Monday, August 20, 2007
A Failure of Compassion
Last night I read the news that immigration activist Elvira Arellano had been arrested in Los Angeles. Arellano is an undocumented immigrant who has spent the last year taking sanctuary in a Methodist church here in Chicago after the US Government threatened to deport her back to Mexico. Arellano has an 8-year son, Saul, who is an American citizen. Since taking up residence in the church, Arellano has become a symbol for the pro-immigrants movement, speaking out against the injustice of current laws that break up families and promote racism.

On a related note, I also just listened to a "Speaking of Faith" NPR interview with writer and amateur theologian Karen Armstrong. During the interview she talked a little bit about the points of similarity between the major religions. According to her, what they all have in common is an ethic of compassion. She says:

The religions are forms of ethical alchemy, if you like. That you behave in a compassionate way and this changes you. Why? Because all the great masters of religion tell us that what keeps us from a knowledge of the divine, from — which has been called variously God, Nirvana, Brahma, and the sacred — what keeps us from this ultimate reality is our own egotism, our greed, that often needs to destroy others in order to preserve its sense of self or even just to denigrate others. What compassion does, it makes us dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there. And it's this that they all teach leads us into the presence of the divine. It gives us an apprehension of the divine, not believing in creeds, not undertaking weird penances.

Buddha said that the practice of compassion can introduce you to Nirvana. Jesus said that on the last day it's those who have visited people who are sick and naked, hungry and in prison, looked after them, who will enter the kingdom of God, who come into the divine presence, not those who have the correct theology or the right sexual ethics, for example. And so I think that is the test, that compassion is the key. And they've all come to this conclusion, not because compassion sounds good, it sounds nice, but because it works. That we are at our most creative when we are ready to give ourselves away. And we're at our most sterile and dangerous when we seek to have ourselves and more so, and to use religion, indeed, to enhance our sense of ego.

She later defines compassion as the ability to take the perspective of another person - to see the world from their point of view and feel what they are feeling. She says:

[Compassion] means "to feel with." "To feel with." Not to feel sorry for, but to say, "If I were in his position, maybe I would feel the same."

This, I think is what explains our current immigration crisis in America. It is a failure of compassion, and really, a failure of imagination. We can argue up and down that "These people broke the law" (despite the fact that we create our own laws and can change them if we want to) or "They're hurting our economy" (despite the fact that the opposite is actually the case), but the entire debate changes when you stop treating immigrants as an "issue" and start treating them as human beings and looking at the world through their point of view. What if we step outside ourselves for one moment, dethrone ourselves and our own concerns (or the concerns of our nation), and try to understand why immigrants make the choices they do.

Why do they leave their home and family and culture and heritage behind to come to our country? Why risk everything? Do we understand the extreme poverty and hopelessness these people have faced in their own countries? Can we fully grasp the circumstances that have driven them here?

And then, more importantly, do we have the ability to actually imagine ourselves in their shoes? Put yourself in the place of an undocumented immigrant. Suppose you have a family, children to feed, children who may starve to death or die of disease because you cannot support them in Mexico. Can you honestly say that you would not do whatever it takes to care for your children? (I find it hard to believe that any parent would say that they would not do whatever it takes.) If it's a choice between honoring the immigration policies of the world's wealthiest nation or the survival of your family, which do you think you would choose to value more highly? And remember, this is not an abstract moral dilemma - something to be debated in a college philosophy class - this is real life and death.

Then, if you can actually imagine yourself in the place of these immigrants, facing this choice, then can you really be so quick to judge? Can you continue to just callously say "Well, they broke the law"? This is precisely where a pro-immigrant position starts, with the motivation of compassion, saying "How would I feel and what would I do if I were in their shoes?" And then asking, "If I were in their shoes, how would I want Americans and the United States to treat me?"

It all comes down to what Jesus said "Do for others what you would want them to do for you."

Would you want amnesty? Would you want the US to increase the number of legal immigrants it lets in so you could have come here through proper channels? Would you want the US to stop breaking up families by deporting parents and leaving behind American children? Would you want them to stop targeting people with your skin color and your language, and stop treating you like animals with their daylight INS raids in public places (at the market, at work, etc.)? Would you want people to understand that you are here not to take their jobs but simply for the survival of your loved ones? Would you want to be respected for the way you work hard (often 7-days a week, double shifts), for substandard pay and no benefits, at jobs that most Americans would never want to do anyways?

Would you say "Well the law's the law", or would you say "Laws can change, and this one needs to, because justice and compassion ought never to be opposed to one another"?

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