We must defeat dehumanization

We must defeat dehumanization June 20, 2019

Throughout Scripture, from Exodus to the Babylonian exile to Jesus’s flight, forced migration and deportation are formative experiences. God calls us to take on the identity of those who are expelled and those who are forced to flee.

Trail of Tears: forced removal of Cherokee 

From the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to Operation Wetback of 1954 to the millions of deportations in the last decade, U.S. history too is marred by dislocation of innocent people.

By announcing this week his intention to deport millions of immigrants, the president declared a grand ambition to take his place among the Babylonian kings and the American acolytes of white supremacy.

The Bible includes over 170 verses calling for the just treatment of migrants, often referred to as “strangers.” But just as relevant is how we are called to treat our neighbors. The policy of mass deportation is an attack on our neighbors. Regardless of where you are born, a person in the community is a neighbor who must be treated with dignity and love.

As the founder of a national network of 50,000 faith leaders, I see people living out this command at the face-to-face community level.

Edith Espinal has lived in sanctuary at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite church since October 2017. As she lives with the ever-present danger of deportation and permanent separation from her children, the faith community provides harbor from ICE agents who lurk in wait to grab her if she sets foot off the church property. For almost two years now, she hasn’t been able to set foot in her own home to put her children to bed at night.

Gilles Bikindou was a member of Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina, who sought asylum from the Republic of Congo. After ICE arrested him during a routine scheduled check-in and took him to a detention center in Georgia to await deportation, his pastor and church members held vigil outside the facility where he was held and exhausted every legal avenue to prevent his deportation. He was deported last February, despite the fact that he wouldn’t have access to care for his chronic kidney and heart conditions in Congo.

Trump seeks to multiply by millions the number of people who suffer like Gilles and Edith. We must be fearless in naming the evil in our midst. The president is waging a brutal campaign of white nationalism redolent of the most shameful chapters of American history.

It also eerily echoes the dehumanization and criminalization that precedes genocide. As my Jewish colleagues cry out:‘never again’ is now. Customs and Border Patrol commits grievous human rights violations against asylum seekers every day. At this time last year, I marched and prayed with fellow women clergy at the border to stop the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that ripped babies out of their parents’ arms and threw them into a vast detention system. While the policy of separating children from parents has ended, many of the traumatized families remain torn apart, and thousands more languish in inhumane prison camps where children die and people are left exposed to the harsh desert elements.

Four years later, President Trump kicked off his re-election campaign by announcing his intention to treat our immigrant neighbors and family like they were as depraved as he is. While ICE probably lacks the practical capacity to carry out his vicious vision, it’s a darkly aspirational agenda he will attempt to carry out in full if reelected.

Trump’s agenda is a rejection of Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Faith leaders must treat it as such. I’m thinking specifically of the white Christians who form Trump’s base.

Faith leaders who see the image of God in our persecuted neighbors and family will provide shelter in our spaces, and we will come out in force for systemic solutions, but we need help to stop this evil. Members of Congress need to provide bold leadership on such issues as defunding the deportation force, not just half-measures and message bills. Federal courts must uphold the principles of our founding documents, not the practices of white supremacy.

The commands of Scripture are clear. The weight of history rests on our shoulders. The fate of families hangs in the balance. And God is watching.

About Rev. Jennifer Butler
Rev. Jennifer Butler is the founder and CEO of Faith in Public Life and the former chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships. You can read more about the author here.

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