Recall essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau and the truth he spoke: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly the true place for any just man is also a prison.”
The rant of a man against slavery, war and taxes, these words belong to the memory and moral heart of America. They’re words of liberty, justice, conscience and warning. They’re our words, our ethics when we’re at our best.
We should recall them because today fear is the game, the regnant narrative. The terrorist, the criminal, the “removable alien,” immigrants legal or otherwise or simply those different, be they black or Muslim or anything else — all of them feared, frightening us via our selected media, our ubiquitous screens.
Facts be damned, partisans supply their own. Now it’s simply about power, the sinister subrational nudge. Now it’s simply about the spectacle and utility of fear, that ancient game of demagogues and the politicians too weak to do anything but follow in line. And it’s fear that’s mostly fiction, made for political use. It’s what’s really fake news.
Yet it has caused actual fear among actual people, immigrants legal and illegal. Entire communities now live in very real fear. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve seen the fear in children’s eyes, fear for their mother or their father, afraid that suddenly they’ll be gone. I know parents who’ve asked friends to look after their children should they be detained. I’ve heard the rumors and the misinformation, sensed the sort of anxiety that comes when a president talks about a “military operation.”
So what are we pastors to do? As I said, we should recall Thoreau, but also people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other lights of our particular traditions. We should be wary, as King wrote from a Birmingham jail, of “the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows,” wary of preaching only “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
To our broad tradition belongs the rabbinical teaching of darkhei shalom, “the ways of peace.” So, too, belongs love for widow and orphan and even the imprisoned, all of whom we are charged to love especially and in whom some of us must even find our God. So, too, belong the catacombs of early Christianity, the Underground Railroad and Anne Frank’s secret annex. These and more are the deeds and not just the words of the ethics of the stranger, the teachings of Torah and of Jesus, the Quran and our better humanity. Rooted in the harmonies of law, it’s a tradition that very well may save our republic, as well as our souls — certainly not the power born of fear.
It’s the tradition re-emerging in Colorado among Unitarians offering sanctuary for Jeanette Vizguerra, a mother who is here illegally. It’s also what Pastor Ada Valiente is doing in Los Angeles. And it’s the tradition behind the promise made by the bishops of the Catholic Church, the promise “to accompany and protect our immigrant brothers and sisters . . .”
It’s a tradition alive, willing and ready for sacrifice. It’s the only tradition authentically inhabitable: love and action for the unprivileged and the poor, immigrants and families. It’s the only thing that’s faithful, the only thing human.
So what are pastors to do? Clearly, it’s this. We’ve stood here before, and we’ll stand here again. This isn’t a fight we’re afraid of.
And pastors know this. It’s just whether this knowledge moves them, whether the Spirit moves them — the Spirit that often speaks in the voice of the stranger.
The Rev. Joshua J. Whitfield is the pastoral administrator at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas.