Are the People in the Caravan My Neighbors?

Are the People in the Caravan My Neighbors? November 6, 2018

If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is. Rod Dreher

Next semester, a colleague and good friend from the history department and I will be co-teaching an interdisciplinary colloquium for the fourth time in the past six years. The colloquium is “‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era,” a course that is one of my top two or three favorite courses that I have taught in my three decades in the college classroom. On this midterm election day, undoubtedly the most important midterm election in my lifetime, I find close parallels between what is currently happening in our country and the period of history in which my colleague and I will be immersing our thirty-five sophomores next semester. The similarities are too obvious to ignore.

Our colloquium focuses on persons and groups who, in the face of great opposition, found ways to push back against the rising tide of nationalism in 1930s and 1940s Germany. For instance, we study the various ways in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church resisted the fusion of German nationalism and Christianity in the German Lutheran Church, the state church that found many ways to incorporate Nazi ideology into its doctrinal statements and practices.

I suspect that my colleague and I will need to spend a bit more time with the German National Church and its accompanying German Christian Faith Movement than we have in previous semesters teaching this colloquium, because currently in this country we are grappling, within a Christian framework, with the very issues—who is to be included, who is the “Other,” are Christian principles and nationalism compatible, and so on—that were inescapable in Germany close to a century ago. Reich Church, meet twenty-first century White American Evangelical Christians.

In a Sojourners article from last week in which he discusses these parallels, Daniel José Camacho asks “How can sincere Christians embrace white nationalism?”

When White Nationalist Christians Redefined Their Neighbors

In Nazi Germany, the large majority of white Christians supported a demagogue whose rhetoric had violent and devastating consequences. How could this be? Camacho writes that

Upon an initial reading of these documents, two things stood out to me: the effort to sanctify and naturalize ethno-nationalism, and the effort to redefine who counts as one’s neighbors . . . For these nationalist Christians, preserving and purifying German culture was about protecting God’s creation of distinct cultural boundaries. They believed that Christians were to help others, but not in such a way that diminished what they deemed to be the cultural integrity of their particular nation.

Making white nationalism and Christianity compatible required redefining what Jesus says in the gospels about love of our neighbor, in order to make it fit within an ethno-nationalist framework—it required a rethinking of what “neighbor” even means. In this rethinking, one’s neighbor came to mean the “non-foreign members of one’s nation”; with that definition in hand, “one can morally justify all sorts of actions against people who are categorized as outsiders.”

Camacho correctly warns against making direct comparisons between Nazi Germany and the United States—there are many dissimilarities. But appropriate caution should not blind us to clear parallels. None “of us are capable of predicting exactly where hateful ideas and hateful rhetoric lead to. But we can be sure that they lead to bad places. Trump’s white Christian base isn’t exactly the Reich Church. But we can and should call out any parallel logics.” These parallels are impossible to ignore.

The results of the 9th annual “American Values Report” recently released by the Public Religion Research Institute reveal these parallels clearly.

Most White Evangelicals Say Immigration, Increasing Racial Diversity Harms America

Summarizing the relevant results, a panelist at a Brookings Institution discussion of the survey noted that

Marriage and abortion are comparatively a very low priority for white evangelicals. The real key to understanding white evangelicals is through their anti-immigrant attitudes and fear of demographic change . . . It is really a potent mix of nativism and racial anxiety and white Christian nationalism.

For instance, the report reveals that

  • White evangelical protestants are the only religious demographic in the United States in which the majority views immigrants as a “threat” to American values and sees the country’s increasing racial diversity as a bad thing,
  • Fifty-four percent of white evangelicals surveyed said they see the U.S. becoming majority non-white as a mostly negative trend, while all other religious demographics consider this to be a mostly positive trend.
  • When asked about the growing number of “newcomers” to the United States, white evangelicals (57 percent) were the only major religious group to have a majority say that immigrants “threaten traditional American customs and values.”
  • The data also finds that white evangelicals were the group least likely to oppose a policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

President Trump chose to make fear about the “Other” the centerpiece of his closing argument in the weeks leading up to the midterm election, focusing particularly on the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico to our southern border. It remains to be seen whether this strategy has been successful. It also remains to be seen whether white Evangelical Christians will continue to support Trump’s threatened draconian measures to stop these prospective immigrants. Given the recent voting record of white Evangelical Christians, and given the clear parallels to past history in 1930s Germany, it will be no surprise if they do.

For Christians, an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is essential to understanding how the Christian faith is to be lived in real time. Are the people in the caravan inching northward my neighbors? Rod Dreher, a popular voice of conservative Christianity, reflected on this recently.

How (Not) To Think About The Caravan

The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm . . .

If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.

A neat trick, one that makes a certain amount of sense in that it defines “neighbor” in terms of those who are closest to me, with “neighbor-ness” diminishing according to geographical distance and human-made national boundaries. The German National Church would have approved.

But when Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?”, he answered with a story so direct and clear that its message can hardly be misconstrued. The Samaritan recognized the damaged man in the ditch as his neighbor, even though he had every reason to treat the man as the “Other.” Our neighbor is any person in need whom we have the capacity and wherewithal to help—nationality, religious conviction, gender, race, and all the other common ways in which we tend to define the “Other” are irrelevant.

Those who claim to be Christian should recognize the people in the caravan as their neighbors and act accordingly. That requires rejecting the temptations of xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies. That requires rejecting the fear and suspicion that enable and empower those tendencies. “Christian nationalism” is an oxymoron. No one ever said the life of following Jesus would be easy or safe.

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