What the Bible Really Says About Trump’s Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy

On scapegoating:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions invokes the Bible to justify the heinous zero-tolerance immigration policy, which incarcerates children. Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls the policy “very Biblical.” Pushback from religious figures comes quickly: from Catholic bishops and the Pope, “immoral”; from rabbis and Jewish groups, “unconscionable”; from nuns, “travesty”; and, from Jesuits, “close to obscene.” A Protestant leader cites Jesus: “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). Then Stephen Colbert, as usual, nails it: “Hey, don’t bring God into this.”

Yet, by bringing the Bible’s God into it, Sessions has actually done the country a service. It seems obvious that separating thousands of children, including babies, from their parents, secretly scattering them across the nation, and caging them in camps and pens offends against the compassion and the love that are hallmarks of Biblical exhortation. As of yesterday, President Trump has apparently retreated on the policy, with a new executive order that ends the separating of families but doesn’t release from limbo the thousands of children already taken. This traumatizing of legions of the very young stands as an epiphany—a climactic American moment of truth.

When Sessions invited the world to measure the government’s approach to immigration against the Bible, he exposed the deeper meaning of the “illegal-aliens” trashing that has defined Donald Trump’s politics from the start. The President’s endless demagoguery about the border with Mexico, and those who flee there, is a classic instance of scapegoating, a deeply human malevolence that is rarely recognized for what it is. Groups at the mercy of free-floating negative energy—resentment, greed, fear, or, say, racial anxiety—find relief by projecting their hateful passions onto powerless figures who are blamed for discord they had nothing to do with. The marginalized victims are made to suffer, which perversely frees members of the dominant, victimizing group from its negative energy, sparking a “collective effervescence,” which in turn convinces them that the victims were deserving of the punishment they got. This is the “scapegoat mechanism” identified by the anthropologist René Girard.

Sessions accidentally invoked this analysis when he brought up the Bible, because the word “scapegoat” originates there. The scapegoat is the animal that is driven out into the wilderness (“escaped”), carrying the people’s sins, in Leviticus 16. Sessions’s mistake was less in his blatant misuse of a verse from St. Paul than in his failure to understand that the whole point of the Bible is to reverse the usual way of telling the story of abusive power.

The foundational myth of Rome relates the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus, whom the gods then valorize as the namesake of the city. The foundational myth of the Bible, by contrast, tells, in Genesis, of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, who is forever marked with shame, and rebuked by God. (“The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.”) From the get-go, the Bible’s God, as I have written before, stands with the victims, not the victimizers.

Instead of seeing events from the point of view of those who do the scapegoating, the Bible insists on seeing everything from the point of view of the ones driven out. This is literally what happens in Exodus, which tells the story of a people expelled into the wilderness, but does so from the side of the beleaguered Hebrews rather than from that of the all-powerful Pharaoh. It is not incidental to the American moment that the originating mythology of scapegoating is all about borders. As demarcations of contempt, the Bible is against them. This radical shift in point of view means that the Biblical critique of Trump’s policy, and his minions’ defense of it, is far more consequential than a failure of warm feelings like empathy and compassion. God does not just “feel” for victims; God sides with them, period. This is the whole point of Biblical faith.

The fact that self-affirming Christians such as Sessions and Sanders are apparently unaware of this meaning suggests how deeply into the human psyche the scapegoating impulse goes. After all, Christianity was born in a cauldron of scapegoating, when the wickedness of the impulse was fully exposed in the story of Jesus, the paradigmatic innocent victim. But what should have been the ultimate takedown of scapegoating was itself reversed when some of his traumatized supporters again, very humanly, told his anti-scapegoating story in a way that immediately scapegoated “the Jews,” who were falsely blamed for his death, and became labelled as “Christ-killers.” This scapegoating mistake sanctified the positive-negative bipolarity of the Western imagination, a holy hatred that inflamed anti-Semitism, and has shown up lately in white supremacy.

Donald Trump’s description of undocumented immigrants as people, he tweeted, who would “pour into and infest our Country,” and his rally-energizing claims that “They’re not sending their finest. We’re sending them the hell back,” are a classic display of the power of the “collective effervescence” of the victimizer, seemingly providing the most fervent of his supporters with relief from their own anguish, whatever its source. That Trump’s organizing symbol is the Wall, however impossibly impractical, perfectly expresses the depth of this malign impulse. A fantasy enemy requires an imagined boundary behind which to hide. The way to resist Trump’s exploitation of the marginal and the powerless—including, now, children—is to call it by its proper name. Immigrants, undocumented or not, are not America’s problem. They are America’s scapegoat.

Source: What the Bible Really Says About Trump’s Zero-Tolerance Immigration Policy

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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