Welcome to the first entry of C+C 2.0. As mentioned near the end of last year, I’m going to do some pieces that are a departure from the devotional and invitational posts. This one hits on topics that some consider political – specifically some comments recently made by our president – but I have no interest in partisanship. I do have interest in the intersection of America and Christianity. If that piques your interest, read on; otherwise another devotional will be up soon. Peace!
“Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”
– President Donald J. Trump
So at last it’s laid clearly on the table; this is what a “Christian nation” – or at least the representative it elects – thinks about immigration. We can cry all we want about how he doesn’t really represent us, but we elected him. He’s no surprise.
Let me make this clear from jump: this isn’t about legal or illegal immigration. The justice of that situation also desperately needs attention, but it’s a separate matter.
No, this is about how some of the wealthiest people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world view poor people, especially non-white poor people. It’s about failing to recognize the context of history, and how many of these “shithole” nations find themselves in dire straits largely due to colonial and capitalist exploitation by the rich and powerful – sometimes from the West and sometimes internally – and then dismissing them as failed states full of less-than-human beings.
This is about how a faith community claiming to follow a savior who said “Whatsoever you failed to do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do for me” (yeah, that’s the second part) could view and treat the “least” with passive contempt.
It’s about how America – in sad parallel with American Christianity – has become less a refuge of freedom for those oppressed by empire, poverty, and discrimination … and more an empire itself ferociously hoarding wealth and power in one hand while waving a flag of equality and freedom in the other. The crosses stretching across America have become support poles for the ultimate velvet rope of the most exclusive club, defining who gets in and who stays out based on who the owners of the nation (and the faith) like to be seen with.
America is in the business of continental gentrification. Now that we’ve pushed out the savages and ruffians and got the neighborhood up and running, we don’t want to let in “those” people who will take advantage of it and ruin it. Never mind the inconvenient history of building it on the backs of wave after wave of “those” people. African and Asian and Eastern European and Jewish and Catholic and Latin American and the endless variety of people we saw as less-than-human beings for a generation or so until we were up in arms about the next group threatening to ruin the neighborhood. Thanks for finishing that railroad. Your seat is in the back. Your neighborhood is across town.
In large part, immigration has long been a recruitment effort. The Polish and Hungarian neighborhoods in my town were the direct result of businesses bringing in entire communities to meet labor demands. These people didn’t come because they were already wealthy and successful. They came for the opportunity to escape shitholes. Without them, wealth sat idle. With them, it built cities, communities, churches, museums, and the rest of a nation.
But here’s the difference between running a business and running a nation. Once a business is done with the cheap labor (or replacing the expensive labor with automation) those people are no longer the responsibility of the business. A nation is never done with its responsibility. Citizens are not FTEs. We need to take them into account, or they will turn on each other.
It’s no coincidence this swell of populism is occurring during a time of divided wealth, deteriorating infrastructure, and decreasing church attendance. A national or religious empire (and have they ever really been separate in the West?) in decline is an animal which has cornered itself, and is therefore a danger to itself. When we were tackling frontiers, risk brought reward. Now that we have nowhere to expand and those we trampled on are forcing us to face the questionable tactics we used for that expansion, the greatest risk is admitting we’re not who we think we are. Even the middle and lower classes are defensive of criticisms of the rich when tribal reputation is all they have left to cling to.
I don’t actually think of America as a Christian nation, nor would I like it to be. I’m not at all keen on anything that smacks of theocracy. When you get my government in your religion they aren’t “two great tastes that taste great together” (anyone remember those commercials?); they’re more – and excuse my presidential language here – a shit sandwich.
But despite our worse instincts, some actual Christ-like influence has managed to permeate the culture. Those words about the tired, poor, huddled masses on the State of Liberty may be a product of an enlightened France, but they resonate with the religion that says God backs a loser. Even when our country – and our faith – don’t live up to the hype, citizens and would-be-citizens cling to the ideal expressed in those words. After all, most our families didn’t come here because the government was recruiting the already successful, but because the nation welcomed, needed, and sometimes stole the poor; some part of us remembers where we’ve come from, even when our own success and fear of sharing it diminish our enthusiasm for extending that same dream to others.
Businesses that contribute to society. Nations that contribute to the world. Faith that contributes to the Kingdom. Have we – or our representatives – forgotten they are all built on the “least of these?”
A powerful business, nation, or faith that turns its focus inward and seeks to protect itself at the expense of others is not a reflection of Christ. Heck we’d have to get out the silverware polish and a sandblaster to uncover even the barest glimmer of common decency.
If you really want to give a hand up instead of a handout, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Yes, welcoming the stranger is scary. Christ says welcome them anyway. Yes, a small minority will want to take advantage. Christ says give to all who ask of you. (Right about now you’re tempted to rationalize that into something practical. Why? Christ wasn’t practical.) Yes, your way of life may feel threatened. Christ says there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend, and if we truly claim Christ as our friend, who then can we exclude from friendship?
A church or a nation that gets disheveled and dirty because it’s in the business of turning the hopeless into the hopeful is doing its job. Christianity and America are not meant to be beautiful, sterile showplaces focused on preserving their own self-proclaimed wonderfulness. They are meant to be sources of justice in not just a legal sense but a moral one, and justice takes guts and grime.
Through our faith language and our nigh-religious devotion to capitalism, we have turned spiritual and economic salvation into “I’ve-got-mine” individual experiences, when true salvation is communal. Doing so has impoverished us in countless ways. True salvation seeks not to isolate, but to replicate. When much is given, much is expected. Jesus said that, too.
Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?
If we are Christian, the answer is “Jesus said so.”
If we are American, the answer is “they have and will make us stronger.”
If we are both, why are we still asking the question?