Rabbi Arthur Waskow reflects on the deep scriptural issues at stake with the current Trump administration policy that separates children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Please see the Shalom Center’s action steps.
Rabbi Waskow writes: “One leading official of the United States Government has claimed that biblical calls to obey the law are paramount here. We affirm that the Bible actually speaks the contrary.
Some officials are saying – even boasting – that the family-separation policy was deliberately intended by its ruthlessness to deter families from coming to the United States, seeking asylum because of well-founded fears that their lives and the lives of their children are in immediate danger if they were to stay in Central American countries that have been overwhelmed by violence.
But the Bible sees the world through God’s commitment to justice and compassion: “You shall not hand over to their masters serfs [or, some translators say, “slaves”] who have escaped from their masters to you. They may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which they choose within your gates, wherever it seems best to them. You shall not maltreat them” (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16).
Of course neither the biblical understanding of serfdom, indentured servitude, or slavery nor the experience of these refugees today, fleeing murder and rape and seeking asylum, is identical with the past of chattel slavery in the United States. Yet their experience bears elements of the same ruthless and violent subjugation. And this biblical verse is uncanny in its direct address of the crisis we face now, even more than other, broader teachings about love and justice for “foreigners.”
And the “law” that Attorney General Sessions cites to subjugate love and destroy our families is not law at all. It is a policy concocted by elements of the present US government that actually violates the law. It is intended to keep asylum-seekers from making their case as they are entitled to do both by US law and the binding law of the land, embedded in treaties the US has ratified.
It is about “laws” like these that the Bible speaks and Isaiah (10:2) cries out, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”
Out of exactly that Prophetic outlook, Jesus broke the law, nonviolently. That’s why he was crucified. Does the fact that the Roman Empire crucified Jesus mean that it is legitimate for the United States Government to destroy the lives of children and parents? Or does it mean exactly the opposite?
There is a reason that one of the key moments in the story of Pharaoh is when he orders babies killed (Exodus 1: 15-22 ). And in the Christian story, one of the key moments is when Herod orders children killed in the “Massacre of the Innocents.” (Matthew 2: 16; imagined below). Those are the moments when a tyrant becomes monstrous.
Outrage at these actions comes from a very deep gut level. The “prime directive” for every species, including the human species, is to make sure the next generation thrives. The children! You can only rip children away from their families by dehumanizing the people you are facing. Down that path lies genocide.
The cruelty we are witnessing is being blatantly exposed as intrinsic to racism and militarism. All societies face the dangerous impulse to exalt only their own culture as fully human and treat others as sub-human. Indeed, for centuries, American policy has ripped the children of enslaved Africans, African-Americans, and Native Americans away from their families.
But the vision and hope of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred wisdom is summed up in the Bible’s teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39) and the Quran’s teaching (49:13): “O humankind, We have created you from a single pair of male and female [as one family], and appointed you diverse cultures and communities, that you may get to profoundly understand one another [not to despise one another].”
Centuries of struggle between carrying out this ultimate religious wisdom and descending into dehumanizing “the Other” have been like a case of blood poisoning that at first is hidden and then breaks through into the bright red streak of inflammation that signals extreme danger. We have seen those red streaks before, and we see them now.
Does all this mean the opening of US borders to an unknown unbounded number of refugees, without limits or planning? No. There are solutions rooted in compassion, not subjugation. Here, for example, might be one approach:
Our country sets a number of immigrants we are prepared to welcome each year, with refugees at highest priority. There are two necessities:
- Domestically, a strong program to welcome them, with a year of free access to learning English, decent housing, food, and health care.
- Internationally, a world-wide effort, with strong US support, to help countries that are now so devastated by violence and disaster as to force their people to flee the homes they love.
Would these twin efforts be expensive? At the start, yes. But the money to pay for them is now parked in the unimaginable luxurious wealth of the top 1/10 of 1 percent of American families. From this initial investment would come enormous dividends in shared prosperity.
And this project itself would open up other questions: What about “internal refugees,” haunted by violence in neighborhoods right here, denied jobs and real educations, their children ripped away by sending their parents into prisons made of cages and despair?
Indeed, this whole project opens up for us a series of nesting dolls not of children’s play but of cruelty, each hidden inside another till the explosion of cruelty we are now seeing comes out of hiding.
Entering upon such changes will take a long social, moral, political struggle. So will any other way out of the nesting dolls of cruelty. If we were to let ourselves be guided by the holy wisdom of our traditions, we could do no other.
Meanwhile, we face the fierce urgency of now to act —
For the sake of parents terrorized by violence who come to the US -– leaving beloved friends, jobs, homes, neighbors, hoping to work and to join inhe sake of traumatized children who, we now know, actually have their brain structures damaged by trauma.
For sake of parents terrorized by violence who come to the US -– leaving beloved friends, jobs, homes, neighbors, hoping to work and to join in community .
For the sake of cleansing the honor, the decency, of the American people and our nation that is being besmirched by these actions. The flag that we hope bespeaks honor and decency is dirtied by the officials who plan and carry out these policies.
It is urgent for the sake of our Covenant with the Holy One.–From the Shalom Center petition on family separation, edited by Rabbi Arthur Waskow