Apologies for the lack of links in this piece. I wrote it on a flight from Tokyo to Jakarta with a very spotty internet connection. If you need to find some of the relevant news pieces, it’s not hard.
During an immigration roundtable at the White House this week, President Donald Trump described some immigrants to the United States by saying, “These aren’t people. These are animals,” drawing sharp criticism for the dehumanizing language. While his defenders have noted that President Trump’s rant followed another participant’s comment about crime and immigration – a comment, specifically, about the notorious gang MS-13 – it is impossible to tell from the transcript how narrowly or broadly President Trump meant his “animals” description.
But where the transcript fails, perhaps the broader context will be helpful. This week’s rant was not the first time Trump had used demeaning and even dehumanizing language to describe immigrants. During his campaign he described Mexican immigrants broadly as “rapists” and “murderers,” and he consistently exaggerates criminal risks associated with immigrant communities. He famously described the homes of various African, Caribbean, and Central American immigrants as “shi*thole countries.” And for that matter, this week was not the first time he used the language of “animals” to describe some immigrants. So whatever President Trump meant this week, it’s safe to assume he’s not merely saying that some criminals act like animals.
How should Christians think about President Trump describing immigrants as animals? Many of President Trump’s evangelical supporters have drawn comparisons between the president and immoral and even cruel rulers described in the Old Testament. Like Cyrus, they say, Trump may be used by God, despite his cruelty, to begin a work of restoration among God’s people. Like Nebuchadnezzar, they say, Trump may be used, despite his immorality, as an instrument of God’s judgment and may ultimately confess God’s supreme authority. If these analogies are meant to persuade anyone to support President Trump, they fail in multiple ways, but an analogy to Nebuchadnezzar may yet be apt and instructive as we evaluate President Trump’s posture toward the vulnerable and, especially, his describing humans as animals.
Nebuchadnezzar plays a most prominent role in Daniel 2-4. Indeed, some Old Testament scholars call these chapters the “Nebuchadnezzar cycle” of stories. We often read these chapters as if they are about Daniel, or about the faithfulness and civil disobedience of his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when in fact they are about a showdown between a megalomaniacal ruler and the God of the universe – a showdown that demonstrates that caring for the vulnerable is what it means to be human and to be like God in the right ways.
The cycle of stories begins with Nebuchadnezzar disturbed by a dream and demanding that his wise men not only interpret its meaning, but tell him what the dream was as a way to certify their competence. When Nebuchadnezzar is this close to killing all of his wise men for their inability to fulfill his demand, God reveals both the dream and the meaning to Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, as we know, dreamt of a statue of five different materials and of a rock, uncut by human hands, that rolled out of a mountain and smashed the statue. The statue was a timeline of sorts, with each material representing a human kingdom – the most recent being the golden head, which represented Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.
Although Nebuchadnezzar rewarded Daniel with a high-ranking position, the king was not impressed by the implication that his reign would end. That is the point of the next story – the one with the fiery furnace, the story that we usually take to be about the faithfulness and courage of Daniel’s friends or about the fact that God will stand with us even in the midst of suffering. But instead of a new story about Daniel’s friends, Chapter Three is a continuation of the story started in Chapter Two. When Nebuchadnezzar builds a statue that is gold from head to toe, to which everyone must bow or suffer the consequences, he is rejecting part of his dream’s interpretation – the part where his kingdom has a beginning and an end – and asserting a godlike eternality for his kingdom.
The fourth chapter reveals the great distance between how Nebuchadnezar wants to be like God and how God wants Nebuchadnezzar to be like God. The king dreams of a tree that is large enough to shelter all of creation. The tree is cut down and a metal band is placed around the stump. Daniel reveals to Nebuchadnezzar that the three represents his reign; that the tree is cut down represents God’s coming judgment on him. Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel reports, will be made to act like an animal for seven years, and there is but one way he can delay this judgment: by showing mercy and kindness to the poor.
The point of these stories is clear: Nebuchadnezzar wanted to be like God in all the wrong ways. He wanted an eternal and worldwide kingdom. But God wanted Nebuchadnezzar to be like him by showing mercy to the poor. Anything short of care for the vulnerable is subhuman and deserves a fitting judgment, like being made to act like an animal for seven years.
In other words, merciless megalomaniacs are animals (along with anyone who doesn’t show mercy to the poor). To be truly human is to care for the vulnerable.
So what should we do with President Trump’s reference to immigrants as animals?
First, we should not be so distracted by the crass speech that we miss the gross realities. Dehumanizing discourse has its very real dangers, and we should take great care lest we slide further into the actions that most often come along with denying the humanity of the vulnerable. But Trump’s language can be an easy target that keeps us from paying due attention to his policies, like the recently announced proposal to separate unauthorized immigrant children from their families. Even those who favor lower levels of immigration, stricter border controls, and more prompt deportations should be able to agree that this is merciless.
Second, we should not only reject Trump’s description of immigrants as animals, but reverse it. That is, we must reckon with Daniel’s teaching that our posture toward the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable is a measure of our humanity. If we support harsh and even cruel treatment of those who cross the border illegally, it’s not the migrants who are animals – it’s us.