In the frenzied, heated arguments over immigration policy in this country, one of the elements that is lost on many participants is the role that symbolic dimensions play in understanding what is happening.
Symbols point to realities beyond themselves. They require those who perceive the power of the symbol to ask themselves what it is that they are seeing that causes the tightening of the chest, the quickening of the breathing, the feeling that the bottom of one’s stomach has just dropped away, the sense that a wave of something unidentifiable but powerful has just swept over them.
An adolescent culture like our own rarely understands, much less appreciates, the symbolic depth of its actions. In the the shallowness of a constantly distracted consumerist culture, a largely literalist approach to life generally extends to virtually every aspect of its existence. Superficial literally means stuck at the surface.
But sometimes symbols won’t wait until we get them. Sometimes they jump up and smack us in the face.
Fleeing Hell Holes
The images and accounts of children being taken from their families seeking asylum at our southern borders are nearly unbearable for anyone with even a hint of conscience, much less a symbolic imagination. This is the stuff of nightmares, modern bogeymen who steal away children in the night. Like many American children, I often got into bed after prayers that ended “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” For refugee children, these prayers have taken on an urgency no child should ever experience.
There is no small amount of sadism – not to mention hypocrisy - in our policies toward immigrants coming from south of the border. In the current xenophobic moral panic, it is common to see all those who come to our borders through the reductionist lens of “illegal aliens.” There is no awareness that illegality is a social construct, that a human being can walk 100 feet across a socially constructed “border” - which cannot be observed by the passenger in an airplane flying overhead – and find himself reduced to a vilified “illegal alien” by those he encounters a mere 100 feet away. Thirty seconds previously, he was simply just another human being.
What is more troubling is that there is little recognition of - or accountability for - the reasons the people involved have made this incredibly hazardous journey to claim status as refugees from their homelands.
The peoples of Central America are fleeing hell holes that came into being in part due to American intervention during the Reagan administration. Our policies pumped millions of dollars into US corporate interest beholden governments, dumped tons of weapons into armies that razed the countryside by day and paramilitaries who rained down terror on campesinos at night.
Just as quickly as we had come, we departed almost overnight a couple of decades later, leaving behind destroyed infrastructures and wrecked economies as the legacy of our covert, illegal presence there.
It should hardly be surprising that in countries where civil government was undermined, where paramilitary terrorists who had learned their deadly techniques in a US funded “School of the Americas” and where a flood of weaponry was left behind, the most vicious gangs in the world would arise.
It should also not be surprising that the same vulnerable populations in city slums and countrysides, already weary from years of war and terrorism, facing the Hobson choice of fleeing their homes or being slaughtered by these new foes, would choose the incredibly risky path through Central America and across the narcotraficante ruled deserts of northern Mexico to seek asylum.
Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. The context in which the crisis at the borders has arisen has a history. And the fingerprints of US foreign policy and corporate interests are all over it.
One of the storied symbols of sadism in American culture is the authoritarian parent who has just finished beating their child - often under the presumption that sparing the rod somehow spoils the child - only to tell their trembling offspring “Now, don’t cry or I’ll really give you something to cry about.” Consider the aetiology of the current refugee crisis. Now consider the treatment these refugees are receiving from those who ultimately caused their misery in the first place.
Beginning with their children.
The current policy of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is to separate refugee children from their families seeking asylum at the border. As of this week, more than 2000 children have been taken away, some placed in cages not terribly different from those in animal shelters or in tent cities not unlike those used by human rights violator Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona. Others have been transported to placements with strangers across the country.
The justification for this policy articulated by a representative of the Department of Homeland Security is that such separations serves as a deterrent for undocumented immigration. Of course, deterrence theory is based in the presumption of the rational actor capable of making the Franklin’s List cost/benefit analysis and choosing to stay within the law. But the force driving the asylum seekers assembling on the border is not reason or even personal gain, it’s desperation.
Under these circumstances, ICE becomes an ironic acronym for an agency representing a people who – much like the sadistic parent threatening their already punished child with the possibility of more physical violence – would first make life in their homeland untenable and then use their children to deter them from seeking refuge. There is a decided absence of humanity in this situation.
A Universal Authoritarian Absolute
Those who engage in behaviors they know at some level – often less than fully consciously - to be harmful to others generally feel a need to try to justify those behaviors. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a devout Alabama Methodist with a long personal history of racism - much of it focused on immigrants - defended the practice of removing children from families at the borders by saying this practice was “biblical.” That’s a common shorthand among white evangelicals to say in effect “G-d holds my biases and I can find a prooftext to legitimate it.”
Sessions defended his assertion with a contextless reference to St. Paul’s assertion in Romans 13 that citizens should “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
This was a standard reference for the Reformation era tyrant of Geneva, John Calvin, who asserted in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that even when holders of power prove tyrannical its citizens must still obey them. According to Calvin, rulers were appointed by G_d to reign in human sinfulness and tyrants were G-d’s punishment for that sin. Given Calvin’s influence on the religion of the Bible Belt from which Mr. Sessions has come, the acontextual use of Paul’s writings to defend mass child abuse is hardly surprising.
But Calvin has hardly been the only tyrant willing to assert this verse as justification for a universal authoritarian absolute. Atlantic Magazine writer Yoni Applebaum noted that this verse was often used by those seeking to have their slaves returned under the Fugitive Slave Act prior to the Civil War as well as the defenders of apartheid in South Africa. It was also reportedly Adolph Hitler’s favorite verse.
The use of scripture to legitimate any form of misanthropic behavior from spousal abuse to homophobia to war ultimately exacerbates the sin of the behavior at hand by adding disingenuity to the harm the behavior has caused. Worse yet, it effectually places in the mind of G-d attitudes and behaviors unbecoming of those who are fully human, much less the Creator of the universe.
A god who fears immigrants and proves willing to use their children to manipulate their behaviors is simply not a god worth taking seriously, much less worshiping. It is an idol, the work of our imaginations informed by our darkest fears.
Of course, Sessions has proven no more understanding of or willing to abide by the scriptures of his own religion than he is with the Constitution he supposedly defends as Attorney General. Hebrew Scripture is full of references to the requirement to treat the alien as one’s own countrymen, often ending with the reminder that they, too, were once refugees from slavery and deprivation. Even more pointedly, the life history of Jesus offered by Matthew’s Gospel reports the Holy Family being instructed by G-d to flee Herod’s bloody infanticide in Judea. Without the refuge for Jesus and his family provided by the people of Egypt, there would have been no Good News to write.
It’s instructive to note the roles played by Herod's government and by G_d in that story. As Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry observed regarding the use of scripture to attempt to legitimate this policy, “It’s unbiblical, it’s unChristian and it’s unAmerican.”
None but Jesus heard me!
Gathered from the cabin, the wickiup and the tepee,
Partly by cajolery and partly by threats,
Partly by bribery and partly by force,
They are induced to leave their kindred,
to enter these schools and take upon themselves
the outward appearance of civilized life.
Annual report of the Department of Interior, 1901
Separation of children from families is a powerful symbolic image. It would be comforting to believe this is an anomaly. But this is not the first time this has happened in American history. Indeed, it has long played a major role in our nation’s policy.
Sojourner’s editor Jim Wallis recently declared slavery and the 400-year history of racism it engendered as America’s “original sin.” But the pattern of commodifying human beings, treating them as either means or obstacles to the ends of the powerful, has been a part of our history from the beginning. The genocide of indigenous peoples pursuant to the conquest of the Americas was the first chapter of that history.
At the end of 300 years of pushing native peoples ever westward under the self-serving divine legitimation of Manifest Destiny, surviving indigenous people were forced onto “reservations,” lands their European ancestry conquerors didn’t want at least initially. Once there, the process of “civilizing” the Indians began.
Reservation schools meant separating children from families, culture, everything that made life meaningful to native children. In her chapter “Civilize them with a stick” from her 1989 memoirs, Lakota Woman, Mary Crow Dog, remembers that process this way:
It’s almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive and sometimes not surviving at all. I think such children were like the victims of Nazi concentration camps trying to tell average middle-class Americans what their experience had been like.
Even now, when these schools re much improved, when the buildings are new, all gleaming steel and glass, the food tolerable, the teachers well trained and well-intentioned, even trained in child psychology – unfortunately the psychology of white children, which is different from ours – the shock to the child upon arrival is still tremendous. Some just seem to shrivel up, don’t speak for days on end and have an empty look in their eyes. – Lakota Woman (NY: Harper, 1989), pp. 28-29.
With the rise of the chattel slave trade beginning in the 1600s, the practice of separating families became common. Given no more consideration than one would afford livestock, children were routinely ripped from mother’s arms and sold to new masters.
Sojourner Truth offered this account of her own experience as a slave mother to the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851:
“I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”
Her story is but one of thousands. Separation of children from their families has a long, dark history in this country.
But we are hardly alone in this practice.
For those who have studied the Holocaust, the separation of children from adults by armed guards invokes a disturbing pattern observable in the Nazi process of the Selection. The words of Elie Wiesel in Night, his famed account of his time at the Auschwitz concentration camp, have a sickening familiarity to them as we watch frightened children wrested from weeping parents on our borders:
The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were now left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally, our illusions. Every few yards, there stood an SS man, his machine gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the throng. An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded: "Men to the left! Women to the right!" Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words.
Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father's hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn't know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand. - Elie Wiesel, Night (NY: Hill and Wang, 1958), 29.
With the events unfolding on our borders, these symbols of our inhumanity, these reminders of the demonic potential we routinely repress but never fully escape, arise unbidden from the dark sewers of our history. In the process, our nation’s Shadow rises to consciousness, given new life in the daily reports of terrified children ripped from the arms of desperate refugee parents.
We Americans have been jolted from our slumber. And we awake to a crisis of the soul. Though we wish to deny it, we are confronted by who we have been as a people. This is not a new development, it is an old pattern. But the fact it has occurred in the past does not mean it was ever tolerable and it certainly doesn't make it acceptable today.
The questions which now confront us are these:
- Can we finally own our Shadow, accepting it but not
this truly who we wish to be as a people?
- If not, what are we willing to do in response?
I believe we are capable of much better than this tragedy unfolding along the Rio Grande. The question is not whether we are capable of confronting our demons and embracing what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." We can. The question is whether we will muster the courage to do so.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018