Flannery O’Connor is an author appreciated by people who are willing to have their assumptions challenged. However, those satisfied with the world and our country as they are should never read her fiction.
One of O’Connor’s most riveting stories, “The Displaced Person,” has been in my thoughts a great deal recently as I have been reading about the flood of immigrant mothers and children from Central America who are seeking to enter our country.
The setting for “The Displaced Person” is a farm in the American South shortly after World War II. Mrs. MacIntyre, who inherited the farm from her late husband, has heeded the appeal of the local priest and agreed to hire a Polish family displaced by the war and its aftermath.
Mrs. MacIntyre is constantly worried about money and, because of that, initially appreciates the hard work ethic of the father in the Polish family. At one point early in the story, she utters the prophetic truth that “this man is my salvation.” However, the other workers on the farm, all from the South, resent the work ethic of the Polish man, which is making them look bad by comparison.
Slowly, Mrs. MacIntyre also begins to resent the industriousness of the Polish family. She is stunned by the Polish father’s failure to respect the racial barriers of the time, and her fear that the Polish man could somehow replace her troubles her sleep.
As tension mounts in the story, the local priest encourages Mrs. MacIntyre to honor her commitment to the Polish family. “Where can they go?” he asks. In response, Mrs. MacIntyre lashes out that the Polish family is “extra” and “just more mouths to feed.”
Mrs. MacIntyre is represented in our day by the armed militia members who, weapons at the ready, aim to push back the “extra” Central American mothers and children who truly are more mouths to feed.
With shouts of “Go home,” these angry Americans have failed to ask themselves what they would do if they lived in a country where poverty, severe unemployment, theft, rape and murder dominate. What would they say, in those tragic circumstances, to their children who cry for food and a safe home? Would they say, “This is our lot; we have to accept it,” or would they want their children to have a chance at a hopeful future?
The hard truth is that the current immigration crisis did not
begin at the Rio Grande River but hundreds of miles south in Guatemala and Honduras. The corruption, hunger and high murder rate rampant in those countries have existed for more than a century, but these problems did not bother us until the women and children decided to risk everything for a better life in our country.
What is the proper response to the current immigration crisis? Many are quick to point out that the numbers of those seeking asylum in the U.S. could swamp our resources. But can we live with ourselves if we force these fellow human beings back to the nightmares that they are trying to escape?
If we want to see what we should not do in this crisis, we should read the ending of “The Displaced Person.” The final decision made by Mrs. MacIntyre and her American farmworkers is chilling, not unlike the actions contemplated by these armed militia members heading for our southern border.
But for those unwilling to ponder what could happen to us if we refuse to show compassion on these refugees, the last paragraphs of “The Displaced Person” must be avoided.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.