By the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Following the news that one of the Paris attackers was carrying a Syrian passport, 24 US governors asked the federal government to cease welcoming refugees from Syria this week. Though he had told the Carolina Journal on Friday that he was satisfied with security screening for refugees, Governor Pat McCrory changed his tune on Monday: “I am now requesting that the president and the federal government cease sending refugees from Syria to North Carolina, ” he said. Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is challenging McCrory in the 2016 gubernatorial race, also called for a “pause” in welcoming refugees.
What changed over the weekend? The “Syrian refugee” became the distant enemy politicians can use to manipulate a fearful public. But Christian people here and elsewhere should know better: we worship a refugee baby who survived Herod’s violence because his parents carried him across borders in an act of love.
With the holiday season around the corner, many Christian sisters and brothers who worry about losing their identity in a pluralistic society call us to “Put the Christ back into Christmas.” But we cannot forget the material reality of Christ’s life among us here on earth. Jesus was a brown-skinned baby, born in occupied territory, threatened by the mass-murder of a puppet-King who felt his power threatened. Those who want to hear the glad tidings of “peace on earth, good will to all people” this year should challenge our political leaders to put the refugee Jesus back into Christmas.
We must be clear that politicians’ change of heart over the weekend is in keeping with a pattern we have witnessed throughout his administration. During last year’s child migrant crisis on our nation’s Southern border, Governor McCrory expressed public concern that children coming to North Carolina might be infected with some unknown disease. Our Moral Movement stood together to say that this fear-based manipulation of the public was the same thing African-Americans experienced when segregationists suggested that school desegregation might “infect” good white children with the social disease born by African-Americans. One young girl from Mexico spoke through tears after our press conference that day: “I didn’t know this had happened before. I thought we were alone, ” she cried.
Indeed, Governor McCrory is not only acting in concert with political strategists around the country who want to “divide and conquer” the majority of Americans who know they are not served by the corporate interests that back immoral policy. He is also following an old pattern of white supremacy in North Carolina’s history. In the 1890s, when freed slaves and Populist white farmers in this state saw their common lot and joined together against the ruling elite, a white supremacy campaign was developed to scare white people into voting against their own interests. The lynchpin of that campaign was the black man as “incubus”—a threat to the safety and well-being of white homes. But the propaganda campaign in the newspapers of the late 1890s depended upon distant stories of an “enemy” no one actually knew. They couldn’t convince white people in Wilmington that the black aldermen they had elected were dangerous without spinning stories of black men elsewhere who were ravaging white women and destroying civilization.
A couple of weeks ago, Governor McCrory signed HB 318, overriding the sanctuary laws that several municipalities in North Carolina have passed to protect immigrants from harassment and mistreatment. The justification of this anti-immigrant legislation was a story from San Francisco about an “illegal” immigrant who was convicted of murder. The Syrian passport found alongside one of the Paris attackers is a similar ruse: a story from far away, about which we know few details, used to scare us into submitting to a politics of fear and control.
We who worship a Jewish baby born in Bethlehem should know better. As we prepare ourselves for Advent, we remember that the journey of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was a journey of refugees who knew to trust the intelligence of foreigners who told the truth over the misinformation of their own King. We cannot forget how, submitting to the logic of Herod, Americans failed to welcome Jewish refugees during WWII, leading a senior government official to alert FDR in 1944 that his State Department was “guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.” The stated fear at the time: that some Jews might have been blackmailed into working as secret Nazi agents.
We must learn from history and trust the best values of our religious traditions. As we prepare for Advent, let’s put the refugee Jesus back into Christmas and stand with our sisters and brothers from Syria and elsewhere who’ve already experienced far too much violence. America doesn’t need Republicans or Democrats playing to our worst fears for political gain. We need a moral movement that brings people together to promote the general welfare and brings peace on earth, good will to all.