It’s heartbreaking and ironic that while I was on holiday this weekend enjoying the beautiful people, culture, and hospitality of Mexico, news was breaking in the U.S. that we are cruelly revoking the DACA status of 800,000 young Mexicans who came to our country as children, and who want nothing more than to be productive, contributing members of our communities. Today that news became official.
President Trump had this to say:
“I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents. But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws.”
I rarely call out politicians by name. But with his statement, Trump seems to be appealing to both a sense of economic well-being (“opportunity”) and morality (“laws”). Since I am basically a professional teacher of morality, I cannot remain quiet about this order.
Let me be clear: Unless the protections of DACA are actively being replaced with something at least as generous and far more permanent, this repeal is an immoral act, precisely because it cuts people off – starting with the weakest among us – from opportunities to thrive.
Moral principles are rooted in the soil of human suffering, and emerge to guide us whenever we are faced with a dilemma that seems to involve two competing sides of human need.
But all good religious traditions teach that this is a false dilemma. There are not, in fact, two sides to humanity. We are all one. Moral traditions like Judaism and Christianity reveal – usually through long, arduous and tragic tales – how the right decision is generally the one that pursues good for everyone, starting first with those who are weakest, while the wrong decision usually protects the interests of exclusive groups, starting first with those who are strongest.
Protecting the interests of exclusive groups requires the construction of borders. You have to know who is “in” and who is “out” in order to exclude someone. That is exactly why you should be very suspicious anytime someone in power starts talking about building better walls, defending “real Americans,” or protecting their race.
In the Christian tradition (rooted in Judaism), one such false moral dilemma is what to do with foreigners who seek refuge.
This was no small puzzle for ancient near-Eastern Jews, who were among the most reviled, exploited, and oppressed people in the region. Every foreigner potentially represented an enemy tribe or city. And yet, ancient Jewish moral teaching is unequivocal:
“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt (Exodus 22:21).
And even more pointedly:
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt (Leviticus 19:34).”
Notice how this moral teaching subverts the false racial and tribal barriers (today we might say nationalistic barriers) between “us” and “them” by pointing out the similarities rooted in common human needs and common human suffering.
In the matter of foreigners and strangers, we find Jesus in complete agreement with Moses’ moral reasoning. In Matthew 25:31-46, while teaching about God’s ultimate judgement, and speaking as God in the form of a parable, Jesus says to those who are judged to be wicked:
“Depart from me…for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…”
Here Jesus is doing more than simply saying we should feed hungry people or welcome strangers. Jesus’ Jewish audience already knows that. Drawing upon the ancient Jewish tradition of morality-rooted-in-common-suffering, he goes one (cosmic) step further and identifies Godself with those who suffer the most – the hungry and the foreign stranger. For Jesus, personally identifying with “the least“ of those who suffer (as opposed to those who do not) is God-like!
So, according to Jesus, not only should there be no “us vs them” where people, tribes, and cities are concerned, but there is no “us vs them” where “the least” of all humanity and God are concerned. That is the radically gracious good news of Jesus. All are welcome; nobody is excluded. This is what Jesus persistently taught and demonstrated, to the point of being tortured and murdered by those who were desperate to protect their national and religious boundaries.
To put it bluntly, it is immoral to turn away a person in need if you are able to help. It is especially immoral to do so on the basis of someone’s nationality, race, religion, criminal record, or any other socially constructed border that serves as a justification for ignoring the suffering of others while protecting one’s own rights and privileges. But it is a particularly cruel immoral act when it uproots those who had previously been welcomed, who will be ripped from life-giving communities after years of residence, and who will be shipped to a land where they will truly be strangers and foreigners.
Some will say the words of Moses and Jesus only apply to individual Christians, but not to American policies. Don’t believe it. That is utter skubalon.
I am learning to follow Jesus because I continue to discover his teachings are true and good. And if they are true and good, then they are true and good whether you identify as a Christian or not. It is better to welcome people than reject them; it is better love foreigners than to hate them; it is better to serve each other for the common good than to compete with each other for personal gain. I don’t just mean that these are “the right thing to do” no matter how difficult. I mean that these are truly the best things to do.
Following Jesus’ advice is tangibly, demonstrably, and yes, economically better for your well-being and for mine. It is better for all individuals, all families, all churches, all neighborhoods, all synagogues, all mosques and temples, all schools, all businesses, all political parties, all cities, and certainly all nation-states. When whole communities act morally towards one-another, everyone is liberated to access the resources necessary for human flourishing. The notion that denying resources to certain people results in more liberty for others is the most threatening moral perversion of our times.
So then, we all suffer when anyone acts immorally. But more people suffer by far, and suffer in far worse ways, when governments act immorally. Today, the United States of America – the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever known – pressed its boot-heel to the necks of 800,000 of our politically weakest and most vulnerable neighbors.
If Jesus is right, that means the Trump Administration didn’t just do this to Dreamers. We are all suffering as a result of this, including God.
Certainly the Dreamers will suffer the most, by far. But we are all dreamers. We are all humans in pursuit of a fair opportunity to live and make our way in the communities we call home. By denying that opportunity to one particular group of our brothers and sisters, we are denying it to all of us – and all of us will become poorer as a result.