“Humanitarian crisis” normally – and rightly – describes emergency situations where the well-being of people is in danger to a level that overwhelms their ability to respond.
Currently, the influx of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border has earned the label, as they have fled conditions in their home places, seeking safety and refuge.
Predictably, the crisis is being weaponized in the ongoing political battle for dominance, which overshadows efforts to respond with resources available to the accumulating need.
Both the immediate need and the larger response to it from a sector of our political leadership have prompted some thoughts on the nature of a “humanitarian” crisis and how its scope might need to include a broader context that places the well-being of the larger human family in peril.
“Humanitarian” would, by definition, mean that which has to do with humanity, presumably its well-being and wholeness.
If someone is described as a “great humanitarian,” the suggestion is that, by service or philanthropy, the person has made significant contributions to the good of society.
A “humanitarian” crisis, then, would be a circumstance or set of circumstances that threaten the human family’s ability to be what it claims and aspires to be.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with its health and economic impact, has been and remains a humanitarian crisis. No one has escaped its effects.
Beyond, or maybe deeper than, these obvious crises that have affected the human family in catastrophic ways, there are some other features of our common life that may have slower impact but still are extremely destructive to our well-being as a people.
A few situations come to mind that would seem to be humanitarian crises.
1. When it is easy for maladjusted individuals to procure weaponry and use it to inflict mass assaults and murder in public places, with strong resistance on the part of authorities to put in place restrictions on such access.
2. When elected officials at all levels respond to the sacred trust given them by their voters with the obstruction and negation of policies that respond to some of the most pressing needs of the people they represent, perpetuating the very systems that hold them in poverty and social submission.
3. When the highest level in our history of participation in the democratic process of voting results in efforts by some political leaders to curtail that participation for partisan purposes.
4. When the residue of racism and white supremacy is still thick in the bottom of the pot of our national consciousness and easy to stir up into the soup that nourishes our public discourse.
5. When xenophobia that has long lurked in the shadows of our culture until it erupts in overt abuse, encouraged by rhetoric that demonizes those who are different.
6. When nearly half of the voting citizenry embraces a narrative based on misinformation and outright lies promoted by national and international sources intent on subverting the basis of our ability to have a government of, for and by the people, leading them to support even violent attempts to do so.
7. When a significant part of the dominant religious tradition in the country gives its uncritical support to a deceptive administration, both during and after its time in office, leading a multitude of the faithful to embrace the deception.
There is no doubt that we have a humanitarian crisis on the border, and people of good will must work to alleviate it as carefully and responsibly as possible.
But there is also a deeper and more pervasive humanitarian crisis at the very heart of our collective life, with many perpetrators and many victims, as well as many who look the other way and pretend it isn’t there.
Is it time – especially for those of us who have enjoyed relative distance from the effects of this crisis – to decide that silence in the face of it is no longer an option?
Is it time for communities of faith to be bold enough to move beyond fear of alienating influential members to find their prophetic voice and engage this crisis at the place where a difference can be made – in the hearts and minds of the people who decide what direction our collective life will go?
It is easy to speak of “defining moments” when confronting a crisis, immediate or longstanding.
This may be one, but then so is every day.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).