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Scapegoating: an old human habit still around in attitudes and actions towards illegal immigrants?

Scapegoating: an old human habit still around in attitudes and actions towards illegal immigrants? June 13, 2011

Yet another state, populated largely by people who consider themselves Christians, has apparently criminalized Christian behavior toward illegal immigrants.  At least according to the Associated Press which says in an article published in my local newspaper June 10 that Alabama’s new immigration law makes it “a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride.”  That’s the AP saying that, not me.  If you think that’s mistaken, please prove it.

Many Americans have developed very nasty attitudes toward illegal immigrants in recent years.  Supposedly they are hurting the U.S. economy by taking jobs away from American citizens.  Yet, by many accounts (and I have witnessed this first hand) many who despise illegal immigrants and blame them for high unemployment gladly hire them to do their yard work and repair their roofs and fences and pay them in cash.  Many experts continue to argue that most of the jobs done by illegal immigrants are ones very few Americans want to do or will do.

Several states, mostly in the South, have recently passed laws criminalizing humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants.  True, some of these laws (perhaps all of them) contain exceptions for government regulated humanitarian organizations and for emergency responders.  However, where does that leave the average Christian who feels called by God to reach out and help an illegal immigrant in need?  Jesus said that insofar as people offer a cup of cold water to one of the least of these his brethren they have done it to him and insofar as they have refused to do it for the least they have refused it to him (Matthew 24).  Does anyone really think Jesus didn’t mean illegal immigrants by “the least of these my brethren?”  I hope not.

I can see nothing in these attitudes and laws except a contemporary form of scapegoating–one of the oldest forms of sin in humanity.  Theologians and philosophers such as Rene Girard have explored this phenomenon extensively and proved beyond doubt to me, at least, that we humans and especially Christians need to be attentive to its pervasive influence in all human societies.

Human societies seem always to have some group(s) the majority regard as the source and container for evil and they irrationally heap scorn, ridicule and rejection on them because, inexplicably and irrationally, it makes them feel better.  We all know that phenomenon in middle school and many of us experienced it.  It is the phenomenon underlying that of bullying now finally getting so much attention.

But it isn’t limited to adolescents.  Mature, supposedly rational, adults also engage in such behavior.  We all know about how Hitler and the Germans made the Jews scapegoats after WW1 in Germany.  But anti-semitism isn’t limited to that place and time.  Jews have perennially been made scapegoats in societies around the world.  So have African-Americans, American Indians, Muslims and homosexuals. 

We Americans love to point out scapegoating in other countries–especially Christians in Muslim countries and elsewhere where they are in the minority.  We read with justifiable horror about albinos in parts of Africa being singled out for bad treatment and sometimes even murder.  Now we read about certain children in some African countries being identified as witches and ostracized, tormented and sometimes killed for absolutely no reason other than scapegoating.

The mechanism of scapegoating is relatively simple even as it is irrational and therefore finally beyond explanation.  People seem to need someone other than themselves to blame for their problems, so they choose people among them that seem alien, foreign, other, strange, and heap abuse and sometimes ritualistic killing on them.  (There was something horrifyingly ritualistic about lynchings of African Americans by the KKK.)  Such abusive treatment of the strange “others” somehow releases a pressure inside the scapegoaters and makes them feel better for a time.  It does nothing, however, to solve society’s real problems.  It’s a completely false solution to real problems.

Scapegoating seems to be a universal human behavior and is usually linked with tribalism–the irrational identification of a particular affinity group as superior to all others and yet threatened by all others so that it needs aggressive protection from others.  This combination is a combustible compound that helps explain the otherwise inexplicable such as WW1 and many other wars.

Postmodern thinkers such as Girard and Levinas are helping Christians (and others) discover this evil within themselves and their societies.  We Christians could and should have discovered it through Jesus, but sometimes it takes an outsider to point out something we should have known all along.

According to these men and their Christian interpreters, a major task of Christians in our postmodern world is to identify and root out of ourselves the horror of the “other” and dedicate ourselves to the welfare of the “other” (the stranger, the alien, the weird ones among us).  Sometimes it takes something visual and dramatic to bring the lesson home.  When I saw the movie “The Visitor” I was gripped by a new understanding of how we in America are making illegal immigrants our scapegoats and how just knowing an illegal immigrant can change one’s perspective entirely.  I urge you to watch it.

Interestingly, the hero of the story (not a particularly noble one, but one that gradually discovers his inner nobility) would be a criminal in some states because of his humanitarian behavior towards illegal immigrants.  He is a college professor who finds an illegal immigrant couple living in his New York City apartment.  (The movie never explains how a college professor can afford a NYC apartment as a second home!)  He kicks them out, but then realizes they are homeless and invites them to stay with him temporarily.  Eventually he comes to love them and works tirelessly to help them gain legal status.  When the government agents very coldly return the young man to his home country in the middle of the appeals process, without even notifying his family, the college professor has a breakdown.  He knows that this young man will be tortured if not killed in his home country which he fled because his father was a leading dissident.  Because of a technicality he was denied legal immigrant status.  The “Visitor” is the college professor, not the illegal immigrant and his girlfriend.  He visits “the others” and gets to know the beauty of their culture and music and their humanity and eventually resigns his faculty status (or takes a leave of absence) and spends his days playing his deported friend’s drums in a park.

What is especially tragic in the current flood of anti-illegal immigrant behavior and legislation in America is its complete lack of humanity toward illegal immigrants.  States have now taken to fighting against them by making people, Christians and others, who would extend basic human help to them in their need criminals.  I can see nothing in these laws other than sheer scapegoating; these laws are expressions of hatred for the “others” among us and toward those who would dare to help them.

When we discover that it is no longer socially acceptable to scapegoat one group, we turn our scapegoating behavior toward a group it is acceptable to hate, demean, ridicule, marginalize and harm.  It seems necessary for us to have such “others” and to act towards some of them so.  It makes us feel better.  We feel like we are solving problems we don’t know how to solve.  But, of course, scapegoating doesn’t really solve anything.

Now, I am not opposed to laws regulating immigration or even to deporting illegal immigrants.  What I am opposed to is criminalizing humanitarian aid to them while they are among us.  That is simply unchristian.  What would Jesus do?  Without any doubt at all he would give a ride to a tired, hot, foot weary illegal immigrant walking many miles to work in order to feed his family.  Without any doubt at all he would give shelter to an illegal immigrant mother and her children.  Without any doubt at all he would give food to a hungry illegal immigrant family.  Yet, these supposedly “Christian” legislators and governors sign laws that criminalize Jesus’ behavior.

I don’t want to hear that these laws won’t be enforced against Christians or others who help illegal immigrants in these ways.  Unless the laws contain explicit exemptions for such behavior (and to date I have not seen that they do), we can assume that they MAY SOMEDAY be enforced against people who do them.  Whether they are enforced or not, they make felons out of people who simply do what Jesus would do.

I cannot think of any clearer case for Christian civil disobedience.  Jails should be full of Christians in those states!  Or at least legislators should be flooded with phone calls and letters and e-mails angrily demanded that they amend these laws to de-criminalize individual humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants.

Because these things I am saying are so crystal clear theologically to any thinking Christian, I can only attribute the passing of these laws by people who call themselves Christians to scapegoating.  What possible harm can be done to society by giving a ride to an illegal immigrant?  And even if such could be shown to do some little harm to society, the good it does to Jesus (remember what Jesus said) overrides that IF we consider ourselves in any sense a Christian culture and society (as do the states that have so far passed these laws).

Now, flame away as ye will.  But all I want to know is DO YOU KNOW OF EXEMPTIONS IN THESE LAWS that would not criminalize individual acts of humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants?  The Associated Press apparently does not.  I have not seen explicit such exemptions in the versions of the laws I have read on line.  AND HOW DO YOU WHO SUPPORT SUCH LAWS justify their de facto criminalization of behavior Jesus commanded of his followers?

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