Unexceptional in Exile

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

One of the things about being in a wilderness or exile situation is that you really want to believe you’re not. Maybe this is what made the recently liberated Hebrew people susceptible to misremembering their years in Egypt. It could also be what made those same people, generations later, prone to believe the lies peddled by the false prophets: It’s not so bad actually. You’ll be heading home soon.

Last week I finished Margaret Regan’s beautiful and sad Detained and Deported in which she narrates the stories of migrants and immigrants caught up in this country’s ferocious immigration policies. She writes about the privately owned detention centers whose profits depend on how full they can keep their beds. We’re confronted with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the infamous law man who was convicted by the Justice Department for “racial profiling, targeting, and discrimination” and who was promptly pardoned by President Trump before he could even be sentenced. Then there are the small Arizona towns which depend on the economic engine that is the local detention center; locking up immigrants is one of the more stable forms of employment in many of these towns. She also reminds us about the destabilizing impact of our trade agreements.

Orbelín, thirty-seven, also had been pushed out of his home – Chiapas, Veracruz’s neighbor to the southeast – but not by anything so brutal as the drug wars. It was economics that took his livelihood away. He had worked in maïz, cultivating corn in the fields around the capital city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, but the cheap Iowa corn flowing into Mexico post-NAFTA undercut the price of his Chiapan corn. Once the trade agreement was in place, Mexico went from a corn-producing to a corn-importing nation. Orbelín was one of the casualties.

The power of Regan’s book isn’t in the information she conveys. I knew at least something about the broad strokes of how we treat immigrants and migrants in this country. The gut punch is having it all put together in a coherent narrative. These are not isolated policies haphazardly strung together by a few xenophobic politicians. The stories Regan tells are not the exceptions; taken together, they are the rule.

Despite how severely we treat those who are desperately trying to cross our border – destroying water that is left in the desert for them, separating parents from their children, building political campaigns around the fear of immigrants – many of us won’t see this exile for what it is. In our imaginations, it continues to be a God-blessed, manifestly destined, and divinely exceptional place.

This instinct is what made the exilic prophets’ task so difficult. No one wanted to hear that things were worse than they’d willed themselves into believing. After all, what, would that admission say about themselves? Ourselves?

“You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.” (Hosea 10:13)

But this is what coming to grips with wilderness and exile requires. Not only do we open our eyes to the harshness of our situation, we have to tell the truth about how we’ve made it so.

(Photo credit: Peg Hunter.)

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