Guest commentary by Cynthia F. Burse
Black History Month 2017 has been particularly interesting. Vice-president Mike Pence commemorated the occasion by paying tribute to Abraham Lincoln, rather than remembering and commending the countless contributions made by innumerable named and unnamed African-Americans whose minds and backs helped build and shape this country. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, expressed his admiration for Frederick Douglass. “Frederick Douglass,” he said, “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” What Trump didn’t notice is that Douglass died in 1895.
This time of year is when I most reverently recall the uncontested history and predicament of my ancestors, who were stolen from their homes or sold into slavery in exchange for a bag of trinkets or gold. During the sea voyage to their new “home” many intentionally threw themselves overboard, preferring death to being made a slave. Many others survived slavery, sustained by the belief that God would one day deliver them. Others were murdered — beaten, whipped or shot to death — because they resisted being subjugated. Some eventually and successfully made the dangerous and tumultuous journey into freedom, and what kept body and soul together during the journey was an invisible system called the “Underground Railroad.” Reaching one’s destination depended as much on a runaway slave’s resourcefulness and good fortune as it did on the small and diverse network of people who assisted them — members of the free black community (who were the most active; Harriet Tubman was in this group), church leaders, abolitionists and other allies sympathetic to the cause. They did this work at great danger to themselves (fines, imprisonment, being branded a traitor or getting hanged were the outcomes for those caught helping a runaway slave), and in violation of state laws and the United States Constitution.
As news about President Trump’s determination to ban certain people from certain countries from entering America continues to unfold, I find myself also remembering the lives of Europe’s Jews who fled the extended reach and destruction of Nazi Germany. America has a long history, in the name of national security, of persecuting and denying entry to refugees fleeing violence. In May of 1939, 937 mostly Jewish passengers were denied entry to a Miami, Florida, port and sent back to Europe where a quarter of them died in the Holocaust. Thousands survived elsewhere, however, because they were harbored — sheltered — by courageous individuals who violated laws and edicts. Passport control officers of different nationalities and backgrounds ignored and defied orders of their own government by providing false passports and visas to ensure safe passage. Others illegally harbored Jews in tiny apartments and homes, on farms and even in convents. In a sign of solidarity a few even wore a Star of David, while some pastors used their status and protection by the church to hide refugees. Many of these “saviors” ended up living in obscurity or abject poverty. Others ended up being tortured, charged as anti-patriotic or enemies of the state, imprisoned by the Nazis, or sentenced to death — because they believed in a cause greater than themselves and did what was right. Solemn remembrance must also be given to the tens of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, over 60 percent of whom were U.S. citizens, interned during World War II by order of then-president Franklin Roosevelt — in the name of national security.
Welcoming a stranger, which is both a biblical and humanitarian imperative, is not without its danger. The shooting of 16 Christian disciples during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, (nine of whom were killed) on June 17, 2015 by a stranger named Dylann Roof who was welcomed into their midst, is evidence of this reality.
These are changing times. A new government has arrived and is using its power to change laws and moral customs. Its claim is that walls, fences and other barricades are necessary to protect and safely keep America “one nation under God.” Patriotism now means that individual citizens will take no notice of any previous responsibility to the “other,” neighbor or God. The wealthy and responsible intelligentsia undergird this new policy by deliberating about the social and economic burdens associated with harboring refugees. The number of refugees is too immense and our resources are too few, they say, while neglecting what is commonly known — that adequate resources are available but misappropriated into the hands of a few.
Fear — as in, “What if a terrorist is among the refugees?” — is the modus operandi often used to keep the masses in line. Sympathy for others is kept under control by reminding those who labor that what little they have might be taken away if we start to concentrate on the economic needs of others who have even less. The wealthy and powerful have mastered the art of attacking solidarity; keeping uninformed people uninformed; encouraging folks to stay consumed buying things they don’t really need; and keeping different communities separate and apart while persuading rank and file folks to live deliberately for self rather than others.
The choices we face as Christians and other people of faith are clear. Do we submit in fear to the dictates and laws of the powerful and wealthy, many of whom are dedicated to increasing power for themselves and stoking peoples’ hate for, and fear of, one another so that no one will do anything for anyone else? Or do we reject “suppose” scenarios, seriously organize, struggle for our rights and those of strangers — even, if need be, in violation of state laws and the U.S. Constitution — in the interest of doing what is holy and applying God’s law of love to the concrete circumstances of our daily lives? The questions each of us must answer are: Am I willing to risk that my God can be persuaded to accept the concerns and fears of security-minded people as justifiable defenses for ignoring and obstructing the helpless, vulnerable and voiceless? Am I willing to gamble that my God is unconcerned about the lack of tenderness being shown toward foreigners, aliens and refugees seeking a place of safety and security in this country? Am I sure that my God will look the other way because America’s elected leaders have once again commanded the sheep, in the name of national security, to devalue others and do unto others before they do unto us?
Our national conversation about immigration, refuge cities and refugees has now become a highly personal one.
“Would I harbor you? Would you harbor me?”
CYNTHIA F. BURSE actively serves as a teaching elder member of the PC(USA) within the Presbytery of Scioto Valley and is a recent past moderator of the Synod of the Covenant. She is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta and a member of the seminary’s board of trustees.