Christianity in Crisis Again
Watching the news the last few days I was struck by Mike Pence’s awkward visit to the immigrant center in McAllen, Texas. News reports said that Pence spent just 90 seconds in the facility where four hundred Central American men were being held, some for as long as 40 days, many sleeping on the concrete floor and without opportunities to bathe or brush their teeth. Pence walked into the room, looked around, and fled.
When Pence entered the room, I expected him to ask one of the Border Patrol agents or ICE officials or whoever was in charge to open the cage so he could go in and speak to someone. That’s what politicians do when they make inspections, even if it is little more than a photo op. Perhaps he was shaken when the men began to shout. One of them shouted, “We are not terrorists.”
Still, I expected Pence to hold out his hand to one of the Central American men and, since he doesn’t speak Spanish, through an interpreter to say hello to the man and ask him how he was. I mean this is what ordinary people do when they meet someone, they hold out their hand, say hello, and ask the other if he or she is well.
In fact Pence and his group had done this earlier when they visited some immigrant children in the facility where young immigrants were being held. The adults in uniforms and suits, speaking through interpreters, asked a small, no doubt select group of children how they were doing. The children said, fine.
Pence had not feared the children, but he feared their older brothers and fathers. Mostly it seemed Pence feared being photographed with them.
I have heard that Pence was a Christian, and, while I am not religious myself, I have spent some time in churches, synagogues, and mosques rubbing elbows with the people who go to such places. I have gathered that in all of the the sacred books of all faiths the prophets say that one is to welcome the strangers, the foreigners, assure them they are safe, and offer them refuge.
As a Christian, a churchgoer, and a member of the White House Bible Study Group, Pence presumably knows that the Bible in both of its testaments is pretty clear about one’s obligation to immigrants. While I am not a regular reader of the Bible, I know what in the Old Testament, in Exodus, it says, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” And in Leviticus it says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.” And in various books of the New Testament we read, “Love thy neighbor as thy self.” And your neighbor be a foreigner.
So watching the news report, I was wondering if the Christian Pence would walk over and embrace one of the men, would tell him he was welcome. True, the men had not been able to bathe for days and the small of body odor was reportedly overwhelming, so strong that the guards wore face masks. Even so, watching the video, though I knew better, I was half hoping that Pence would embrace one of those men. After all, Christ himself had a reputation for embracing the dirty, smelly poor and even washed their feet.
Pence might have done more. He might have offered to help unite the men with their families, help them find their children, help them find refuge in our country until their appeal for asylum could be heard. He offered them nothing.
Pence not only did not extend his hand to the sojourners, did not embrace the strangers, he fled from the room in terror because the video of the visit — which was apparently meant to show the Donald Trump admiration’s immigration policies in a good light — showed the concentration camp conditions in which the men were held.
Or maybe that was the point. Perhaps Pence actually wanted to show Trump’s racist followers that the immigrants were being held in cages like animals, that they were crowded and uncomfortable, that they were being mistreated, humiliated, and degraded. If that was the case, he was successful.
Whichever was the case, all of this, of course, makes one ask, what sort of Christian is Pence? What sort of a Christian serves a racist president?
In fact Christianity and Christians have a pretty mixed record of being on the right side. During the American Civil War white Christians in the South supported the Confederacy, the government of the slave owners, and after that war throughout the South white Christians supported Jim Crow segregation, disfranchisement, and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. In the North white Christians supported de facto segregation through protective covenants that forbid sale of home to Jews and Blacks. And many Christians turned a blind eye to labor exploitation and police violence.
At every important stage of American development, religious people of all faiths and Christians in particular divided between those who supported an oppressive, exploitative, and racist establishment and those who opposed the system. Christianity is in crisis once again today, as the Evangelicals, the Christian fundamentalists have become one of the pillars of Trump’s and Pence’s ever more aggressive racist government. On the other side are the liberal mainstream Protestant denominations and part of the Catholic Church and many Jews. And who is in the middle? Who is it that cannot decide between caging children and reuniting them with their parents?
Christianity is in crisis again and Christians are being asked, which side are you on?
Some Christians support Pence because he is against abortion and LGBTQ rights. These we may call Christians against freedom against the freedom to choose who one love and the freedom to make choices about one’s own body.
The Christians and other religious folk, Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus and others who oppose Trump and Pence and who believe in freedom, will hold out their hands, will embrace the stranger, and those of us who are atheists, agnostics, and humanists will join them.