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Letting our values out of their cage

A view of cages with statues of Jesus,

A view of cages with statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in Claremont, California on Dec. 9, 2019. Credit: DAVID SWANSON/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto/DAVID SWANSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

My God, they put Jesus and his parents in cages, as though that's what U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents would do — you know, keep the spirit of love and compassion from entering the United States of America.

Are they suggesting there's an equivalence here between the divine family and a bunch of undocumented immigrants ... drug dealers, rapists, possible killers of American citizens?

The Claremont (California) United Methodist Church has tossed a shock bomb into the season of wreaths and holiday shopping. Its caged nativity scene — which has become national news — has, you might say, opened the border, at least in the minds of many Americans who until now haven't paid any emotional — any soul-deep — attention to the plight of asylum seekers and their children trapped there. It's as though religion is supposed to be relevant to the issues of the day.

"We've heard of their plight; we've seen how these asylum seekers have been greeted and treated," Rev. Karen Clark Ristine told a Los Angeles Times reporter. "We wanted the Holy Family to stand in for those nameless people because they also were refugees."

Ristine also said of the caged nativity scene: "We don't see it as political. We see it as theological."

This is the only place in which I would part ways with her: It's incredibly political — and that's a good thing. Politics without soul is the path to disaster, and it's the path Planet Earth is on. As climate change simmers and erupts around us, as endless war and violence shatters lives and foments a global refugee crisis in the tens of millions, as nuclear weapons continue to hold the planet hostage to the whims of a few global "leaders," we're caught in a geopolitical system defined by nation-states and nationalism that is absolutely clueless about how to proceed beyond the present moment.

Where do we find the awareness we need to save the planet and save ourselves?

The awakening called for today is enormous and it is spiritual in nature. It is an awakening that pushes humanity beyond the us-vs.-them mentality that has trapped us behind our national borders. Only with some sort of one-world consciousness can we begin stepping back from the edge of extinction: can we dismantle every single nuclear weapon on the planet; can we transcend our dependence on fossil fuels and start building an eco-sustainable global infrastructure; can we redefine conflict, whether at the individual or the national level, not as something we have to kill but as a chance to learn and grow.

And what I see in that caged nativity scene is the place where this one-world consciousness begins: with the awareness that every human life is sacred, that no one is illegal, that everyone is a citizen of the one planet on which we live.

Dismantling ICE, you might say, is the first step in saving the polar ice.

Win Without War defines one of the principles at the core of a new, transcendent U.S. foreign policy thus: "The location of someone's birth should never confine them to poverty, war, or environmental insecurity. The United States must safeguard universal human rights to dignity, equality, migration, and refuge. All people have the right to seek opportunity, safety and stability through migration. We must always prioritize approaches based on human dignity and diplomacy over those that vilify or dehumanize others or use coercion or force. Our investments in the United States and abroad must reflect our shared stake in the health and well-being of the world's most marginalized populations, the planet, and in recognition of our mutual interests."

This is, of course, the opposite of the "send her back!" mentality that too often, in the Donald Trump era, seems to be what American democracy sounds like. Cynicism castrates idealism. Yet when cynicism rules, what you're left with is a berserk national policy that hides behind a wall of lies and public relations as it commits unending murder and destruction, including self-destruction.

Consider, for instance, The Washington Post's recent unveiling of "the Afghanistan Papers," the 21st century's version of the Pentagon Papers, which indicate that no lessons whatsoever were learned in those earlier decades of military insanity: "U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it," the Post informs us after examining some 2,000 pages of secret interviews about the war, which they managed to obtain via the Freedom of Information Act, after a three-year legal battle.

The Post quotes, for instance, a three-star general, Douglas Lute, who is described as the Afghan "war czar" under both Bush and Obama: "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing," Lute said in his secret interview in 2015. "What are we trying to do here? We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking."

The United States spent more than a trillion dollars waging this clueless war, even as it was spending at least three trillion dollars destroying Iraq, wreaking immeasurable harm and failing, in both countries, to advance even short-term political "interests."

The enormity of the country's lethal foreign-policy cluelessness is beyond virtually everyone's imagination, even those who are in the middle of it. Yet the only certainty when it comes to national policy is that another war is on the way.

Or is change possible?

The answer is yes, if we can uncage our values and start recreating our politics.

Robert Koehler, a syndicated writer, is the author of  "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound." He wrote this for the Tribune News Service.

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