An article in the New York Times for July 7, 2014, dealing with the “surge in unaccompanied minors” across the southern borders of the United States, refers to a law against human trafficking, overwhelmingly passed by both houses of the U. S. Congress in 2008. The law is called, the “William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.”
Another NYT article presents another context for the “surge” in fleeing towards the U. S. borders -- the epidemic of children being killed by gang-generated violence in Central American countries.
The countries that are the focus of this – and most of the -- reporting are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Each article, each television commentary, each opinion piece that I have read about this wave of sorrow, at one point or another, will creep into a discussion on whether this phenomenon is a crisis of immigration or an humanitarian crisis. My small mind is reduced to an even smaller space when I am confronted with the pictures, the stories, the “noise” that is being generated. My perennial question surfaces, “Who defines the terms by which we live?” And I would speak that question for the children. But our failure in our long-standing tradition of collective denial has silenced that question throughout whatever it is that we call American history. Who spoke for the hundreds of thousands of children – children the same age as these suffering migrant children – who were culled from the villages of Africa and harvested for the centuries of transatlantic enslavement? Who spoke for the children who ran – and Frederick Douglass was a teenager when he ran – from the unutterable cruelty and abuse of domestic slavery? Who spoke for the Mayan and Aztec and Lakota and Algonquin and Shoshone and Mississippi and Seminole children who crawled out of the woods to see their parents, grandparents and siblings slaughtered by the purveyors of “Manifest Destiny”?
Who defines the terms by which we, by which they, live?
When U. S. military went into Central America years before the Civil War; when much debate in Washington at one time focused on how to invade Caribbean countries for the expansion of slavery; when drugs and guns infested the inner cities; when gangs in Chicago and Detroit and Atlanta and Los Angeles and Houston threaten the same generation of children on this side of the border as are walking northward – then who is defining any term, in any language, that would lift up the children and say, “We stand indicted by our own hypocrisy.” Let not the judgement stand that we do not value the lives of children, anywhere. Not in Nigeria, not in Bangladesh. Not in Chicago, not in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, clear (and, perhaps, surprising) injunctions about tithing are set down (Deut. 25:19 -- 26:15). Setting aside the first fruits of the harvest, the Israelites were to distribute the produce among the Levites (the priests of the temple); the aliens, the orphans and the widows, “so that they may eat their fill within your towns.” So that they may eat their fill within your towns. How radically apt is that commandment, especially for the children who are hungry and frightened and orphaned and abused and sexually assaulted all along their flight from home. Much of the hunger is due to those who appropriated their land for the diets of the industrialized north. Much of their fear of assault and death flows from the behaviors of those who scramble in the dung heap of drugs that feed the addictions of the civilized, prosperous nations in control of the resources of the planet. Our children are aliens in their own home land. Other children, even more brutalized, more abandoned to the engines of death, are meeting them in this desert in which we wander.
Who defines the terms? And how do we live?
The sin about which the Israelites were warned by Moses was of profound importance to all of us who are narcotized by denial. “Do not forget.” Nowhere is it more clearly articulated than in Exodus and Leviticus. It seems a compulsion of mine to repeat these verses, over and over and over. It is the foundation stone for every act of liberation that we can exercise:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” [Exodus 22: 21-24]
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” [Leviticus 19:33]
The sin is to forget.
The sin that today infects so many of our souls, I think, is to deny that we ever knew. But some of us are part of the unbroken story, the unending song:
Of course, James Baldwin understood sin, and the price one paid when one chooses denial. But he also speaks, prophesies about salvation:
Salvation is as real, as mighty, and as impersonal as the rain, and it is yet as private as the rain in one’s face. It is never accomplished; it is to be reaffirmed every day and every hour. There is absolutely no salvation without love: this is the wheel in the middle of the wheel. Salvation does not divide. Salvation connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself…It is a mighty fortress, even in the teeth of ruin or at the gates of death. It protects one from nothing except one thing: one will never curse God or man. [“To Crush a Serpent”, in James Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, edited by Randall Kenan, p.203]
We do not dare trample the children as if we and they are not the same. We define the terms by which they live. Or do not live. And they define us, when they stare at us and cry.