Without entirely realizing how we arrived, our nation has reached a critical moment. We are saturated by a storm of hyperbolic words that include wall, shutdown, impeachment, collusion, constitutional crisis and fake news. What can we believe and what must we dismiss?
We must dismiss the idea that the present moment is somehow business as usual, or simply political debris that comes with draining a swamp. Things have seldom seemed swampier. We are reminded of the example of the frog in a pot that boils when the heat is slowly increased.
Few great nations fall suddenly by external assault. Most have fallen slowly, almost imperceptibly, from within. Often they have succumbed to the rise of unworthy and immoral leaders. They have fallen from the insouciance of their people and citizens who tolerate the degradation of leadership and the abandonment of founding values.
We are in danger of slowly fracturing from this ever-rising heat of our own creating. The source of that heat is our growing reliance on partisan identification and how it forms our thought and decisions; how it informs our actions and our failure to act.
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The chief symbol of our nation’s present impasse may well be Mr. Trump’s wall. It is far from the greatest issue that we face, but it has become a most potent symbol. That dichotomy alone is cause for concern. We are drawn into a lingering debate that has no rational basis; that has no point.
The wall is irrational, as a practical matter, for what it is intended to achieve. But it is rational for what it was intended to signify. From its inception as a campaign mantra, it has served the purpose of using division to create a bond of tribal unity sufficient to win election.
As a political tactic, the promise of a secure wall succeeded in the short term. But it was a bargain that is costing our nation its soul. It is a 1st century solution to a 21st century need. No one seriously questions the necessity of regulated borders to facilitate trade and migration and to control crime and smuggling.
The question is, what modern means best achieve these legitimate goals? Even were it possible and affordable, building hundreds of miles of masonry or metal wall with the belief that — immigrants will approach it and turn back in defeat is ludicrous. It is beyond ludicrous.
The Great Wall of China is an example of such a fixed barrier. It has long been nothing but a historic curiosity. Modern means, currently used internationally and on both our borders, include a combination of patrol, aerial observation, motion sensors, fencing and secure ports of entry.
The failure of this proposed wall is not what it purports to achieve practically, but rather what it represents morally and symbolically, which is its true purpose. It is principally intended to say to our neighbors, “Keep out.”
The message of a wall facing Mexico stands in antithesis to that of our Statue of Liberty facing Europe. One invites, the other excludes. One beckons, the other warns. It is fair to ask how many recent ancestors of the wall’s supporters passed through Ellis Island or similar harbors.
Some faced rejection, but most were received simply by presenting themselves and their hopes for a better future at the New York port of entry. They came for many reasons, some seeking economic opportunity, others fleeing persecution. That has not changed.
The nature of human migration over centuries is unchanging, and no American family stands apart from it. As immigrant families, we are invited, if not morally bound, to assist those who share the same dreams that inspired our own ancestors to board a caravan of ships crossing the Atlantic.
In his own recent words, Mr. Trump said, “Our immigration system should be a source of pride, not a source of shame, as it is all over the world.”
For once, he speaks for all Americans. The truth is, there is no system. Some tell immigrants to “get in line.” For the working class, there is no line.
Great nations learn from historic mistakes, they do not repeat them. This is not the first time some among us have chosen to use race, ethnicity and nationalism to present as policy what is in fact prejudice, and to suggest a crisis where none exists.
In light of our past and present failures, we are all called to an examination of collective conscience when the question of human dignity presents itself within our communities or at our borders. Only then can we succeed in placing principle and compassion above politics.
Rev. Russell Brown served as pastor of Old Mission San Luis Obispo from 2006 to 2018. He holds degrees in journalism, philosophy and theology.