Being a member of several social media discussion groups for both actual and wannabe Christian clergy, I have followed links to many such public sermons in blogs across the internet. Although I sympathize with Tim Gombis’s indignation and frustration with what is going on at our southern border, I am not convinced his exhortations are constructive towards solving the problem. In fact I suspect they confound it. In the case of Tim’s offering, he has committed at least two fallacies that confuse the problem rather than pointing toward a real solution.
The first fallacy is a complex non sequitur. The title of Tim’s homily is “Locking Up and Abusing Brown Children is Exactly Who We Are.” He rightly observes, “We want to believe that we are not capable of such atrocities,” but proceeds to argue that
this is a denial of the realities of our national history, and it prevents us from the necessary self-reflection that would allow us to identify the selfishness and the various idolatries that drive us to inflict such horrors, or to tolerate them.
So far, so good … that is until the last infinitive phrase in the paragraph (“… or to tolerate them”), which I will simply note at this point. Tim goes on to demonstrate past Christian complicity in slavery and theft of Native American and Mexican lands, misdeeds which he implies are analogous to “locking up and abusing brown children.” His argument seems to be as follows:
American Christians were complicit in atrocities (against non-white peoples) in the past.
Locking up and abusing brown children is an atrocity against non-white peoples.
Therefore American Christians are complicit in locking up and abusing brown children.
I hope it is clear that the conclusion Tim is urging his readers to accept is a non sequitur. The conclusion follows from nothing he has written … except from that last infinitive phrase. In Tim’s mind, tolerating “such horrors” makes us just as culpable and in need of repentance as inflicting them. He concludes,
When we behold the horrors we are inflicting on people on our southern border, we ought to realize that this is precisely who we are and who we have always been. Our current treatment of people arriving at our southern border as less than human is motivated by the idolatries to which our nation has always chosen to be blind. (emphasis mine)
As it turns out, “we” Christians are not merely tolerating the atrocities at the southern border, “we” are inflicting them. Apparently Tim somehow arrived at this conclusion about the present by appealing to “our shared national past.” Christians in the past were complicit in the commission of atrocities. Therefore, it’s who we are. It’s in our national DNA. It should be no surprise that we’re at it again. But now we’re brown child abusers.
Which brings me (and probably Tim) to the second fallacy in Tim’s sermon. He probably wants to argue that the “toleration” of the current treatment of immigrants and refugees on the part of Christians makes us just as culpable as if we were actively engaged in such mistreatment. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for Christians to do nothing. For him that knows to do good but does it not, to him it is sin. Therefore Tim believes that the sin holding American Christians back from doing the right thing on the border is our historic idolatry. The solution Tim proposes is common to so many of these blog homilies. Idolatrous American Christians need to repent! What’s more,
Repentance involves identifying and confessing sin, speaking frankly about our shared national past and the ongoing injustices in which we all participate. Owning these realities is a necessary beginning.
Apart from the groundless assertion of “our shared national past and the ongoing injustices in which we all participate,” Tim’s proposal for a solution is simplistic and naïve. Owning these alleged realities is “a necessary beginning” to what? He has not even given us a hint of what action he hopes to see from Christians that would replace our supposed participation in, or tolerance of, the “horrors” at the border. Other than the meaningless call for national confession, what exactly is this repentance supposed to look like on the ground? If tolerance is tantamount to idolatrous complicity, then what is our intolerance of these border atrocities supposed to look like in terms of concrete action?
Here is the cold, hard reality that Tim seems to overlook: The only thing that can change the way immigrants and refugees are being processed and treated at the border is a change in public policy. Laws, regulations and Executive Branch policy will have to change. So Tim’s second fallacy is confusing Christian covenant obligations with social reform issues requiring a change in public policy. In the prophets, repentance always had social reform in view: Care for the widows and the orphans. If Tim has any meaningful repentance in mind that will overcome Christian tolerance of the horrors at the border, then he must expect Christians to be active in somehow changing public policy at the border.
The problem with this is that Tim has not bothered to outline the public policy proposal he apparently intends for Christians to actively support in keeping with our covenant obligation as followers of Jesus. If brown child abusers is exactly who we are, then what exactly is Tim proposing as a policy change? Open borders? Changing the qualifications for asylum as specified under the 1967 U.N. Protocol and the U. S. Refugee Act of 1980? Allowing asylum applicants into the country with no detention? Building bigger and better detention centers? What? I don’t even know what the Democrats are proposing, let alone what Tim is proposing. I started writing a letter to my congressmen, but had trouble finding enough facts even to begin a responsible letter. The crisis at the border is a complex problem. Unfortunately it will require a complex solution. If the first step is Christian repentance, then that repentance will be in the direction of a specific policy change. Otherwise, what good will it do? A call for repentance and confession seems simplistic and naïve to me.
But that is not the end of the problem. Apart from the absence of a clear proposition of public policy, Tim has also overlooked a political action plan for Christians to acquire the political power necessary to get his policy proposal implemented. If repentance means intolerance of the injustices at the border, then what shape will this intolerance take? Armed overthrow of the CBP? Voting a straight Democratic ticket? A unified Christian demand for impeachment of Trump? Public moralizing, rants and indictments in social media? How will this Christian intolerance of injustice on our southern border play out before a watching world?
It seems to me that Tim needs to rethink his approach to pastoral leadership on complex issues of public policy. Most Christians will not take the time to carefully analyze his arguments and identify his fallacies. Instead they’ll just intuitively sense the anti-Trump propaganda, BS quality of his sermon, get pissed off and dismiss him as a liberal Social Justice Warrior, and feel all the more justified in their support of, or indifference to, current policies. I don’t think blog comments like this are constructive. It sounds like Tim just wants to scold Trump supporters with no clear idea of a solution to the ongoing tragedy at the border.