(RNS) Emperor Nero didn’t exactly “fiddle while Rome burned” in 64 A.D. Some historians think he made prodigious efforts to alleviate the suffering of his people.
Afterward, however, the emperor did what weak leaders often do: He named a scapegoat. He pointed to the irritating new religious sect known as the “Christians” and said they had caused the fire.
Rather than deal with shoddy infrastructure — in this case, a densely crowded city built of wood — Nero blamed the outliers and had them tortured publicly in the Coliseum.
Something similar is happening today along our southwestern borders and elsewhere in the U.S., where yet another tide of nativism is surging.
The world of work has changed. Factory work has dwindled and robots are arriving. Foreigners are building today’s production sites. Other ways to access the middle class have stopped working. Being white and male no longer guarantees privilege.
As a result, family budgets are tight; self-esteem is challenged. Available jobs pay poorly and increasingly are occupied by women. Meanwhile, successful young techies live large and loud, and top earners adopt a lordly attitude of entitlement and superiority.
In a sense, a way of life is “burning,” just as the great seat of empire once burned. Ideologues who know how to exploit human suffering but have little interest in resolving it have pointed to today’s outliers, dark-skinned immigrants and refugees, and said, “They are to blame.”
They are taking the jobs, the line goes. They are ruining America’s way of life. They are threatening our cultural consensus. If we don’t stop their “invasion,” America will cease to recognize itself.
Like Nero’s scapegoating of Christians, those claims make no rational sense. It isn’t Mexican immigrants who caused sea changes in the American workplace. That was modernity, technology, offshoring of manual work and a shift from making things at high pay to servicing things at low pay.
It wasn’t Hondurans or Guatemalans who sucked the life out of American communities. That was Wal-Mart and a big-box retail economy that abandoned American suppliers and bought overseas, then drove local retailers out of business and abused their own workers with low pay, part-time staffing and few benefits.
Those decisions were made in the executive suite, not in desperate border crossings by frightened Hispanics. Vigilantes patrolling the borders for river-crossers are chasing the wrong enemy. Gun-toting whites shouting hatred at refugee children and blocking their passage to shelters are spewing venom at the wrong target.
Two ironies emerge. First is the long-standing irony of struggling whites blaming the wrong cause of their deprivation and failing to join forces with their logical allies against their actual oppressors.
If they could look beyond race, they would see that this migrant population could help them take back democracy from the supremely rich.
Second is the irony of shouting down refugee children on Saturday and then going to church on Sunday, where the center is a Savior who himself was an oppressed refugee and who later said, “Let the children come to me” and “do to the least of these.”
To justify rejecting refugees by referencing Christian identity shows disregard for what the gospel actually says.
These misguided “patriots” undermine their own future by giving another free pass to the ones actually oppressing them. They wound the nation by violating the very reason we exist as a nation. And they demean faith.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
KRE/MG END EHRICH