The following OpEd column, written by President Forrest E. Harris in response to the federal government shutdown, received prominent placement in The Tennessean published on Sunday, February 3, 2019.  The Tennessean is Nashville’s principal daily newspaper and part of the  USAToday Network;  circulation covers middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky.

The country breathed a sigh of relief when the White House announced that the partial U.S. government shutdown was over — for now — at least until Feb. 15. Invoking a three-week reprieve, the president and Congress now have the opportunity not only to negotiate a compromise to improve border security, but also discuss a shutdown of another sort. The partial government shutdown reveals the need to face the nation’s moral facts, the lack thereof, or the thin, fragile veil of moral vision that exists in all branches of government.  This is now the most urgent crisis facing our country. Finding grounds for compromise in the name of border security begs for a national conversation about a larger moral narrative than the one scripted by the Trump Administration.T

The United States is in a moral dilemma

The moral ground of the country is shifting again, now on the parallels of partisan leadership. This time, it is political party-line loyalty over core moral principles caught up in a vortex of hubris, a culture of lying, assault on journalistic integrity, and seeds of mistrust sown in the work of government intelligence agencies. The nation finds itself in a moral dilemma. Perhaps only the next generation of American citizens, tough as it will be, will muster the courage and resolve to reverse the toxic social habits and divisions that threaten their future and the nation’s future. But for the current citizenry, our collective moral accountability is at stake. As ideological, political, and cultural disparities characterize our divisions, what we do share in common is the need for a just and moral vision of civility and a respect for human dignity we can pass on to the next generation. We must name the actual issue behind the partial government shutdown. Some will opine that it is securing the nation’s borders to keep the unwanted out. Others will say it is border security to keep terrorists and illegal immigrants from entering the country. The president and Congress agree that safety is the crucial concern for homeland security against all that threatens the flourishing of the freedoms true and dear to all Americans. Or is it the moral habit of some to demonize poor brown people as “thugs, criminals, rapists, and bad people illegally crossing the U.S. southern border” in groves and placing a burden on the U.S. economy? Is the real concern a moral humanitarian issue of compassion and justice, an ethic grounded in the moral vision that gave America the open door mantra to freedom archived on a plaque at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” These words of Emma Lazarus’ famous 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus,” offer a moral vision of humanitarianism which seemed shrouded in an immoral shutdown most prominently on display in the hubris and egoism of nationalism and populist politics. Emma Lazarus’ humanitarian vision is in stark contrast to the xenophobic and racist rhetoric associated with building the border wall.  I opine that the issue for all Americans must be holding our leaders to moral accountability against the egregious social sins of “politics without principle.” The partial government shutdown was a failing of moral accountability impacting more than those across the spectrum of the nation’s civil service employees forced to work under economic strain without pay. Recent calculations by expert economists suggest the cost of the shutdown, across all sectors of our economy, exceeds the money requested to build miles of a physical barrier.

Embrace compassion and justice to strengthen our nation 

Let’s face the nation’s moral facts.  At every phase of American history, the inhumanity and brutal injustices against first nation peoples and all black or brown people are evidential. This nation, at all levels of justice, has not honored the moral mandate of human flourishing for all its citizens. When the elemental qualities of seeing the humanity of others in one’s own humanity go lacking, caging children and families at the border, walling off people from freedom and opportunity, our nation’s moral bankruptcy is displayed. Rather than a wall construction, it is better for our nation to follow the compassionate words of Pope Francis to “build bridges, not walls.” I concur with what many are saying needs to be done: “Rather than spending billions for fortifications, better use of the same money is to fund development in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to help the poor recover from decades of civil wars and drug wars.” Humanitarian aid for refugees at the border is a moral act that averts more children dying unnecessarily or ripping them from the arms of loving parents. Compassion and justice will avert families languishing in unhealthy holding stations waiting to process their asylum claims. When we live by compassion, fairness, and justice, when we implement the ethical precepts of compassion and justice, fears are arrested, and the moral strength of America’s greatest is hoisted higher than our divisions.

Dr. Forrest E. Harris, Sr., has served as president of American Baptist College for the past 20 years (1999 to 2019) and is the College’s 10th president.