Using ethnographic research, Willful Ignorance: Overcoming the Limitations of (Christian) Love for Refugees Seeking Asylum examines the attitudes of clergy and lay leaders regarding their (in)attention to racism as it intersects with the harsh reality of U.S. immigration policies and practices. This multi-faceted work begins with a reality check on the scope of forced migration and its intersection with the historical legacy of racism in America, including testimonies from displaced migrants and immigration advocates who help to alleviate state-inflicted suffering at the U.S.-Mexico border. Helen T. Boursier examines the rationales Christian leaders use to justify the local church’s nominal response, including the discursive buffers and stall tactics they use to deflect their lack of preaching, teaching, leadership and/or ministry with displaced migrants who are their near neighbors. The Christian church’s firm foundation to embody love as social justice provides a historical rebuttal, while case studies of congregations that offer displaced migrants compassionate hospitality model exemplary contemporary response. Closing with practical suggestions for how to begin building bridges with migrants, Boursier argues for a philosophy of religion that embraces resistance to racism and exclusion from asylum, through a missiology of compassion that exemplifies an ecclesiology of love.
Rev. Dr. Helen T. Boursier, PhD, is a public theologian, educator, author, activist, ordained minister, and artist who has been a volunteer chaplain with refugee families seeking asylum since 2014. She teaches theology and religious studies at the College of St. Scholastica.
Prelude: A Quick Review of Southern Border Headlines News (2016-2020)
Section One: Setting the Context: Humanitarian Crisis and the (Silent) Church
1.America’s Legacy of Racism: Black and Brown Migration in Historical Perspective
2.Reality Check: Exclusion from Asylum at the US-Mexico Border (2016-2020)
3.The Intensified Suffering of Migrant Children
4.Willful Ignorance and the Christian Church’s Silence on the Human Rights Violations at the US-Mexico Border
5.Discursive Buffers and Stall Tactics: Framing Leadership Excuses to ‘Sound’ Better
Section Two: Historical Rebuttal: The Church’s Foundation in Social Justice
6.The Church’s Firm Foundation in its Historical Witness to Social Justice
7.Mixing Religion with Politics: The Medieval Period through the Enlightenment
8.Global Events Influence Love-Informed Justice Theology—Twentieth Century Forward
9.Intersectionality of Diverse Voices Endorse the Church’s Engagement in Social Justice
Section Three: Building Bridges and Preparing for Response
10.Religion as Resistance to Racism and Exclusion from Asylum
11.Missiology of Compassion for Humanitarian Response: Case Studies in Action
12.Ecclesiology of Love
13.Building Bridges to Begin
Appendix A: Clergy and Religious Leadership Interview Questions
Appendix B: Resources to Get Started with Education and Advocacy
Immigration is one of the top five social and moral issues facing Christian communities and all people of good will. Boursier’s work both challenges and uplifts Christian churches to comprehend the history and roots of immigration as a social issue, and to take bold steps in loving the newly arrived neighbor.
This work offers sustained analysis of, and response to, the Church’s cultivated inattention to the intersection of racism and immigration injustice at the US-Mexico border. Its ethnographic study of the motivated not-knowing of Christian clergy and lay-leaders provides a detailed analysis of the excuses and rationalizations through which they enact and justify passing by on the other side. Boursier then provides a theological rebuttal to this practice of willful ignorance and shows how this theological response is practically exemplified by some asylum-support groups even as the Church averts its gaze. Boursier’s book is a powerful act of bearing witness.
Dr. Boursier does a great service to migration studies by her meticulous documentation of the views and experiences of real US Americans – clergy and interfaith leaders – in response to migration. It is from this solid research foundation that she can not only uncover the Christian willful ignorance of migration but also challenge what she terms the “loud silence” of so many Christian churches on the human rights violations at the US-Mexico border.
As a species, we spend too much of our time lamenting that we should do better and not enough time actually trying. This feels especially true in conversations around immigration, racism, religion and justice. Dr. Helen Boursier's new book, Willful Ignorance, bucks that trend. It illuminates the connections between these issues, and helps us understand why we should care and how we can do better.
In Willful Ignorance, Boursier provides a compelling analysis of one of the greatest moral challenges of our times – how to respond with courage, compassion and creativity to the growing problem of forced migration. This is theological scholarship at its best – a rigorous combination of ethnographic work, historical analysis, and constructive theology. Boursier provides carefully designed and detailed depictions of the experiences of those seeking asylum, as well as in-depth explorations of the experiences and thinking of pastors who are responding, or not responding, to this injustice. She provides a critical analysis of the historical and political contours of migration and the ways these are shaped by structural racism. She gives an in-depth account of both the history of the work of the Christian church for social justice, and explores why, given that the need is so clear, the possible response so obvious, that more Christian churches are not taking up this vital life-giving work.
Boursier’s answer to that question is compelling. She provides an original and chilling account of the patterns of ‘willful ignorance’ that get in the way of effective action. Boursier provides guidance in how to address these patterns and move instead to expansive and rigorous work for justice. She provides clear examples of steps to take, and how to do this work with integrity, critical attention to impact, and creativity. She makes not only the theological case for a ‘missiology of compassion for humanitarian response,’ but in her detailed case studies, she guides others in taking up the powerful work of an ‘ecclesiology of love.’ This is an essential guide for all people who want to live out their Christian faith in acting more clearly, deeply and rigorously for justice.
I see this book having resonance with the work of others who have taken up similar challenges. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Boursier is forthrightly naming the worst of Christianity at this moment in history, and is calling Christians to their best. Her analysis of the ‘willful ignorance’ of Christians now resonates with the work of David Gushee, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, where he laid out how Christians justified both their support of Hitler, or, their remaining as bystanders to the atrocities of that time. Boursier’s analysis of the theological/political significance of the suffering of those seeking asylum, and the theological/political need for ‘an ecclesiology of love’ resonates with the work of Miguel De La Torre.
Helen Boursier’s Willful Ignorance is a Tour de force as she confronts the contemporary church and its leaders on their silence and inaction toward the people seeking asylum on the southern US border. Because of her deep involvement with these families and children, she speaks with a voice of authority and passion fueled by her deep commitment to their plight. A gift of the book is her first-hand stories and interviews with asylum seekers and the volunteers who interact with them on the border. She brings these stories to life with photographs and drawings, her own and those made by the women and children confined in government funded facilities.
Throughout the book she argues the need for churches and their leaders to gain comprehensive knowledge about the conditions of the migrants and the multi-layered causes that perpetuate their suffering. Most importantly she makes a clear and compelling case for the way racism is directly connected to present day immigration policies and practices. Through meticulous research she documents the direct connection between the historic oppression of people of color, beginning with the Indigenous communities, slavery, continuing through Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movements, the disproportionate rise of incarcerating Black Americans, and racist exclusionary immigration policies that allow the detention and deportation of brown-skinned migrants.
The breadth of resources she draws on to support her work is impressive. She provides a sweeping narration of Christian history and contemporary theologies of justice to ground her argument that the church has its foundation in social justice. She arrives at the conclusion that the future of the church is directly tied to the reawakening of its mission to love as justice, and its calling to develop a spirit of resistance to Empire that supports systems of harm. Given the serious and dangerous conditions of the asylum seekers, she argues that immigration is a central theological concern that Christians and the church must find ways to invest in people seeking asylum, including partnering with organizations already providing assistance.
Willful Ignorance is an indictment of present church practices that ignore the suffering on our doorstep. At the same time, it is a love letter to pastors and other religious leaders, to encourage them to recognize the neighbors in our midst who are really our relatives-- our ‘cousins.’ With her many examples and illustrations of how some communities are engaging their neighbors on the border, Boursier offers a word of encouragement and inspiration for others to become involved. She says, ‘My prayer is that readers will remain open to the possibility of enlightenment from the collective and individual testimonies included here…’ For those who wonder about how to begin, she says: ‘Where do you begin? You begin. You begin.’
In many ways, Helen Boursier is to the immigration crisis what Helen Prejean is to the goal of abolishing the death penalty in the prison industry. Boursier’s work also resonates with Douglas John Hall’s call for the church in North America to disestablish itself from dominant cultural models of success and prosperity. Willful Ignorance is a disturbing, powerful, inspiring, and hopeful contribution to contemporary church literature.