'Once to Every Soul and Nation':
Martha and Waitstill Sharp and the Legacy of Moral Courage
Even last October, however, before Paris, before San Bernardino, before all the rest of it, we were starting to hear the first whispers of the anti-refugee backlash that has since become so ear-splitting in this country, even if it has never actually been the most widely held viewpoint. An otherwise obscure Texas Congressman, Mike McCaul, was proposing legislation that would have excluded Muslims from refugee admissions from Syria. A chorus of right-wing voices was warning against supposed “security threats” in the Refugee Program-- and this wasn’t only coming from a certain reality TV star I could name. As time went on, the accusations against refugees became increasingly outlandish. ISIS agents would secret themselves away in the refugee program, we were told. Left out of this narrative was the fact that people wait for decades or more in refugee camps before they are admitted to the United States. Or that they must already pass through a grueling security screening process that can take two years or more. The facts about the refugee program had nothing to do with it. A seed of doubt and fear and mistrust that had not entered the hearts of most Americans before was now being deliberately planted there, and cultivated.
I recall feeling baffled that we were having this debate at all. To the extent that I had ever thought about the refugee program before – and I confess it was not often – I had not thought of it as a political issue. And for the most part, it hasn’t been. Since the Refugee Admission Program was created in 1980, it has largely enjoyed the support of both major parties. There has been plenty of realpolitik, to be sure, behind the question of which national populations were welcomed as refugees in the context of the Cold War. But there was a solid bipartisan consensus, along the way, that the United States had the resources and capacity to be a leader in resettling refugees. So I had no frame of reference for what was happening in this country now.
It was in something of this mood that I was talking one day last fall to long-time parishioner [--]. As is frequently the case in our conversations, she did not suffer my innocence on the subject for long. She assured me that, in fact, we had been here before. In 1939, well after the nature of the Hitler regime in Germany had become clear, but before it had entered its most genocidal phase, an opportunity arose in the United States, she told me, to welcome 10,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. It came in the form of a Senate Bill co-sponsored by Robert Wagner of New York, and Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts. (At the time [--] told me this, the second name meant nothing to me, but it has since become familiar from driving past the V.A. hospital that is named after her.) Now, this Wagner-Rogers bill, as I say, would have allowed 10,000 Jewish children to come to the United States. Among them would have been Anne Frank, whose parents had already petitioned the U.S. government for entry.
But the bill, as we know, was defeated. Anne Frank was not spared from the death camps. As the Bill was being debated, people stood on the floor of Congress to declare that “10,000 Jewish children will become 10,000 Jewish adults.” So-called “patriot” groups lobbied the U.S. government under the slogan “America First!” Sound familiar? Anti-Semitism was rampant in this country. More bizarrely still, Jewish refugees were accused of being the very things they were trying to flee. Pundits in the U.S. warned that there would be secret “Nazi spies” smuggled away amongst the refugee population that was admitted to this country from Europe. Again, sound familiar?
We are often loath to make these kinds of historical comparisons, of course, in part because we rightly wish to avoid the invidious game of trying to weigh different evils against each other. Is Bashar al-Assad the same as Hitler? we ask. No. But he has dropped chemical weapons on the sleeping citizens of his own country and as we speak is reigning death on the besieged city of Aleppo. Is ISIS a reincarnated Nazi movement? Who knows if that’s the best comparison to make or not. What is certain is that the so-called Islamic State has tried – and thankfully, not entirely succeeded – to commit a genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and other religious minorities, and against the vast majority of Muslims in its conquered territories who despise its ideology. Indeed, of all the bloody terrorist attacks that ISIS unleashed around the world last year, the most costly by far was directed against Muslims – it was the July 3 bombing in Baghdad that took the lives of more than 300 Iraqi Shi’a in a single day.
What about our own rancorous politicians? Are they just the same as the Anti-Semites who refused entry to Jewish refugees during World War II? Maybe not exactly, but they’re close enough certainly to do them little credit. Not quite being Nazis is a pretty poor defense to make for politicians like ours, especially when our government has had a hand in creating so many of the catastrophes plaguing the Middle East today – through our propping up of autocratic regimes, through our supplying of arms and tactical support to the Saudi government in its current air war in Yemen, through our own devastating invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The point is that whether the form taken by oppression and injustice across the decades is precisely the same or not, it has an underlying thematic unity. And by the same token, the moral courage that it takes to resist it likewise shares a kernel from one age to the next.
I am thinking of this, of course, because we have been telling and retelling the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp the past few weeks in UU churches across the country, as Ken Burns’ new documentary Defying the Nazis: The Sharps War, airs on PBS. I think it’s safe to say that the Sharps, along with Theodore Parker, John Haynes Holmes, Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb and a handful of others, are among the bona fide patron saints of our movement. And it is right that we should celebrate our heroes and martyrs. We need examples, and not just warnings, from the past, to provide us with inspiration.
However, when going down the roll call of the prophets of ages past, it is all too tempting to relegate them to a kind of semi-mythical Golden Age. People were just different back then, we think. “The Giants were on the Earth in those days,” as the Hebrew Bible says, “[…] Those were the mighty folk of old, the warriors of renown.” (Genesis 6:4).
And as much as we tend to over-idealize the past, we also – paradoxically – darken it by comparison with our own time. Even as we assume that Martha and Waitstill Sharp, staring out from their black-and-white photographs, did things that none of us could do, we also speak as if they faced crises, cruelties, and savageries in their time that never could arise in ours.
I think 2016, though, is a year in which we are finally start to speak in a different idiom. We are turning to our exemplars of moral courage with more than historical interest. The dark ages from our collective past are erupting again into our present – or perhaps we’re just waking up to the fact that for some of us, they never ended. We can see this in the refugee crisis abroad, or in the struggle for racial justice in this country. The voting rights for which James Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb died in the civil rights marches of 1965 are again under threat in this country, in the form of discriminatory voter ID laws. The global refugee crisis around the world today – affecting millions in Burma, Central America, Africa and the Middle East, rivals in magnitude the crisis faced by the Sharps.
And what about Theodore Parker, whom we have canonized with the unforgettable image of him taking a pistol into the pulpit in order to protect a family hiding in his church basement who refused any longer to be enslaved? Well, once again today, there are asylum seekers in this country who have to fear that they will fall into the hands of federal authorities, and be sent back across the border. And, today as then, we need churches, temples, and mosques that will step up and shelter them.
With all this talk about dark ages and crises, of course, it’s impossible not to acknowledge at some point the specter of one Donald Trump, hovering over the scene. I want to be clear, however, that he is not all I am talking about. Trump is just a particularly gross example of a deeper pathology.
Our current president, for one, while he has done much that is admirable for this country, has also played politics with the lives and safety of refugees. When it comes to people fleeing violence in the Middle East, to be sure, he has said many of the right things. Though the 10,000 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in this country so far is far too few, Obama has continued to resist Islamophobic rhetoric, and he recently hosted the first ever Global Leaders’ Summit on Refugees at the UN General Assembly in New York, to call for greater commitments from the other world powers to resettling refugees. However, there was one refugee crisis that was conspicuously absent from the President’s remarks in the lead-up to the Summit. And that was the refugee crisis that most directly impinges on our own Southern border – the mass exodus of Central Americans who continue to come to this country in flight from organized criminal violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
I was actually in New York last week, in the midst of the UN Summit on Refugees, for two events. One was a UUA event that was highlighting the new film about the Sharps and drawing the connections to our present era. The other was a so-called “Shadow Summit” organized by a group of NGOs, of which the UU Service Committee is a part, that was trying to draw attention to the contrast between the President’s welcoming rhetoric toward refugees on the one hand, and the reality on the other of our nation’s ongoing failure to provide shelter to Central American asylum seekers.
The story emphasized at the Shadow Summit was a familiar one to me by now, but told in such a way that it stung me afresh. It is the story of how immigration had become such a politically toxic subject in this country during the fight over comprehensive reform in 2013, that when thousands of Central American women, men, and children began streaming across the border in the summer of 2014, they were lumped into the category of “recent border crossers,” whom the President had already designated as an “enforcement priority.” This meant they would be particularly targeted for deportation. Seemingly for no better reason than that they spoke the Spanish language, this mass exodus of people was not portrayed by our media as a refugee crisis, but as a problem of “border control.”
The reality of the violence these folks are facing is still far too little known. Over the past few years, transnational criminal gangs have seized control of large parts of Central America. Local governments have either acquiesced to their power or are actively colluding with the gangs. The gangs, or maras, aren’t just a problem of law enforcement. They act like quasi-states, and despotic ones at that, which forcibly recruit young people into their ranks and threaten, stalk, and oftentimes assassinate those who challenge their power.
Yet the United States has responded to this refugee crisis with a policy, not of welcome, but of systematic deterrence. Our government spent the last year conducting a P.R. campaign throughout Central America with the goal of discouraging migrants from attempting the journey North. We have provided funding and training to Mexican border authorities to deport migrants, often without proper asylum screening. For those asylum seekers fortunate enough to make it as far as the U.S., they are locked up in detention centers while they fight for the right to stay.
Dr. Allen Keller of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture spoke at the Shadow Summit of what conditions are like for asylum seekers in the Berks Pennsylvania family detention center, under this program of deterrence. Every fifteen minutes during the night, he told us, guards at the facility approach each cell and shine a flashlight on each sleeping family to make sure they have not escaped. Imagine trying to sleep while having a bright light shown into your eyes four times every hour, all night long. It is a method of policing that, in Dr. Keller’s professional view, skates dangerously close to torture, in the form of prolonged sleep deprivation. The only time they don’t shine the lights, he said, is on a night when someone is being deported, because they are hoping the other families will sleep through the deported one’s cries of protest.
Keep in mind that all of this is happening after a federal court decision last summer declared family detention to be illegal, and demanded that the government eliminate the practice. The administration, therefore, claims that the Berks facility is a low-security “family residential” facility, not a prison. But how many hotels do you know where guards shine bright lights in your eyes in the middle of the night, and only let you sleep on the nights when they are spiriting away another guest?
In describing this U.S. policy of trying to deter refugees from reaching safety, one of the speakers at the Shadow Summit [Donald Kerwin] offered an unforgettable metaphor. “It is like a fire department showing up at a burning building and locking the door,” he said.
Then he went on to suggest that, more disturbing still, our government’s policies over the last decades actually helped to engender this crisis. The two largest gangs in Central America today, after all, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio-18, trace their origins not to Honduras or El Salvador, but to Los Angeles. They only came to Latin America in the ‘90s, after a massive wave of deportations to the region. Moreover, most of the countries in the region have to this day never recovered from the civil wars of the 1980s, when the U.S. provided funding and arms to dictatorial right-wing governments and paramilitary death squads in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
In other words, we are not only the metaphorical fire department that shows up to a burning building and locks the doors, we are the ones that set fire to it in the first place. A pretty lousy fire department all around.
I have to say that I was feeling fairly low after hearing all this at the Shadow Summit. I guess the event had lived up to its dismal name. It was a pretty uncomfortable time to be in New York City for other reasons too. It was the UN General Assembly after all. Dark SUVs were zipping by everywhere, with flashing lights. This was also not long after a bomb had gone off in Queens, and the city was playing host to the heads of state of most of the world’s nations. Police were everywhere, and there was a palpable edge of panic in the air. Fear plus the usual god-awful traffic does not make any of us into our best selves.
After attending the second of the day’s two events, however, things looked different. This one featured Tom Andrews from the UUSC, Ruth Messinger of the American Jewish World Service, Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky and others. They showed the same clip from the Defying the Nazis film that we played here two weeks back. I’ve now seen this thing ten or fifteen times at least, but it still succeeds in sending a shiver down my back.
Toward the end of the event, Ruth Messinger said something I had been trying to find the words for all day. I think she was quoting someone else, whose name I now can’t recall, but oh well – good things deserve to be passed around. She was speaking of this feeling we all seem to have when we are confronted by people like the Sharps, who showed exceptional moral courage. “We can’t help but ask ourselves, What would I have done, in their place? But the question,” she went on, “is not what would I have done, but what am I doing?”
That question can seem almost blasphemous, when uttered aloud. Who are we to compare ourselves to the saints? Who are we to measure our conscience against the heroic deeds of the Golden Age?
In a weird way, it sort of mirrors the debates between the early Unitarians and their Trinitarian critics. The Trinitarians had turned Jesus into a God, thereby elevating him above anything that a mortal person could aspire to. And this in turn proved for many to be a conveniently pious means of sidestepping all those troublesome things that Jesus actually tells people to do in the New Testament, like visiting the prisoners and feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Well, plainly, all that was just Jesus being his exceptional self. It’s not like he ever expected mere mortals to do a thing like that! In fact, it would be presumptuous of us to try!
The Jesus of the Bible seems to have predicted that people would try a cop-out of this sort. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’” he says in Luke, “and do none of the things I tell you to do?” This is essentially what the early Unitarians were trying to say as well. By insisting that Jesus was a human being, nothing more divine than can be found in any other mortal flesh, they opened the door for people who actually wanted to take seriously the ethic he asked people to live by.
So let’s not repeat the Trinitarian error in relation to our modern day patron saints. Let’s not deify Martha and Waitstill Sharp, and thereby ignore the lessons they might actually teach us for what we can do in the present.
For what it’s worth, after all, both Sharps would have adamantly resisted the deification treatment. We saw in our reading that Waitstill always insisted, “I’m not a saint.” Martha Sharp likewise maintained that, in saving the lives of others, she was only doing what anyone else would have done in her position. “Suppose I came to you,” she once said in an interview, [featured in the new film] “and told you that there was a way for you to really aid a family to survive – let’s say, for a week. I bet you’d do it.”
I knew upon leaving New York City that I wasn’t going to let our Martha and Waitstill Sharp moment pass us by, if I could help it.
Now, I’m not sure the words of the hymn we just sang are right, when they say that only “Once to every soul and nation/ Comes the moment to decide.” I tend to think we actually get more chances than that. But there are opportunities that arise in our lives which, if we don’t do them when the moment comes, we will wish we had done the rest of our lives. We don’t want to pass up our civil rights movement, our Defying the Nazis, our Underground Railroad. We want to be on board that train.
We can do it. In so many ways, we’re doing it already. There are trains leaving the station here at [--] every day. We are engaged in more timely activism in this church today than perhaps ever before. [...] We are fighting to reduce our carbon footprint. We are joining our interfaith sisters and brothers in the Moral Revival, which has only just begun. We are showing up for racial justice. We are exploring ways to get involved with the Sanctuary movement, and offer people shelter from unjust deportation and the threat of persecution. There will be volunteer opportunities to assist asylum seekers right in our own community.
These are exciting times, and I feel so blessed that, of all the years in which I could have done my internship, I was able to share these two in particular with you. Perhaps it’s true the dark ages never left us. But the Golden Age isn’t over either. It is now. Ours is the time of Giants.
Please join me in our closing hymn, “We’ll Build a Land.”
Our closing words are by the great radical attorney Bill Kunstler, in an address he once gave to a class of graduating law students.
Every person’s life has a moment when you are thinking of doing something that will jeopardize yourself. And if you don’t do it, no one will be the wiser that you even thought of it. So, it’s easy to get out of it. And that’s what David is doing [in Michelangelo’s great statue]. He’s got the rock in the right hand, the sling over the left shoulder, and he’s saying, [...] “Do I dare, do I dare?”I hope many of you, or at least a significant few, will dare when the time comes, if it hasn’t come already.