It’s been almost three years since I wrote my first blog here. Many classes taught, research projects started (some finished, some not!), and one baby later–here we are for a second go. I submitted a simpler version of this commentary to the Austin American-Statesman this week, but it wasn’t published. So why not make it a blog?
Reverberations continue from President Trump’s July 14 tweet calling for four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” At a rally in North Carolina last week, Trump’s supporters chanted “send her back,” after the President criticized Somali-born American citizen, Rep. Ilhan Omar. Trump attempted to disavow the chant by saying that he tried to stop it. The video of the rally, however, clearly shows otherwise. Before the rally, Trump tweeted “Our Country is Free, Beautiful and Very Successful. If you hate our Country, or if you are not happy here, you can leave!”
We’re so used to hearing President Trump utter offensive speech, that I fear most of us with the privilege to do so will forget about this latest episode. Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley obviously will not forget about it. Neither will Americans of color, women, and other minorities who are inspired by their leadership and their courage, nor will those for whom the words “go back” feel personally violent and exclusionary.
As the Statesman’s Juan Castillo pointed out in a column last week, Trump’s call for these public servants to “go back” evokes painful memories—and current realities—of racism and xenophobia experienced by Mexican Americans in Texas. In reality, the only group of Americans who have authority to ask others to “go back” are indigenous peoples. As Democratic representative Deb Haaland aptly wrote, “My Pueblo ancestors, despite being targeted at every juncture — despite facing famine and drought — still inhabit this country today. But indigenous people aren’t asking anyone to go back to where they came from.”
At the center of this latest debacle, and current debates about immigration—is the question of who “we” are as a nation. This tiny word, “we” has a history of bringing people together to unify, but it has—and continues to—divide and exclude. Where there is a “we,” after all, there is a “they,” and where there is an “us,” there is a “them.”
At various points in our history, Germans, Irish, Catholics, Chinese, Jews, Japanese, and Muslims have all found themselves among the many communities which have been excluded from the “we.” The traumas of slavery and segregation linger, and as author Michelle Alexander reminds us, the “new Jim Crow,” mass incarceration–which disproportionately punishes African Americans–attests to the fact that white America still maintains a hold on who can be a part of the “we.”
Not only is this racism and nativism contrary to American democracy, it also flies in the face of the Gospel of Jesus, which Trump and most of his supporters claim to follow—including the 69% of white evangelical Protestants who approve of the President’s performance. Jesus, a Middle Eastern person of color—and a refugee—taught a message of hospitality and welcome that ran counter to the oppressive political system of the Roman Empire. His own Jewish tradition taught that “You shall not deprive a resident alien . . . of justice” and that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I suspect that Jesus and his contemporary followers would find little room in Donald Trump’s version of the “we.” In fact, I’m fairly certain the President would feel threatened by the brown-skinned Jewish Palestinian prophet who called for a community that sought to bring people in rather than send them out. Christians and Christianity have all too often failed to live up to this inclusive vision by using their (our) texts and traditions to foster subtle and overt anti-Judaism, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Unfortunately, Trump and some members of his evangelical base also reject legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitism, claiming that they are defending Jews.
This support is, in reality, anti-Jewish, as it relies on a Christian Zionist theology that ultimately regards Jews as pawns in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. And it makes invisible the injustices of the occupation of Palestinian lives and land—practices deemed illegal by international law. Just this week, Israel illegally demolished dozens of Palestinian homes in a Palestinian-controlled neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Yet Trump’s appeal to his base, and the theology that supports it, equates criticism of these injustices with antisemitism. We all—Jews, Palestinians, Christians, and Americans—lose in the end when just criticism of power is silenced.
At its best, however, Christianity repudiates these and other attitudes and practices that diminish human worth, including what evangelical scholar Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sins” of slavery and racism, and what a 2018 pastoral letter by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the “evil of racism” that persist in the U.S. today.
In that letter, the Bishops encourage their readers to take seriously the words of Pope Francis that no one should “think that this invitation is not meant for him or her.” As Americans, our invitation is to speak out against those who seek to make our “we” narrow and exclusive, and to speak for a vision that is pluralistic, expansive, and strong enough for critique. Contrary to what Trump tells us, only then will we be a truly free, beautiful, and successful nation.