Community Forum: Keep Families Together

by Rob Benson, Joe Cistone, and Victor Stanley

As pastors, fathers and neighbors, called and compelled by the depths of human relationship, we write to decry the practice of forcible separation of children from parents at our nation’s southern border. We do not necessarily speak for our congregations, as we recognize the diversity of our faith and thought, but we are also rooted in a freedom of conscience and faith that compels us to speak out.

And in each of these roles we are reminded of the essential message of all the world’s religions, that we should do unto others as we would like them to do unto us.

The statements emanating from the current administration in Washington, D.C., that Christian scripture places law over the love of neighbor are patently false. Quoting from Paul can never supersede the teachings of Jesus—a childhood refugee himself—who emphasized in action and word the longstanding commitment of his Jewish faith to welcome the stranger, (Matthew 25:35).

“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien,” the Hebrew Book of Leviticus says. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

This tradition of hospitality is not only a fundamental tenet of the Abrahamic faiths, it pervades Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh teachings as well. “Let a person never turn away a stranger from their house, that is the rule, for good people say to the stranger there is enough food for you.” (Taitiriya Upanishad 1.11.2).

We acknowledge that at times throughout our history, leaders of the Christian faith have used scripture to justify the unconscionable separation of children from their families. These include the genocide perpetrated against the Americas’ native peoples, the enslavement and death of tens of millions of Africans, and the trial and murder of women, including mothers, who did not conform to the “norms” of Puritan New England, to the systematic separation of children from their families during the Holocaust, the forced internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war, and recent events.

But we also know that our common faith and the espoused traditions of this nation call each of us, and especially our elected leaders, to a higher loyalty. Our faith tradition reminds us that justice and love–not “law”–are the foundations of our common humanity.

Fifth Century African theologian Augustine of Hippo proclaimed that an unjust law is no law at all. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that breaking an unjust law and accepting the consequences “in order to arouse the conscience of the community, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

But it’s not just our faith that compels us to speak out against the heinous treatment of the refugee and immigrant families seeking our nation’s protection. The United States remains bound by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (and other international agreements) created specifically in response to how nations, including ours, closed their borders to those seeking asylum as millions of innocent civilians were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Our own political traditions, from the Declaration of Independence which decried King George’s maltreatment of those seeking to emigrate to the colonies, to the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty—”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”— emphasize the very best of this nation’s immigrant past.

Perhaps Ronald Reagan said it best in his 1989 “Shining City Upon a Hill” farewell address, when he envisioned a United States in which “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still… a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

We could go on and on writing about what scripture tells us about welcoming immigrants and refugees, how this nation was built largely on the backs of enslaved and forced migrants, or the entrepreneurial vitality that immigrants and refugees continue to carry with them to our borders; but our purpose as pastors is to remind each of us of how we are called to be our better selves.

In our personal and professional lives we have experienced both the horrors from which our Central American and Caribbean brothers and sisters flee to this nation, and the remarkable gifts people from around the world continue to bring to our own island community.

Many in our community are immigrants: from seasonal agricultural and hospitality workers to students and year-round professionals. They have families who they love and for whom they have journeyed to this country seeking a better life. Together we are neighbors.

No matter why or how they have come this far, no child should have to grow up without a parent. No child should ever be ripped from a loving mother or father’s arms. As human beings, each of us is called to care for the parents and children who have been compelled to seek sanctuary at our door. Stop forced separation. Stop for-profit warehousing of human beings. Reunite all those families divided. And keep families together.

Rob Benson, Joe Cistone and Victor Stanley are the pastors of Bar Harbor Congregational Church, Seaside UCC of Northeast Harbor and the Somesville Union Meeting House.

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