Refugees & Lotteries

Then you shall declare in the presence of the LORD, your God, “My father was a refugee Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as a resident alien. But there he became a nation great, strong and numerous.” — Deuteronomy 26:5

I

Two big stories of the past week have been the caravan/procession of thousands of Hondurans and other Central Americans making their way slowly through Mexico in hopes of reaching the U.S. border and hoping against hope that they will be permitted to enter, and the story of the $1.54 billion lottery payout won by someone in South Carolina.

For every thoughtful and measured piece about the caravan, like this one by Megan McArdle in the Washington Post, there are countless more that I find, to put it charitably, bemusing. The proverbial visitor from Mars would wonder, as I do, why the most powerful nation on Earth seems to be terrified by the sight of thousands of unarmed bedraggled people, many of them women and children.

Then there are the responses that grieve me, at least in my more sanctified moments.  I’m not referring to anything coming out of the White House. I mean stuff being said and written by people who should know better or at least allow their professed Christianity to influence their rhetoric and actions.

I really don’t want to name names because I believe, or at least I hope, that they know who they are. Using dehumanizing language like “hordes,” or invoking the novel “The Camp of the Saints,” which Linda Chavez, no one’s liberal, called “shockingly racist,” and has become a kind of ur-text for the White nationalist idea of “white genocide,” is appalling under any circumstance; it’s worse when used by Christians.

Likewise spreading the canard about “Middle Easterners” in the caravan when you cannot not know that such an assertion is unfounded and, what’s more, the originator of the meme has acknowledged that the assertion is groundless, is shameful.

II

An estimated sixteen million Americans bought lottery tickets for the “Mega Millions Jackpot” despite the odds of winning it being one in 302 million.

But in a sense, the vast majority of people who bought a ticket, as well as the vast majority of those who didn’t, have already won some important lotteries.

The first is the “geographic lottery,” to borrow a phrase from McArdle. Through no intention, much less merit, of our own, we were given what the people from Honduras are willing to walk thousands of miles for a (remote) shot at: the right to live in the United States and enjoy the protection and benefits of its laws and institutions.

The second lottery that many of us, especially (I’m guessing) many of those reading these words, won was what Warren Buffett has called the “ovarian lottery.” We love Horatio Alger-type stories about scrappy kids going from the outhouse to the penthouse, but the fact is that, to an increasingly large extent, who your parents are determines your future prospects.

Obviously, there are exceptions. I’m one. But even then, I was blessed with a mother who was, frankly, a cut above a lot of moms. Something similar is true for other exceptions: for instance, parents who made sacrifices to make sure that they got a good education. We also won the ovarian lottery.

The third lottery is what I call the “temporal lottery.” Some of us were blessed to born when we were born. When I went to law school, tuition was $1500 a year. What little debt I had coming out of school was paid off within five years of graduation from law school. Other people bought their homes at just the right time to build up a substantial amount of equity while not paying nearly as much for housing as their neighbors.

I could go on. My brother, who by any measure has been incredibly successful, will tell you that while hard work and discipline are important, what people call “luck,” or if that word makes you nervous, “unmerited temporal favor,” plays a huge role in our success.

We may not get to hold a big fake check for the cameras, but most of us are lottery winners. (To see just how big a winner you are, take this test. Chances are the results will startle you. They may even, as they did me, shame you into repentance.)

III

I don’t know what to do about the caravan working its way through Mexico. They are fleeing horrific violence, which according to the Council on Foreign Relations, is the product of “the proliferation of gangs, narcotics trafficking, weak rule of law, and official corruption,” which, in turn are “the legacy of decades of war in the region.” In other words, they are refugees, people “forced to flee [their] country because of persecution, war or violence.”

Calling them such doesn’t answer the question “how many refugees should we admit to the United States?” To that I can only answer “less than all of them and a lot more than the pathetically low amount that we are presently admitting.”

Four centuries after Jacob’s sons were driven by famine to Egypt, the Lord commanded them to never forget their father was a “refugee Aramean,” obed arammi. The Aramean (arammi) was a reminder that they were descended from a non-Jew, Abraham, lest they were “ever tempted to believe that [they were] in any way better than non-Jews,” simply because YHWH favored their ancestor.

But their ancestor wasn’t just any Aramean, he was a refugee. The Hebrew word obed (אבד) is usually translated “wandering” in Deuteronomy 26 but the same word is rendered “perishing,” “broken,” and “lost” elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Sounds like a refugee to me.

As I implied, I don’t know how this translates into policy but I do know thinking that we are somehow better, instead of merely more fortunate, than the people in the caravan is, to put it bluntly, sinful. And nothing says “I’m better than you” than referring to people as a “horde” or seeing them as a threat as opposed to desperate and hurting.

It not only demeans them, it is also an insult to the God to whom we owe everything. It’s forgetting that we’re basically only lottery winners, recipients of unmerited favor to whom much has been given and from whom much is expected.

Then you and your household, together with the Levite and the resident aliens who live among you, shall celebrate with all these good things which the LORD, your God, has given you.


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