How to keep going when injustice gets worse

Jun 21, 2018 by

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Is this what we’ve come to? Defending the moral claim that families should be together and children should not be in cages? After days of denying the family separation policy and pleading helplessness to change the law, early Wednesday afternoon U.S President Donald Trump said he would suspend the Homeland Security policy of family separation at the border.

Trump offered no details on the new policy and maintained his tough-on-crime rhetoric. (Almost half of all undocumented immigrants have not broken a criminal law; many immigration violations fall under civil law, which means there’s no crime against the public and should be no prison sentence attached to these violations). As with so many political moves, we’re left with the promise of justice but no evidence of it. Through popular pressure, the Trump Administration made a public promise to not be deliberately inhumane — but that’s far from a promise to treat migrants humanely.

Where do we go from here? Is the bar we’re working for — “not deliberately inhumane?” Put another way, is our hope to keep our country from “not actively violating international law?” It’s hard to maintain the energy for justice when the bar you’re trying to hold keeps slipping lower and lower. It’s exhausting to keep yelling when you’ve lost your voice 10 times over. It is devastating to hold the present trauma of family separation while lamenting the historical trauma of similar policies like Japanese internment and Indian boarding schools. It’s helpless to feel guilty for unjust policies and simultaneously powerless to undue them. If Trump’s strategy to exhaust resistance until we’re too tired to call for justice, it sometimes feels like it’s working.

It’s been a hard 18 months. There are years to go. This announcement feels less like a victory than a chance to catch our breath.

But there are glimpses of hope. The family separation policy brought out the public tension among Trump supporters as evangelical Christians from the stronghold of his camp — such as the fundamentalist leader Franklin Graham — announced their opposition to the family separation policy.

We also learned something about the limits of biblical manipulation, as Jeff Sessions’ call to follow the law as mandated by Romans 13 was met with the correction from evangelicals, progressive Christians, Jews and non-Christians that the Bible is not a book about assenting to abuse. The very premise of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt is an insistence that unjust laws should not be followed. The 10 Commandments is God’s bestowal of laws that should always supersede human governments: you shall not steal parents from children. You shall honor your father and mother, and all the fathers and mothers around you. Jesus was tried and died on a cross under the guise of his breaking the law. Conservatives have long functioned on the assumption that if you’re the first to say “the Bible says…” you can claim the moral high ground. Jeff Sessions discovered the limit of that assumption.

The reason Trump finally rescinded this policy is because after trying every possible defense, the Administration found no moral high ground to stand on — with anyone. Two-thirds of Americans oppose the policy, a rare decisive majority in a politically partisan landscape.

There’s another kind of melancholy hope that comes from the biblical text. When it comes to resisting oppression, the Bible says it doesn’t get easier. Look at the criticism Moses gets from the Israelites when he first goes to free them from Egypt (Ex. 5:5-23). Or the book of Daniel’s move from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) to the lions’ den (Daniel 6). Or Jeff Sessions’ authoritative Apostle Paul’s repeated imprisonments (note: in spite of what Paul said in Romans 13, he was imprisoned several times after breaking the law). Look at Jeremiah 12, where the prophet complains that his calls for justice go unheeded and the God of justice says, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” God practically promises us it’s going to get harder. Doing the right thing never gets easier, not when you live under a powerful, self-defending empire that views people as pawns.

There’s a courage in proclaiming things don’t get easier from here. There is a resolve in constantly renewing our commitment to justice, which looks like a commitment to resistance. Because we move together, because we continue to tell the stories. Because we hold each other up. Because justice is our stamina. We don’t call for justice because we expect that we can usher in world peace or even that we can change a corrupt government — we call for justice because it is the right thing to do, even if nothing changes. When we call for justice, we change — we grow closer to God, we grow more faithful, we grow more stamina. We join a long line of faithful witnesses who continued to struggle even when they made little to no headway.

What will keep us strong and faithful in the coming years is not the outcomes we accomplish — most likely that we’ll accomplish little beyond damage mitigation — but the certainty that justice is always worth pursuing.

Hillary Watson is a part-time pastor Shalom Community Church, a dual-affiliated Mennonite Church USA and Church of the Brethren congregation in Ann Arbor, Mich. She blogs at Gathering the Stones, where this first appeared.

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