In moments of moral crisis, certain issues break through the clutter and cacophony of the daily headlines. The U.S. government’s horrific separation of children from their parents at the border is one of those moments.
President Donald Trump and his administration underestimated the degree of moral outrage that would follow this unconscionable policy, and falsely believed that a poorly-conceived executive order would resolve the crisis and suppress public pressure. But as church leaders in South Africa taught me many years ago, Kairos-like moments occur when our current reality becomes so fraudulent and egregious that the status quo is no longer acceptable. It is these moments when people of faith and conscience feel called to engage in increasingly bold and sacrificial action.
Today, Sojourners president Jim Wallis and I will be joining the Poor People’s Campaign and other faith leaders in a nonviolent civil disobedience action in front of the White House to protest this zero-tolerance policy and the family separation crisis at the border. We will declare that the violence of policies against children cannot be tolerated.
We have no illusions that this direct action on its own will change the hearts and minds of the Trump administration. But we hope and pray that our prophetic witness will ignite even greater public awareness, create more pressure, and inspire increasing political courage.
The crisis at the border continues to dominate our headlines for the second week running, but public attention is often fickle and fleeting. The Trump administration will do everything in its power to divert and deflect attention away from a crisis of their own making. Last week, the president signed an executive order ending the cruel family separation policy. But the order only adds up to a partial and flawed step: It says nothing about how, or when, the more than two thousand children living in detention centers around the country will be reunited with their parents, and it contains a series of loopholes that condition the government’s ability to keep families together on available capacity and resources. Trump’s threats over the weekend to deny immigrants who are seeking asylum access to due process only heightens what is at stake in this moment.
The requirements of biblical justice and Christian discipleship call us to engage in deep moral analysis to identify and redress the root causes of the border crisis. Let’s be clear: This current crisis is a direct product of the president’s immoral and misguided zero-tolerance policy enacted in April, and the broader crisis is a byproduct of the protracted failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to negotiate in good faith to pass bipartisan, comprehensive, and just reforms to our severely broken immigration system. In the absence of a short-term or permanent legislative fix to family separation and these longer-term reforms, President Trump has and will continue to exploit this issue in ways that appeal to the fears of his base, scapegoating immigrants for our nation’s ills.
Reversing these policies will require exposing both the factual lies and the moral lies that are at the heart of these policies.
First, some important facts to correct lies: Visa holders overstaying their visa account for vastly higher numbers of undocumented immigrants than those who cross the border illegally. Trump’s obsession with illegal crossings at the border reinforces a belief that border crossings are singularly responsible for undocumented immigration. The reality is that most people come through official channels and then don't leave.
Undocumented immigrants commit far less crimes on average than American citizens. Zero tolerance is based on a false assertion that undocumented immigrants are dangerous, and may commit crimes against American citizens. The reality is that undocumented people in the U.S. are statistically less dangerous than documented American citizens.
U.S. policies toward Central America have significantly contributed to the current instability. Yet the Trump administration has pushed to cut millions of dollars in foreign aid to the region. The reality is that cutting aid will only exacerbate the conditions of an already impoverished and endangered people.
There are concrete alternatives to a zero-tolerance policy. For example, the backlog of more than 700,000 pending asylum cases could be alleviated by adding hundreds of additional judges at the border to strengthen and expedite the legal process.
Refugees contributed a net positive $63 billion to the economy over a ten-year period. Trump says that refugees represent a burden and threat to our nation’s prosperity. The reality is that studies conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services show that refugees are a net positive for our prosperity.
While there are no magic bullets or simple solutions to the current border crisis, we can — and must — find solutions that are consistent with our deepest values.
But behind the lies about the facts are even more insidious spiritual and moral lies, that seek to deny our shared humanity and assault our very belief in Imago Dei — that every person, regardless of their immigration status, is made in God’s image.
President Trump’s consistent dehumanization and demonization of immigrants through the use of poisonous rhetoric represents a moral lie that endangers our nation’s soul.
Lies cannot be counteracted simply with data or facts. They also require assertion of moral truths. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argues so forcefully in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail,
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
So, over the last 40 days, through the Poor People’s Campaign, more than 3,000 people across county participated in peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience and moral revival in this nation. With Sojourners as a national partner in the campaign, I was able to attend the first action that took place at the Capitol, and participated last Saturday in the culminating mobilization on the National Mall.
I’m engaging in another nonviolent direct action today, because even with the president’s executive order, the zero-tolerance policy, which is still in effect, is an unjust policy that degrades human personality by detaining families indefinitely.
I’m engaging in nonviolent direct action, because as a father of five- and seven-year-old sons, I can only imagine the agony of being separated from sons without any knowledge of their whereabouts and safety. The administration’s family separation and zero-tolerance policy has already caused untold abuse and trauma that has no place in U.S. policy.
I’m engaging in nonviolent direct action, because as an American who cherishes our country’s commitment to due process, to deny asylum seekers this opportunity is not only unconstitutional, it is morally unconscionable.
I’m engaging in nonviolent direct action, because as an ordained minister I refuse to allow politicians to misuse and abuse Scripture to justify deeply unjust policies.
It is time for sacrificial action, because the Trump administration has (at least) doubly committed political malpractice: by putting in place an unnecessary and cruel policy of family separation, only to then reverse it without a clear plan to reunite families, resulting in a bureaucratic nightmare; and by putting in place an immoral policy designed to deter and criminalize immigrants who are fleeing violence and deprivation to pursue a better life.
As the Suffer the Little Children elders statement argues, the administration has also committed ethical and theological malpractice, by misusing and abusing Scripture to defend an indefensible policy.
But this goes beyond malpractice. From a Christian perspective, we must name this as social sin. Dehumanizing and denigrating immigrants is sinful. Separating families is sinful. Comparing immigrants to insects is sinful.
Yesterday, more than 50 faith leaders from around the country joined a call to host prayer vigils on June 29, to coincide with a multi-faith prayer vigil that Sojourners and others will be holding on in front of the U.S. Capitol. The next day, on Saturday June 30, thousands of people of faith and conscience will be protesting outside the White House through the Families Belong Together rally. Also this week, more than 300 religion scholars and professors released a statement, All Rights for All, Without Borders, that says “We deny our faith, ethics, and humanity when we remain silent or complicit in the death and dehumanization of others”.
Sojourners is encouraging more communities of faith to hold vigils around the country. We are calling on clergy, faith-based organizations, and Christians everywhere to lift up prayers and candles as a recommitment to the light that can hold back these dark times.
As people of faith, we know that the darkness can never completely consume the light of moral truth. Now is the time for us to stand up and shine a light into the darkness to expose these factual and moral lies. I believe the soul of our nation, and the integrity of our faith, depend on it.