The Counter-cultural Act of Being Civil

The state of our union is fractured.  We’ve moved into camps.  Most political conservatives have rallied around the flag of Donald Trump.  Liberals and moderates are looking ahead to the mid-term elections, hoping for a check on the policies of our president.

Within my Christian community the camps are clearly defined.  Theological conservatives for the most part have embraced Mr. Trump.  Fully 82% of white evangelicals voted for him and still think he’s doing a good job.   Theological liberals and moderates like me are perplexed how our Christian sisters and brothers come to such different conclusions.

Our polarized society has led people to no longer talk with but rather talking at and about each other.  The result is that the narrative of ‘the other’ as an opponent, even an enemy, is reinforced.

What to do?  Is there a third way beyond labeling and confrontation?

Recently I participated with a small group of clergy in a meeting with leaders of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE).  We had sent a letter asking for a meeting for the purpose of humanizing and better understanding one another.

To be clear I have grave concerns regarding the policies of our current administration towards undocumented immigrants.  I also know I have the capacity to view those tasked with enforcing such policies (ICE) as the opposition.

With this in mind we sent the letter asking for a meeting.  To our surprise ICE responded quickly welcoming such a meeting.  The meeting consisted of two ICE officers (one a senior official) and four clergy: a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Pentecostal pastor whose congregation includes recent immigrants and me (an American Baptist pastor).

For an hour we had a civil conversation.   The clergy group asked questions regarding ICE priorities and methods. We voiced areas of concern.  The ICE officers shared their perspective.

We also got to know the ICE officers as people.  My sense was that these two officers, one who had been working in ICE for over twenty years, are people of integrity, trying to enforce policies in as humane a manner as possible.

Let me be clear.  I think the policies being enforced are often inhumane.  For example, the current policy to separate children from parents at the border, as a means of discouraging immigration, is morally bankrupt https://action.aclu.org/petition/separating-families.

Yet, I think it is unfair to paint all ICE officers with a broad brush stroke.  They don’t set the policy.  They are tasked with enforcing a policy which I suspect can take a toll on their emotional and spiritual well-being.

For my part I am going to continue advocating for a more humane immigration policy.  I will continue to stand with our undocumented neighbors at risk.  My faith teaches that I can do no other.

What I won’t do is paint all ICE with a broad brush stroke. I won’t label them.  I’ll keep the officers and their families  in my prayers, as I surely keep in prayer those arrested and detained and their families.

I’ll work and pray for an immigration system that doesn’t dehumanize those seeking a better future and those tasked with enforcement.  I’ll remember that everyone has a story.

Perhaps that is the answer to becoming a more humane and unified society.  Moving beyond labels and listening to the stories of others.   In listening we discover our common humanity.

 

Immigrants, Refugees and Undocumented, Oh My!

‘Immigrants, Refugees and Undocumented, Oh My!’  Grabbing a line from the Wizard of Oz we are living in a troubling time.  Especially if you are a new immigrant or refugee and God help you if you’re undocumented.

Using a time-tested technique, President Trump and minions play the  anti-immigrant fear card to advance their political agenda.  But this is nothing new.

“New immigration” was a term from the late 1880s that came from the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Italy and Russia (areas that previously sent few immigrants).

Nativists http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativism_(politics) feared the new arrivals lacked the political, social, and occupational skills needed to successfully assimilate into American culture. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a “melting pot,” or if it had just become a “dumping ground,” and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics, and culture.

 Immigration 1930 to 2000:

Restriction proceeded piecemeal over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but immediately after the end of World War I (1914–18) and into the early 1920s, Congress changed the nation’s basic policy about immigration.

The National Origins Formula of 1921 (and its final form in 1924) not only restricted the number of immigrants who might enter the United States, but also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins. It essentially gave preference to immigrants from Central, Northern and Western Europe, severely limiting the numbers from Russia and Southern Europe, Africa and declared all potential immigrants from Asia unworthy of entry into the United States.

Underneath it all was a desire by those already here to keep America as they knew it.  Essentially ‘white’.

This specter of racism and fear of ‘the other’ has been a reoccurring theme in American history and is once again being played for all its worth by ‘nativist’ like President Trump, advisor Steve Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The antidote of course is building relationships with immigrants, refugees and undocumented neighbors.  In the past two weeks:  An undocumented refugee from Congo (who fled a war) walked into my office to ask me to pray with him.  He spoke of his fear of being deported, separating him from his wife and two-year old son (both of whom are US citizens).

I spoke with a young couple from Brazil who are here on a temporary visa but want to stay and take care of her ailing father who is a US citizen.  And, while my car was being serviced I spoke with a young legal immigrant from Egypt who pumped my gas.  He told me of ongoing insults shouted by passing motorists, calling him a ‘f***ing towel head’ and ‘go back where you belong’.

Such are the stories of  immigrants and refugees that are our neighbors.  ‘Nativists’ would have us believe that they are to be feared, that they are not like ‘us’.

The problem however, is that I’ve gotten to know their names.  Listened to their stories.  Discovered that they want the same things you and I want.  Safety and opportunity.  Their family to be healthy and happy.

Despite  prejudice and hateful rhetoric immigrants and refugees still see the United States as a refuge a place to make dreams come true.  They see what is best in us as a nation…even when we forget.

What is needed is meaningful immigration reform. Something that Congress has resisted since last initiated by Ronald Reagan.

What is needed is the wisdom of a Moses:

‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for once you too were foreigners in Egypt.” ~ Exodus 22:21