… A Little Like a Day Care Center
New York Times reporter Julie Hirshfield Davis describes the detention centers for refugees in Texas border towns as being “a little like a prison and a little like a day care center.” (The Daily podcast 6/19/18). A little like a day care center? Really?
What nonsense. How can these holding tanks be benignly described as daycare facilities? Ms. Davis, however, should be cut some slack. She suffers from the same national cognitive dissonance disorder millions of us suffer. What we see, we think, can’t be real. We are facing the sinister riddle of who we have become as a society. We ponder over how it happened. Who are these people, mirrored back to us on television? Pogo was right — We have met the enemy and it is us! How did we arrive at this place? Is this me, my nation?
Let me help Ms. Davis — these are NOT daycare facilities. These are prisons — for children. Children sleep on the floor, have little choice in how to spend their days and are kept in floor-to-ceiling fenced cages. No matter the rosy stories told by the “care givers” this is a prison… this is incarceration. Families are torn apart because they feared for their lives and they sought a safe place where they might begin again and scratch out a living. Babies, toddlers, wee little children are being used as pawns. Can our cruelty deter others? Might we trade better treatment of these families for a political win — something about this likes a wall.
We didn’t arrive in this place overnight, or over an election cycle. We have come a long way from President Reagan’s first inaugural address describing the United States as a shining city on a hill. He spoke these inspiring words: “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
Sadly, what we have believed deep in our bones, that the United States was a place of refuge, of new opportunity, is being lost, sacrificed to political expediency. There has always been an uglier side to our identity. This broken reality of our humanity is now on full display in our treatment of the refugee.
Reagan’s soaring language was, sadly, tied to a “Southern Strategy” of thinly veiled racism and jokes about welfare queens. The uglier side of our nation’s story was also at work when George Herbert Walker Bush who understood the U.S. to be a moral leader, nevertheless was elected in part, by his appeal focus to television spots about Willie Horton, an ex-con who was said to have been released on society early and then committed fresh acts of violence. Be afraid… This became a potent symbol of racism designed to elicit fear, especially among white working class folks. But now we have fallen further — we have forgotten those fundamental values to which we aspire and now live under the sadly misguided focus on new enemies who offer us new fears. From every podium of the White House we are told, in one way are another, that we should “be afraid, be very afraid.”
How is this possible? What to do? I confess to being confused myself — almost confused enough to call a prison a daycare center — but not quite. What does it mean to be a citizen in these times? Prayers are essential, as are protests. This is not who we are as U.S. citizens. This is not who we are as people of faith. We cannot allow this to be the definitive word on how we treat “the stranger in our land.” The nation is not quietly accepting that children should be separated from mothers and fathers in a journey from terror without dissent.
There is an upside-down, inside-out quality to what is occurring. Let’s be clear — I have not been blind to the drift in our nation’s identity in recent years. People in cities, small towns and countryside across the U.S. have been struggling. Tens of thousands of manufacturing and mining operations have been closed over the past twenty years. Small farms continue to disappear. Investments in education have dwindled. Our nation has become better at hiring people to run prisons than building much-needed infrastructure. No wonder, then, that our imaginations turn to incarceration rather than welcome centers.
We have allowed false dichotomies, false economies, to be used as political theory and practice. This is a complex issue and the demagogues want us to believe that there are only two choices and one simple answer. Just a little thought about the situation on the border causes a rational person to say — how do we bring imagination to this? What other alternatives are there? What might be done in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that can alleviate this? There must be dozens of ways to allow entry and do close monitoring of refugees that are less expensive than imprisoning mothers, fathers and children.
The stage was set for our foolish binary choices years ago. It did not begin in 2016. Many so-called “leaders” especially on the right, preached a narrative of “me first” and “fear the other” for years: us or them… either/or… my way or the highway. When one lives in a binary world regarding social interaction and possibilities, every choice is a false choice. Cable television and talk radio have laid out the predicate — a world was composed of distrust, soft prejudices, implicit and sometimes outright racism.
Meanwhile churches focused on entertainment and worried about numerical decline — they were too busy with this to speak on behalf of the immigrant or the poor among us. The tragic, sickening, self concern of Christian leaders, scurrying to “fix” our broken institutions, without stopping to consider the inevitable changes related to secularization and demographic shifts, meant that important voices on the behalf of the most vulnerable were silent or muted at best.
Years ago, Parker Palmer, anticipated our current state. It is almost as if he knew Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to pull Romans 13 out of context last week and use it to justify the tragedy on our borders. Palmer wrote “traditional Christian language has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and has been tortured beyond recognition” (Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox, p. xxi).
A type of theological malpractice has found ascendancy in the rhetoric of our public life. When there are pictures of pastors endorsing and praying over the POTUS, who on the same day is implementing horrific policies, I want to shout out in protest: “there has been identity theft!” In this, Biblical Christianity has been traded in for a cheap imitation of the faith — something that may sell as comfort in the short-term but will bear little long-term fruit. Like the POTUS, these religious leaders are day-traders, seeking to ride the cultural swing of the moment. The life-giving, life-transforming language of restoration and reconciliation has been replaced with a distorted gospel giving license to exclusionary, selfish, violent and war-condoning ideologies.
Here is one way to recast what is occurring and offers some guidance as to how we proceed — every time some national official suggests that there are drug dealers, gang members, thieves or rapists coming across the border and this justifies the cruelty we see, we need to stop and shout “who do you think you are kidding? Where is your evidence?” Evidence is scant, almost nonexistent, you see. Good research shows that refugees contribute much more than they require of their new home. They are, like ALL PEOPLE, to be cherished more than feared. How we treat them and their children reflects how we ought to be treated… Yes, that is Biblical… and also the guidance of other faith traditions.
Is there no hope of redemption or restoration for those who might bring their own set of brokenness or troubles? We should and must screen those who would do us harm. The calculus, however, isn’t even close. There is enormously more potential for good than evil arriving at our portals. Do we have such limited imaginations that we will simply define everyone arriving, even children, as our enemy? When I see the young ones standing, crying as their mother side, as she is being taken away, I believe I see in that little one a future medical doctor, a chemist, a university president, a journalist, a teacher or a pastor — and, if we are lucky, that little one may one day be a friend to one of my grand children. That is what I see — that is what our nation must see.