No hate, no fear! Refugees are welcome here,” chanted the growing crowd at JFK Airport on Saturday, January 28. They gathered—“out of nowhere” according to a New York Times report—in support of refugees and others detained at the airport as they sought to enter the country in the hours following President Donald Trump’s executive order the day before.
No fear . . . Encounters between humans and the divine in sacred texts often begin with precisely those words, “do not fear.” That is the heart of the good news. It is the message proclaimed by the angels at the moment God broke into the world in the form of a child. “Perfect love casts out fear,” says the author of 1 John.
We are at our best when we embody this message of love and resist fear. By contrast, governing by fear is deeply antithetical to our sacred call.
Through his barrage of executive orders, impacting thousands of immigrants and refugees, President Donald Trump has framed his leadership of the world’s most powerful nation by means of fear. He has amplified the fear of those who, believing our claims to be the land of the free and the brave, desperately seek refuge in our land. He has manipulated the fear of our citizenry by legitimizing the false claims that refuge-seekers, particularly those who follow the traditions of Islam, are a threat to our wellbeing. With his Islamophobia and his call to build a border wall, President Trump has portrayed us as a nation fearful of the world.
Fear is particularly dangerous when it is claimed by the powerful. That is the basic reality of the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, where Pharaoh sows fear among his people through the equivalent of an outrageous and unfounded Tweet: “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” Through a series of executive orders, Pharaoh manipulates reality “so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.”
The key in the Exodus story comes in the resistance to that fear by those who have the courage to stand up to Pharaoh. Shiphra and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, refuse to be coerced into the campaign of fear, and instead creatively continue their task of bringing life into the world. Moses’ mother and sister scheme to ensure that the river Pharaoh intended to turn into a place of death remains a place of connection. Even Pharaoh’s own daughter, standing on the other side of that river, sees the humanity of the child who is crossing that border against the law and chooses to stand by him. “I will call him Moses,” she says in defiance to her father’s executive order, “for I took him out of the waters.”
In this time of deep uncertainty, it is imperative that we draw on these stories and the many others in our religious and civic traditions that remind us of who we truly are. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” warns the book of Exodus. The new Pharaoh forgot Joseph and failed to remember that it was on the dreams of that immigrant that the well-being of his nation had been built. Donald Trump’s executive order, ominously issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, forgets who we are in terms of our strength and place in the world, as well as our very make up as a nation of immigrants. It is our sacred task as educational institutions and communities of faith to remember, speak, and act.
The warning issued by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut to his colleagues in the US Congress echoes true for us all: “To my colleagues: don’t ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today.”
Following the example of the women in Exodus, may we as individuals and communities show our creative strength, intellectual capacity, deep faith, and courage, as we join angels and protesters proclaiming, “No hate, no fear! Refugees are welcome here!”