Recently another December 7th passed. While that day might not mean much to you, for me it carries a bit of weight. It’s the day commemorating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in the words of FDR, “A day that will live in infamy.” Having visited the site outside of Honolulu, I am both humbled, grateful for those who serve in the military yet deeply disturbed by the loss of human life that day. While I mostly understand the historical reasons why Japan allied themselves with the maniac Hitler, in other ways it is beyond my comprehension as well as somewhat embarrassing. As I have been thinking about it, that day has at least some import to the public discourse and social media posts we observe today.
Even before the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor there was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment present. There was such a deep-seated xenophobia of the Japanese that in some parts laws making inter-racial dating illegal were upheld (Anti-miscegenation laws have a long history). So when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it gave reason to mistakenly use “prudence” language to mask over fear and war hysteria. The truth is (and I’m not completely without understanding) that people were incredibly fearful of Japanese people. The narrative of suspicion grew – Who was loyal to the US? Who was loyal to Japan and here to serve as a spy? Who were “these people” who came from a foreign country, who look incredibly different and act incredibly different from us?
On February 19, 1942 with Executive Order 9066, FDR authorized the deportation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans. Here’s where the story gets very personal – my parents and relatives lived in Los Angeles at the time putting them in the heart of the executive order (only Japanese who lived on the west coast were effected). My parents were young children at the time the order touched their lives but their memories are still vivid.
The Japanese have a saying, “Shikata ga nai” which roughly translates to “There’s nothing you can do about it”. In all the years I was growing up, when I asked about the experience of being placed in a war camp, I usually got a somewhat detached answer largely driven by “Shikata ga nai”. But it was a few years ago I finally saw my mother cry for her older brother who lost opportunities, mainly to go to college, because of the incarceration. It had a tremendous effect on lives and on the psyche of people who lived in the United States.
Internment war camps were built hastily across the United States. My parents were sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming where construction of the barracks began in the early summer of 1942 with the first trainload of internees arriving in August of that year. The camp remained active until it closed in late 1945. What should shock all of us into reality is that over two-thirds of the Japanese who were sent to war camps were American citizens. Whether the language was out of fear for their safety or concern for the security of our country, the plain fact is American citizens were incarcerated with no legal recourse.
Many people lost everything. When the EO was issued in February there was quite a bit of confusion. Property was either entrusted to Caucasian friends or just left behind. In some cases, people came back from their sentence to find that what they had entrusted to friends was no longer their own. They did not have much time to find a way to secure their property as they were quickly sent to Santa Anita race track in March as a temporary “holding tank” until the camps could be built.
The issue of terror in our world today rightfully creates a deep sense of insecurity and fear. Who do we trust? Who is a loyal citizen of the land? I’m certainly not a geo-political expert but I think I know the human heart and it’s propensity to isolate others, treat them with suspicion, lump them all together. I hope we would never incarcerate American citizens again to that degree but you can see how fear manifests itself. While I understand this fear, my belief is it was a gross over-reaction to “the foreigner” first because we incarcerated American citizens without due process and, second, Japanese-American loyalty was under-estimated since the most highly decorated unit in Europe consisted of second generation Japanese-Americans, the 442nd.
So to say things like, “I don’t look at a person’s skin color” is nonsense. We do it all the time and, honestly, it leads us to treat others different because of how they look or behave. The default mode of human heart is to self-protect and it will use all sorts of rhetoric (e.g. “rights”, “safety”, “those people”) as a means to self-protect and make gross over-generalizations to categorize good and bad. In some ways, by walling off others we create our own “camps” in our heart that keep the other isolated, separated from us “good Christians” or “patriotic Americans”.
I’d be the first one to say that national security is important. But what I’ve noticed from leaders, Christian leaders, people who say they follow Jesus, is the fear of another can sometimes overwhelm the need to love another. It can lead to a brazen bravado that we’ve seen recently with, “You can come and get some of this” or “We don’t want anymore Muslims coming to this country for a given time.” I’m trying very hard not to be reductionistic and come across with a cheap clichè like, “Let’s just love everyone”. I think it takes thoughtful, humble discernment and discussion keeping issues of security and safety as part of the discussion while practicing the command to love your neighbor as one of the two great commandments. In many ways this issue of fear present in our lives is a clarifying point of discipleship – who do we really follow? Do we really believe God is present and He is working everything out toward a redemptive, restorative end? In Augustine’s words, is it the City of God or the City of Man? Jesus says in Matthew 8:26, “You of little faith. Why are so afraid?”