Suffer the Children

In these years of our discontent there is no shortage of outrage. If you are a Trump supporter, these are your salad days in which the outrages of the Obama administration are finally receiving their comeuppance. If you are not a Trump supporter, but now find your moral sensibilities being dragged behind a pickup with three rifle racks across a landscape of cacti, rocks, and boiling sand, then there is a certain relief in shouting out loud. It is cathartic. I am in the latter group. You are free to leave at this point; no hard feelings.

I mention that it is catharsis only because so much has already been written and said and analyzed and disseminated about the Trump administration’s policy of tearing children away from their parents at the border. I am writing because thinking out loud helps me understand what is important to me, and more to the point, how I can express a spiritual faith in times like these.

There are a few moral precepts that one should be able to affirm without agonizing over. Slavery, the rape and abuse of women, and the abuse of children are among them. Stating them thus does not exclude other precepts nor should it be considered a knee-jerk reaction without thought and reflection. Rather, these are simply part of one’s moral landscape, familiar markers that commemorate a covenant between God, oneself, and others, markers that remind us of the (now) obvious conditions of being faithful to God, responsible to one’s society, and true to oneself. These are also three reasons for moral action, as I understand it.

The first one is that God asks us to refrain from certain actions and to do other actions. For people of faith, whatever form their god may take, this is often enough reason to act. It is a powerful reason, and for some does not require any further reflection.

Even some who are moved by it still find themselves intrigued by Plato’s question: are actions right because the gods approve of them or do the gods approve of them because they are right? According to some lines of the historical discussion, if we do them because the gods approve of them we may run the risk of blindly following some arbitrary divine commands. What if your gods are tricksters, irresponsible, forgetful, or otherwise not to be trusted? On the other hand, if the gods do them because they are right then while that is a powerful vote of confidence in the moral justification of the actions, it makes the gods look weak. In the first case, the gods have arbitrary and perhaps capricious power; in the second case, not enough power to make them worthy of worship.

Most historical religions have a moral structure and some even have commands for meeting moral and religious expectations. We could chose to think of these commands as arbitrary, but then we would have given up any semblance of trust or even of thoughtful reflection on our relationship with our god. Again, it’s a matter of trust: we do these things not only because our gods ask us to, but also because doing them is an exercise of our moral freedom.

The second reason is to be responsible to one’s community — and again, we may choose to act for a number of reasons. We may wish to avoid jail time if we break the rules; we may desire to be in favor with our neighbors, our friends, and our families (Adam Smith called it the ‘approbation of society’ in his Theory of Moral Sentiments); we may want the rewards that come with good behavior or we may genuinely want to contribute to the well-being of our society. These are all good reasons for doing the right thing, and as many have pointed out, one does not have to be religious to accomplish them. For many people today, ethics is the new religion.

The third reason is to be true to oneself, a piece of advice that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. It’s not hard to see that either or both of the previous reasons could give us a sense of ‘self,’ but some people will immediately get diverted into questions of whether we have a self or not, and if we do, how much of it is the result of genetics plus environment. Since most of us act as if we are selves and treat others as if they are selves too, we can leave the questions to others and try to think about whywe ought to be true to ourselves.

Classical ethical theory invokes Aristotle here (practicing virtue aligns us with our true end or telos, which is to flourish) and Kant (do the right thing because you respect yourself and others and you’d want the same respect for everyone else).

Being true to oneself not only involves respect for oneself and others, but going deeper in and farther back to find the highest regard we can have for the human being.

In an essay on goodness, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) examines the relation between habit and nature. “Goodness I call the habit,” he says, “and goodness of nature the inclination. This, of all virtues and dignities of the mind, is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing, no better than a kind of vermin.” Bacon believes that we achieve a “habit of goodness” through “right reason,” but that just as there is in some people a natural inclination toward goodness and a willingness to help others, there is in others a “natural malignity” that drives them beyond mere irritation with others to envy, anger, and selfishness.

Such people revel in the calamities of others. They are like flies buzzing around a raw wound, says Bacon, and rather than bind up the wounds of those who are suffering these misanthropi enjoy the misfortunes of others. “Such dispositions are the very errors of human nature; and yet they are the fittest timbers to make great politics of.”

Having been the victim of some palace intrigues in the courts of Elizabeth I and King James I, Bacon knew from first-hand experience how crooked the timbers of politics could be.

The policy of the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration to separate children from their parents has been roundly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans. Immigration-advocacy groups, lawyers, children’s rights organizations, psychologists, educators, and doctors, all have been scathing in their criticisms. The Catholic Church has flatly called out the practice as immoral. Melania Trump has expressed her horror at it and former First Lady Laura Bush, diffident to a fault, has written an op ed in which she called the policy “heartbreaking.” Even Franklin Graham, who refuses to call out Trump on anything, has characterized the practice as “disgraceful.”

And yet here is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, whose shrill pronouncements increasingly sound like the cries of a desperate man, fiercely clinging to his “zero-toleration” position. When Christian authoritarians run out of options for justifying their immoral policies and laws they reach for the fire extinguisher they think will put out the blaze—Romans 13—in which the Apostle Paul advises his readers to obey the laws because the authorities have been put in place by God. Read out of context these verses (Romans 13: 1-7) have been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, and systemic evils of all kinds. Marilynne Robinson drily comments in her recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that “Indeed, unread books may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”

Read in context, these verses are sandwiched between the marks of a true Christian—extending hospitality to strangers, living in harmony with others, and overcoming evil with good—and showing love for one another by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Paul is pretty clear earlier in his letter to the Romans that every person, Christian or not, knows in his or her heart the basics of what is right. The implication is that Christians try to do what is right in every situation out of love for the neighbor and respect for that which God has created. The assumption is that good rulers and good laws have the blessing of God; the knowledge that there are bad rulers and worse laws is so obvious that it does not need mentioning. God’s people are expected to know the difference and to live by their consciences accordingly.

People of faith who look to the Bible to understand the function of principles in shaping our ethics and actions see that caring for children is pretty high up on the hierarchy of values for Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus makes the point that people make mistakes in caring for children, but woe to the person who deliberately hurts a child. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:6).

With his characteristic irony and pointed hyperbole Jesus lays it down that crushing a child’s faith and hope is a deadly sin. These are things that everybody is expected to know and abide by. As Bono says, “Jesus said ‘Suffer the children to come unto me,’ not make the children suffer!” But the fact that Jesus speaks so urgently means that this fundamental precept of human existence, caring for the children, was alarmingly ignored in his time. So it has ever been. And now we’re doing it again with howling cynicism and hypocrisy by appealing to the sanctity of the rule of law and the authority of God and scripture. Except that it’s literally not a law but a prejudice, and Jesus condemns such actions in the strongest possible terms.

In the increasingly fractious and twisted arguments over immigration one thing should be clear: these children have the most to lose right now and in the years to come. And as for us adults, it’s time to throw off our millstones.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods, and is reprinted here with permission.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8829
  1. The policy started with Obama

  2. If I, in an automobile, make a left turn against the light with my 2 year old child in the back seat, and she is injured but my action, who is a fault?

So, illegal immigrants crossing the border against the law, without going through normal channels, who cause their children to suffer, are responsible, not those that uphold legal entry.

When you make a problem for your child, you are the one responsible, not someone else.

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Allow me to be the devil’s advocate.

If the end goal of childhood is eventual separation from parents in order to be an autonomous individual, what is it about parent-child separation that could be harmful to children? We now know that separation itself is not the problem. Parental separation due to divorces where parents have their own pathology confers benefits to children no matter how young the children are, whereas parental deaths confers risks to children no matter how old the children are. In a landmark study by Michael Rutter done at the Isle of Wight it is now well known that what matters most is the loss of parental influence instead of the parental separation itself. For instance children whose parents with pathological personality traits will greatly benefit from separation while those with supportive and nurturing parents will greatly be at a loss.

The issue at hand is to assess the parental characteristics, instead of the actual separation. Could we be barking at the wrong tree?

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What if you make a left turn against the light and although there is no collision, a police officer pulls you over. Instead of giving you a citation and an order to appear in court, suppose the officer arrests you to ensure that you appear in court at that later date. When you protest, you’re informed that there is a new zero tolerance policy for this kind of traffic infraction. When you ask how you were supposed to know about this, the officer says they didn’t bother to tell anyone in your area about it, but it’s still the law. Then suppose, because they cannot also arrest and jail your 2-year-old, that they place your child in the custody of CPS. After all, her father committed a criminal infraction and is now in prison awaiting a judge’s decision. Tell me, why should I care about that? Surely you are responsible for making the left turn.

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The problem with your analogy is that everyone that crosses illegally knows it is breaking the law. Is this some kind of trick question?

So, it they know, then the are responsible. And I think here in the US, according to practice, you cann’t claim ignorance as a defense. “I just didn’t know the speed limit was only 55, sir”. Try that the next time you are have to face the magistrate.

The ones bringing the kids over know. They are gaming the system.

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Maybe we’re talking about different issues. Most of what’s been in the news related to the handling of asylum seekers. These are people fleeing violence, showing up at border crossings, announcing themselves, and then being taken into custody. They are not breaking any law by doing so. As I understand it previous policy was to process them and give them a date to return to court to have their case examined and judged. Now the policy seems to be to take them into custody immediately, remove any children, and then hold them until their hearing. Maybe you have a different opinion in that case?

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Dear @bearcee:

This. Is. GENIUS.

Thank you.

HA

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Thanks, @ajshep.

You said:

In response:

Let’s continue this thought experiment:

It’s lunch hour, as you make your left turn. Your 2-year-old, as a result of your action, is injured.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the street, I’m chewing on a delicious roast beef sandwich, and sipping on a frosty chocolate shake. As I lean against the fender of my parked vehicle—a shiny, red and white ambulance—I notice your panic, your screaming child, her dripping blood, and the piece of her broken forearm sticking out through her skin.

Now, by your own admission, all of this is your fault. And I am on my lunch hour.

What should happen next?

HA

Thank you, Harry, I appreciate that!

I would go over and help. But let us continue…

Then it is realized that there are cars at every corner making left turns against the light, and a whole bunch of children are injured. And it turns out the parents are doing it purposely.

The logical thing to do in this instance is stop those who are making the left turns from doing so. That is inforce the law for the kids sake.

I have helped people that have smoked all their lives and have developed lung cancer of emphasema. It is a bandaid sort of action. They will be helped, but the bigger issue is smoking itself.

Helping the children is a gracious act, doing something for someone when it is their fault. It is not an act that is demanded when someone keeps, or a group keeps on doing the same thing, causing the same harm. Stop the first action, and the other will stop automatically.

Thanks, @ajshep.

You said:

I would go over and help.

In response:

I appreciate this response. But it doesn’t answer my question.

My question was this:

As I casually lean against the fender of my parked vehicle—a shiny, red and white ambulance, packed full of medical supplies—and I notice your panic, your screaming child, her dripping blood, and the piece of her broken forearm sticking out through her skin, a) what should I do, and b) why should I do it?

The question is not, “What would you do?” You said, “I would go over and help.”

But that’s not responsive. In other words, I might say, “This is a really good sandwich, and this chocolate shake makes it perfect.”

What are the answers?

Keep in mind: All of this is your fault. And I am on my lunch hour.

HA

So, Allen, “everyone that crosses illegally knows it is breaking the law.”

I wouldn’t count on it! An impoverished father from Honduras has heard that if he can get his family into the US, they won’t be tormented by drug gangs. He may have also heard that he can apply for asylum.

The niceties of doing it just right, going in at the right place and filling out the right forms, may be quite beyond him. After all, he’s not a lawyer–he’s just a desperate human being trying to get himself and his kids a better life.

Yes, he ought to do it “right”–but we ought to show him some mercy and decency. Slamming him and his wife in jail and putting his kids in a camp where the attendants are even forbidden to pick them up and comfort them when they cry is NOT merciful; it is grossly indecent, to say nothing of un-Christian!

You should go over and help becaus it it the right thing to do.

And if it is as I state about all the parent caused accidents, then the parents should be held responsible and prosecuted.

There is a differnce between a single individual doing what is right and a government dong what is right.

And a single individual standing and opposing government action to stem the tide of accidents would be Immoral behavior. As bad as standing with the loaded ambulance and not helping.

And, I might consider vegetarianism, and less sweets in my diet, just to prolong life.

  1. Do the citizens of a country have a right to control their border?

If the citizens have that right, then you have no argument. You may not agree with the rules, but they are doing what is their privilege.

  1. Such a father may come, but has to take responsibility for his acts as well. The laws govern what is done with illegal entry. He has to abide by them, and expect the consequences. He is not a citizen, so has no right as one. Even if he does not know the law, or has been told otherwise, the laws hold. You appeal to mercy; so then change the law. You only need to look to Mexico where some act above the law, and are of the worst sort who rule lawlessly. You cannot safely ignore law without terrible consequences.

  2. Let us explore the consequences of open borders.
    A. There would be no limit to those coming in.
    B. The services provided for and paid for by US citizens would be overwhelmed, and would eventually cease.
    C. The country would eventually be run by those who have managed to come, and they would have a different idea of what freedom and other ideas espoused by Americans meant. Certainly the rule of law would cease, for the new arrivals got there by getting rid of it. The country would cease to be America as we know it.
    Certainly there is no other country in the world that has had such an effect on the world’s freedom as has America. S. American countries do not have such a legacy.
    D. In the end, America as we know it would be destroyed. And I think the idea of America is one to be treasured nad protected. But if yours is its destruction you are being foolish.

The situation in some European countries are cases in point. Muslim folk have been allowed to enter freely. Sharia law has been establish in some places, and those areas are ruled by Muslim judges, who mete out Muslim punishments. Not exactly the picture of enlightenment. I have read that in some London neighborhoods, the police do not go, for they are afraid of the consequences.

I oppose such ideas. And I think it is not merciless to do so. My view is broader and kinder to all than yours is, despite the initial hardships.

I would suggest the following article in City Journal for June 22, 2018. It explains why it is liberals who really have set these people up.

Who’s Really to Blame at the Border?
The current distress and hysteria is the fault of illegal aliens and their enablers in the courts.
Heather Mac Donald
June 22, 2018

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Allen,

Nowhere did I argue for “open borders”.

Our laws are written so as to give a great deal of discretion about enforcement, and what I am arguing for is a modicum of decency in the enforcement of the immigration laws. I think what that means is that if someone comes into the country incorrectly, he should be admonished as to the proper way to do so, and sent back to where he came from–or, for an asylum seeker, be given the choice of being incarcerated until the due process (which our Constitution guarantees to all persons) has time to operate.

My understanding is that in the last administration, many people were deported. There were cases where parents and children were eventually separated, but only after due process of law. What is different now is that the separation apparently happens automatically.

But there is absolutely no excuse for tearing babies away from their mothers, or forbidding their caretakers to hold, cuddle, and comfort them. It is WRONG (read EVIL) to destroy the lives of children by depriving them of parental care–no matter who is to blame.

Read the article. There has been concerted efforts to muddle and impede law. It is so that defecto open borders are the only solution.

WE are not destroying the lives of children. The parents are. How can you accuse us of that? If they stayed home, then there would be no problem. If they wish asylum, then they have to abide the confused contorted laws that we have put in place, and there are all kinds of folk who only want to make implementation of the law difficult so they can be accusatory so that there can be an anarchy of sorts.

You will see this if you read the article. I will be glad to discuss after you read the article. That a few have to suffer for the greater good is probably necessary in this wicked place.

Also, don’t believe everything you read.

The number of “asylum” seekers is so great that the facilities are overwhelmed. What then?

Why are they here? Because the word has gotten out that if you bring a child, you will have to be let go. It was a free pass to entry. And then they did not show up for their trial. We call that gaming the system.

So, are you advocating that it be easier to do that? Is you compassion for the young so great that it is fine to use them as a free pass? And it takes time to tell if they are really the kids of the adults along.

You seem to think this is just a simple matter. It is extremely complex. and, the government has a right to make for zero tolerance until the situation can be assessed. Calling everyone who doesn’t not agree with you a Nazi will not help matters either.

I was reading Mount of Blessing this afternoon. Here is a quote from pg 42.

“The words which the people were hearing from His lips were unlike anything to which they had ever listened from priest or rabbi. Christ tears away the wall of partition, the self-love, the dividing prejudice of nationality, and teaches a love for all the human family. He lifts men from the narrow circle that their selfishness prescribes; He abolishes all territorial lines and artificial distinctions of society. He makes no difference between neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. He teaches us to look upon every needy soul as our neighbor and the world as our field.”

What does this mean? “He abolishes all territorial lines…”. Are we to support open borders on the basis of this? Did the disciples see it that way?

Well, they went to the whole world, not paying attention to the borders. But they did not work to do away with them, or interfere with the laws of the land regarding them.

But perhaps I am only seeing this my own way. What do you think?

Again, I have not advocated “open borders,” nor have I called you a Nazi. The answer to the system being overloaded is additional resources.

Yes, it’s complicated. No matter how complicated, I say there is no excuse for tearing children away from their parents, at least until there is due process. The least the enforcers could do is to avoid that, using their prosecutorial discretion as best they can.

Maybe the laws need to be changed, as you say. But the law at present does not require children to be taken from their parents. Under the Obama administration, children were mostly held with their parents, except in unusual cases (such as where the kids were citizens but their parents were aliens). This business of separating them is a policy decided on by Trump.

I left Marquette University in Milkaukee to join LLU Dental in 1958.When we enter the border of California we were stopped and asked if we had any produce on board. We answered, An orange, a banana, and and apple. they confiscated all three. we also had John age 8 Steve age 5,and Carol age 2. they let us keep them. Thank the Lord. We still have them. Steve was at our apt this afternoon, Carol called this morning, John called yesterday. What a blessing. and what heart ach we feel about our borders today.

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When I landed at the airport in Sydney, Australia during the height of the mad cow ‘crisis’ in the US, one of the questions on the customs form we were required to fill out was if we had any food items with us and I marked ‘yes’ on my form. My son, who is a junior, did not fill his out. When we went through immigration, the immigration officer tossed all the forms out and kept what he thought was mine (because only one form per family was needed), but it was my son’s. The customs official looked through our bags and found a can of corned beef and checked it against the form that he had where, no indication of food products with us was marked. I told him that I had marked ‘yes’ on my form and he showed me the form that did not have a check mark on the “yes” box. He was incensed and exclaimed that I could be fined A$1000.00 for this offense and even in US currency, “that is a lot, doctor!” I suggested that we look in the waste basket by the immigration officer, which he did, and found my crumpled up tossed form. That calmed him down and he indicated that it was simply a matter of honesty that the forbidden objects were noted and discarded. My three children were not detained and, actually are visiting with me this weekend from their out of state residences. Obviously, they were NOT the forbidden objects of the law and I had not lied about the presence of the forbidden objects, so they were not separated from me, either!