More than 30 faith leaders were arrested Monday for observing the Season of Advent — the pre-Christmas season in which Christians await the arrival of a brown-skinned refugee child known as Jesus.
They were among more than 400 protesters who went to our southern border to await other brown-skinned refugees — some of whom, I presume, are named Jesus — who have fled violence and poverty in Central America to seek asylum in the United States.
Clergy led a procession of prayer to the border to protest squalid conditions in the migrant camp in Tijuana and U.S. border policies that have prevented the migrants from applying for asylum in accordance with U.S. law.
Christians were joined by Jewish, Muslim and indigenous faith traditions.
The predominant message wasn’t “open borders,” an end to sovereignty or any such nonsense.
What they were protesting was the false narrative that compassion and rule of law can’t coexist, that we can’t have border security while also upholding this nation’s moral values.
“We keep being told that we need to make a choice between violence and decency,” Imam Omar Suleiman said at the protest. “That we have to make a choice between upholding dignity or upholding the power structures that continue to oppress people here and all around the world while touting this title of ‘the freest nation in the world.’”
That’s not really a choice we have to make, as Suleiman pointed out: “A nation must protect its borders, but more importantly, a nation must protect its soul.”
Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers, Jews, Muslims and a slew of other faith traditions joined in protest Monday, and willingly went to jail, not because we shouldn’t have border security, but because the way we’re going about it risks our nation’s soul. No one is advocating an absence of security or negligence in vetting asylum-seekers. But, as Rev. Liz Theoharis, Presbyterian minister and co-chair of the “Poor People’s Campaign” pointed out, “We can do better.”
“Our sacred texts tell us to tear down walls,” Theoharis said, “to welcome the immigrant and to treat everyone as if they are God’s children.”
God’s children or not, many Americans look at the migrants trying to enter our nation and ask a perfectly rational question: Why should we care? We have homeless people here. Homeless vets. Starving elderly. Why care for these people from Central America? Why is this our problem?
That’s a sensible question (aside from the moral implications). So, here’s the answer: It is our problem, because it’s a problem largely of our making.
The migrants hail predominantly from Honduras — a nation where the United States has been meddling for political and economic gain since 1898. We used U.S. troops to quell rebellion, put down strikes and prop up a puppet government in a series of at least seven mini-invasions in the early 20th century, all to keep cash flowing to U.S. companies. By 1914, the best agriculture ground in the country was controlled by those companies.
We kept our fingers in the country’s politics and finances, and in the 1980s we did them the favor of destabilizing their agriculture-based economy, removing the safety net for rural communities.
In 2009, the Obama administration gave tacit approval to a coup against President Manuel Zelaya, against the wishes of the U.N., Organization of American States and European Union. Instability and gang warfare have ruled the country since.
Like so many Central and South American nations, Honduras remains afflicted with the Three Ps of 20th century American pseudo-colonialism: Political Violence, Persecution and Poverty.
When Hondurans flee that environment, in many cases for the sake of their lives, they are fleeing conditions we helped create. They flee to America because, in spite of our history in their part of the world, they still believe we are a nation guided by high morals, a nation that seeks to do what is right and to protect the hungry and afflicted.
But, as a good Christian nation, we’ve chosen to hide behind walls and tear gas, ignore our own culpability, and scream “America first!”
Faith leaders protested in prayer Monday because they’re calling us to a fundamental choice. That choice isn’t between border security or no border security. That choice is between cheap nationalism and fear, that defy the core principles of our faith, and sensible policies that recognize both our need for security and our calling to lift up the poor and marginalized — especially when we’ve helped marginalize and impoverish them.
Some will argue we have to protect our borders to have a country. Fine. But, if we can’t do that while also defending our nation’s soul, then we’ve already lost all that’s worth defending.