On Human Cruelty and Alterity

I learned recently that all of the lectionary-based Christian denominations active in the United States—which include Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans and Episcopalians, among others—shared the same Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus in the Bible, with their congregations during the October 28-29, 2017 weekend. Those in the assemblies heard the following:

Thus says the Lord:

‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien,

for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.

You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.

If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,

I will surely hear their cry.

My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword;

Then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.’[1]

Regardless of whether one believes in a Supreme Deity or in a God that will intervene in human affairs to kill individuals guilty of visiting wrongs on specific others, this passage is striking for what it suggests about human behavior. Most Biblical scholars now believe that portions of the Book of Exodus, including this one, were written in approximately 950 BCE. This suggests that approximately 3,000 years ago, the Israelites’ leaders saw it as necessary to inform their tribes that God’s certain vengeance supported a moral claim and social norm that individuals not discriminate against others in their midst on the basis of their origins or, more broadly, their alterity or “otherness.” Put differently, the passage reminds its readers that humans’ propensity to discriminate against the alien was sufficiently common that such behavior had become the subject of moral rebuke and admonition, to the point of promising death, were individuals found guilty of such actions.

Closer to home and in our time, President Donald Trump has, in his efforts to mobilize political support, made it an article of faith to attack the “alien” in the United States as a persistent threat to public security and as a constant economic predator. The President has called on Americans to fear strangers and to build walls against them, both real and metaphoric. More specifically, he has repeatedly demanded construction of a barrier along the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent unwanted “others” from entering this nation, called for an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, sought to issue a ban on travel for individuals from a select list of “othered” nations, and halved the number of refugees to be admitted to the United States annually. He has not yet gained formal government consent for the first three of these items, but public opinion polls suggest that roughly a third of Americans support these stands on the basis of a shared fear and loathing of the groups Trump has attacked. They support the President’s claims in the abstract and on the basis of fear of difference, and they believe such individuals are somehow depriving them of economic goods (through taxation) or opportunity (by “taking” jobs they otherwise might be able to obtain) or both. There is no truth in the President’s assertions, but that fact has meant nothing to those supporters willing to embrace hatred and to abuse people they perceive as threateningly different from themselves. In that, those now supporting Trump’s contentions are no different from the individuals whom the author of the Exodus passage sought to exhort concerning the dangerousness of their behavior so long ago.

A closer examination of Trump’s policy arguments concerning refugees reveals their emptiness and points up the vapidity of his larger related assertions. The United States resettled 26,124 individual refugees in fiscal year 2015 and 84,994 such persons in 2016.[2] These numbers compare to a U.S. labor market containing 156,993,000 working individuals in June 2015 and 158,889,000 in June 2016.[3] The percentage of the national work force represented by refugees in either of these recent illustrative years was, quite literally, infinitesimal. Nonetheless, Trump has argued that this tiny group of individuals represents so great a threat to Americans’ physical and economic security as to demand that much lower numbers be allowed into the nation. Again, there is no evidence for either argument. Exactly one known former refugee has committed an act of public violence in the United States during the last decade, compared to the thousands of such incidents perpetrated by native citizens during the same period. Likewise, while Americans provide modest assistance to refugees as they resettle, all evidence suggests that such individuals routinely soon transition to becoming contributing taxpayers and that they continue as such across their lives.[4] There is simply no basis for a contrary claim, other than fear mongering and scapegoating and that is, indeed, what the President has undertaken and continues to embrace concerning this population. He is adroitly using dread of the alien, of difference, to engender in at least a share of Americans a completely unfounded and cruel fear and hatred.

Given these paradoxical realities—that Trump’s claims are factually empty, while his monstrous assertions are nonetheless given credence by many—one is led to reflect both on the abiding propensity of human beings to “fear and loathe the alien” that would create this circumstance, and on how it might be addressed so as to prevent deepening its negative consequences for our nation. That is, the question Trump’s continuing invocation of hatred has raised is whether the United States will succumb to the same ruthless vacuity of which the Exodus author warned. One may hope that Trump’s mendacity can be addressed, at least partly, by consistent efforts to inform the public of the facts and of reality, as against his false and inflammatory rhetoric. But this remedy is not likely alone to persuade a share of those supporting the President’s incendiary claims to change their view, as ideology and Trump’s constant rhetoric concerning allegedly “fake news” have combined to convince many citizens that anything contrary to what the President says cannot be true.[5]  For others who support Trump’s assertions, including a share of the nation’s Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians, the President’s behavior is acceptable, however morally and ethically abhorrent and completely contrary to their faith’s teachings, as long as Trump takes stands they favor and they believe themselves better situated to attain and maintain a modicum of influence in policy-making as a result of his positions. Folk wisdom has long suggested the pursuit of power can be an alluring and morally poisonous elixir. Indeed, when combined with humanity’s propensity to “other the alien,” it has emerged as a force that now threatens to sever the very sinews that bind the diverse people that constitute our nation.



[1] The New American Bible, Exodus 22:20-26, (South Bend, Indiana: Greenlawn Press, 1991), pp. 77-78.

[2] Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova, “Refugees and Asylees in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/refugees-and-asylees-united-states Accessed October 30, 2017.

[3] Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, “United States Labor Force Statistics,” http://www.dlt.ri.gov/lmi/laus/us/usadj.htm Accessed October 30, 2017.

[4] New American Economy, “From Struggle to Resilience: The Economic Impact of Refugees in America,” June 19, 2017, http://www.newamericaneconomy.org/from-struggle-to-resilience-the-economic-impact-of-refugees-in-america/ Accessed October 30, 2017.

[5] French, David. “Mueller’s Investigation Won’t Shake Trump’s Base,” The New York Times, October 30, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/opinion/mueller-trump-supporters.html?emc=edit_th_20171031&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534&_r=0 Accessed October 30, 2017.