The article’s headline read: “Sickening photos of the humanitarian crisis at U.S. border detention centers.” The thumbnail image showed what has become a familiar and, yes, sickening photo: brown-skinned migrants locked in overcrowded, small pens separated by chain-link fencing. Other photos showed a man with untreated skin lesions and scantily-clothed children lying on hard floors with only a tinfoil blanket.
The pictures were provided by a congressional representative who had recently visited the detection facility. The story reported alleged mistreatment and neglect by border patrol agents.
The article was posted by someone in my Facebook feed who has shown consistent shock and horror at the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants. But there was something notably different about this article that was pointed out by an astute observer in a comment. The difference is hard to spot, showing up only in the form of small, hard-to-read gray font. The date on the article is June 17, 2014, when Barack Obama was still in office.
“Partisan outrage has reached a fever pitch and is at the root of some pretty egregious hypocrisy and double standards.”
The observation brought to light a truth that many partisan observers may not want to admit: the inhumane detention and neglect of migrants is not brand new and did not start with the Trump administration.
In a similar vein, there has been much protest and resistance in recent days against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Trump administration, including the threatened nationwide raids, with some even comparing them to the rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany. When the work of ICE goes beyond the deportation of dangerous felons, it is certainly unjust, and the outright threat of raids serves no purpose other than to frighten and intimidate the Latinx community. However, six out of Obama’s eight years in office saw deportation levels higher than those in Trump’s first two full years in office, with persons with no criminal record often representing a significant percentage of the deported. Yes, the work and tactics of ICE have been problematic, but the data show that all this recent outrage is quite late to the game.
To be clear, there are more than a few areas of concern related to immigration and the Trump administration that are new or have increased. Despite false claims to the contrary, policies of unnecessarily and cruelly separating families started under the current administration. In 2019 so far, there has been a steep increase in the deportation of migrants who have no criminal record. Most horrifically, there have been seven deaths of migrant children in Customs and Border Patrol custody since 2018 when there had not been any such documented deaths in the decade prior; and the government’s own internal reports have shown that officials have lost track of thousands of migrant children separated from their families.
Combine all of that with President Trump’s overtly racist rhetoric about Latinx immigrants and his efforts to curb all immigration (rather than just illegal crossings), and there is clearly a problem that has rightly aroused attention. Moral outrage is good and needed; it is a prominent feature of the prophetic tradition and is the necessary starting point of our work and witness for justice. Unfortunately, too much of our moral outrage turns out to be thinly veiled partisan outrage. If we are going to express righteous anger about an injustice or a moral failing, we must do so whenever it occurs, not just when committed by the “other side” or when our media outlets of choice tell us it’s time to be outraged.
“One would be hard-pressed to find any major party donor who has the same regard for the poor and marginalized that Jesus did.”
Martin Luther King Jr. observed that Christian believers are called to be the “conscience of the state” rather than its servant, its master or its tool. Without a consistent, non-partisan “prophetic zeal” of which King spoke in the same quote, we lose our “moral or spiritual authority.”
I have been caught falling to the temptation of partisan outrage plenty of times myself. It is hard not to in our day and age. Today’s 24-hour cable news, hyper-partisan websites and social media filter bubbles have so distorted our view of reality that it takes conscious effort to get a holistic picture.
Partisan outrage has reached a fever pitch and is at the root of some egregious hypocrisy and double standards. From white evangelical Christians supporting a president whose moral failings far outweigh those considered impeachable in the Clinton era to many progressive Christians turning a blind eye to Obama’s exponential expansion of drone warfare with high civilian casualties, few of us can be credited with consistency and full integrity.
Yes, increased moral outrage over the treatment of immigrants has merit, but we would do well to remember that the underlying problems in their countries of origin and our country’s general disregard for poor, working migrants is not going to be magically cured if someone defeats Trump in 2020.
One would be hard-pressed to find any major party donor who has the same regard for the poor and marginalized that Jesus did. The church is uniquely positioned and uniquely called to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8), and though the particulars may occasionally get better or worse, “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). The word and witness that the poor in spirit, the merciful and the peacemakers are blessed, and that we serve Christ in the “least of these,” has been entrusted to us by Christ himself. We cannot surrender it to partisan politics or let it be watered down by the same.
“Knowing our history is another good way to keep our outrage moral and consistent rather than partisan and expedient.”
Pastor and activist William J. Barber II has been on to something when he emphasizes the “moral revival” that is needed. His prophetic preaching has wisely attempted to stay not just nonpartisan but also historically rooted. As he reminded listeners in Lynchburg, Virginia, in April 2018, the corporate takeover of American Christianity began not with the Jerry Falwell Juniors of today or the Jerry Falwell Seniors of the 1980s but the James Fifields of the post-new deal 1930s and 40s.
Knowing our history is another good way to keep our outrage moral and consistent rather than partisan and expedient.
Christians, especially pastors and other congregational leaders, have to turn off cable news. If we really want to know what’s going on and be able to advocate accurately and consistently for the oppressed, we have to keep our ears as close to the ground as possible. Develop relationships and talk directly with the low wage workers, migrants, racial minorities, etc. If you can’t do that, talk to or read those who work with them – social workers, missionaries, pro bono lawyers, teachers, non-profit directors, etc. Regardless, I always recommend favoring news sources that do not have corporate sponsors.
We need a moral and ethical witness based not on our social media feeds or biases but on an embedded, incarnational, long-term presence with those for whom we claim to have concern. When we do, these people will tell us the truth, which includes the fact that journalists, political candidates and entertainment figures only show up now and again, and then leave when there’s no longer enough interest to garner ratings.
In contrast, Jesus came and stayed. So should his followers.