Who Are We? Facing Political Violence at the Border

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In the last six weeks, over 2300 children have been separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance policy” for unauthorized entry into the United States.  This policy change means that every adult, regardless of context, will be detained and criminally prosecuted.  It is the logical and natural progression of the long-standing negative and extreme rhetoric on immigration that we have heard from President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Chief of Staff John Kelly. In the wake of growing moral outrage, the administration continues to double down on their narrative – that they have been enforcing the law and following the Bible. In reality, this is political violence in the service of a white nationalist agenda and one more example of the extreme xenophobia of this administration.

Political violence is intentionally perpetrated, supported, or permitted because of a political ideology and the maintenance of a particular political order or political institutions.  Most of the families separated under this new policy are fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and attempting to seek asylum in the United States. At the moment of potential hope, they are once again the victims of political violence, this time at the hands of the United States government. Asylum seekers are being turned away from legal ports of entry. When they come across in other places and present themselves to border patrol to declare asylum, they are being detained and their children have been taken away. And to make it perfectly clear that Central American asylum seekers are not welcome, Sessions has now changed the rules: fleeing systemic gang violence and domestic violence are no longer accepted as cause for asylum.

How did we get here?

This policy did not come out of nowhere. Language matters. As Desmond Tutu notes, “Language creates the reality it describes.”  Throughout the campaign, in his inaugural address, and during his presidency, Donald Trump has used xenophobic, incendiary, and dehumanizing language about immigrants. Just yesterday, Trump likened the influx of migrants to an “infestation.” By painting migrants fleeing gang violence as if they are gang members themselves, Trump’s stated goal is to dehumanize all migrants as “animals.” The administration feels empowered because this was his winning campaign message.  He is merely doing exactly what he told us he would do if elected.

What does it accomplish?

Jeff Sessions and John Kelly both explicitly state the express goal of the policy was to deter migrants from coming to the United States and seeking asylum.  The very premise was to traumatize migrants so that they would stop coming.

El Salvador and Honduras have the two highest murder rates in the world, the majority of which is tied to gang violence. When people are literally fleeing for their lives, how do you deter them from seeking asylum? Trump and Sessions want to be feared more than MS-13 and they are willing to traumatize children to do so.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has emphatically stated that separating children from their parents in this way creates irreparable psychological trauma and harm.  It is worth noting, in most cases, this is to criminally prosecute a misdemeanor. Legally, the first time someone crosses the border illegally, it is the equivalent of a traffic violation. Hundreds of children are being subjected to irreparable psychological trauma for what is at most a misdemeanor.

In her book Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez, theologian Nancy Pineda-Madrid examines the kind of political violence from which these migrants are fleeing. Her book is a stunning analysis for anyone looking to argue against Sessions’ recent decision to remove credible fear of gang violence and domestic violence in these countries as legitimate reasons for granting asylum.  Yet, Pineda-Madrid’s examination of the social structure of political violence also helps us understand what is behind Trump’s zero tolerance policy.  Like feminicide in Juarez, Trump/Sessions’s policy is an “extreme attempt to construct and inscribe power hierarchies” by devaluing the lives of migrants and does so “for the purpose of asserting unmitigated control.” (16).  Additionally, reports of mass deportation hearings make clear there is no due process and an unjust system for investigating and evaluating asylum cases.

Who are we?

America is in the midst of an identity crisis–particularly white Christians. Donald Trump won the majority of this demographic.  Faced with images of distraught children, millions are expressing outrage.  The most common refrain I am hearing is: “This is not who we are.”  It is an almost guttural response – this is not who we are. However, reality is more complicated. White supremacy has long undergirded the dark-side of American history, and the current administration seems to be using that as its playbook.  The separation of Native American and African American families was an effective means of control and oppression. Jeff Sessions invocation of Romans 13 is almost verbatim the argument used for enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and segregation. The crisis at the border is but one example of the white supremacist “make America great again” ideology in practice.

Given our history, we cannot simply say this is not who we are.  We need to act. We must work to ensure this is not who we will be.  At the heart of the American experiment is a belief that as a people we can come together to form a more perfect union.  Who we are will continue to be revealed by how we treat scared, distraught children and parents fleeing violence and coming to our door in search of safety and hope.  As I complete this piece, there is news that Trump has signed an executive order stopping the policy of family separation. This would be a positive step; however, many questions remain. What will replace it? Will this also end the zero tolerance policy? How will reunification occur? And, we cannot look away from the changes to asylum regulations that were put in place along with family separation.

For American Christians, we should know that more than just our national identity is at stake; for Jesus told us, unequivocally, we will be judged by whether or not we welcomed the stranger. Jesus is that six-year-old little girl crying to call her aunt to come get her. Jesus is her mother arrested and detained. Jesus is her aunt, fearful for her own asylum case, unable to fight for her niece without placing herself and her daughter at greater risk.  As I listen once again to the horror stories of both the violence migrants are fleeing and the violence being inflicted on them by the American government, I am left with an unanswered question – who are we?

Colin Kaepernick’s Opposition is an Act of Solidarity

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Colin Kaepernick—the very mention of his name elicits strong reactions from football fans. Last August, as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of ongoing police violence against black men and women around the country.  The decision sparked considerable controversy and has likely cost Kaepernick his football career.

Football season is now upon us, and while I do not intend to rehash all that has been written on the NFL protests, I must say that I find the knee jerk claim that the players protesting are unpatriotic disturbing.  In Christian ethics, opposition and political protest are important ways of participating in the common good. They are methods utilized by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, as well as, by the Solidarity movement in Poland. Catholic social thought (and St. John Paul II, in particular) understands opposition as an important component of solidarity.

In Poland, Karol Wojtyla actively opposed communism as a student leader, as a philosophy professor, and as Bishop of Krakow. He is famous for his support of the Solidarity movement as pope and his support of opposition to communism.  St. John Paul II’s understanding of participation and the role of opposition is crucial to understanding his theology of solidarity, as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (SRS 38).

He understood that solidarity required a delicate balance between accepting the duties and responsibilities imposed by the community and opposition to unjust forms of exclusion and oppression.

For John Paul II, solidarity does not exclude opposition; it can mandate it. In Toward a Philosophy of Praxis, Wojtyla explains:  “Experience with diverse forms of opposition . . . teaches that people who oppose do not wish to leave the community because of their opposition. They are searching for their own place in the community –they are searching for participation and such a definition of the common good that would permit them to participate more fully and effectively in the community” (49). Catholic social thought has long recognized racism as both a structure of sin and as intrinsically evil. Public opposition to unjust social structures should be seen as participation in the common good.

Professional athletes have long utilized athletic spaces to publicly oppose injustice.  If we examine Kaepernick’s own explanations of his protest, a clear commitment to his understanding of the common good emerges.  When asked why he was doing this, he replied, “People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”

And how long did he plan to sit? His answer was clear, as long as the injustices persist;  “When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

His protest is not a rejection of the community; it is a demand that the community be one of greater justice.  His protest, like the protests of many athletes before him, is an example of opposition in service of solidarity. The national anthem and flag are symbols of the community and, as such, are a logical locus for calling the nation to more fully live up to its highest ideals.  In the wake of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, it should be evident to all that we still have considerable work to do in bringing about racial justice and dismantling white supremacy.

This preseason, Michael Bennett of the Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch of the Raiders, and a number of other players continued the protest begun by Kapaernick and others. On August 18, 80 current and former NYPD officers rallied in support of Kaepernick in Brooklyn. For his efforts, Kaepernick will be honored at the Smithsonian African-American History Museum as part of the Black Lives Matter exhibit.  As NFL owners and fans consider his future in football, it is worth noting that instead of seeing his actions as unpatriotic, according to St. John Paul II’s theology of solidarity, his opposition one genuine avenue for advancing the common good.

How Trump’s “America First” Budget Violates 5 Key Justice Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

This post began as a “top 5 shockingly immoral aspects of President Trump’s budget proposal.” The problem is that virtually the entire budget is shockingly immoral and unjust. Instead, I want to highlight 5 touchstones of Catholic Social Teaching on justice. I will provide one example of its violation; however, for every single one, you can find at least five instances of its violation in Trump’s ‘America First’ budget.

Human dignity can only be lived, realized, and promoted in community. The overarching frame for justice is justice as participation: Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.” (Economic Justice for All, 77).

  1. Environmental Justice: “We’re not funding that anymore”

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis states, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life” (23). In addition to acknowledging the scientific consensus, Pope Francis clearly articulates the obligation to care for creation, to protect access to needed resources for the poor and future generations – and to do so with extreme urgency. It is hard to imagine an American budget proposal more antithetical to Laudato Si than President Trump’s budget.  OMB Director Mick Mulvaney calls all programs addressing climate change “a waste of money,” and simply stated, “We’re not funding that anymore.” While the 30% proposed cut to the Environmental Protection Agency garners headlines, a closer look at the proposal shows that virtually every single program addressing climate change and rising sea levels—no matter the department—is on the chopping block.

  1. Distributive Justice: “Cannot justify their existence”

In Catholic theology, distributive justice is not optional. The Second Vatican Council stated: “The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The fathers and doctors of the Church held this view, teaching that we are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of our superfluous goods”(26). Repeatedly, the Trump administration seems to claim that we cannot afford many of the social protection programs aimed at distributive justice. The budget calls for eliminating the Community Development Block Grant program and $1 billion in programs aimed at low-income housing, home ownership, and community development from HUD. When he visited Washington, DC, Pope Francis could not have been clearer “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” The cuts to Housing and Urban Development are just one example of many violations of distributive justice in this budget.

In 1986, Economic Justice for All explained the moral requirements of distributive justice and it remains applicable today:  “Minimum material resources are an absolute necessity for human life. If persons are to be recognized as members of the human community, then the community has an obligation to help fulfill these basic needs unless an absolute scarcity of resources makes this strictly impossible. No such scarcity exists in the United States today” (70). Read More

See, Judge, Act: Racism, Structural Sin, and Infant Mortality

At the beginning of each semester, I introduce my students to modern Catholic social teaching by emphasizing its dialogue with a changing world. We often start with Rerum Novarum, which was a moral reflection and response to a particular historical context in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of new working conditions. According to Leo XIII, “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere…for the solace to its troubles” (18).

Gaudium et Spes asserts strongly and simply that the duty of the Church (and of moral theology)  lies in “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (4).

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged all communities to engage in reading the signs of the times: “This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse. We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan” (51).

The common thread here emphasizes the primary methodology of Catholic social teaching, which was officially emphasized by Vatican II and can be boiled down to three words: See. Judge. Act.

Looking upon the world as it really is and scrutinizing the signs of the times requires seeing and listening. If we do not fully and accurately see the complexities of our world, we are virtually guaranteed to judge incompletely and act incorrectly.  Seeing clearly is the palpable drive behind Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

In his recent speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in California, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego expanded on the “See, judge, act” theme, explaining that these mean “seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people and acting in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone’s unique situation.” He went on to call for greater attention and renewal of “these words — which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person.”

“Seeing” and listening can seem overwhelming. In an era of social media and alternative facts, I know that I feel like I am constantly on overload. Yet, as Christians, we must persist in seeking the truth and working to better understand the world in which we live. While we often look at economics and politics, one area Catholic social teaching should engage more is public health. In particular, recent research on racism and public health should be part of Catholic social teaching’s reflection on both racism and more broadly, social sin.

Racism, Structural Sin, & Infant Mortality

For at least ten years, public health experts have been researching the high prematurity and infant mortality rates within the African American community. I first encountered this research in the documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality making us Sick? The current issue of The Nation has two in-depth articles on the current state of this research: “What’s Killing America’s Black Infants?” and “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be.”

Education, regular medical checkups, and a healthy lifestyle should reduce the risk for premature delivery, low birthrate, and infant mortality. In the US, however, an African American woman with a college degree has a higher risk for these outcomes than a white woman without a high school diploma. Controlling for genetic and socioeconomic causes, public health experts have identified the long-term experience of systemic racism as a significant cause of high infant mortality within the African American community.

This research is important for Catholic social teaching for two reasons. First, the life course perspective in public health urging attention to health and well-being from before birth throughout one’s life is deeply consonant with a Catholic consistent ethic of life. Attention to maternal-child health begins not with pregnancy, but with a woman’s development in utero and the health of her mother. Public health on racism and childbearing demonstrates the incredible importance of an intergenerational approach.

Second, this research provides a significant challenge to the standard Catholic social teaching approach to social or structural sin. In contrast to liberation theology, John Paul II and Benedict XVI emphasized that while the impact of social sin exceeded individual actions, we were still fundamentally talking about personal sin (An excellent primer on this debate is Kristin Heyer’s “Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make for Bad Neighbors.”). Pope Francis has revitalized official Catholic social teaching’s attention to social structures, especially inequality. This growing public health research on racism also provides new evidence for rethinking and deepening our understanding of social sin.  It reminds us of the importance of preventative care throughout one’s life alongside maternity care, anti-poverty and nutrition programs, and civil rights. “Seeing” this information clearly has wide ranging relevance for our “judging” –policy formation and actions to implement them.

The Normalization of Violence: Week One in the Trump Era

It has been a week, only a week, since President Donald Trump took office. As I look back at the previous week, I cannot believe it has only been one week. Constant tweeting and talk about crowd sizes is dangerous misdirection – the overwhelming theme of the week, in my opinion, was violence.

The World Health Association defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” This is what we are seeing.

Last Friday, I sat and watched the inauguration online during my office hours. I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is now my president. As someone who takes the idea of Faithful Citizenship very seriously, I felt a responsibility to watch. And so I listened to a nationalist speech laying out a vision I cannot support. Using the phrase “American carnage,” he reiterated racially charged stereotypes about inner cities and maligned all of public education.  But the most violent part of the speech was the claim that the United States is somehow a global victim.   “America will start winning again and winning like never before.” What does that even mean? There is no interpretation of that line which leads to greater peace and justice. Read More

The US Church’s Failure to Stand Against Sexual Assault

A month before the election, a 2005 video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women on an Access Hollywood taping surfaced. As I listened to Donald Trump joke about how his celebrity allowed him to assault women without consequence, I felt sick to my stomach.  Here we had a presidential candidate actively boasting about sexually assaulting women, dismissing it simply as “regrettable locker room talk,” and clearly demonstrating that he did not take violence against women seriously.

Violence against women and sexual assault are largely invisible and ignored in the public political discourse from the USCCB and most American church leaders. There was no public outrage from the US Catholic Church over Donald Trump’s recorded joking about sexual assault. No actual acknowledgement that the behavior described is in fact sexual assault. A few bishops lamented that Trump has “disrespected women” but never anything stronger.  In a statement titled, “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas,” Conference President Archbishop Kurtz began with a condemnation of the Podesta emails stolen by Wikileaks, which appeared to be the purpose of the statement, and ended by simply asserting, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.” The strongest statement simply acknowledged that political discourse had demeaned women without any further comment.

These statements miss the crucial element – in the video, Trump was describing assaulting women.  The Department of Justice definition of sexual assault explicitly describes it as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” including fondling.

After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a dozen women came forward to accuse and detail different incidents of sexual harassment and assault by Trump. And still, there was no added concern from the public voice of the American Catholic Church. Speaking to the Boston Globe, theologian James Bretzke, SJ called the silence “deafening.” Many bishops and priests continued to privately and publicly advocate voting for Trump.  In America Magazine, Michael O’Loughlin details just a few cases where parishes were told that Clinton “hates Catholics.” In my own diocese, the Bishop released a letter that came very close to outright calling Donald Trump the “prolife, pro-family, pro-truth” candidate. Read More

Unity in Trump’s America Must Begin with Protecting Vulnerable Communities

Catholic high school girls in Queens, NY harassing African-Americans on a NYC bus, suggesting they move to the back of the bus now that Trump is president.

The Muslim center at New York University being vandalized.

Multiple stories from across the nation of young Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and ethnic slurs thrown at them.

Parents telling their children not to speak Spanish in public because it is not safe.

A classroom of middle school children asking their teacher if they’re going to be deported because they are Muslim or because they are Indian and “look Muslim.” Even though they are citizens, they are afraid of being kicked out because of religion.

Gay, lesbian, and transgender students afraid to leave their dorm room on college campuses.

Human walls being created at schools to block the entrance of Latino and Latina children.

It is morning in Trump’s America.

I have no words. I spent the morning rereading stories friends posted and looking through @ShaunKing’s important twitter collection of stories from across the country.  I can’t manage to write this post without being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and tears.

In Florida, “colored” and “whites only” signs were posted on school water fountains. At Canisius College in Buffalo, the lynching of a black doll was staged on campus.

Yet on the news and on social media, I see growing calls for unity, being open-minded, and building bridges.  We need to move forward. We need a plan to work together over the next four years. Abstractly, I understand the sentiment – Donald Trump is the President-elect.  This is the political reality. But this is not and cannot be politics as usual. Read More