Those on the left sometimes mock Christian conservatives for their political attacks against undocumented immigrants at the US/Mexico border. “Did Christ say, ‘Hate thy neighbor as thyself?’”
But it’s not all mockery. When it seems that conservatives want immigrants to die of thirst in the desert or be forced to return to their native countries where many will be murdered, bewildered humanitarians ask, “This is Christian?”
Unfortunately, for some Christians, it is.
Watching Lampedusa, a mini-series illustrating the situation with illegal immigration into southern Italy, I had a flashback to my days as a Mormon. Not simply because I’d volunteered two years as an LDS missionary in that country but rather the result of my reaction to a certain “sweet” scene.
Shrugging off the plight of others makes us no more than Traffickers of Human Misery. Let's stop shifting blame, and take responsibility.
When a woman raped by a human smuggler gives birth to the child of her rapist, she wants nothing to do with the newborn. We’ve already seen one of the traffickers shoot and kill her husband, have watched as the pregnant widow was locked in a shed in Libya with other refugees, watched the woman almost drown while crossing the Mediterranean, watched as part of the refugee center in Lampedusa is burned by rioters.
So when a worker picks up the crying infant and places it on her mother’s chest, and the mother finally embraces the baby, as viewers we’re supposed to feel hope.
But my reaction was, “This woman is severely, permanently damaged. She will never recover emotionally. She’d be better off dead.”
That’s when I had the flashback.
As a Mormon, I was taught that the only purpose of Earth life was to get a body that would later be resurrected. There’s even a popular Mormon song, "Everybody Ought to Have a Body" from the musical My Turn on Earth. The only other purpose for “coming to Earth” is to be tested.
Some of my friends envied children who died before they turned eight (the Age of Accountability) because dying that young automatically qualified them for the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom.
“He died at seven, lucky bastard.”
When someone was killed in a terrible accident or died a few months after their spouse or child’s untimely death, we said, ‘At least they’re not suffering anymore. They’re better off on the Other Side.’”
Whenever a mourner cried at a funeral, we whispered behind their backs. “If they truly understood the Gospel, they’d be rejoicing.”
Those lucky dead people had finished their tests. They’d gotten their bodies and were done with misery. Anything awkward or superficially sad about their demise would be “taken care of” during the Millennium.
Many conservative American Christians honestly don’t consider the deaths of undocumented immigrants a terrible crisis. Some people, they feel, are better off dead.
Lampedusa offers American viewers a chance to see many of the same atrocities facing immigrants in our own immigration system in a way that allows us some emotional distance. The islanders complaining about the impact on tourism look petty. The bureaucracy tying the hands of rescuers feels oppressively corrupt. But, hey, what do we expect of southern Italy, the place where the Mafia was born?
Some of the immigrants' rescuers in Lampedusa grow exhausted and want to give up, understanding that more people die every day than they can ever hope to save. It’s easier to move to the mainland and forget the suffering of these strangers.
Nemer, an immigrant who leads a hunger strike in the detention center, is written into the screenplay too simplistically. He’s a virtual saint. We’re supposed to see how good and deserving he is. But that depiction distorts reality—people deserve to be helped not because they’re wonderful but because they’re human.
Likewise, we get crosscut scenes with Daki, a young boy separated from his mother and sister, who remain locked up in the Libyan shed with the pregnant widow. Daki keeps breaking out of the detention camp to steal so he can help his family pay for their passage. Meanwhile, we see his mother and sister back in northern Africa, terrified and abused by their traffickers.
During the course of the mini-series, we watch as boat after boat of immigrants sinks before reaching Lampedusa. Sometimes, the Italian Coast Guard arrives in time.
Other times, all they find are bodies floating in the sea.
We watch an anti-immigrant tour boat guide who accidentally comes upon immigrants drowning just beyond Lampedusa. He’s horrified to see the suffering in front of him and jumps in to save a woman who has sunk beneath the surface. The guide’s heart turns from hate to love through this one profound experience.
Finally, Daki’s mother and sister board the last boat from Libya. But before they can reach Lampedusa, a storm develops unexpectedly and the overcrowded boat starts taking on water. The traffickers begin pushing people overboard to lighten the load. Those who won’t go without a fight are shot and dumped into the sea.
Daki’s mother and sister end up in the Mediterranean, in near-total darkness, treading water as the storm rages. And the Coast Guard is too far away to help.
Earlier in the series, a detention worker says, “Deliberately making the lives of people more miserable won’t deter them. They have no choice but to leave their homes.”
At the same time, as American viewers, detached because all this is happening somewhere else, we also see how this island community is overrun by destitute immigrants. The impact is real.
What we understand is that the solution to suffering isn’t amplification of suffering.
Misery, it turns out, is bad domestic policy. It’s also bad international policy. If we want people to stay in Syria or Mexico or Senegal or Guatemala, what we need to do is make life viable for them there.
We stop overthrowing democratically elected leaders. We stop supporting authoritarians because they’re good for US trade.
Closing credits for the show reveal that Lampedusa took in over 153,000 immigrants in one year. More than 4000 drowned that year in the attempt to reach its shores.
The producers couldn’t hire enough extras to depict the sinking of a single boat in 2013 that left 366 bodies floating in the sea.
Refugees are fleeing terror and war and poverty. And in the coming years, those numbers will only be augmented by climate refugees.
Making life miserable for the desperate won’t solve the problem undocumented immigrants pose. Neither will ignoring it. Or choosing another show to watch.
Shrugging our shoulders with a “They’re better off dead” won’t help, either.
Despite its flaws, Lampedusa, available through MHz, is worth viewing. As the captain of one of the Coast Guard ships says at the conclusion, “Whatever your reasons for blocking aid, let me urge you first to come to Lampedusa and see these people face to face.”
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable looking at our own flaws in the mirror, but sometimes by looking at someone else’s reflection, we can see ourselves more clearly.
Shrugging off the plight of others makes us nothing more than traffickers of human misery.
So let’s stop shifting the blame onto God or drug dealers or poor people. Let’s stop blaming the victims. And let’s accept our responsibility to alleviate the immense suffering at our borders.