By Father Bud Grant
Workers from the Near East and Asia fleeing the turmoil in Libya were aided this month by the U.S., Great Britain and France to return to their home nations. This isn’t altruism: Western nations did not want more refugees at their borders. This indicates changing world demographics caused by immigration and population growth patterns.
In the U.S., almost one-half of our growth is through immigration. Non-Hispanic whites are now only 61 percent of the population, while Hispanic and African-American births far exceed those of non-Hispanic whites. In Italy, Germany and Great Britain non-immigrant births are lower than replacement rates.
All of this has some people nervous and other people ready to exploit that nervousness. Already nine years ago, right wing commentator Pat Buchanan wrote a book with a dire (if also clumsy) title seemingly customized to ignite xenophobia: “Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil our Country and Civilization.” More recently a new phrase, explicitly echoing old Cold War fear, is spreading the flames. According to writer Don Feder, “demographic winter” is defined as “the terminal stage in the suicide of the West,” caused by declining white births vis-à-vis non-white births (quoted by Bill Berkowitz in AlterNet.org).
Were its implications for exacerbating social strife not so worrisome, this awakening to the fact that Euro-American whites are not the majority would be kind of funny since, of course, we never have been. Even in the age of colonialism, European masters never came close to parity with the indigenous populations of the places colonized. In today’s post-imperialist world one of every three people alive is either in China or India. America, though the third-largest nation, constitutes only about 4.5 percent of the world’s population. The idea that we are the majority seems to derive from the fact that, at least until globalization takes hold, we have been dominant, not in population, but through economic, cultural, military and even ideological hegemony.
Which adds up, literally, to world domination. The rich and powerful minorities of the globe have exploited the earth’s resources for their own gain and while there has been considerable “trickle-down” advantage for (mostly white, Euro-American) non-elites, the fact is that the price has been paid almost exclusively by the world’s majority: all but the very rich in poor nations, the many poor in very rich nations, and the impoverished planet itself.
Advocating for a more just distribution of wealth and power is insufficient. The suffering of God’s creation is now such that we all feel it: there are no effective prophylactics even for the dominant elites.
The issue is less one of equitably sharing the profits than honestly sharing the costs. It is never too late, of course, for redistributive justice, but we must also consider redistributive suffering. To recoil in fear of immigrants streaming from places ravaged by ecological degradation and civil conflict who “imperil our country and civilization” is a profound exhibition of defensiveness, the first fissure of a lack of confidence, a betrayal of hope. It contaminates political ideologues and weakens governments; it infects socio-economic classes and poisons even church communities. Fear of the “other” is a contagion. There is an anecdote, if we can bring ourselves to swallow the medicine.
We have entered Lent, a season — and a theology — that is particularly therapeutic in this ecological age. In imitation of Christ, the Church calls us to rend our hearts, not our garments, to repent in ashes, to bear our cross. This deliberate embrace of suffering is not to punish or even expiate for transgressions. Rather, self-sacrificial suffering is assumed in love for those many whose suffering is thrust upon them by the beneficiary minority.
We need fear no “demographic winter” where there is Christ: Christ-like suffering dawns a resurrection spring. So, how’s this for a Lenten observance: reduce our impact on the planet and get to know our new neighbors with the interesting accents.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)