On this day in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an order which authorized the internment of Americans who had Japanese ancestry. Families were rounded up, taken away from their homes, put in camps for the duration of the war with Japan.
Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor the previous December. Outrage was high and so was fear. Submarines had been spotted off the coast of California. People were afraid and suspicious. Sure, they thought, many have been here for generations, but some were newer immigrants. How can we know who to trust?
Panic set in and those in charge responded to the panic by making a sweeping gesture.
Panic does that, after all. We lose the ability to rationally respond to particulars. We make sweeping gestures. We make excuses for our sweeping gestures based on the possibility of something bad happening. Other people are made to bear the weight for our sense of peace.
In the midst of hearing about injustice and trauma in so many directions it is easy to become overwhelmed. We aren’t made to absorb a world’s worth of news, after all, and it is human nature to break complexities down into general categories.
It’s not personal, we say. Only of course it is. It’s always personal. Because our responses affect real people.
So the US put people into camps, pulling them away from their homes and livelihoods, for the sake of an assumption of security.
A lot more can and should be said about this, which is why it’s worth spending time listening to the experiences of those who were forced to live in these camps.
I’m thankful for the voices we can listen to now about what happened, that they weren’t silenced. I wonder who fought for their voice in 1942.
I wonder because I think about the responsibility of the church in such times of crises, to help people avoid navigating by panic and help orient them in light of their responsibilities to loving God and loving neighbor.
The problem is that in a time when everyone had problems, it’s hard to think about helping others with problems, to fight for their benefit, to give them voice, to bear the weight for them. I think that’s the way of Christ. We don’t make other bear the weight for our peace but instead are willing to bear the weight so they can experience peace.
I don’t know what most of America did in response, or what the general response was when everyone heard news of this Presidential order. It seemed most either supported this or ignored it. Not everyone did, though.
I do know the response of a couple men, and, on this day, I want to make mention of their part.
My dad’s grandfather came to California when he was a young man, riding the rails from Texas, starting a new life out on the West coast, working as a laborer and then a farmer in southern California. My mom’s dad came to southern California when he was young, a family of farmers from Oklahoma (but not Okies, as the later depression era immigrants from that state were called) . He became a farmer himself.
They were friendly with their neighbors, most of whom were also farmers. As was common, many were of Japanese descent, families who had come east rather than west, sometimes generations earlier, finding a shared celebration of the bounty of California soil.
These families were arrested and put in camps. Some people took advantage of the situation, foreclosing on loans, buying out property for significantly less than what it was worth. Some people see other people’s problems as an opportunity for gain. Some people see other people’s problems as their own problems, and work to alleviate some of the pain.
My great-grandfather Willis Oden and my grandpa Merle McBride were of this latter sort, I’m proud to say. They took on the burden of their neighbors farms, working them as if they were their own. They didn’t take them over, they took care of their neighbors property. They kept the farms going, paying debts and maintaining profit.
Their neighbors lost years and lost freedom in interment camps, but they did not lose their farms or livelihood. When they came back home, everything was as they had left it, and they were able to settle back into to their lives on their land.
I’m not proud of that Presidential order but I’m proud of my great-grandpa and grandpa, how they responded. I come from families that were willing to shoulder the burden of their neighbors in a time of crisis, even when they had family members who were fighting, and sometimes dying, in the fight against Japan.
They weren’t alone, and I imagine there are many stories like this. Americans sharing each other’s burdens no matter what their national origin.
It’s far too easy to generalize the idea of loving one’s neighbors, but sometimes the best way to show love to neighbor is really to help one’s actual neighbors.
I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. Imagine if everyone did that, each reaching out within their own circle to bear the real burdens of others. That would resonate deeply and broadly indeed, maybe even transform our neighborhoods and our society in ways that reflect the Kingdom of God.
We have a choice each day. Do we depersonalize and take advantage of our supposed enemies, who are categorized based on general categories? Or do we put in the work to help those around us, recognizing each other as persons and responding in helpful love?
On a day in which there’s sadness and shame, it’s worth noting that there can be a better way. It gives me hope and it gives me an example of the kind of person I want to be.