“It was our pain that he bore…”

Mexico / US Pacific Ocean Border Fence
Mexico / US Pacific Ocean Border Fence

On Ash Wednesday, a group of Jesuits and I got to lead services for some young people in Chicago. We read from Isaiah 53’s account of the Suffering Servant:

He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our pain that he bore…
1

Our priest asked the youth, mostly between ages 14 and 17: Whom do you think the passage is about? Some answered, “Isaiah.” Others called out, “Jesus.” One young woman’s answer pierced my heart:

“Nosotros.” Us.

She, like the others at the service, is an unaccompanied minor. She immigrated from Central America without documents and without her family. She stays in the shelter that some Jesuits and I visit every week. She is wise beyond her years.

I knew we were going to make connections between the children and the Suffering Servant. We were going to offer the hope that they, like the Suffering Servant, would receive their reward: “Because of his anguish he shall see the light.”2 But I did not anticipate this girl’s response: It’s about us. The Suffering Servant is us.

And you know what? It’s true. These words in particular struck my heart as I proclaimed them:

Se lo llevaron injustamente; …
Lo arrancaron de esta tierra,
le dieron muerte por los pecados de mi pueblo.
3

In other words,

They carried him off unjustly; …
They uprooted him from this land,
and gave him 
death for the sins of my people.

Many of my people want to uproot immigrants from this land and send them back to the violent countries they have fled. But many migrants’ only “sin” is that they seek refuge from one of the most dangerous parts of the world.4 Our sin, which we force these immigrants to bear, is our intolerance — and perhaps our need to blame somebody for our country’s strife.

We struggle with crime — especially with gun violence.5 It’s hard to get a good job.6 Poverty and wealth inequality are serious problems.7 Questions of race pervade these and other issues. Our political leaders — and we ourselves — are increasingly polarized on these matters. We are so broken. But rather than bear responsibility for our own pain, it helps to blame someone else.

“We are not being treated right,” said one candidate in a recent Republican debate.8 “People are flowing across [the border]. We have to take care of our people. Believe me.” Subtly, he casts immigrants as the villains who keep us from thriving. Indeed, his website lays out how immigrants are responsible for each of the problems I mentioned above.

A few minutes later, two more candidates got in a shouting match,9 each one arguing that he ought to be elected precisely because he’s the least compassionate toward immigrants.10

At least one candidate voiced compassion.11 “The great majority of people that come to this country come because they have no other choice,” he said. “We should show a little more respect for the fact that they’re struggling.” For showing that respect, he was promptly called “the weakest person on this stage by far.” A week later, he was out of the campaign.

Compassion, evidently, is not popular. Election results continue to suggest it’s more rewarding to be harsh. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to.12 And it’s not what Pope Francis asks either.

When he spoke to the U.S. Congress in September, he invited us to see ourselves in the face of the immigrant: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.” Last week in Mexico, he spoke about “the human tragedy that is forced migration.” He also asked — again — that we treat immigrants as fellow human beings: “This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”13

In one sense, Pope Francis agrees with our less compassionate candidates: “We have to take care of our people. Believe me.” The thing is, suffering immigrants are also our people. They are nosotros.

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Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Tony Webster, available here.

  1. Isaiah 53:3-4
  2. Isaiah 53:11
  3. Isaiah 53:8
  4.  I work with minors from the “Northern Triangle,” where more than 17,000 people were killed in 2015.
  5.  It’s no secret that active shooter incidents and mass killings are on the rise. We added one more to the tally recently.
  6.  While unemployment is not bad, many workers are underemployed.
  7.  This report notes that wealth inequality is bad even for the wealthy.
  8.  Specifically, the Feb. 13 debate in South Carolina. Watch his comments from 1:24 to 2:00.
  9.  If you can bear it, watch the video from 3:25 to 8:00.
  10.  Contrast Saturday’s exchange with this moment from the 1980 campaign. Ronald Reagan himself wanted to open the border — and he granted amnesty to nearly three million immigrants.
  11.  He enters at 8:00, after the shouting match.
  12.  See, for instance, Matthew 25:37-40.
  13.  If you’d like, read the whole homily.

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