Can America Ever Be? | Sojourners

Can America Ever Be?

Citizens of the U.S.: We need to take a brutally honest look at what is being done in our name.

Our nation remains, as Dr. King said, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

Many of us are rightfully horrified by the new policy of criminalizing “100 percent” of undocumented immigrants at the border, including asylum seekers who fail to enter at specified ports of entry.

This violates the Refugee Convention of 1951, which allows immigrants seeking asylum to enter a nation anywhere so long as they present themselves to authorities to plead their cases as soon as possible.

We’re furious and heartbroken as we picture wailing children torn from their parents’ arms — something this new policy permits. We have seen the ACLU report of detention center abuse that pre-dates and continues through the current administration: children cursed, tasered, kicked, stomped on, run over by vehicles, made to sleep on cold hard floors, under or improperly fed, sexually abused, humiliated, dehumanized.

We know this is wrong. But we must acknowledge an even deeper truth: These policies are not just cruel and abusive. They are genocidal, and suicidal.

Consider: In the name of national security, our government claims the right to send our troops and our weapons anywhere in the world that we deem a threat. We advance “American interests” through our bases and troops in more than 70 countries.

Our warfare creates refugees. And yet we close our own borders to those seeking refuge in our nation.

Our national policies are genocidal because they dehumanize those they condemn to death, by drone, or by deportation. If we fail to protest what is done in our name, we are washing our hands of our responsibility for those who die in missile attacks, deemed by our government to be guilty unless posthumously proven innocent. If we do not speak out, we are ignoring the life-endangering conditions to which our government willfully returns immigrants expelled from our nation.

And our national policies are suicidal, not only because our government is creating generations of angry, abused, traumatized people all over the world, but also because these policies erode our own souls. We lose our humanity when we dehumanize others. Our national policies drain the world of kindness and fill it with cruelty.

None of this will help national security. In seeking to save our lives, we are destroying them, as we destroy the lives of others.

Yet so many of us see our nation as the land of opportunity. We still see the face of America as the Statue of Liberty, shining a beacon of hope to the world, welcoming all who go through the “proper channels” to seek a life of freedom and unlimited potential.

But far from the “Mother of Exiles” holding her torch aloft, the face of America has become the ICE agent holding a gun. The world sees America in the drones flying above homes where children dare not play outside on sunny days. Those welcomed are not “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but those with family already here, or those permitted to come for work. Those without family or a ready employer are not welcomed. The “least of these”, the “wretched refuse,” the “homeless, tempest-tost,” as Emma Lazarus writes, are barred or deported. The “golden door” is locked.

If the Statue of Liberty reflected our true policy toward immigrants, and to anyone deemed “other,” the poem at its base would read:

She sings of her own virtue, and yet she—

Like every violent empire gone before—

Invading lands with hands bloodied by war

With arrogance, mocks life and liberty.

She sends her troops and arms across the seas

With taxes paid by her neglected poor.

Yet those who seek the refuge of her shore,

She shuns, though it’s her violence they flee!

Her actions cry, “Give me your oil, your gold,

Your riches are my rightful destiny!

But keep your desperate people, young and old,

They’ve no right to a future within me!”

With cruelty, abuse and heart ICE cold

She thus expels her own humanity!

Or, as Langston Hughes so poignantly states: “America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

America still is not. It is not a land of opportunity for all. It is not a land of liberty and justice for all.

Langston Hughes’s hope for America, a hope that endured through the pain of recognizing and experiencing America at its worst, is still unrealized. It will remain unrealized if we believe in the myth of American exceptionalism. We will never be our best over and against others. That philosophy brings out the worst in us, and the world suffers for it.

But if we remember that we are a nation of people from all over the world, that our worth is not over and against others but bound up with the unconditional dignity of every person everywhere, we will begin to live into the best of who we can be.

It’s not enough just to write our representatives and tell them that this immigration policy is immoral, illegal, and a betrayal to Statue of Liberty and the best of our potential — though we must certainly start there. We must also continually wake up to the reality of what our policies do to the world and to ourselves. We must recognize the yawning gap between who we are and who we profess to be. We must spend our lives bridging that gap, piece by piece.

Our history of slavery and genocide and our policies of violence and exclusion nearly drive me to the brink of despair. But at our best, we are people from around the world gathered in this land, made in the image of love and striving to reflect that love. If we forget about exceptionalism and humbly take our place among other nations, replacing our enmity with empathy and our war with welcome— then, finally, America will be.

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