Evangelical “Parable of the Caravan” Takes a Bizarre Turn

Evangelical “Parable of the Caravan” Takes a Bizarre Turn November 12, 2018

Last week, prominent evangelical theologian and Christianity Today blogger Ed Stetzer published an article by Kent Annan, director of humanitarian and disaster leadership at Wheaton, titled “The Parable of the Caravan.” I was hopefully when I saw this headline, because Stetzer has a reputation for criticizing problematic views on issues like race or abuse. My excitement soon turned to disbelief.

Annan sets out to write what he calls “a modern-day parable.” Jesus’ parables, he says, are meant to “hold up a mirror” and “puncture our delusions.” That is what he means to do with his own parable.

Once upon a time, the world’s most powerful kingdom enjoyed a record-low unemployment rate and record-high stock market prices.

Other countries much poorer were hosting millions of refugees, but this kingdom did all it could to keep these refugees out. Then one day, a thousand miles away, a few thousand people in danger in their own land joined together with the unrealistic dream of walking—yes, walking—a thousand miles to safety and jobs in the powerful, far away kingdom.

Moms and dads and children joined this “Caravan,” though even if they somehow made it to the kingdom, they had no way past the wide moat, towering wall, thick gate, and vast army that awaited them.

Meanwhile, behind the kingdom walls, people watched this faraway Caravan on their screens.

So far, so good. In fact, so far, very good.

The person concerned about safety saw the Caravan on the TV as a ragtag group of vulnerable, unarmed, powerless people made up of moms and dads, sons and daughters. He felt a tinge of empathy, but then squinted hard to look through the decoder lens provided by politicians and TV pundits.

What he saw then was a group of well-armed, well-fed, highly-trained mercenary invaders better disguised than anyone had ever been disguised. He thought, We need our troops and weapons to protect us from these attackers in disguise. He heard the ruler of the kingdom promise to protect the border from these invaders, so he felt safe. The next time he saw the Caravan on TV, he clicked on by.

A virtuous Facebooker flipped past the Caravan on screen and thought, Let them in. Whatever it costs, someone else will pay the price, and I can claim the virtue. Saying ‘yes’ will feel good without having to do anything hard to help these people in need.

She could righteously ignore those who lost a loved one in a crime, who live near the border and face cultural upheaval and economic change, who teach these children in crowded classrooms and have to buy supplies out of their own pocket, or who house an asylum-seeking family. My duty here is done, she thought. She “liked” helping the Caravan without needing to pause beyond her screen to help.

What?!

Look, I’m not saying there’s not room to criticize those who never take their activism off facebook—however large their numbers may actually be (far lower than Annan would guess, I suspect)—but this is not that. In Annan’s writing, the “person concerned about safety” is allowed to have empathy for the caravan. Not so, the “virtuous Facebooker.” The “virtuous Facebooker” is motivated only by a desire to look good. Empathy does not enter the picture.

The “virtuous Facebooker” comes off worse than the “person concerned about safety,” despite the fact that the “virtuous Facebooker” wants the U.S. to open its doors to the migrant caravan while the “person concerned about safety” nods approvingly when the ruler sends troops to the borders.

To top it all off, Annan repeats as fact the claim that immigrants are more likely to be criminal than other individuals, when it is manifestly not true. Immigrants are actually less likely to commit crime than other groups. Annan also references cultural upheaval and economic change. What does that mean, exactly? Immigrants grow economies, and communities undergo cultural and economic change over time irrespective of whether immigrants settle there (I’m looking at you, rust belt).

Finally, I didn’t even realize until I googled it just now that “crowded classrooms” is an anti-immigrant talking point prominent among the alt-right and white nationalists. So we’ll just pat Annan on the back for repeating and reinforcing a xenophobic anti-immigrant talking point.

With that, let’s finish the parable:

A religious person went past the scene on his laptop screen and then quickly to his Holy Book, flipping past the verses about a (similar?) caravan escaping through a miraculously parted Red Sea, past caring for widows and orphans, until he found comfort in verses about respecting authority and remembered a verse (though he couldn’t find the actual location in the Holy Book) that says, “Just take care of your own. Because if everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.” So now that we’ve taken care of this threat to our conscience, he thought, let’s get back to a debate that doesn’t ask us to love our poor neighbors. And he clicked on by.

Even this person gets a warmer treatment than the “virtuous Facebooker.” Sure, he looks through his Bible until he finds a verse that makes him feel better about not doing anything. But at least he wasn’t like the “virtuous Facebooker,” who was motivated only by a desire to look good in front of others! 

Annan follows his parable with words of warning for those who fall in each group. Those who see an invading army, he says, should learn to accurately assess the dangers, and give their fears to God. Annan then calls out false claims, noting that refugees are rarely terrorists, and adding this:

Studies show that, overall, communities with high immigrant populations have lower crime than communities without immigrants. Refugees become net contributors to our economy and as tax payers.

Let’s pause here, because I’m confused. If immigrants and refugees have lower crime rates and are economic contributors, and Annan knows that, what is the explanation for the language  in his section on the “virtuous Facebooker”? In that section, remember, Annan wrote this:

She could righteously ignore those who lost a loved one in a crime, who live near the border and face cultural upheaval and economic change, who teach these children in crowded classrooms and have to buy supplies out of their own pocket, or who house an asylum-seeking family. My duty here is done, she thought. She “liked” helping the Caravan without needing to pause beyond her screen to help.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Annan repeats these falsehoods as truths only to later acknowledge that they are falsehoods. I think I know what’s going on here, and it’s not pretty.

Annan’s “virtuous Facebooker” is a trope taken directly from a Right-wing playbook. Progressives, the argument goes, preen around on facebook making calls to “let them all in,” even though they know immigrants and refugees bring crime, take people’s jobs, and live of public benefits. They just don’t care, because it’s not their jobs on the line, and besides, who cares if immigrants live off public benefits if they’re loyal Democratic voters? My guess? Annan is simply regurgitating this stereotype.

This makes the “virtuous Facebooker” that much worse—she shares pro-immigrant facebook statuses in order to look good in front of her friends, all the while gloating over the fact that other people’s lives, and not hers, will be harmed by these migrants. Does Annan actually know any progressives?

But when Annan does get around to offering a message to the “virtuous Facebooker,” he writes this:

If we look at the Caravan and see an exodus of people escaping oppression but don’t help, then we need discipleship to be more practical in our love. Have we called our senators and representatives, given to someone who is helping with immigration services on the border or addressing the root causes, prayed, found a way to love our neighbors who see the Caravan differently and engaged respectfully to try to change their minds?

So maybe Annan does think the “virtuous Facebooker” has empathy. But if so, why his completely divergent portrayal above? More than that, I’m not sure I know anyone who shares pro-immigrant memes but doesn’t do something more to help. Sure, we can always do more—but this does not feel like it is at all in the same category as the “person concerned about safety” who praises the ruler for sending troops.

My facebook friends have called and recalled their senators and representatives, and yes, they’ve given financially to immigration nonprofits and other efforts. They’ve gone to rallies, and marched. Some have volunteered to work with immigrants; others have donated clothing and other needed items to local nonprofits giving aid to new immigrants (immigrants aren’t just “out there” at the border, after all).

Let’s take a moment, here, to consider what Annan’s “virtuous Facebooker” section does:

First, it gives his readers cover to assume that progressives who are active on Facebook aren’t actually doing anything outside of facebook to help, based on no evidence.

Second, it gives his readers permission to assume that the only reason progressives share pro-immigrant information on facebook is to look good—not because they actually care.

Third, it suggests to his readers that progressives who are supportive of immigrants on Facebook are just as misguided as their uncle raving about an “invasion”—if not worse.

Fourth, it posits that progressives active on Facebook only support immigration because they think it will hurt other people and not them, making them sound like bad people 

Annan seems to genuinely care about refugees and to genuinely want evangelicals to support them. When he turns to the “religious person” who found Bible verses that excused him from helping, he provides a list of Bible references and reminds evangelicals “to remember who our neighbor is and that borders shouldn’t restrict our love.” He has a book coming out about loving immigrants and refugees.

This is the power of the conservative echo chamber. It is so strong that even someone like Annan, who seems to genuinely want evangelicals to support immigrants and refugees, cannot get fully outside it.

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