Families Torn Apart: The Lightning Flash That Reveals Our Hidden Cruelties

Commentary
FILE PHOTO: Children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, U.S., June 17, 2018. Courtesy CBP/Handout via REUTERS

In hundreds of vigils and millions of letters, phone calls, and emails, we have witnessed an eruption of moral outrage that has responded to the forcible splitting of families and traumatization of children by agencies of our government.

Not only outrage — but action has been bubbling over.

It is good to know that the American people stood up to this act of tyranny and cruelty. That wave of outrage forced the president to pretend to change policy. But his substitute would simply imprison whole families of people who are fleeing horrendous violence and are entitled to asylum, by law, by treaty (which is also law), and by conscience.

Since his alleged policy change, we are hearing reports of children being air-transported across America to centers where no one will know who they are, where it will be almost impossible to reunite them with their families. So urgent action is still required.

We must look more deeply into the ethics of “immigration” around the world both as it morphs into great waves of refugees desperate for safety, and into tidal waves of hypernationalist fear of losing a national culture and sense of identity.

The immediate and the deeper questions are connected. The deep moral collision over ripping children out of their families has been a lightning flash in the dark, lighting up the deeper issues beneath. But like a lightning flash, it may vanish before we can attune our eyes to see the deeper truths and questions.

We offer here an exploration of the dark behind the lightning flash.

Specific sacred verses from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other Scriptures speak to this moment, so it is not surprising that the Bible became a text of controversy and that churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and their clergy drew on their most sacred wisdoms to face these events.

Part of that wave was spurred by the assertion by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions that biblical calls to obey the law — no matter what it is — are paramount. Yet much of the effort to understand Bible teachings came from a far deeper place.

The protection of children and family is not only high on the commitment list of all religious communities, it is basic to the survival of all species, including the human species. So it was no surprise that many religious leaders stood up to affirm that the Bible actually speaks for children and family, more than for obeisance to law.

Some officials are saying — even boasting — that the policy was deliberately intended by its ruthlessness to deter families from coming to the United States, seeking asylum because of well-founded fears that their lives and the lives of their children are in immediate danger if they were to stay in Central American countries that have been overwhelmed by violence.

But the Bible sees the world through God’s commitment to justice and compassion: "You shall not hand over to their masters slaves [or, some translators say, “serfs”] who have escaped from their masters to you. They may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which they choose within your gates, wherever it seems best to them. You shall not maltreat them.” (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16)

Of course neither the biblical understanding of serfdom, indentured servitude, and slavery, nor the experience of these refugees today, fleeing murder and rape and seeking asylum, is identical with the past of chattel slavery in the United States. Yet their experience bears elements of the same ruthless and violent subjugation. And this biblical verse is uncanny in its direct address of the crisis we face now, even more than other, broader teachings about love of neighbors and justice for “foreigners.”

Furthermore, the “law” that Sessions cited to subjugate love and destroy our families was not law at all. It was a policy concocted by elements of the present U.S. government that actually violates the law. It is intended to keep asylum seekers from making their case as they are entitled to do both by U.S. law and the binding law of the land, embedded in treaties the U.S. has ratified. (After weeks of claiming he was constrained by “law” to use this draconic practice, Trump gave himself the lie by simply changing the policy.)

It is about “laws” like these that the Bible speaks and Isaiah (10:2) cries out, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Out of exactly that prophetic outlook, Jesus broke the law, nonviolently. That’s why he was crucified. Does the fact that the Roman Empire crucified Jesus mean that it is legitimate for the United States government to destroy the lives of children and parents? Or does it mean exactly the opposite?

There is a reason that one of the key moments in the story of Pharaoh is when he orders babies killed (Exodus 1: 15-22 ). And in the Christian story, one of the key moments is when Herod orders children killed in the “Massacre of the Innocents.” (Matthew 2: 16). Those are the moments when a tyrant becomes monstrous.

Outrage at these actions comes from a very deep gut level. The “prime directive” for every species, including the human species, is to make sure the next generation thrives. The children! You can only rip children away from their families by dehumanizing the people you are facing. Down that path lies genocide.

The cruelty we are witnessing is being blatantly exposed as intrinsic to racism and militarism. All societies face the dangerous impulse to exalt only their own culture as fully human and treat others as sub-human. Indeed, for centuries, American policy has ripped the children of enslaved Africans and African Americans, and of Native Americans, away from their families.

But the vision and hope of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred wisdom is summed up in the Bible’s teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39) and the Quran’s teaching (49:13): “O humankind, We have created you from a single pair of male and female [as one family], and appointed you diverse cultures and communities, that you may get to profoundly understand one another [not to despise one another].”

Centuries of struggle between carrying out this ultimate religious wisdom and descending into dehumanizing “the Other” have been like a case of blood poisoning that at first is hidden and then breaks through into the bright red streak of inflammation that signals extreme danger. We have seen those red streaks before, and we see them now.

The deep spiritual logic of inviting runaway slaves to make a home anywhere they choose among us is connected with the Bible’s warning against claiming total ownership of private property: “For the earth is Mine, and you are but resident settlers with me” – Leaseholders only – says the Holy One (Lev. 25).

Individual “ownership” of private property is conditioned on letting the poor and landless glean from the corners of the field Similarly, the State’s land-title to its national territory is conditional. It is not permitted to exert absolute control and keep anyone it wishes from entering. Says the Bible: the poor and landless have a partial “ownership” in a farmer’s land. Runaway slaves, or desperate refugees, have a partial “ownership” in the Nation’s land.

Does all this mean the opening of U.S. borders to an unknown unbounded number of refugees, without limits or planning? No. There are solutions rooted in compassion, not subjugation. Here, for example, might be one approach:

Our country sets a number of immigrants we are prepared to welcome each year, with refugees at highest priority. There are two necessities:

Domestically, a strong program to welcome them, with a year of free access to learning English, decent housing, food, and health care.

Internationally, a worldwide effort, with strong U.S. support, to help countries that are now so devastated by violence and disaster as to force their people to flee the homes they love.

Would these twin efforts be expensive? At the start, yes. But the money to pay for them is now parked in the unimaginable luxurious wealth of the top 1/10 of 1 percent of American families. From this initial investment would come enormous dividends in shared prosperity.

And this project itself would open up other questions: What about “internal refugees,” haunted by violence in neighborhoods right here, denied jobs and real educations, their children ripped away by sending their parents into prisons made of cages and despair?

Indeed, this whole project opens up for us a series of nesting dolls not of children’s play but of cruelty, each hidden inside another till the explosion of cruelty we are now seeing comes out of hiding.

Entering upon such changes will take a long social, moral, political struggle. So will any other way out of the nesting dolls of cruelty. If we were to let ourselves be guided by the holy wisdom of our traditions, we could do no other.

Meanwhile, we face the fierce urgency of now to act:

  • For the sake of traumatized children who, we now know, actually have their brain structures damaged by trauma.
  • For the sake of parents terrorized by violence who come to the U.S. — leaving beloved friends, jobs, homes, neighbors, hoping to work and to join in community.
  • For the sake of cleansing the honor, the decency, of the American people and our nation that is being besmirched by these actions. The flag that we hope bespeaks honor and decency is dirtied by the officials who plan and carry out these policies.

It is urgent for the sake of our Covenant with the Holy One.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center.

Rabbi Phyllis Berman was the founder (1979) and director through 2016 of the Riverside Language Program, an intensive and innovative English-language school that over the years worked with thousands of newly arrived immigrants and refugees.

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