Beyond platitudes and towards policy on immigration.
On the night of Sunday, October 30, 1938, millions of radio listeners—as many as twelve million, by some accounts—tuned in to CBS Radio stations for a live-broadcast concert on Orson Welles’s program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. A few minutes into the episode, the broadcast was suddenly interrupted by “a special bulletin of the Intercontinental Radio News,” notifying listeners that experts at the Mount Jennings Observatory had detected “several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.” Hydrogen, the announcer indicated, was “moving toward the earth with enormous velocity.” Later, reporters interrupted the concert again to share interviews with scientific experts, government officials, and military brass. In a live broadcast from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, one reporter described the emergence of an alien from a Martian space-pod as “the most terrifying thing I’ve ever witnessed.” Moments later, many heard the Martians attack and kill policemen, farmers, and reporters live on the radio before the broadcast suddenly went silent only to return announcing that the aliens had also defeated a seven-thousand-strong militia force, taken control of the state’s infrastructure, and invaded southeastern Pennsylvania. Listeners finally received confirmation that “those strange beings who landed in the New Jersey farmland tonight are the vanguard of an invading army.”
Of course, there was no invasion—the broadcast was a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, written by H.G. Wells in 1898. That had been announced during the first minute, but many listeners had not yet tuned in. Reports suggest that about a million people were under the impression that an invasion was really underway, and many panicked. Some called their local law-enforcement offices for information and advice. Research conducted following the broadcast indicates that some listeners, not wanting to die in their “working clothes,” changed into finer garments. Others ate the best meal they could prepare from whatever food they had on hand, thinking they had no reason left to save it for later. Some fled their communities by car or left their homes to warn their neighbours, and many were not listening in the end, when the program concluded with a reminder that the entire broadcast had been a dramatization. Similar patterns were repeated with other radio adaptations of Wells’s novel. In 1949, when a Spanish-language translation aired in Quito, Ecuador, some police and military units mobilized and, once the city realized that the broadcast had been a dramatization, a violent backlash resulted in at least seven deaths.
War of the Worlds and its various adaptations are now widely recognized for their cultural influence. However, while some see War of the Worlds—and the broadcasts, in particular—as singular, Wells’s story was, in fact, merely one example of “invasion literature,” fictional accounts of invasion by a foreign power or alien force. Indeed, War of the Worlds was first published squarely in the middle of a multi-decade boom of invasion literature that included more than four hundred serials, short stories, and novels between 1871 and 1914. From the sea (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Danger” featured submarine warfare) to the sky (another H.G. Wells novel, The War in the Air, featured the bombing of Manhattan), most such tales recounted invasion by hostile forces from a neighbouring country rather than the extraterrestrial variety.
Many contributions to the genre were propagandistic, fitting the criteria identified by French social theorist and theologian Jacques Ellul. On the one hand, Ellul argued, propaganda aims to establish a stronger sense of identity and conformity, which some invasion literature did by fabricating a threatening outsider. On the other hand, propaganda aims to provoke action, which some invasion literature attempted to do by creating a groundswell of support for new policies meant to deter invasion, disseminating new military strategies meant to repel invaders more effectively, or raising awareness, suspicion, and readiness to act among the reading public. We might say that the first aim is centripetal (meant to bring people together) while the second is centrifugal (meant to unleash the power of that integrated whole).
Eighty years after Welles’s Mercury Theatre aired Wells’s War of the Worlds, the United States saw a mini-boom of “invasion literature” with these twin propagandistic aims. Instead of coming in novels, short stories, and dramatizations, the alarm was sounded on Twitter, Facebook, and talk shows. This time, the invading force was arriving from Central America via Mexico (not from Mars), threatening the country’s southern border (not the northeast). Unlike 1938, when there were simply no Martians, in 2018 there was indeed a caravan of approximately five thousand Central American migrants travelling north through Mexico with intentions to settle in the United States. While the visitors from the south were real, the hype surrounding the migrant caravan extended into realms almost as fanciful as the 1938 radio broadcast. President Donald Trump frequently described the caravan as an “assault,” “onslaught,” or “invasion” of “hardened” and “stone cold” “criminal elements” rapidly approaching the border. The president and his administration suggested that the caravan included human traffickers and their cargo. (Given that the caravan had been photographed and filmed for weeks ahead of arrival at the US border, these would either have been the least stealthy smugglers ever, or they were employing the reverse-psychology strategy of hiding in plain sight.) Some commentators characterized anyone who might welcome the migrants as favouring “open borders” that would be a direct threat to the identity, sovereignty, and security of the country. The histrionics didn’t end on social media. The president ordered a domestic deployment of approximately five thousand soldiers—roughly one soldier for every migrant in the caravan—in support of customs and border patrol agents and local law-enforcement officers. A five-hundred-migrant dash toward a border fence also resulted in a physical confrontation during which canisters of tear gas were fired at men, women, and children, even toddlers, as they approached a crossing—a dramatic use of force that might well be described as comically disproportionate, if it hadn’t been so tragically senseless.
And the public response recalled 1938 too, though in a long, drawn-out version. The point of the 2018 “invasion literature”—invasion chatter, we might call it—was both centripetal and centrifugal. It aimed, on the one hand, to integrate its audience in response to a common fear, and on the other hand to galvanize support for aggressive anti-immigration policies and to provoke action. Some who were “tuned in” called the authorities, contacting their elected officials and others to ask that the crisis be addressed. Perhaps fewer went out to tell their neighbours—how quaint would that have been in a world where those relationships have diminished substantially in density and importance?—but many did tell their “friends” on social media. For weeks, my own social media feed lit up with hot takes about the caravan before the furor suddenly died down after the November midterm elections. While the migrants remained—about eight thousand arrived at the US border in October and early November—the din slowly faded. It was as if the frenzy had been brought to a boiling point chiefly to galvanize supporters and mobilize them to vote.
In late October and early November, I had the opportunity to participate in and learn from multiple events that served as counterpoints to the furor over the migrant caravan. I joined a discussion in which Alexia Salvatierra, an activist and lecturer at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California, described the US immigration system as illogical, ineffective, and increasingly inhumane. I attended the annual meeting of the Christian Community Development Association, which included multiple sessions informing and equipping conference participants to understand and help others to navigate the immigration system. And I participated in the Refugee Highway Partnership North America Roundtable, which equipped pastors and other church leaders to implement programs alongside immigrant and refugee communities. Of course, these events were counterpoints in large measure because they did not stake out an anti-immigration position. While no one advocated an open border policy, they also did not favour building walls, deploying military forces, devoting limited resources to deporting nonviolent offenders, requiring collaboration between local law-enforcement and federal immigration authorities, or separating children from their parents. They favoured, to borrow a phrase from Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, “welcoming the stranger.”
Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate was first published in 2009 and is now in its second edition. More than a counterpoint to anti-immigrant uproar, it is an antidote to the propagandistic way of being in the world. At three hundred pages, and first published when the conversation about immigration centered more on policy reform than political points-scoring or cultural wedge-driving, Welcoming the Stranger is the opposite of a hot take. Furthermore, Soerens and Yang do not primarily offer prescriptions for immigration policy. Their primary contribution is to model what it is like to reject stereotypes, caricatures, and oversimplifications in favour of contending truthfully with the history and policies of the US immigration system and wrestling faithfully with the implications of Christian faith and practice for our posture toward immigrants.
While Soerens and Yang would welcome an overhaul of the immigration system and have their policy preferences enshrined in law, they model how to hold the particulars loosely. They recognize that it’s not just politics and policies that resist simple prescriptions; ethics and hermeneutics are complicated too. While acknowledging without apology that “scripture makes repeated and clear calls for us to take special concern” for the stranger, the sojourner, the migrant, we must find ways to follow these commands in a world marked by finitude, frailty, and failure. Readers who internalize this point will likely have a growing distaste for simple but ultimately unhelpful prooftexting. We cannot simply say that new Jerusalem has a wall and use that to justify support for a border barricade, as so many recently did on Twitter; nor will it do to claim that, since the new Jerusalem has gates that are perpetually open, we are bound to oppose a border wall, as many immigration advocates did.
Soerens and Yang also urge readers not just to take a complicated topic seriously, but also to take their neighbours seriously. That means neighbours at the southern border, escaping violence and requesting asylum, looking for opportunity and asking to be granted a visa, or telling a story that implicates US foreign policy in the origins of their plight. But it also means our neighbours who disagree with us about these complicated issues. Welcoming the Stranger invites us to begin practicing hospitality by reading together withothers who may disagree with us. The authors encourage discussion in small groups and recognize the value of wrestling together with complexities through inclusion of discussion questions. In other words, the book doesn’t just inform those with a taste for more information. It attempts to change our tastes so that we favour deliberation with our neighbours rather than propaganda that works us into frenzied and adversarial relationships.
In the end, what we need is less propagandistic invasion literature and more prophetic immigration literature, and Welcoming the Stranger is a step in the right direction. When I say “prophecy,” I don’t mean that the book is predictive or oracular. Soerens and Yang are not foretelling with more or less clarity a future judgment or deliverance that came to them in a vision or a word from God or his messengers. I mean the sort of prophecy in which we are reminded what it means to live in light of God’s Word, forced to take stock of our conformity not to social norms but to God’s heart, and in which we are reminded to live out our callings with courage.
It’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever make a radio play out of Soerens and Yang’s book. There’s no Mercury Theatre on the Air looking to take listeners by surprise with the complexities of immigration history and policy. Still, it is heartening to imagine how people might react if they thought Welcoming the Stranger were real.