For some days now, I have been watching, piece by piece, an Amazon Original documentary entitled Human Flow (Jeff Bezos can send me 0000.1% of this week’s earnings as payment for this advertisement). It is a harrowing depiction of refugees, refugee camps, the precious human beings whom are what some folks disdainfully or even dispassionately call “refugees” and – most of all – the factors that rob people of their houses, lands, heritage, dignity, human rights, and the very right to live – thus making them refugees. Let us not forget that thousands of our most vulnerable fellow inhabitants of this earth do perish while fleeing situations that would be intolerable to anybody; they would rather dance with death seeking refuge, than staying put.
I am still incredulous that a woman from somewhere in the U.S. Midwest was aghast to learn that there was anything bad in the Mueller Report. As one who has taken the time to read that report – which is more than can be said for too many of the 536 people whom we pay to, among other things, read it (it’s your guess who that 536th person might be) – there is plenty bad in that report. It therefore stands to reason (or at least suspicion) that many Americans, from coast to coast, have little sensitivities, let alone ideas, about what is at the heart of this very significant refugee problem.
We have lamented the 1% who own half the world’s wealth. There is another 1% that should be of extreme concern to humanity: it is the 71 million displaced people, worldwide, according the UNHCR. Of this number, 41.5 million are internally displaced, 26 million are refugees, and 3.5 million are asylum-seekers. From Venezuela alone in 2018, come over 300,000 asylum-seekers. On a UNHCR grid indicating the top refugee-hosting countries in the world, are Turkey (3.7m), Pakistan (1.4m) Uganda (1.2m) and Sudan and Germany, both at 1.1m. Germany appears at number 19 in a Global Finance Magazine’s ranking of the world’s richest nations. None of the 18 countries richer than Germany is among the top refugee-hosting nations, perhaps arguably, due to location, rather than stinginess or meanness (that is subject to debate); and interestingly – a lesson for rich countries – Pakistan, Uganda and Sudan are among the world’s poorest countries (Turkey is midway down the list of rich).
Christians, particularly, should be troubled by this 1%, left out in the cold. For do Christians not follow a person who told a parable about a good shepherd (a name he gave himself) who, even if he has one hundred sheep and one is lost and exposed to the elements, he leaves the ninety-nine and pursues the one (percent)? And is not this “salvation” at the heart of the “good news” – gospel or evangel – after which evangelicals call themselves? No true American evangelical, then, should be indifferent to the refugees knocking on their southern border; and any who side, whether vocally or not, with the wicked treatment – the bad news – being meted out to these refugees betray their name as Christian and as evangelical. It is one thing to find squalor, horror, and inhumanity in the lands where refugees originate, and from which they flee; it is quite another, for rich countries to further subject them to the further squalor, horror, and inhumanity, with added embarrassment and shame, while they have been “rescued.”
As a human being, a Christian, a patriot, and a citizen, I cannot avoid or ignore the crisis on the US-Mexico border that has become more a political football than a raison d’etre for America to recall and reinstate vigorously, Emma Lazarus’s welcoming words etched on the Statue of Liberty (even if that statue is far from the southern border): “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This was when America had a conscience. This was when we remembered where we came from (even though by then, we had committed several atrocities to fellow humans). This was when we hadn’t succumbed to the lie that “(America is) full” – that there is no more room here for anybody. This was when we recognized and remembered that diversity becomes us, and we are diverse and diversity from the moment people sailed across the Atlantic to inhabit this land. It is immigration, due to anything ranging from oppression economics, that has made and built America.
It is time, therefore, that America start being honest with herself. There remains a volley of questions for everyone, especially for Americans who call themselves Christians, who claim the Bible as their authority. It is especially for those who identify as evangelicals – of the Franklin Graham, Paula White, Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Mike Pence, Mark Burns and Darrell Scott kind – to trigger that honesty. That is, if we are not too far gone to reclaim honesty, in this environment of not just lies, but normalizing lies, anointing liars, and the near absence of outrage at lies, dishonor, dishonesty, greed, and callousness. Here are those questions:
- In the Old Testament, are not all migrants (aka refugees) fleeing economic hardship and, latterly, oppressive and brutal regimes?
- In the New Testament, are not all migrants (aka refugees) fleeing religious oppression?
- Were not the first immigrants to America refugees from religious oppression in Europe? And were they not welcomed, rather than scorned as “invaders”?
- Did many of these refugees (now “citizens”) not then turn around and make refugees of the welcoming indigenous peoples they found on “their” land – even through presidential action, and by law?
- Did not many of these new citizens then make immigrants – by force – of a people from another continent, and for economic benefit (not the immigrants’ but the citizens’)?
- Did many of those wickedly enslaved ones not flee (seek refuge), some to other parts of the American continent, some back to Africa, and some to other lands?
- Are parts of the very southern border Americans claim as “our own, to be protected from ‘invaders,’” not formerly part of the region, south of that border, and annexed to the USA, a mere 170 years ago? Do there not remain many family and cultural ties that a border or a wall cannot ever obliterate?
- Are not all refugees fleeing hardship of some kind: economic, war, brutality, oppression, discrimination (racial, class, caste, tribe, nationality, religious, sexual, political)?
- Was America on solid ground when, at the same time she was warmly welcoming all refugees from Cuba, she was intolerantly turning away boatloads of refugee Haitians? What was the valid or moral imperative that demanded this difference in treatment?
- Are not the people, regimes, organizations administrations, and nations that oppress and displace others, precisely the rich and powerful, taking advantage of the poor? Do they not have the resources (money, power, weapons) to make refugees, asylum-seekers, and slaves, of others? Do not those countries where unrest and wars never seem to abate, have some ignition, encouragement or otherwise, facilitation of it all, by richer countries, who supplied arms, opportunity, divided rule, or who impoverished those nations by plunder?
Consider this: a lawyer for the American government shamelessly recently refused to agree with the direct assertion, multiple times, that sleep is a necessity and that soap, toothbrushes, blankets and food are necessities. (It chillingly reminds one of the declination, by several persons, now sitting on the bench in many federal courts, to affirm that Brown vs. Board was a good judgment; but that is another matter.) This cannot be for want of money; recent reports affirm that somebody is being paid $705 per child, per night, for the nastiness to which each is being subjected in rich America: no shower for weeks, inadequate food, and basic comforts. This is not even the Ritz-Carlton for pigs. It’s not money – it’s a commitment to do wickedness to children. Here again, nobody who follows a man who said “Suffer (bring) the little children to come to me; do not hinder them” can support this wickedness or ignore the greed and corruption beneath it. This is a scandal. This is criminal.
There is a notion that the repugnant, inhumane, callous, and degrading way American policy treats human beings who cross the southern border is justified, for these folks are “breaking the law” and are “criminals.” Nothing can be further from the truth. First, international law empowers asylum-seekers to seek asylum anywhere they can access. Second, few people are now “sneak-storming” the southern border; most are presenting themselves to officials as asylum-seekers and deserve humane and dignified processing. Third, any who enter the US “sneakily” or illegally are committing a misdemeanor, not a crime. As someone suggested in a tweet, this should mean that, the next time an American citizen gets hit with a misdemeanor traffic offense, her 3-month old baby should be ripped from her arms and sent to a camp in some unknown location in a far-away state.
Migration – especially of the refugee kind – is a human right. The world’s richest countries – among whom lies America – should treat with the entire matter quite differently. One way is to go to the root of refugee problems: stop waging or supporting senseless wars, stop supplying arms and ammunition to criminals, attend to your own citizen’s drug appetite alongside action against the drug cartel nations, do what you can to alleviate poverty worldwide, and tamp down the greed and inequities that disfranchise the weak and created their need to flee. We may never eliminate these problems; but we (here in America at least) can certainly do more than just punish refugees. We should dismantle the systems that produce refugees – not make them, worsen them, or profit off them. That is unAmerican. That is wickedness.
Michael Friday is an organizational leadership specialist, working through Transition Ministries, American Baptist Churches, USA. He is author of And Lead Us Not Into Dysfunction.
Photograph: A woman grabs two children. scampering from tear gas deployed at refugees on the Mexican-American border.