My two most recent columns from the church newsletter are attached. Taken together, they form a documentary display of the inadequacy of language in the face of evil -- the first being a kind of involutionary spiral, leading into the near-breakdown of the final paragraph; the second, a tribute to the new hope kindled in the realization that action is sometimes possible when words fail. Joan Didion speaks in Slouching Toward Bethlehem of being "paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed." Well boo hoo. Try doing it in a world that contains presidential candidate Donald Trump. Of course, even that sounds like a joke, like a twinkle -- as any mention of Trump still does. But let me try doing this once more with a straight face, because Trump really is doing works of evil. Why, is anyone's guess. Whatever failure of family structure or loving kindness or neural chemistry pointed him in this direction, I do not know. But the result is evil. His long-anticipated "pivot" this week to the "presidential" Trump, the "serious" Trump -- signified by the candlelit dinners with party apparatchiks, the tele-prompted "foreign policy address," the secret assurances from his campaign staff that the whole thing has been an act, that Trump is playing a "part" -- just cinches the matter, to my mind, because now we know that Trump has not been shooting his wad at random this election season; he has known exactly what he is doing. He has been following a plan. He has acted with malice aforethought. And every dictator whose people once comfortingly told themselves "It can't happen here" went through a similar phase of proving himself to be "a man with whom one could do business."
Evil, really? Yes. Chris Christie -- the degenerate Himmler of this cascading Gotterdamerung -- announced this week that the New Jersey state government will henceforth refuse to cooperate with or supply funds to the federal refugee resettlement program. Christie knows exactly what sentiments this is meant to prey on, and he knows exactly how many people will suffer as a result of his actions, and he is doing it anyway. That is evil.
Trump, in one of his recent rallies, elicited some of the ugliest bellows from a crowd I've ever heard simply by uttering the words "Syrian refugees." He went on to say of these refugees, who spend years in camps registered with the UNHCR before being referred to the U.S. for onerous and exhausting screening ordeals -- "we have no idea who they are, there's no documentation" -- lines he then recycled in today's "foreign policy" speech. These words are a lie, and Trump knows it, and he simply doesn't care. That is evil.
There was another Trump-ism from October that only recently came to my attention-- guess I had missed it at the time. Apparently Trump has claimed that, if elected, he will not only implement his famous "ban" on Muslim immigrants, he will also send back Syrian refugees who are already here. Now, weighing the relative moral status of various Trump obscenities -- the encouragement of violence against protestors at his rallies, his pledges to commit torture, deliberate bombings of civilians, and other war crimes, his threats of mass deportation -- is about as un-salutary an activity as they come -- but even in this welter of travesties, this line about sending back refugees manages to be striking -- a quality, i.e. that of eliciting shock and outrage, that one would have thought Trump had by now long since exhausted.
But the fact that Trump apparently thinks that, as president, he would have the right to deport people who have entered the country legally for permanent resettlement at the invitation of the U.S. government, and to do so purely on the basis of what country they come from and what religion they practice -- is probably the closest he's come yet to promising to carry out an ethnic cleansing once elected. True, his way of framing this threat took advantage of the evident confusion on his listeners' part as to who is a refugee (someone invited to resettle in the U.S. upon referral by the U.N. refugee agency), who is an undocumented immigrant, and who is an asylum seeker, but that if anything makes it worse. And Trump said all this back in October, while the nation slept! That is evil.
My friends, if you ever wondered how it could be that so many "good Germans" stayed silent or went along with it, just look to the consistent polling results showing that two thirds of Republican voters think Trump's idea of "banning Muslims" is just wonderful.
Some week before this primary season is over I will go back and repost for you every item on this blog that has had something or other to do with Trump. It will be no small list. This is a subject about which I cannot seem to shut up. The resulting roster of old posts, once completed, will be a sad catalogue of invective, satire, sarcasm, and tears. Taken as a whole they will illustrate the feebleness of a mind and the English language in the face of the baffling and intolerable reality of what is happening to this country. It will be a series of stabs and parries by means of verse, prose, penis jokes, and any other poor tool that came to hand that might, by the luck of the draw, manage to pierce the American heart as it barrels ahead toward oblivion. To cite the afore-quoted passage from Max Havelaar, once more, (Edwards trans.) "If then, I want to be heard -- and above all, understood! -- I must write otherwise. But how? Reader, I am looking for an answer to that how, and that is why my book is such a hotchpotch. It is a tradesman's pattern card... make your choice! Later, I will give you yellow or blue or red, as you have chosen."
February Column: “An Unhappy Anniversary”
This past January I learned a sobering fact. It turns out that I share a “birthday,” January 11th, with the U.S. military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. On that January day in 2002, the first prisoners were transferred to that facility as part of the U.S.’s ongoing “War on Terror.” I would have been celebrating my twelfth birthday at the time. For the fourteen years that have elapsed since then—the majority of the time I have been alive on this planet – my government has been detaining people indefinitely in Guantanamo – holding them, that is, without hope of a trial, without access to an attorney, and without promise of eventual release.
That’s not all that’s sobering, however. As I look out at our society today, we seem even further away than we were fourteen years ago from renouncing such sordid practices and the dehumanizing attitudes that allow them to take place. While plans have recently been introduced to close Guantanamo and transfer its inhabitants to the mainland, few of these proposals as they stand would actually end indefinite detention; many would simply relocate the practice to U.S. soil. Some involve transferring the detainees to a “supermax” prison in the Arizona desert where they would likely be subjected to prolonged solitary confinement—a debilitating form of psychological torture.
Even these limited plans for closing the facility, meanwhile, are being stymied by Congress, who still point to purported “security risks” associated with the transfer. These powerful politicians, in pursuit of an easy scapegoat, are claiming to be scared silly by some of the most powerless people on Earth—in this case, 91 unarmed men who have been imprisoned without charge or trial for over a decade and have endured hunger strikes, forced feeding, and prolonged isolation from their families and loved ones.
I don’t need to remind you that such toxic messages of hate and fear are arriving in the midst of an already terrifying political season. Multiple candidates for the presidency have now proposed reintroducing waterboarding and other forms of torture (a “helluva lot worse than waterboarding,” in one candidate’s words), or have suggested “carpet bombing” civilian populations, or escalating the practice of indefinite detention. Every one of these actions would constitute a war crime under international law, if not a crime against humanity.
When I think that in the last fourteen years of my life, this is as far as we have gotten, my eyes nearly fill with tears. Some day, I want to celebrate a January 11th that is an anniversary of freedom, not one of torture and incarceration. I want to celebrate the day I was born in a country that tears down more walls than it builds. I want the U.S. to be strong not in the false strength of cruelty but in what George Eliot once called “the sublime power of resolved renunciation.” I want the faith of this nation not to be the cowardly doctrine of exceptionalism, but the profound universalism enshrined in the first article of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights: “All people are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
May Column: "Becoming a Sanctuary Congregation"
How our church has a chance to join the Underground Railroad of the 21st century
Many of us saw the news this week that Harriet Tubman will soon replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. While this change may be symbolic, it has to be a good thing that our society has decided it would rather honor the memory of a woman who helped slaves and exiles escape persecution than a president who is mostly remembered today for forcing people into slavery and exile (Jackson was responsible among other crimes for the Trail of Tears – an atrocity that resulted in over two thousands deaths and banished entire indigenous nations from their ancestral homelands.) The choice of which one of these two belongs on our national currency is a no-brainer.
The replacement of Jackson with Tubman has a particularly striking resonance at this moment in our history, however, when some politicians are again threatening millions of people with forced uprooting and removal. We can feel the spirit of Andrew Jackson looming over the calls to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants or to refuse asylum to refugees from Central America or Syria. We can sense it in the fact that recent deferred action programs are in serious danger of being defeated in the Supreme Court -- which would return millions of undocumented immigrants to the daily fear of being torn from their loved ones in the U.S. We can feel it in recent ICE raids on asylum seeker families from Central America. Evidently, Andrew Jackson walks at midnight.
Just as “Old Hickory” has his modern-day counterparts, however, there is also a 21st-century Underground Railroad emerging to resist them in the form of the New Sanctuary Movement. This coalition, of which the UUA is a founding member, is seeking to build a network of congregations across the country who are willing to provide shelter to undocumented families at risk of deportation. Immigration enforcement tends to balk at raiding churches, so sanctuary congregations are able to protect undocumented people from removal while they fight their deportations in court. It is of course a huge responsibility for a church to undertake. The stakes, however, could scarcely be higher for immigrants at risk of being separated from their families, or for asylum seekers in danger of being sent to their deaths due to flawed and unfair legal proceedings.
Our UU movement has a long history of offering shelter to people facing persecution at the hands of unjust authority. Theodore Parker famously kept a loaded pistol in the chancel to defend the escapees he was sheltering in the church basement from the federal Fugitive Slave law. The Unitarian Service Committee helped Jews, dissidents, and others flee Nazi persecution in Europe. During the Vietnam era, some of our churches took in draft resistors. In the 1980s, many UUs were active in the original Sanctuary Movement, which sheltered people fleeing repression from U.S.-funded states in Central America. Our own congregation has a chance today to be a part of this same legacy. Stay tuned for more information in the months ahead if you’d like to know how.