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When we fail to respond humanely to refugees, we not only deny their vulnerability, we also deny our own.
The United States recently hit a new low in its demonstration of inhumanity. During relief efforts in the Bahamas in the wake of hurricane Dorian, people who didn’t have a US visa were told to leave a rescue ship that could have taken them to Florida. Even a temporary suspension of document requirements during the crisis of a deadly category 5 hurricane was rejected.
The Trump administration has drastically cut the number of refugees who may enter the United States. The Supreme Court has just allowed the country to bar most migrants, particularly from Central America, from seeking asylum. Migrants cannot apply unless they have already tried and failed to receive asylum in one of the countries they pass through on their way to the US. People from El Salvador, for example, would be returned to Guatemala – hardly a safe place to live. As the president of Refugees International, Eric Schwartz, reports:
“At a time when the number of refugees is at the highest level in recorded history, the United States has abandoned world leadership in resettling vulnerable people in need of protection. The result is a world that is less compassionate and less able to deal with future humanitarian challenges.”
Trump’s henchmen cite expense as a rationale for these decisions – the costs of processing refugees and helping them re-settle from the war-torn and famine-ridden environments they flee. The irony is that America is itself a country of refugees, marked by their flight from life-threatening persecution and poverty. My own grandmother fled pogroms in Latvia, and her sisters who could not make the arduous journey were murdered along with their children. I know of no one in America who lacks a traumatic past.
Now such traumas are deepened by the outrageous response refugees receive at hostile destinations. In America, children are forcibly separated from their parents and put in cages, without beds, without even adequate clothing and nourishment, with no guaranteed end in sight for their plight. The nation’s pediatricians have published petitions about the psychological damage to these children – to deaf ears.
So-called illegal residents are ripped from their families, jobs and studies at universities, held as criminals and deported to dangerous places, places they have never lived and where languages are spoken they do not understand. Immigrants have perished crossing rivers, deserts and oceans; they have been abused and attacked, and after they have been deported, many have died.
What is going on here? Where is justice?
So much thinking about justice relies on economic models: the price of an injury, the cost of violating a contract, or the distribution of resources according to financial formulas. When such measures are calculated they presuppose scarce resources. Lines are drawn and borders sealed to secure resources for some and deny them to others.
But mark how radically different another idea of justice, one that is over two millennia old, is. “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” That radical language is found in, of all places, the Bible. There, justice is not an economic principle that apportions scarce resources; rather, as the care or love we owe another person, it issues from an unlimited, ever-renewing supply.
This remarkable vision, the so-called “love command” in the Bible, joins commands about loving our neighbor (though a better translation would be “fellow human”), and loving the stranger, to loving God, with the implication that one cannot love God without loving the stranger.
In Leviticus, the widow, the orphan, and the poor are especially singled out for this love. Our “fellow human” is described as someone who does not have enough, so we must feed them; someone who is away from home, so we must be hospitable; someone who can be exploited, lied to and robbed, or have their wages withheld or be slandered or hated; someone who cannot speak or see.
In short, our fellow humans are not envisaged as fortresses of strength, self-sufficiency or autonomy – the modern imaginary subjects whose rights to freedom must be protected. Instead, they are portraits of vulnerability. What does it mean to love such people? To respect them, indeed; but far more. To respond to their needs, rather than make it illegal for them to cross borders and lawful to dehumanize those who do.
Importantly, this biblical account describes all humans as in need, and all humans as sharing the obligation to help others. The universality of the human condition of exile is underscored in the midst of this command to love the stranger: “the stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This verse is given wider compass in the biblical story of the ancient Israelites exiled in Egypt and again in Babylon. Such exile is not confined to one people. In the story of the first man and woman, all of humanity is described as separated from their homeland.
Yet the injunction to treat the stranger as one born among us seems to have been tragically forgotten by many world leaders and their supporters. Instead, people have fallen back on the principle of scarcity; and believing that their resources are scarce, they want to hoard them, or they are afflicted with the fear of difference. Underneath it all, they want, desperately, to live in denial about their own condition of exile.
For when we fail to respond humanely to individuals in flight from crises, we are not only in denial about their vulnerability, but also about ours. This extends, for example, to our failure to face up to the fleeting nature of life on this planet, to the ceaseless movement through time and space that characterizes life itself and the loss that inevitably haunts it, of loved ones, of loved places, and of cherished moments. We are in denial, too, about the fragility of our homeland.
At a time when we know there are no indigenous peoples and that everyone outside of Africa is a migrant from that continent; and when we know that global warming will increase the numbers of people who must migrate across borders from tens to hundreds of millions, we would rather not know of our fundamental condition as exiles ourselves. This denial has devastating consequences, for the victims of that denial are our fellow humans, who need our help and need it now. As the writer Chris Abani says:
“There is something about the way that refugees, more than any other kind of displaced peoples, haunt the assurances of stability that modern statehood aspires to. Perhaps because this body is proof that we have advanced much less in our ‘humanness,’ than we would like to believe.”
William Shakespeare addresses this same poverty of humanness in Sir Thomas More, a play penned by many hands including Shakespeare’s. In a speech given by More in his capacity as sheriff of London when addressing a violent mob hostile to foreigners, he talks movingly of “Wretched strangers, their babes at their backs and their poor luggage plodding to the ports and coasts,” searching for a place to go.
The same sentiment is, in our time, realized in photo journalism through images of refugees ever moving, never home. But More does not only prophetically conjure up the brutal treatment of others. His speech goes on to castigate the attitudes of those who refuse to help them, and point out what lies in store:
“For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.”
More knows that if a code of self-interest prevails, the victimizers will also be victimized themselves. We should heed that lesson today.
Regina Schwartz, Professor of Literature and Law at Northwestern University, is the author of Loving Justice: Living Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 2016), a radical critique of economic ideas of justice.
First published in Open Democracy. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.