The recent image of a migrant Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter floating dead in the Rio Grande has widely been described as “heartbreaking.”
Would that it were.
Instead, the sight of a drowned Oscar Martinez and his daughter Valeria was insufficient to stir some bitter souls to anything more than condemnation of those who endanger themselves to flee unfathomable poverty and violence.
It takes a hard heart to lash out at a father who died trying to lead his family to a better life, against what proved to be insurmountable odds.
And it takes some ice-cold blood in the veins to shrug at a toddler clinging even in death to her daddy — both of them choked as much by indifference as by the waters of a river.
Equally incomprehensible (at least to me) is the fact that many of those who have expressed these views claim to be Christian, even devoutly so.
In fact, when I affirmed my support of the U.S. bishops’ statement on the deaths — which said that “this image cries to heaven for justice” — one young Catholic denounced me for having a “bleeding heart.”
I certainly hope I do, especially since I’m trying to serve a Lord who consented to have his own heart pierced by a sword to save the Father’s children.
And while Christ poured out his blood to redeem us, our own circulation has slowed, and rigor mortis appears to be setting in. Eyes are closing to the misery of millions for whom food, clean water, safe housing, sanitation, education and economic opportunity are uncertain at best, and nonexistent at worst.
Ears are stopped to the cries of migrant children detained in U.S. warehouses, under conditions that violate international humanitarian law regarding the treatment of prisoners of war.
Minds are shut against admitting the very real systemic causes that drive desperate migration movements to our borders: decades of U.S. intervention, direct and indirect, in Latin American governments; exploitative economics that increasingly work to accelerate a global wealth gap while savaging the environment; a multibillion dollar illegal drug trade in which several Latin American nations have been cast as suppliers for the world’s most demanding consumer: the United States.
Just last week in Philadelphia, officials seized over 17.5 tons of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $1.1 billion, in a container ship arriving from South America. How often have migrants recounted that they fled here to escape violent drug cartels, which extort and enslave the poor and vulnerable.
And still, in a nation of more than 329 million, only a few feet run to the aid of those who implore our help at our borders. Hands are idle, while fingers point and tap out blistering comments online.
Yet this is no time for the body of Christ on earth to recoil from the more than 70 million people worldwide (the highest number on record) who have been displaced due to violence, persecution and poverty.
The fear and ignorance that fuel anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy serve only to paralyze, rather than protect, us. It’s understandable that we as individuals feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of human misery confronting us. The task of building a just world will exceed our abilities and our life spans, because it is by nature a task for all individuals and all generations. Only through humility and a radical dependence upon God can we even begin to undertake it — and undertake it we must.
And when doing so, we must recognize that this task is two-fold, requiring both an immediate and humane response to those at our borders, and a willingness to do the long, hard and often frustrating work of addressing the root causes of displacement. The latter in particular will demand much of us, and of our leaders.
We are citizens of a given nation, and of this planet, for a brief moment. When we cross the border into eternity, what documents shall we bring to prove that we deserve entrance into God’s kingdom?
Scripture provides an answer: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. … For I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mt 25: 34, 35).
For those who would exalt a broken immigration system over human need, Christ also indicates the price of non-compliance with his law of love: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. … I was a stranger and you did not invite me in. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Mt 25: 41, 43, 45).
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