In chapter 7 of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Aunt Chloe, the slave matriarch of the Shelby family farm, describes the work of the “soul-drivers” (slave traders), actions so evil as to make the perpetrators unfit for redemption. Beecher Stowe has the ever-conciliatory Uncle Tom urge Aunt Chloe to love her enemies, then pens the slavewoman’s thunderous rejoinder:
“Don’t natur herself kinder cry out on ’em?” said Aunt Chloe. “Don’t dey tear der suckin’ baby right off his mother’s breast, and sell him, and der little children as is crying and holding on by her clothes, — don’t dey pull ’em off and sells ’em? Don’t dey tear wife and husband apart?” said Aunt Chloe, beginning to cry, “when it’s jest takin’ the very life on ’em? — and all the while does they feel one bit, don’t dey drink and smoke, and take it oncommon easy? Lor, if the devil don’t get them, what’s he good for?” And Aunt Chloe covered her face with her checked apron, and began to sob in good earnest.
Aunt Chloe weeps yet, as stories of the internment of immigrant children ripped from mother’s breasts and father’s arms force the American nation to recall similarly wretched moments in its checkered history of human rights. On the country’s southern border, the U.S. government offered “zero tolerance” to undocumented, illegal-crossing immigrant families, as officials, including the President, his Attorney General and Homeland Security Secretary, demonized Latin@ adults and by extension their children as “an infestation” largely controlled by or allied with drug lords, rapists and vicious gangs, all detrimental to American safety and security. After criminalizing the crossings and jailing the parents, even those seeking asylum from their homeland violence, the government declared the children “unaccompanied,” casting them into a variety of enclosures described by some commentators as “kennel-like.” Some officials even used the Bible to proof-text such child-incarceration.
Attorney General and Cheshire-Cat-Smirking-Methodist-Sunday-School-Teacher Jeff Sessions pontificated: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” With that, Sessions, now called on the disciplinary carpet by the United Methodist Church for “the use of violence against children to deter immigration,” situated himself within the abidingly dismal saga of governmental and ecclesiastical policies that wrenched children from parents in the name of Holy Scripture.
In an essay entitled “American Indian Children and U.S. Indian Policy,” (Tribal Law Journal Vol 16) Angelique Eagle Woman and G. William Rice write: “The forced removal of Indian children from their homes, parents, relatives, and communities, often at great physical distances from their Tribal Nations, is one of the most traumatic experiences continuing to impact the family fabric of contemporary American Indian families today. Christian and government boarding schools subjected Indian children to treatment at the polar opposite from the concept of respect and caring in Indigenous tribal society.”
The authors cite an 1818 document from the House Committee on Indian Affairs: “Put into the hands of their [Indian] children the primer and the hoe, and they will naturally, in time, take hold of the plow; and as their minds become enlightened and expand, the Bible will be their book, and they will grow up in habits of morality and industry, leave the chase to those of minds less cultured, and become useful members of society.” As a nation, we’ve been here before with children of color — slave, Native American, Hispanic — invoking biblical authority to defend inhumane, immoral actions.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Miami Archdiocese exegetes Sessions’ pathetic biblical hermeneutic succinctly: “Even the Devil can quote Scripture!” This Trump-Sessions’ moral collapse fostered a promising if infrequent consensus among religious leaders, including Reverends William Barber and Franklin Graham, two preachers at either end of the Trump-presidency spectrum.
Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign wrote that Sessions “used scripture to justify policies like closing our borders to those in need of refuge and tearing children away from their families. Twisting the word of God in defense of immoral practices was a tactic used to justify keeping Black people in chattel slavery, committing genocide against Native Americans and segregating people under Jim Crow. His comments are anathema to any person of faith. And any politician who supports his position is an accessory to these crimes against children and humanity.”
Graham of Samaritan’s Purse said of the administration’s child incarceration, “it’s disgraceful, it’s terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit. And I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today.”
And they are not alone. The National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Council of Churches both denounced the action, as did the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Multiple commentators note that “even Evangelicals” have opposed separation of children from parents. The word “even” should shame every Christian who identifies as Evangelical.
Undocumented immigration and border security involves long delayed, complex issues that require concerted legislative and communal responses. American Nativism has long “othered” immigrants, from English Baptists and Quakers to Catholic Irish and Italians to Sephardic Jews and Sunni Muslims. Yet that sordid history is no excuse for separating immigrant parents and children, even undocumented ones. These interned Latin@ youth are not “children of a lesser god” (re. the famous play), an essentially criminalized population undeserving of U.S. citizenship. For what is the difference in white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a U.S. President denouncing Latin@ immigrants as the dregs of their home countries that “pour into and infest our country.” Infest?
In the end, the ceaselessly-divided American churches seem to have found common cause and uncommon courage to challenge a cruel and dehumanizing state-sanctioned practice defended by a corrupt Biblicism. We’d better. If Christians in America cannot raise our collective voices against our government’s treatment of these “little ones,” then we’re the ones who serve a “lesser god.”*
*On June 20 President Trump signed an executive order that he suggested would end the separation of families on the border, yet it did not apply to the over 2,000 children now in U.S. custody. What will happen to them now? Trump added: “We have to maintain toughness, or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for, that we don’t want.” “Zero tolerance” continues, as does the church’s calling “to the least of these.”