To the millions of people in Southeast Texas, Mother Nature seemed like a cruel parent as Hurricane Harvey stormed through the region, leaving devastation and despair in its wake. Although the impact of the hurricane may seem cruel, weather catastrophes are not intentional. Contrary to some bad theology which tries to make the case that a hurricane is a manifestation of divine retribution (there was a lot of that after Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago), hurricanes emerge out of a complicated confluence of air currents and water temperature that grow in size and force – and which are no doubt amplified by climate change.
The announcement on Tuesday by the White House of the repeal of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) will no doubt feel cruel to the 800,000 young people whose lives and livelihood are now, with a sweep of a pen, rendered more precarious and fragile (not to mention the impact on their families, friends and colleagues). Some argue that rescinding the policy is a cruel stroke, while others say that establishing DACA in the first place was an overreach of the Executive Branch.
Somewhat lost in the wake of these two major developments – one natural and the other political, is the pardoning of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, which was issued on the eve of Hurricane Harvey making landfall. This action should not be lost, because unlike Harvey and the repeal of DACA, the impacts of which felt cruel, the pardoning of Sheriff Arpaio is condoning a policy of cruelty. For decades, there has been no shortage of evidence that Joe Arpaio’s practices and policies have been intentionally cruel – especially to racial minorities and people who are poor. Arpaio basked in his cruelty, and the President has supported it – and holds it up as a model.
Much of the time, cruelty is reactive – as a response to a threat or to fear. We see and hear stories of cruelty all the time. Many of us have been subjected to others' cruel behavior. All of us, when the circumstances are intense enough that we find ourselves cornered in fight or flight mode, have the capacity to be cruel, as a misguided means of survival. Most of us have opinions and attitudes which remain limited to conversation. If some of those comments were acted upon, even the ones made in poorly misguided jest, the cruelty of those opinions could have widespread destructive impact.
But condoning cruelty as policy takes it all to a different level, and it needs to be challenged. There are three important dynamics that are in play in each of us as we face policies of cruelty. First and foremost is not to respond to cruelty with cruelty. Or self-righteousness. Part of the effectiveness of people who engage regularly in cruelty is their ability to trigger the capacity for cruelty in their audience. “Crucify him!” the former followers of Jesus shouted when he didn’t give them what they wanted. Most of them were full-throated in their desire to support cruelty. To think that two millennia have fundamentally changed us suggests that we are not paying enough attention.
The second is to work and pray hard to see that we are neighbors to one another, and that God is doing whatever God can do to bring people together. We have been seeing that in so many heart-gripping ways in the wake of Harvey’s cruelty, as people have risked their lives to rescue strangers, and volunteers continue to show up to help victims of the storm muck out their homes. This spontaneous caring is not just an antidote to cruelty; it is a challenge to it. The more we reach out and engage and develop relationships, the stronger the social fabric becomes and the more God’s healing presence can be felt and seen. And the traction of cruelty as policy begins to lose its grip.
And the third is to call out cruelty. Name it. Challenge it. Stand up in the face of it. In peace.