Sunday, January 29, 2017

My America

Imagine waking up this morning as an American of Islamic background.  Wondering if your family would be rounded up, no matter how long they have lived in this nation, no matter how long they have had citizenship here.  Not even Islamic background, either, but simply national background -- if you are a Lebanese Christian, you are now suspect until you can prove your faith.

Pause for a moment and consider:  prove your faith.  We now have a test based on religious faith in this country.  A nation whose very founding was predicated on the notion that there would never be a "state" religion, but that there would be a freedom to choose one's faith because so many of the early settlers here had come to escape persecution due to a state religion in England and other nations in Europe.

Think about this for a second:  because of their nation of origin or their faith, their loyalty and place in our communities is now being called into question by someone who has never met the doctor in rural America who came to this country for medical school on a promise that he would practice in an underserved, rural community that desperately needed a doctor.  Or a woman who came here for sanctuary to escape an arranged marriage to a brutal man who would not allow her to continue her education.  Or a child, desperately trying to escape a war-torn region, who has already lost most of his family to bombs and disease and starvation.  We are shutting the door on all of these people simply because of the color of their skin, the place they were born and the tenor of their faith.

That infuriates me.

You apply the law individually based on facts and conduct and suspicion, and not to a giant, generalized swath of people that you round up in a herd and hold without charges because they have done nothing to earn them other than be born in a certain place that you happen to suspect.  Individual actors who are suspect absolutely deserve very careful and strict scrutiny for our national security.  No question.  That has always been the case and should continue to be so.  But the arbitrary, generalized application of a policy against an entire people based on their country of origin or their faith rather than rooting out the individual bad actors who deserve this kind of scrutiny is so antithetical to who we are supposed to be as a nation that I've been having trouble wrapping my brain around the depth of this betrayal to our core values.

Worse, I am at a loss to explain this to my child, let alone myself.

What I tell her is a story about someone I knew in college, who was from one of those countries now on the suspect list, and who was also a dear, dear friend and still is.  Someone that I would help, would give sanctuary to in a heartbeat, at risk to my own safety if need be.  Because it is the right thing to do.  I believe very strongly that you choose the light over the darkness, you reach out rather than smack down, you lift up where and when you get the opportunity not for the recognition or the accolades but because it is the right thing to do.

My friend is not the enemy because of the faith in which s/he was raised.  Neither are doctors in our communities, scholars at our universities, or the hundreds of other Muslims that I know or have known over my lifetime, and the hundreds of thousands more that I will never meet.  In this country, freedom of religion was so important at our founding that it was enshrined, deliberately and in very precise language:

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We forget this at our peril.  We, the people, have allowed terrible injustices in our name over the centuries of our experiment in republican democracy and working toward a more perfect union.  Citizenship is hard -- it requires work and patience, it requires constant participation and vigilance and pushing from the outside on the powerful who have seized hold of power within.

But it also requires us to look inward, at the ugliness that always lurks just beneath the surface, and every so often bubbles up to the top.  The prejudices that our Founders wrote in checks and balances to control and subdue over time.

We are reverting back to the worst of who we were in our isolationist, divisive past, and will have to re-learn lessons that were already hard won through shameful government actions:  Japanese internment, "Irish and Italians need not apply," separate but equal...the list goes on and on and, in our ignorance or, even worse, our malice, we fail to heed the echo and warnings of our past transgressions.

Worse, we are now using one religion as a justification for discrimination against others on religious grounds.  I'll allow Jesus Christ the floor on what he thinks of this as a justification, in Matthew 25:31-46.  Here is the pertinent excerpt:

“...Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ 

 “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ 

 “Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’ 

 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Pretty clear where Christ stood on the whole question of helping those that need help, isn't it?   Don't exactly see a signpost in there that says "Christians only need apply," do you?  No religious purity test or nationality test written in there.

What do you think he would feel about people using his name as a justification to discriminate?  The Golden Rule and the "least of these, my brethren" have been guideposts for me my entire life, because my grandfather - who was a Methodist minister for 50 years - instilled these values in me from the time that I was young.  Not as a duty or a burden to bear, but because they were a gift that you could give to others, and thereby to yourself and to the further glory of God.

To use Christ as justification for discrimination or as a test of who can or cannot receive mercy and sanctuary is so wrong.  Shameful and wrong.

What some of you may not know is that I have switched teaching hats in the last few months, and am no longer at the elementary school library that I still love so much.  A new opportunity to teach subjects that I dearly love opened up, and the switch seemed like the right thing to do to help out our school community.

Currently, I'm teaching high school students in the 9th through 12th grades about the following:

-- early US history: from our founding to 1900
-- 20th/21st century US history
-- world history
-- civics

Anyone who has known me for a while understands how giddy it makes me just to type the subjects, let alone dip my toe into teaching the subject matter.  This has been my life's work of study and thought, what I have argued, debated, contemplated, written about and worked in and around for most of my thinking life.

Lately, I've been praying that everything that I have been taught and think and believe about checks and balances and our nation's core beliefs will hold fast.  But this morning, I have doubts.

Since I began in this post in mid-October, we've done a lot of work on early US history, the reasons behind freedom of religion and speech being so important to our founders, and the language and meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  In modern US history, we've spent a lot of time on immigrants, the back and forth between business and labor, and competing views of Social Darwinism and Progressivism.  In civics, we've covered a fairly broad range on our own government and the checks and balances that are supposed to be built into the system.

My prayer today is that my America, the one that shines out as an example of the best of what we could be, my more perfect union, will re-assert itself.  It will take all of us working together, standing up to say "this goes too far."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said one of my favorite quotes during the Civil Rights era, a maxim which has guided my life's work:  "A time comes when silence is betrayal."

My fellow Americans, that time is now.

(Photo by Christy Hardin Smith, of the flag given to my husband at his father's funeral with military honors a few years ago.  We do patriotism in our family, but we do it with our eyes wide open.)

1 comment:

Pegleg said...

Thank you for this!