The politics of distance

Opinion by Rhea Karuturi
Feb. 23, 2017, 12:21 a.m.

It’s another day and another avalanche of news about the White House. There are reports about Trump’s vacationing, about Milo Yiannopoulos (doesn’t Breitbart now count as White House-related?) and about the Department of Homeland Security’s memo about cracking down on illegal immigration.

I was reading about this memo when I came across an article about Jeanette Vizguerra, a woman who has lived in America for 20 years and is a mother of four who is seeking sanctuary in a church.

And she’s not alone – the network of churches providing sanctuary started about 10 years ago and has grown since. This network expanded further under the Obama administration, which pursued deportation more aggressively than any administration before that, and according to ABC news, deported more than 2.5 million illegal immigrants. Estimates by Rev. Noel Anderson of the World Church Movement suggest that the network – as of November 2016 – includes “roughly 800 congregations,” and the number of people they are helping is unknown.  

I was immediately struck by this story.

A week ago, I had a paper due for a class I’m taking about Gandhi and his ideas. I was wondering what to write about, how best to highlight what was so important about his activism and his rhetoric, when my music changed to Chance the Rapper. To be more specific, it was his album “Coloring Book,” what people who know more about music than me call Gospel Rap. So I started writing, and writing specifically about religion and activism; I’ve read about the influence of church music in the work of Ray Charles, Kanye, Outkast and several black artists up and down that line, and there are reasons (historic, cultural and coincidental) to explain that, but I wondered how much of it had to do with the idea we have in modern politics than the government cannot touch the religious, no matter what. Historically, when traditional political avenues weren’t available for black artists, didn’t they find refuge in using religion to express those same sentiments and to make those sentiments heard?

The political is about the public sphere, about the common space in which we all meet to discuss and come to decisions. But this public meeting space is decided, arbitrated and hemmed in by the government: We can debate anything, as long as it’s within the things the government will let us call into question. But when certain ideas – like the very humanity of people – is not given space in that sphere, and is excluded or punished by the government for existing there, do we need alternative spheres – removed from the government and yet accessible to the governed – where we can talk about these ideas, feel them out and grow them?

That was my hypothesis, because Gandhi imbued his philosophy with religion and refused to neatly package religion away from his politics. And I had read before about how the Kumbh Mela, a huge religious festival in India and the site of pilgrimage for Hindus, was used during colonial rule by the nationalist movement to reach people and garner support, because it was a sacred space that the British couldn’t touch through their own rules. I wondered if that extended to this thinker, and this rapper: Did they bring a reckoning through religion, because traditional politics didn’t allow it?

In the end, my paper was far less ambitious and far more mundane: Bringing Gandhi and Chance together was a task I couldn’t accomplish on the last day before the deadline. But the idea – that religion, by being defined in separation from the state, could offer a place for people to be political in ways that weren’t accepted by those in power – lingered. That it could offer a place where we could talk about values, morals and ethical questions, all the stuff of politics, but keep it unencumbered by the rules of traditional politics – i.e. the language of what is possible and what is permissible by the government.

When Jeanette Vizguerra’s story led me to an article about the sanctuary movement among houses of worship, it came back to me that, in the words of Rev. Noel Andersen, “We believe that we have a higher calling and that we should respond to a higher law.”

I am not a particularly religious person, and there’s a lot to be said about people using religion in politics and how that can go awry,  but I was struck by this quote nevertheless. Because Rev. Anderson anchors his argument in fact: He says that the immigration reforms “go against the grain of what our faith traditions teach us,” and just because it is law, doesn’t mean it is a law he will obey.

To me, his argument spoke to something simple that is easy to forget: Laws should be derived from ethics, and yet sometimes they are not. And when we follow the law without question, we are resting on that belief and forgetting that sometimes laws are not just. We must then reject them: We must adhere to a law that is somehow higher. That higher law need not be religious; it definitely isn’t for me. But it does need to be a personal grappling with morality, and what exactly it is that’s right or wrong in this situation.

Gandhi writes in “Hind Swaraj,” “that we should obey laws whether good or bad is a new-fangled notion. There was no such thing in former days. The people disregarded those laws they did not like and suffered the penalties for their breach. It is contrary to our manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery … But we have so forgotten ourselves and become so compliant that we do not mind any degrading law.”

I will not talk about what is contrary to manhood, but I do think this idea – that living in a democracy doesn’t mean the values represented in laws always align with yours – is important. And when something is truly unacceptable, we cannot step back and let things run their course. No matter how obvious, or how clichéd, Gandhi says, we have to do what’s right.

I’ve written before about defending Kim Davis – that county clerk from Kentucky who wouldn’t accept the law because she did not believe in it. And she used religion to make that argument, and the left collectively cringed. I didn’t agree with her beliefs, and I still don’t – but I did believe then, as I do now, that the answer to her should not be that we ask her to get on with it, to do her job, to obey the law even if she disagrees. It is that very banality, that very unthinking approach, that lets injustice continue unchecked. It is that kind of thinking – or not thinking, but rather just obeying – that dominated the Nuremberg Trials.

This is not a call for people to become religious, or even for more religion in politics. It is a call for what religion represents in these cases – an individual’s reckoning with morals and ethics — and to have more of that in politics. Ajay Skaria, in writing about Gandhi, explains, “Secular thought has been willing to tolerate and even affirm only a certain kind of spiritual and religious truth – one that is personal, apolitical and operates within an extremely constricted field. The question of a broader religious truth has always presented an intractable problem to secular thought: How is compromise, negotiation and rational discussion – the crux of liberal politics – possible with a religious truth? The answer has always been that it is not. Thus, secular thought is founded on the opposition between religious, private truth and secular, public knowledge; it is characterized by the insistence that only the latter can provide the basis for politics.”

This separation is important, for reasons that don’t need explanation here. I’m not trying to bring down secularism, but what this separation has done is create a distance in our politics between private thinking and what we accept in the public sphere. It is uncomfortable to say that people should disobey when public consensus (or the government) doesn’t match their values – but if we don’t, we risk becoming complicit in horrible acts. And sometimes the act of saying no, of bringing the personal into the political, will give us Kim Davis, but sometimes it gives a mother and an activist like Jeanette Vizguerra a home – and it leaves us with the fact that a question can die just because it was settled by the few meant to represent us.


Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’

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