A Nation of Immigrants
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 21, 2006
Charles Lamb was one of the most famous essayists in British history. He was known throughout England in the 19th century for his erudition, incisiveness, and brilliance. He was a really intelligent man. One day, a friend once approached him at a gathering and said to Lamb, “Charles, I want to introduce you to Mr. So-and-so.”
“No, thank you,” Lamb replied, “I don’t like the man.”
“But you don’t even know him!” responded his friend.
“I know,” Lamb said, “and that’s why I don’t like him.”
The first reaction of most of us, scientists say, is to distrust instinctively those whom we don’t know. It is hard for us to accept outsiders; it takes an act of will, choice, volition. We have to reach out consciously and undo the locked gateway of our being. We have to open the door to others and let them in.
Humans are social beings, and more particularly, we are tribal creatures. As Alison Hyder has said: “We form relationships within circles of cultures that have expected behaviors and forms of communication. We learn how close to stand to each other when we talk, what kind of eye contact to make, the rules of hospitality when we are paying calls or celebrating a birth…”
We are tribal, because we simply cannot know everyone with whom we come into contact, and this “tribal filter”—this social screening-- helps us to feel more secure. Did you know that, according to most studies (studies that cut across cultures and nations and religions and language groups), the human brain of each of us is capable of knowing—really knowing—only about 150 people, at most. “Above that number,” according to one observer, “most of us are unable to process the kind of social information and interactive relationships about each person that constitutes a core relationship.” So the number of people that we will really know is pretty much limited by our physical and cerebral wiring to 150, give or take.
Obviously, in this fast-paced, modern world—especially in this largely urbanized setting in which most of us now find ourselves most of the time—we come into contact with far more than that core 150 on a regular, even daily, basis. We take the train or subway to work; we go to the grocery store; we visit our children’s schools; we eat out in restaurants; we go shopping at the mall; we come to church. And there are people, people, everywhere! Dozens and dozens of them, all coming at us; all crashing against those psychic boundaries we have built around ourselves so that we might feel “safe”. All demanding of us that we open the gates, at least for a little while, and let them in.
This is where the choice arises as to how to greet the strangers in our midst: Do we see them as potential threats, or as potential complements,to our humanity? Is the overriding impulse which guides us to be compassion, or is it to be fear?
It is abundantly clear where our religious traditions stand on this question:
In the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, we read: "The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger and reminds us in Matthew 25 that "what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” In the Letter to the Hebrews we are reminded: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.” The Qur'an of Islam tells us that we should “serve God…and do good to…orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, [and those who have nothing].”
Why is this command to let the stranger in-- to care for him-- to treat her as we would our own kinfolk—why is it such a matter of deep concern in the Western religious tradition out of which our faith, and all our neighboring faiths, have emerged? Why does it seem almost an obsession of both the Old and the New Testaments?
Because, very simply, in the Hebrew Bible, God didn’t want the ancient Hebrews to forget where they had come from, or how they had gotten to where they were—how they had finally arrived at the Promised Land. They had come from slavery and exploitation in Egypt. Now that they and their descendants were enjoying the wealth and prosperity of the land of milk and honey, they shouldn’t forget that such had not always been the case.
It would seem that this religious lesson is something that we, as Americans, especially, need to bear in mind. We are a nation of immigrants, and all of us, except those who are 100% American Indian (and that’s none of us here this morning), are descendants of immigrants, or even immigrants ourselves. All of us. We forget that only at our peril, and our nation’s peril.
For these deep reasons, perhaps, there is a striking consensus within most of America’s religious community about the need for comprehensive and just immigration reform. First in October of 2005, then again in February of this year, representatives of dozens of religious organizations—left, right, and center—everyone from our own Unitarian Universalist Association to the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-- signed a statement calling upon the President and Congress to enact legislation which establishes a “safe and humane immigration system consistent with our values”. They called for legislation that would provide:
This hardly sounds like radical social policy to me. Rather, it sounds like a common sense approach to a complicated situation—a common sense approach growing not out of fear and prejudice, but out of real American values; our deepest civic values; values of decency and compassion and fairness that beat at the heart of this American Republic.
Interestingly, the only denominations missing from this Interfaith Statement were those of the radical Christian right, including the Southern Baptist Convention. Indeed, it has been the radical right that has been spearheading the opposition in Congress to comprehensive, common sense immigration reform—so much so, that they have managed to portray the hapless President they elected as a flaming liberal on the subject—they’ve turned George W. Bush into a “liberal”!-- just because he doesn’t want to round up all the “illegal immigrants” and ship them back where they came from.
One of the leaders of this right wing anti-immigrant jihad in Congress has been former Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. It was Lott who first castigated pro-immigrant rallies in various cities across America for “flying foreign flags”. “If they’re flying foreign flags, they lose me,” Lott said.
One shudders at how myopic and self-righteous people like Trent Lott can be.
Strange, isn’t it, how Lott never seemed to take umbrage with his supporters flying, openly and proudly and more than a little arrogantly, the battle flag of the Confederate States of America—a flag of treason, slavery, civil war, and enmity. A flag that has come to represent to generation after generation of black Americans distinctly un-American, un-Christian, inhumane values like (in the words of Derrick Jackson) “intimidation, lynching, extortion, segregation, and the stealing of millions of black livelihoods…”
As Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune wrote recently: “The complaint about ‘foreign flags’ is especially nervy coming from Lott, who as a cheerleader at the University of Mississippi used to carry a Confederate flag onto the football field. Unlike the architects of the Confederacy, those people waving flags from Mexico or Honduras never tried to tear this country asunder.”
Is it any coincidence that, at many of these rallies where “foreign flags” are ardently denounced, that flag of treason—that banner of racism and treachery—the Confederate battle flag—is flown openly? I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all.
Beating at the heart of anti-immigrant extremism is anti-black, and anti-brown, and anti-yellow racism, pure and simple. The Anti-Defamation League published a report last month that says that violent anti-immigrant rhetoric on white supremacist websites has reached “a level unprecedented in recent years”. Half of the ethnic hate crimes committed in 2004, according to the FBI, were committed against Latinos.
As Derrick Jackson continues:
I am not saying that the particular matters pertaining to immigration reform are anything but complicated. People of goodwill can disagree on particulars of policy. That’s the American way.
We can also disagree on the best way to live out our American motto: “E Pluribus, Unum”—Out of many, one. What is the best way for new immigrants to America to learn English? Should English be our official language? How much should we acclimate and how much should we integrate? How can a healthy balance be struck between multi-culturalism on one hand, and national unity and cohesiveness, on the other?
These are all good questions, and it will take the wisest insights of all Americans of goodwill and open minds to develop a consensus about them.
But as we develop this consensus, let us pay attention to the call of our religious faiths, reminding us of where we have come from. In the book of Exodus we read: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
All of us had forbears who were aliens in this New World, at one time or another; forefathers and foremothers who faced hardship to come here, seeking religious freedom or economic opportunity, or escape from political persecution, or simply a chance to build a new life. Who were greeted by “No Irish Need Apply” signs in shop windows. Who had their churches and temples burned to the ground by anti-immigrant mobs of “nativist” Americans. Who were spit upon and harassed and slurred and slandered as “Dagos” and “Wops” and “Kikes” and “Canucks”. Who worked for pennies an hour in the textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell and Fall River and Woonsocket, and built up this American economic powerhouse that would become the envy of the world.
This is our story, as immigrants all. This is our American story. We forget only at our peril, and at our nation’s peril.
In the preface to his book Dreams From My Father, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois writes that our major challenge as Americans—as citizens of the world-- is “between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us.”
We retreat back into that dead-end of narrow-minded “America first” nativism only by breaking faith with those who have come before, and only at the cost of our national soul.
It is not easy to welcome the stranger in. It is not easy to widen our circles beyond that 150 core constituency of people who we like and who are like us. It is not easy to see our story reflected in the story of an undocumented chamber maid from the Dominican Republic, or a tomato picker from Honduras, or an undocumented fry cook from Brazil.
But “Except as we have loved,” Mary Oliver writes, “All news arrives as from a distant land.” It takes an act of will to be inclusive. It takes an act of love to unlatch the gate, and open it to others.
Back in 1975, Henri Nouwen wrote:
This is the kind of Promised Land of which we dream. This is the kind of nation we can build, with opened hearts, and opened hands, and yes—with wisely, well-considered, opened borders.