“Send her back! Send her back!” That chant, a rallying cry from an overwhelmingly white crowd of some 8,000 Americans, sounded across a MAGA rally in Greenville, North Carolina. The words were a racist-call-and-response to a diatribe leveled by President Donald Trump against four members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all women-of-color.
“They don’t love our country,” Trump declared. “I think in some cases they hate our country. You know what, if they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.”
That’s when the chanting began.
Trump was doubling down on an attack he began on Twitter two days earlier against Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ayanna Pressley (Michigan) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York). Trump’s original tweet condemned them for “viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
“The ‘othering’ continues, challenging faith communities to determine who we are and what we’re about.”
Truth is, three of the women are natural born U.S. citizens, and Omar, a Somali refugee, became a naturalized citizen in 2000 at age 17. In Greenville, Trump singled out Omar, a Muslim, falsely accusing her of hating America and Israel, being anti-Semitic and defending terrorists.
The largely Anglo-Saxon audience not only tolerated the president’s racist rhetoric but participated in it, picking up the line of “send her back; send her back” as a 2020 version of Trump’s 2016 campaign mantra of “lock her up” aimed at another female, Hilary Clinton.
Had the setting been a government workplace, rather than a political campaign event, the president and his sing-along constituents could be cited for violating a law of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission:
Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, “Go back to where you came from,” whether made by supervisors or by co-workers (emphases mine).
The “send her back” from the rally-cum-mob was apparently so blatantly racist that even some Republican legislators became concerned (albeit belatedly), so the president finally stated that he “felt a little badly about it” and was “not happy” that it occurred, although video of the rally belies that rearview mirror interpretation. (Indeed, only a day later, Trump returned to defending the crowd and denouncing the four U.S. representatives.)
“Inside and outside the church, are we all in danger of moving from chants to violence – or, God help us – are we already there?”
But this isn’t just about the law, the president or his political and religious acolytes who openly support his racist behavior. It’s about us, the “white us,” engaged in actions that have frightening implications for, with or about white Christianity, compelling us to ask hard questions of our churches and each other. We don’t know how many Christians joined the chanting multitude. But given that Greenville is at least a notch if not the buckle of the North Carolina Bible Belt, it’s safe to assume that many chose to do so. In the aftermath, at least one southern congregation picked up the screed. Friendship Baptist Church, in Appomattox, Virginia, posted “America: Love it or leave it” on its outdoor sign. (And didn’t it just have to be a Baptist church that calls itself “friendship?”)
As a longtime columnist for Baptist News Global, I keep thinking that I’ve written enough about religio-political conflict, clergy sexual abuse, children in cages and Charlottesville chants like “Jews will not replace us,” instances that you’d think were as bad as it can get. Then the sun rises on another day and the “othering” continues, challenging faith communities to determine who we are and what we’re about. The times demand that of us all.
“Send her back!” In contemporary America has the ever-lurking racism inherent in our culture now become publicly permissible? Inside and outside the church, are we all in danger of moving from chants to violence – or, God help us – are we already there?
Fearing that reality, remembering our history and searching for a modicum of hope, I returned to the late Professor James Cone’s sobering masterpiece, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) about which I have written previously. Amid palpable sorrow and deep insight, Cone writes:
To live meaningfully, we must see light beyond the darkness…. The lynching era was the Heart of Darkness for the African American community. It was a time when fragments of meaning were hard to find. Some found meaning in the blues and others in collective political resistance, but for many people it was religion that helped them to look beyond their tragic situation…. The Christian gospel is God’s message of liberation in an unredeemed and tortured world.
That same gospel, Cone insists, “is more than a transcendent reality, more than ‘going to heaven when I die.’… It is also an imminent reality – a powerful liberating presence among the poor right NOW in their midst, ‘building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.’”
No sooner had I returned to The Cross and the Lynching Tree, than I read an account by Marv Knox, field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, reporting that “up and down the (U.S.) border, small churches are providing shelter and food to immigrants on their doorsteps. The challenge of providing meals, comfort and spiritual care is exhausting, and they need relief.”
“Grace alone can unlock the cages that are about to trap us all.”
Knox quoted Jorge Zapata, director of the relief program, who noted that one small church in Brownsville is hosting 50-60 refugees a day. “They feed the refugees three times a day, and they need help in the kitchen, preparing meals. They also are ministering one-to-one, offering prayer and sharing the gospel. You can come and help in the kitchen, serve meals, clean, sweep and mop. You also can relieve the night shift volunteers, so they can get some rest. Many stay up all night to monitor the refugees as they sleep.”
The border ministries need more volunteers. And all of us can give to the Immigration Relief Fund that supports these congregationally-based ministries.
Some among us are already living out a gospel vision, responding directly to the “others,” the “strangers,” those who come from afar and those who have been here all along. Can we accompany them in that effort in whatever ways we can?
Instead of chanting “send her home”; instead of “othering” each other; instead of giving in or giving up to the “unredeemed and tortured world,” people of faith are called to a deeper commitment to the gospel as “a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst.”
Grace alone can unlock the cages that are about to trap us all.