of the lands, only one account survives which speaks in opposition to the abuses being meted out on the native peoples. The account which survives is that of a Dominician friar by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas. His account, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies), comes to us merely fifty years after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, by which time much of the destruction las Casas relates is irreversible. He is the lone voice of opposition amid a cycle of destruction resulting in the deaths of some 8 million women, men, and children.
A more recent and relevant example of this lone voice is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who could not resist the call of his conscience in opposition to the Third Reich. Whereas the opposition of one like Bartolomé de las Casas to Spanish Crown policy resulted in the contemporary equivalent of being placed on administrative leave, Bonhoeffer’s opposition resulted in no less than the destruction of his church, his circle of fellow resistors, and his own life in April 1945. Bonhoeffer’s opposition to Hitler and the Nazis was not born out of mere faith or mere belief; it was informed by his experiences working in Black communities of 1930’s Harlem. Here for the first time he saw the world as it really was, not as the wealthy or the elite or the entitled perceived it, but as the downtrodden and the oppressed experienced it. He saw in America the reality of life under institutionalized oppression, and marveled at the way in which the community’s faith remained unwavering. He learned to truly empathize, to place himself in the shoes of others and indeed among those who were suffering, and it was here that he likewise learned of the routine inaction on the part of churches and their leadership in the face of such subjugation. Bonhoeffer was irrevocably changed by his experiences in America and would take what he had learned back to Germany, seeing among his responsibilities both opposition to Hitler and the Nazis and to the protection of the persecuted. Although not entirely alone in his opposition to the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer was nevertheless a single voice in a disturbingly massive choir of acquiescence to and collusion with Hitler.
We come to the present moment, in which a resurgent global tide of fascist ideology has manifested itself here in the United States. Following historical patterns of behavior, this moment is likewise witness to concurrent rising opposition to immigration and the inevitable fallout around race/ethnicity which this prompts. These are not easy or comfortable conversations, and are ones which most Americans would almost certainly prefer to avoid in most every situation. Nevertheless, these conversations are critical to the betterment of our society and the healing of collective pain. In times of pain, we often act out, at times overplaying our collective hand as a reaction. Whether it’s concentrating Japanese Americans in camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the extraordinary rendition of non-Americans following the attacks of September 11, 2001, those actions which are perceived to be necessary for national security take precedence, even at the risk of what would otherwise constitute violations of basic human rights. Abraham Lincoln’s decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in the midst of the Civil War is among the earliest examples where necessity overruled humanity, but even just as acts of extraordinary rendition resulting in the capture of wanted terrorists or the capture of Imperial Japanese spies during the Second World War may seem necessary at the time, the precedent it sets opens a path towards the normalization of such violations. As normalization takes hold, the use of such measures will accordingly expand and adapt to the necessities of the moment. This is particularly true in times of declared or perceived emergency, such as we find ourselves now along the southern border of the United States.
The situation along the border bridging the United States and Mexico is indeed an emergency, though the nature of that emergency may be in question. For the current administration, the emergency is likened to a military operation, evidenced by the battalions of Soldiers and Marines deployed in support of Immigration & Customs Enforcement and Customs & Border Protection personnel already stationed along the border. The militarization of the border results in an inevitable militarization of the civilian organizations who police it, a process which began under the Bush administration (2001-09) and has only accelerated since 2017. Individual states along the border may likewise accelerate this process, as Texas has done with their state military forces. A more permanent example comes from the second ring of Customs & Border Protection checkpoints established a few miles inland of the international border, the modern geopolitical equivalent of defensive works. These works are meant to pick up anyone who was not stopped approaching the international border, from which point they would be returned to the international border and placed in facilities for processing. From the perspective of the forces arrayed along the southern border, they are defending the United States from foreign intruders, likening the caravans of refugees to the various barbarians who harassed Rome throughout its existence. The Romans saw them as being uncivilized, which made them little less than animals and, in artistic representations, the embodiment of chaos waiting to spill across the border. Although the people currently amassed along our southern border are hardly the Teutones and the Cimbri, the response demonstrates the a perceived fear of what might occur if these refugees are permitted to enter the United States.In this narrative, therefore, the situation at the border is one of fear.
There is a second narrative, one in which the emergency along the international border does not constitute a military crisis, but instead a humanitarian crisis. Tired poor, yearning for a better life and the freedom that comes with being an American struggle and die by the dozens for what many of us daily take for granted. They come to our landlocked shores as though refuse from another country, and here they are met with force and the threat of violence. Divided as individuals, they are pressed into holding facilities with perfect strangers and where there are few personal accommodations, treated as though they were prisoners-of-war. The authority which allows the practice of extraordinary rendition permits the tolerance of the same effective policy towards those undesirables who journey to our golden door. We tolerate the separation of families, and do little to hold accountable those who allow it, and even less to those responsible for its repair. Children already traumatized by miles and weeks of endless, starving wandering arrive to total incarceration where sexual assault, malnutrition, and disease await. In this narrative the arrival of these poor masses represents a crisis of conscience, implicitly asking what responsibility we bear to the promise of the American dream. It is a known fact that not a single non-indigenous American can lay a claim to this country that predates European colonization, and although centuries of history have most certainly passed, the means by which this country were acquired should give any American pause as to the responsibility we have towards these latter-day immigrants. A non-exclusionary policy would see the realities of refugees, economic migrants, and immigration as part of a larger spectrum of what defines the American dream. Responding with incarceration only perpetuates the notion that the American dream remains exclusive to only certain people. The trauma of incarceration is well known in this country, and so we are certain that it will echo for generations to come. I suspect we will all feel its pain before it is gone. And so in this narrative, the situation on the border is one of pain.
At this moment of such great national anxiety, the church – and Christians – must pause for serious introspection. What values and ethics are being represented in what we say and think versus what we do and how we act?