by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, President, OMNIA Institute
On May 24, the Pew Research Center published a report on the US responsibility to admit refugees. You may be surprised to learn that the group least likely to believe that the US has a responsibility to admit refugees are white evangelicals (25%). Catholics were twice as likely to believe that (50%), and those who felt the greatest responsibility for accepting refugees were the religiously unaffiliated (65%).
This, even though Christian scripture specifically commands Christians to provide hospitality to aliens, strangers and refugees:
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
And in Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment, the king says to those on the left hand “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,” and Jesus concludes the story by saying “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:43,45)
How is it possible that Bible-believing Christians are not taking Biblical commandments seriously?
Then this Memorial Day weekend there was the media uproar at what was going on at the US border.
People fleeing violence in their own countries present themselves at the US border and seek asylum. Some apply for refugee status in their home countries, others do not have that opportunity and come to the border to seek asylum. This is a normal, legal process. Such people are different from illegal border crossers. In August 2017, the Trump administration reduced their refugee process in many countries, increasing the number of asylum seekers.
In an effort to deter asylum seekers, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, the US government’s policy is to separate children from their asylum-seeking parents. Children as young as two have been forcibly separated, and a one year old infant was presented in court. Snatching children from their parents and placing them in Health and Human Services (HHS) custody is now US policy
The problem with that is that HHS could not account for the whereabouts of some 1500 children in their care. These were not children taken from their parents at the border. These are children who were unaccompanied children who came across the border in a large movement. But the children separated from the border are also placed in the same broken system, putting them at risk of trafficking.
And then a Border Patrol agent killed 19 year old Claudia Patricia Gómez González from Guatemala with a shot to her head.
I am perplexed by at least two questions:
· What is going on that we have allowed uniformed government agents -- Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) act with such terrible cruelty against immigrants?
· What is going on that only 25% of White Evangelicals think refugees should be admitted?
And I have a theory – American exceptionalism trumps biblical religion.
American exceptionalism is the notion that America as a nation is especially blessed by God. As a religious dogma, Exceptionalism can be traced back over 500 years, at least to the beginning of the colonial era and as we shall see, it never really left us.
It was in 1452 that Pope Nicholas first promulgated the Doctrine of Discovery, essentially declaring war against non-Christians all over the world, which, 40 years later, gave Columbus the authority to set sail looking for lands to “discover.” The Papal Bull gave license to Europeans, notably white Europeans, to assert their dominance by thinking of all others, those of other religions or races and those who are female and queer as – wait for it – “animals.” (President Trump was not the first to use that word on those who are “other.”) When you count some people as less than human, they can be killed with impunity whether in the context of colonial conquest of Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Native American tribes; in the context of slavery, the lynching of African Americans then, and the killing of African Americans by police now; and in the context of killing of non-violently protesting Gazans by Israeli forces.
American exceptionalism has always been US government policy, but it is now pushed to its extreme by President Trump with the enthusiastic support of the Evangelical right wing, those most receptive to what we call top-down “received” theologies. These are theologies that over centuries have colluded with governments and other powers that have as their primary attributes, exclusivity and superiority and support doctrines like exceptionalism.
Received theologies such as exceptionalism are followed not only by President Trump’s White Evangelical base. Such theologies with their inherent attitudes of exclusivity and superiority are infused in the doctrines of mainline religion as well. Yes, we may recoil in horror about what Border Patrol is doing. We may also feel our core-values include loving our neighbor, including the ones that are refugees, asylum seekers and even undocumented. But because too often we lack the bottom-up or contextual understanding to challenge the exclusivity and superiority of our own top-down received theologies, we find ourselves stuck.
OMNIA trains people of faith to shift the paradigm from top-down to bottom-up, from “received” theologies to “contextual” theologies. We are replacing exceptionalism with theologies of loving your neighbor, and we teach people how to build power, so they can act collaboratively and effectively.
We have done his now for a little over a year in Northeastern Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and in the US. We have trained about 900 religious leaders, clergy and lay, women and men -- 600 in Nigeria, 120 in Sri Lanka, 74 in Bangladesh, over 100 in Chicago, in just over one year. Impressive as they are, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The story is in lives changed, hope restored, communities brought back to wholeness by people of faith coming together across differences to act together.