We Must Do Better

The bankruptcy of popular Christianity in America is on full display. The plight of immigrant children, ripped from their parents and housed in cages in camps and warehouses, is heartbreaking, and a new national low in the Trump era. This, we tell ourselves, is not what the self-crowned greatest country in the world does to anyone, much less refugees.

Amy-MissingChildrenPerhaps worst of all, to those of us who identify as Christian and care about the future of the faith, is Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy as “biblical,” by citing the much misused and maligned chapter 13 from Romans, a set of verses often seized upon by those in power to justify whatever immoral and evil actions they are taking at the time. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of evangelical loud mouth and hyper moralizer Mike Huckabee, repeated the claim. And one only has to glance quickly at Facebook or Twitter to see self-proclaimed conservative Christians claiming that they care about children and families, but laws are laws and must always be enforced, no matter the outcome. All of this, after almost two years of full-throated evangelical support for every action of Trump, and almost 40 years of co-option of the Christian mantle by the Republican Party.

Christianity has to be better than this. It simply has to be about more than moralizing and conservative politics. But, even more crucially, it has to be seen as something worthy of loyalty, something life giving, something that has outcomes that are full of love and compassion, not cruelty.

This is the call of all religion, and the reason it is dying in the world today. Too much of religion in this world – whether it be Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or anything else – presents a face to the world that is small, and cruel, and intolerant. Millions of people across the globe no longer see religion as something worthy of their time, because it so often doesn’t seem like something relevant to this world, in 2018.35750760_10211566573669719_8473202165488287744_o

In the case of Christianity, it so often seems concerned with a salvation mechanism formulated in a pre-scientific, pre-rational age, something that just doesn’t make sense to people anymore. It rejects a broader and broader swathe of people everyday. It seems stifling and deadening and angry.

Christianity doesn’t just exist to work as personal fire insurance, in which you save yourself and God take the rest. It has to be more than that if it is going to be worth anything at all.

A belief in God has to serve as more than that of an anxiety-inducing apprehension of a condemnatory old man in the sky. Christianity should point us towards the things God is, which is love and mercy and compassion. Everything else Christianity does – communion, baptism, theology, ethics, orthodoxy, the church – must direct people to life, to love, and to care for others.

For too many Christians here, their faith is nothing but a personal salvation machine, a set of rules that each individual is responsible for following. If they don’t, that’s on them, and them alone, and they deserve whatever consequences God deems appropriate. God, in this conception of faith, is cruel and capricious.

But faith is not this. Faith is about knowing and desiring God, knowing and desiring love. It’s an attitude, one that should transform us. Love should always be recognizable as love. If it takes squinting and convoluted reasoning to justify your actions as some form of love, then you are doing faith all wrong.

This is why the child separation policy in America is so anti-Christian. It is a policy conceived in cruelty and fear. It places following the rules and bowing to authority over love and mercy and compassion. Any human law is never more important than actual human beings. God’s justice for the oppressed and the downtrodden always take precedence.

The first Epistle of John states, unequivocally, that “God is love,” and that “love drives out all fear.” Fear and despair are not the fruits of love. They are the fruits of evil. This policy of separation and internment produces fear. It goes against God, and it goes against humanity. It is evil. Those who formulated it, who enforce it, and who defend it, are practicing evil. They are putting loyalty to the arbitrary idea of “America” before God, and before their fellow human beings. It must be ignored and replaced. We must, as Christians and as people, do better.

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“They Could Hear Their Children Screaming for Them From the Next Room”

If you can measure the moral fiber of a nation by how it treats children and the vulnerable, then its easy to see that the United States under Donald Trump has shed any moral leadership it once carried.

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Jesus Christ, ripped from Mary’s arms and thrown in a cage.

News and images coming out of Border Patrol detention facilities over the last few weeks show heartbreaking images of parents, searching for a better life than the violence of drug gangs who feed American addictions, being forcibly separated from children as young as just a few months old. We see pictures of small children locked in cages inside warehouses, sleeping on hard floors and not being allowed sunlight and space to move.

This, put simply, is highly immoral. What we as a nation are doing to these people and these children is evil and goes against human nature, not to mention, against God.

And, lest we be fooled that these actions are “inevitable” or “necessary,” remember that, prior to recently, we did not do this. Under Donald Trump, the Border Patrol has been empowered to change policy to ensure these kinds of inhumane actions are taken as some sort of sick, soulless deterrent in order to maintain some xenophobic and racist war against the growing reality of a more black and brown America.

Dara Lind at Vox explains:

Typically, people apprehended crossing into the US are held in immigration detention and sent before an immigration judge to see if they will be deported as unauthorized immigrants.

But migrants who’ve been referred for criminal prosecution get sent to a federal jail and brought before a federal judge a few weeks later to see if they’ll get prison time. That’s where the separation happens — because you can’t be kept with your children in federal jail…

First-time border crossers don’t usually do prison time. After a few weeks in jail awaiting trial, they’re usually brought before a judge in mass assembly-line prosecutions (according to Lomi Kriel of the Houston Chronicle, one courtroom in McAllen, Texas, has been hearing 1,000 cases a day in recent weeks) and sentenced, within minutes, to time served — as long as they plead guilty. “

Again, this is a conscious choice we are making, to separate children from their parents and house them like animals. And, our Border Patrol is doing it in the most immoral and cruelest ways possible. Lind notes that agents lie to families to get them to hand over their children, assuring the parents they are being taken to a bath or to answer a few questions, and then never being brought back. Can you even imagine? Being a parent, having your child taken from you?

Newsweek reports that, in the past, the Border Patrol has even be accused of physically and sexually assaulting child immigrants who enter their care. This treatment is being meted out to children feeling countries like Nicarauga and Honduras, which have some of the highest rates of murder in the world, and Mexico, which has been wracked by intense violence between drug gangs.

Even some asylum seekers, fleeing violence in Central America, and presenting themselves at border crossings – not, it should be understood, illegally crossing, but instead giving themselves up legally to border agents in the hope they will be given relief from the violence of their home countries – even these people are being separated from their children and criminally prosecuted. Prosecuted, jailed, and families destroyed, all because they want a better, more stable, less violent life in a nation they have been told is the greatest on the planet, but which is proving itself to be anything but. This is not only despicable and cruel, it violates both American and international law that protects refugees.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal got the opportunity to meet with some of the asylum seeking mothers who had been separated from children. This is what she encountered:

I met with 174 women, in three different pods. I went from one pod to the next. The vast majority were Spanish speaking, but there was a group of Chinese speakers and some others. We had a Spanish interpreter. The women would all answer at once sometimes. I did a lot of “raise your hand” questions. “How many are asylum seekers?” The majority lifted up their hands.

Thirty to 40 percent of these women came with children who had been forcibly taken away from them. None got a chance to say goodbye to their children—they were forcibly taken away. One said she was deceived, because they were in detention together. Then the CBP officers told her she was going out to get her photograph taken. When she came back, she was put in a different room, and she never got to see the child again. Some of them said they could hear their children screaming for them in the next room. The children ranged anywhere from one to teenagers.

One of the mothers told me DHS officers threatened to take away her 6-year-old daughter, right in front of them, and her daughter started screaming. She was separated from her daughter on the second day of custody and hasn’t had contact in over a week. But in some ways, she was one of the lucky ones, because her daughter was placed with family in Los Angeles.

Another woman came from Guatemala with her children, 8 and 12. Her husband was in prison for raping a 12-year-old child, and he was coming out. She was afraid her children would be raped either by him or some of his fellow gang members. She had been separated from her two children, she didn’t know where they were.

Another woman came fleeing gang violence, she had a 14-year-old child killed nine months ago. Another child in a wheelchair, paralyzed in a gang shooting. So she came with her third child, just to get one of them to safety.

Another woman came with her two sons, 11 and 16—for whatever reason, her older son is going to be reunited with his father in Virginia, but the younger son is staying in custody, which is crazy.

This is government by cruelty at its peak. This is the form of governing wished for and chosen by the conservative movement in America, a form of government that institutionalizes cruel and inhumane treatment of the least and the last. Donald Trump is the embodiment of the pure conservative Id, cruel and malicious and heartless, and anything but Christian, fed a steady diet of Fox News and culture war anger and racist fear mongering against everyone different, even babies and children who had nothing more than the bad luck to be born on the wrong side of an invisible, arbitrary line.

The Bible is unequivocal about how we are to treat the stranger and the immigrant. Exodus says, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” And Jesus himself, in the Gospel of Matthew, tells his disciples, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Jesus himself was an immigrant and a refugee, fleeing violence in his home country by going to Egypt with his parents. Even the Egyptians were not so cruel as to separate the baby Jesus from his mother. Do we really want to be on the side of Herod?

Our moral obligation is clear: we are to treat immigrants as we would treat ourselves, because they are human beings, worthy of all the dignity, respect, and love we can muster. What we are doing, as a nation, is far from that. What we are doing to these families is cruel, inhumane, immoral, and goes against God. We are failing, as a nation and as human beings. May we wake up from this nightmare we have become soon.

Barack Obama and the Evangelicals

I am fascinated with Michael Wear’s piece at Christianity Today on the relationship between President Barack Obama and American evangelicals. Drawing on his new book Reclaiming Faith: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, Wear tries to answer the question of why evangelicals hated Obama so much, but love Donald Trump.

obama-faith-outreach-na02-wide-horizontal3I’ll admit, this question has been central in my mind since Trump burst onto the political main-stage three years ago. The deep hatred and disdain evangelicals have for Obama baffles me. There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama governed in a Christian manner like few others before him have. I don’t mean he participated in the cheap, public displays of devotion that a George W. Bush or Ted Cruz engage in. Rather, Obama was always thoughtful, humble, and driven by deep convictions of morality and regard for human dignity. He never stood on a stage and declared himself “born again,” but he did showcase a deep knowledge and regard of the Christian faith, and clearly let himself be driven by it. He was committed to his family, and to American families as a goal of American policy. When speaking of faith, he spoke with great knowledge and reverence for God and Scripture.

As a Christian with a background in politics and policy, I can’t see many areas where I would have made choices much different that Obama with regards to faith (drone strikes overseas and other foreign policy choices are the chief areas that come to mind.) The public expression of faith exhibited by Barack Obama is something I would hope to emulate if I were again pursuing a career in public service.

Beyond personality, Obama’s Administration was much more faith friendly that it gets credit for, something Wear points out:

President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president’s council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to ‘reduce the number of women seeking abortions’ while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama’s signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America’s effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.

Yet none of this is taken into account in the narrative that prevails about Obama and faith. And with good reason. The Religious Right made the decision early on, mirroring Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, to blindly oppose everything the President did. Wear goes on:

In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in Americaalso describes why the president’s olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.

Evangelicals doubled down on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom issues, elevating these three areas over everything else. Where Obama looked for areas of cooperation and shared values, evangelicals made the decision to focus only on differences.

Wear points out that this attitude, driven by fear and loathing of someone they only saw as an “other,” led directly to President Donald Trump:

Fear was the primary basis of Donald Trump’s appeals to evangelicals. He did not pretend he was one of them. He told them they were alone, that Democrats were out to get them, that ISIS was ‘drowning Christians in steel cages,’ and only he could protect them. He offered himself as a bully. Yes, he had flaws. Yes, his pagan approach to sex, money and power was evident and unseemly, inconveniently brought to the surface repeatedly during his campaign. But he would be their bully.

Evangelicals, driven by eight years of hate, began to believe their own propaganda, that the various disagreements they held with Barack Obama not only outweighed their numerous agreements, but in fact signaled a coming apocalypse for American Christianity. Minor disagreements could not be tolerated, because they indicated, to them at least, the cracks showing deep seated liberal hatred for all things Christian. So they took a bet on a strongman to save them from a non-existent boogeyman. In return for his “protection,” they get to carry his baggage forward for decades to come, tarnishing their own reputations and making themselves culturally irrelevant.

Wear eloquently discusses the consequences of this choice:

Evangelicals may find such attention as they received from Barack Obama more hard to come by after the Trump era takes its full toll. In years to come, I believe evangelicals will view Barack Obama’s disappointment toward them in a different light. They will see that it reflected much higher esteem than either Hillary Clinton’s cold disregard or Donald Trump’s toxic embrace. As they acclimate to the cultural changes that drove them to Trump, and understand just what their support of Trump cost them and our country, they will look back and see that Obama’s disappointment was a compliment.

President Obama was indeed a liberal, and a supporter of women’s choice, equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, and an expansive view of the separation of church and state that makes room for all faiths and non-faiths. He also was passionate about reinvigorating American families, combating poverty and declining standards of living, pursuing broader economic equality, and presenting a more humble, more humane, and more compassionate America to the world. American evangelicals let their own fear and hate deprive them of a great opportunity, one they may not get again in the future.

H/T to John Fea for bringing this article to my attention.