Alien

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Joshua 2:1-14, Romans 11:1-12, Matthew 25:1-13


The book of Joshua jars modern Christian sensibilities – or at least it should.

Full of slaughter committed in the name of holy war, the Hebrew text frequently refers to kherem, a word meaning “to utterly destroy.” Try as we might, can we imagine Jesus commanding a group of Christians to annihilate not just one town but several down to the last woman, child, goat, and shed? Even for those who believe Jesus will return as a conqueror, that image should be disturbing. However we struggle with and maybe resist such ideas, grappling with them helps us grow in our understanding of human and divine nature.

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek reruns every Saturday. I especially loved episodes that introduced new alien races. As I grew older, I noticed a disturbing trend. Each race seemed homogenous. They didn’t just have identical uniforms – they had uniform values, opinions, and attitudes. When we did meet aliens who were exceptions, what set them apart was almost always an embrace of familiar human values. Despite the intentional diversity given to the Enterprise crew by its creative team, the human tendency to stereotype the unfamiliar and exalt the familiar emerged.

When Joshua’s spies encounter Rahab in today’s reading, she is the exceptional alien. When she protects them – that is, when she embraces their values – she becomes sympathetic, so she and her family will be spared from the coming destruction. Even though she explicitly tells the spies there are other Canaanites who share her beliefs, those people are not even considered for mercy. If Joshua or his people had come to know other Canaanites as they had Rahab, how eager would they have been to embrace kherem? How does the narrative in Joshua compare with God’s earlier instruction in Exodus 22:21 – “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt?”

Clearly genocide is not an acceptable notion for modern Christians or Jews. While it is true God’s justice is beyond our understanding, any comfort – or even eagerness – some of us find in the notion of slaughtering God’s (which usually means our) enemies requires some serious reflection on our own hearts and motives. When reading Joshua, we must account for cultural context and seek out the theological themes underlying the story itself. Our reaction to its violence is an opportunity to reflect on how God wants us to relate to the alien today.

Comfort: No one is an alien to God.

Challenge: Who is your Rahab? On a bookmark-sized piece of paper, make a list of people who have defied your cultural preconceptions. Use it to mark your place as we read through the book of Joshua over the next couple weeks.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unkown, temper my judgments and cultivate my mercy. Amen.

Discussion: Who is your Rahab? Who has defied your cultural preconceptions? Did they influence your view of only themselves, or of many people?

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Everything That Breathes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Joshua 1:1-18, Acts 21:3-15,Mark 1:21-27


Praise and worship are essential to our relationship with God. Psalm 150 exemplifies praise for its own sake – not because of what God has done for us, but simply because God is worthy of praise.

What do people value in a worship service? A majority of respondents to one survey claimed how it “made them feel” was most important. A close second was liking the musical style. Interesting results, considering the focus of our worship is supposed to be God, not ourselves and our preferences. It can be easy to confuse closeness to God with good feelings. Services crossing the line into entertainment (or even group therapy) facilitate such confusion. Emotions heightened through catchy music and enthusiastic crowds are a spiritual hit that fade quickly. Focus on God, rather than on how the experience makes us feel, provides a deeper connection.

Since worship services are often built around the attitudes and demands of the congregation, what is our responsibility? Well, we can set our hearts on God, regardless of whether a particular song choice “speaks to us” or drums up the warm fuzzies. We can set our minds on what we bring to worship, rather than what we take away. Many people stop attending services during times of personal crisis. Could this be because we associate worship with only good feelings, and feel pressure to put on a happy face? We can turn to many psalms as examples of praising through pain.

“Hold on,” we might say, “isn’t my church supposed to fulfill me in some way?” That’s an awful lot to expect from one hour-long service. We are more likely to find fulfillment through participation in the life of a church community. We often let feelings dictate our actions, though actions powerfully influence our feelings. Sharing community actions of justice, love and mercy is a natural extension of Sunday worship – a chance to open ourselves up to God working in our lives, and the lives of others. We don’t develop our spiritual muscles when the church hands us lightweight sentiment, but when we engage in genuine praise and worship and do the rest of the heavy lifting ourselves.

Comfort: Our faith is stronger than our feelings.

Challenge: At the next worship service you attend, be intentional in singing songs to God, and not just about God.

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I praise you as creator of all. Amen.

Discussion: It’s entirely possible for a worship experience to be both emotionally moving and focused on God. Have you ever experienced a service or church that strikes this balance well?

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Vigilance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Romans 10:14-21, Matthew 24:32-51


vigilant (adj.): 1. keenly watchful to detect danger; wary; 2. ever awake and alert; sleeplessly watchful (dictionary.com).

Are we vigilant about our spiritual lives? What might such vigilance look like? Jesus offered various examples of vigilant (and non-vigilant) people. Regarding vigilance he was speaking specifically of the day of judgment, but the lesson is applicable to other important events that will occur at an unknown time – including our own deaths.

Two workers in a field, but only one taken at the end. Two women grinding grain, but one left behind. A homeowner unprotected against thieves in the night. Jesus gives no details about what separates the field workers and women who are taken from those who are not. The homeowner has no way of knowing which night to stay awake to catch the thief. These examples tell us why we need to be vigilant, but not how. In a longer parable, he tells us about a good slave who is performing his job admirably while awaiting his master’s return, and a bad one who is wasting time and money that do not belong to him.

In a nutshell, vigilance is doing what we’re supposed to be doing, every day. None of the vigilant people are making extraordinary “holy” efforts. None are busy trying to figure out when the big event is most likely to occur. None are in a worship service others neglect. They are working. Grinding. Living.

Perhaps this is how we are to exercise vigilance: do our best to discern how God wants us to live, and make it our daily practice to do so. Waiting for the “right day” to stop gossiping or to start caring for the poor is a dangerous gamble: like the bad slave, we don’t know when our time might be up.

Many of us assume (with either fear or hope) that God’s demands will require extraordinary effort, and therefore put off our attempts to fulfill those demands until everything is in place. Does a preoccupation with extraordinary efforts distract us from the true vigilance of daily living? Instead of being overwhelmed, let’s find comfort in Jesus’s use of common laborers, rather than prophets or priests, as his examples of the vigilant. We don’t need to be scholars, seers, or sages to be vigilant. We just need to be the people God created us to be.

Comfort: God has given us lives that prepare us for His presence.

Challenge: At the end of the day, make notes of when you were and were not spiritually vigilant.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, thank you for your presence in my daily activities. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel like you’re living as God would have you live? How do you struggle with that idea?

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For Better or Verse

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148,g Deuteronomy 31:7-13, 31:24-32:4, Romans 10:1-13, Matthew 24:15-31


What’s the number of your favorite New Testament verse? Only 500 years ago, that would have been a nonsense question. Before the 16th century, the New Testament was not divided into verses in any generally accepted manner. Before the 13th century, it wasn’t even divided into standard chapters! Today, we can scarcely imagine taking part in a Bible study without being able to flip to the proper chapters and verses on demand.

But do verses help or hinder our relationship with the text?

A devotional that depends on scheduled readings might seem like an odd place to bring up the dangers of versification, but today’s Epistle reading is a good example of the importance of context. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a rich and complex document. Each section builds upon the content of the previous sections. Today’s text continues Paul’s exploration of the continued role of the Jewish people in God’s plan for salvation. Out of context, it could be presented as an outright condemnation. As part of a larger document, it helps build an argument that God is the God of all people, whether Jewish or Gentile.

Beyond the immediate context of Romans itself, it helps to know Paul wrote this letter as Jews were returning to Rome after being expelled for five years by the Emperor Claudius. The church they returned to was increasingly Gentile in character. Part of Paul’s reason for the letter was to relieve tensions between clashing sects of Christianity.

Understanding the Bible involves more than memorizing verses and pulling out proof-texts. While verse identification is a helpful reference tool, it should not limit our study or – worse yet – reduce the Bible to a collection of favorite, context-free quotes. Reading the full text and exploring the historical context will provide a much deeper experience. Even lectionary readings might be enriched by looking back and reading ahead!

The New Testament was composed over decades by many authors, none of whom wrote their work in verses. When we try to read the text as they wrote it, our appreciation and comprehension can only grow.

Comfort: The Bible is greater than the sum of its verses!

Challenge: Before the end of the month, research the historical context of one of the New Testament books, and notice how it affects your understanding of the text.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, we thank you for the living words of scripture. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

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Give ’em a break…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 1:1-18, Romans 9:1-18, Matthew 23:27-39


The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains some of Christ’s most scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He compares them to whitewashed tombs – spotless outside but full of decay. He calls them a brood of vipers. He accuses them of building tombs for prophets they had murdered while they claimed “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” … on one hand denouncing a murderous tradition while enthusiastically embracing it with the other.

This is the part where we can sit back, think of all the vipers in our own lives, and enjoy Jesus really letting those hypocrites have it!

Or is it?

Maybe this is the part where give the Pharisees a break. Or if not a break, a little empathy. If we look at them and say “that would never have been me!” we make the same mistake they did. Of course we like to believe that even under identical circumstances we would be different – better – than people who have made bad choices. For a few noble souls it may even be true. But most of us are not exceptional; we are doing the best with what we have, and failing more often than we’d like.

If we can entertain the idea that we might have been pharisaical … that if we’d been less privileged by intelligence or class we might have found ourselves in prison … that we might have been in the crowd that loved Jesus right up until it began shouting “Crucify him!” … we may find it a little easier to show compassion and forgiveness.

Romans 3:23 tells us all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Short is short and all is all: since the scale of God’s glory is infinite, our relative distance from it is irrelevant. Thinking other people’s sins are greater than our own robs us of compassion. Believing our sins are greater than other people’s robs us of hope. To be heirs of the kingdom, rather than heirs to the murderous tradition, we only have to believe Jesus died for all of us equally.

Comfort: Jesus offers forgiveness to everyone, including you.

Challenge: Jesus asks us to offer forgiveness to everyone, including ourselves.

Prayer: God of mercy, help me to keep a humble and loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: How do you think our secular culture influences our ability to feel compassion?

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Gold or Sanctuary?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34, Romans 8:31-39, Matthew 23:13-26


Jesus spoke harsh words against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. He called them “blind guides” – people pretending to lead but actually walking the faithful and converts alike off a spiritual cliff. He had no patience for a temple where gold and gifts were revered more than the sanctuary and altar that made them holy, where tithes of spices were more important than justice, mercy and faith. He compared them to cups polished on the outside, but filthy inside.

Today Jesus might not find coffers of gold and cumin in our sanctuaries, but he could find plenty to criticize. While there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful sanctuary – God himself directed the creation of a beautiful temple in Jerusalem – there is a problem when the image outshines the substance. A church is holy because of its character, not because of its “success.” The scandal of some churches – regardless of denomination (or lack thereof) – is not that their leadership sins, but that they collude to cover it up.

Looking the other way when our house of worship bullies, excludes, discriminates, exploits, ignores, or otherwise abuses people is never acceptable. Teaching a prosperity gospel that impoverishes the congregation while filling the pockets and three-car garage of the pastor is a betrayal of the gospel. Yet people turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in a misguided attempt to preserve the dignity of the church. Making an idol of the reputation of a corrupt institution to attract and retain members is like handing out candy you know is poisoned.

Better to worship in an outhouse crowded with the shopworn meek than a cathedral packed with gleaming hypocrites.

Christians are often taught to be nice to each other, but nice is not the same as just. Nice transfers abusive clergy without causing a commotion; just disciplines them. Nice prevents us from calling someone out for discriminating; just knows embarrassment is not worse than discrimination. Nice makes sure the cup is polished, just makes sure the contents are safe. We don’t need the world to think we are nice; we need to show the world that even when we are flawed, we strive for the just.

Comfort: You are allowed to speak up.

Challenge: Sometimes speaking up is hard; do it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, help us build a health church body. Amen.

Discussion: When have you spoken up, even though it might have been unpopular?

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Sigh

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Numbers 32:1-6, 16-27, Romans 8:26-30, Matthew 23:1-12


We are a species driven by language. Some philosophers claim language is a necessary precedent to thought as we understand it. In Genesis, God speaks creation into existence. Is language also necessary for prayer? Paul would not seem to think so. He might even go so far as to suggest it could be an impediment to true prayer. He writes: “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

As much as we rely on words to express our feelings, many of the emotions we experience are beyond them. How do we express these things? Sometimes through poetry, which subverts the definition of words to uncover what they cannot say directly. Or maybe through music which has the power to communicate directly with the body and bypass words altogether. And of course there is art of all kinds which recombines the intent of the artist and the perception of the viewer into an ever more powerful third experience which is shared yet unique.

Then there is prayer. In some circumstances it’s a set of shared words; in others, a shared silence. Sometimes it’s not shared at all. Prayer is a tool which – usually gently, but forcefully when necessary – pries apart the seams of hardened ego to expose our inner, vulnerable selves to the God who gives us life, meaning, and comfort. It re-establishes that connection through a language with a single, inexpressible word for everything that is: horror and beauty; grief and joy; rage and peace; pain and bliss. When we need to share these things with our God and don’t know how, the sigh of the Spirit is that word.

Never beat yourself up over not knowing the “right” way to pray. Paul admitted he didn’t. The Spirit is also known as the Advocate, or one who pleads on behalf of another. Whether you are expressing gratitude or anger, using words or not, the Spirit sighs on your behalf. Prayer is a decision to be in the presence of God. It’s simplest form: Inhale. Exhale. Be. Repeat.

Comfort: God knows what is in your heart, always.

Challenge: Even when you are angry with God, take time to pray.

Prayer: God of all that is, I come to you naked and helpless as a babe, trusting in your goodness and love. Amen.

Discussion: When do you find it difficult to pray?

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Conviction

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54, 146, Numbers 22:21-38, Romans 7:1-12, Matthew 21:23-32

Does a vision without a voice have any value? In the pre-civil rights era, many preachers in white churches personally believed in desegregation, but were reluctant to say so from the pulpit. They feared alienating their congregations and losing members. Not many years ago, during a panel discussion on whether to ordain gay clergy, several pastors said they personally supported it, but that taking such a stand would drive their congregations to either fire them or leave the denomination. Only one pastor in attendance had the courage to say: “Let them leave.” Personal convictions, especially regarding matters of justice, mean nothing if we remain silent about them

The difference between a pastor and a prophet is often their willingness to (pardon the language) piss people off. A pastor is beholden to an audience; if he or she drives members away, they will likely be fired or transferred. A prophet is beholden only to God and conscience. Telling people what they want to hear in order to remain in power is the purview of politicians, not clergy.

When the chief priests and elders asked Jesus by what authority he preached, he countered by asking them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They dithered among themselves, trying to determine which answer would cause the fewest problems: if they said “from heaven” they would have to admit they’d been hypocrites, but if they said “from man” the people who followed John might turn on them in anger. At no point in the conversation does it seem they asked themselves: “What do we believe is the truth?” They answered, “We do not know.”

No one can truly lead people they fear to displease. When our pastors and priests are willing to tell us something we won’t like – something that may even anger us – we are not obligated to agree with them, but it is an indicator of their integrity. And when we are called upon to lead, we must not equivocate, but instead be clear in our words and intentions. If we wait to take a stand until most of the danger of doing so has passed, we have done nothing at all.

Comfort: You can’t make everyone happy, so don’t try.

Challenge: If the just opinion is unpopular, speak it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, give me courage to serve you boldly. Amen.

Discussion: When do you regret not speaking up?

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Hard Choices

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22


According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first thing Jesus did after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem was drive merchants and customers out of the temple, and turn over the tables of the money changers. Matthew tells this story quickly and makes it clear Jesus is upset because: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” Once the temple was cleared, blind and lame people came to Jesus there, and he healed them.

Notice that Jesus didn’t kick out just the sellers, but also the buyers. The sellers and money changers may have been exploiting religious pilgrims, but the buyers were also participating in the corruption of the temple. Surely many of the customers, if asked, would have said they had no choice; without offerings they could not enter the temple. But when their practices finally caught up with them, they were driven from the temple anyway.

Often when we say we don’t have a choice, what we really mean is we don’t have an attractive choice. “If I say something about this unethical practice, I’ll lose my job.” That’s a choice. “I know this business treats its employees more fairly, but their prices are too high so I shop elsewhere.” Also a choice. “I know this song-sharing site is illegal, but money is tight right now.” Choice (and theft). Principles are  not cheap. They can cost us money, respect, and friendships. If we aren’t willing to risk these things, we don’t have principles, we have preferences – and not even strong ones.

Of course these are examples of choices available to the reasonably comfortable. Sometimes our choices actually are restricted by circumstances such as poverty and ability.  Many of us are crowded out by the “buyers and sellers” going about their daily, unexamined business. It is on the shoulders of people who have many options to consider how they are impacting those with fewer options. Luke 12:48 tells us: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”

When a system is corrupt or unjust, we have the choice to opt out, even if it causes us inconvenience or harm. Jesus opted out all the way to the cross.

It’s never too late to start behaving more ethically. We might need to jump-start that change with a purging of our inner temple, a ruthless examination of our own participation in evils small and large. Clearing them out makes room for the healing spirit of God. There is nothing more valuable in the world.

Comfort: You will always have a choice.

Challenge: You won’t always like the choices you have.

Prayer: God of wisdom, grant me the discernment to make good choices, and the courage to follow through on them. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you didn’t have a choice? Was that really the case?

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Questions Beyond Borders

Chain Link Border Fence

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that started about the Handmaid’s Tale and ended up a reaction to the Attorney General using Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy implemented on our southern border, and by extension its effective separation of children from their parents. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog (read into that what you will), but I did get a private Facebook message from someone.

This person – a childhood neighbor, fellow Christian, lover of beauty and creativity, and in my humble estimation an all-around good and generous egg – asked my thoughts on a couple questions.

  • What do think would happen if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to enter some other country without “papers” (for lack of a better word)?
  • What if a child born in the United States (parents from another country) decided to leave the USA and take up residence in the Country of his or her parents?

These questions are sincere and important and immediately sent my mind spinning in a dozen directions. I want to answer (and expound on) them sincerely and respectfully. I am grateful to her for thoughtful engagement.

WITHOUT PAPERS

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale – the source material for the television series which was the genesis of my original sidetracked post – actually does tackle the idea of a sudden onslaught of refugees from the (former) United States into Canada. The Canadians accept anyone who can make it across the border. The hope of these refugees is to eventually to reclaim and resettle to their homes, but there is no indication that will be soon. However the question was what do I think would happen. Try as I might I can’t come to a more solid answer than … it depends.

But on what?

First, it depends on the destination country.

Different nations have different philosophies and policies around immigration, refugees, and asylum. The legal distinction among those classes is important. Germany, for instance, doesn’t admit just anyone outside the European Union as a migrant for economic or personal reasons, but it has been famously accepting millions of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Italy, on the other hand, has been less willing to accept such refugees. Both countries are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – as is the United States, but only per amendments as of the 1967 Protocol which actually expands the definition of refugee – but all interpret their corresponding responsibilities differently.

Second, it would depend on the reason.

The United States is a wealthy nation offering more economic and personal security than most countries typically known for displaced refugees. Were that to change (a la The Handmaid’s Tale) due to natural disaster, civil war, economic collapse, or other circumstances, and if such changes created groups of people who were endangered with no recourse through the national government, U.S. refugees would probably be received as sympathetically as other refugees. But – and this is a big but – the last couple centuries of history of the U.S. as an extension of Western European development is that of the colonizer far more than of the oppressed. Native Americans brought to the brink of extinction, enslaved African Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II would have certainly qualified as refugees from the United States under the definition of the Refugee Convention, but when we picture the possibility of “Americans” approaching foreign borders is that really who we’re thinking of? Under present circumstances, an approaching horde of Americans of Western European descent seems more likely to be seizing than fleeing. God forbid our fortune changes, but unless it does, people leaving the United States in droves is a far different scenario than people fleeing countries which have descended into violent narco-states ruled by murderous gangs.

Third, and this may seem like part of the first but I think it’s important enough to warrant its own consideration – what has been the extralegal, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” history between the United States and the country in question?

Has it recently changed? For decades the U.S. has largely looked the other way when migrants from Mexico and other nations provided cheap labor to shore up industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture because no one wants to pay fifteen dollars per pound for apples picked at the legal minimum wage. As immigration authorities clamp down on such labor, many farmers are struggling to deal with labor shortages. This relationship has been symbiotic for many years. It hasn’t changed because of economics or danger, but because of politics. It seems to me the concern about “the illegals” has grown proportionately not with the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. (the net is actually negative), but with the so-called “browning of America” – the increasingly large portion of legal, permanent (and native) Latinx residents as compared to whites.

It’d be disingenuous not to note the number of non-Mexican Latinx immigrants is increasing, but a large portion of those are seeking refugee or asylee status. If United States residents started migrating in large numbers to a country where we had been welcomed under the table for years and that country experienced an economic downturn, I expect we’d be far less welcome than we were when the country needed us to continue its flow of cheap products. Even if we weren’t taking the jobs people wanted, we’d be scapegoats. Xenophobia is ever only waiting for the right conditions to reveal itself. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe are largely about the fear of foreigners changing the cultural and literal complexion of a nation.

BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM

I don’t necessarily have to speculate about answers to the second question. There are at least a dozen countries that will grant you citizenship if you can prove your parents (and in some cases grandparents) were born as citizens of that country. Other nations would treat you as they treated anyone else who wanted to migrate.

To me, the more interesting part of the question is how we think of borders.

Particularly the borders of the United States. When Europeans began settling North America, the continent was already populated with people and their established territories. Borders didn’t seem to matter much to us as we acquired land through war and genocide. When we annexed Texas and invaded Mexico to expand into territory they would not willingly cede to us, we weren’t too worried about the sovereignty of borders. Until 1882 – nearly a century after the establishment of the US Constitution – there were no immigration laws. There were requirements for citizenship and naturalization, but when we were expanding westward and needed labor, whether people crossed our borders didn’t seem to matter much to us. The first U.S. immigration law – the Chinese Exclusion Act – was not because we wanted the limit the total number of immigrants, but because of the fear of the “Yellow Peril” – that is, Chinese people overwhelming our European heritage – as if somehow Europeans were more deserving of the land we’d stolen than were the Chinese. Other groups were excluded for various reasons, including health, literacy, and anarchist political activity. But we weren’t so worried about borders: we were worried about non-white people.

It wasn’t until 1921 – 134 years after the establishment of the nation – that we began instituting immigration quotas which roughly resembled the ethnic composition of the country at the time. (As an aside, that means anyone claiming their family immigrated “legally” before that time is making a moot point; everyone but Asians were allowed in through established ports of entry).

So what changed during those years?

There are many reasons for secure borders, but those didn’t change. What did change was that we outgrew the sense that we were in a state of constant expansion and unlimited resources. Stretched from coast to coast, bound on the North and South, we realized our limits of geography and resources and decided we didn’t want to share them with just anybody who showed up on the continent.

We basically shut down immigration during the Great Depression, and actually coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to repatriate to Mexico. Not the Irish or Germans or English mind you – only the people who were native and who’s ancestors were here before the Europeans and just happened to involuntarily end up on our side of the border after the Mexican-American war.

People wanting to come to America were no longer seen as fellow pioneers in the Great American Experiment, but as threats. The quality of people outside our borders had not changed, but our jealousy of our resources had. Outside a slight concession to refugee resettlement in the 1980s, the focus of our immigration policy has been on maintaining employment and ethnic mix.

Now that we’ve got ours, borders matter to us.

Of course the economy is of national concern, but we need immigrants to maintain the economy. That makes the deciding factor ethnicity. There are plenty of successful people from countries which are mostly non-white, but in my experience proponents of “merit-based” systems rarely use them as examples, and are instead quick to point to mostly wealthy white countries which people have little desire to leave anyway. Our quotas and other immigration policies make implicit judgments about worthiness based on where people are from. Our talk of “merit-based” immigration is also disingenuous to the American ideal: no longer are we here for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… but come on in if you’ve already made it big!

To me that doesn’t seem very “all men are created equal.”
It doesn’t seem very Christian.
It doesn’t seem very American Dream.

How many of us are here because our ancestors fled something?
How many wouldn’t make the cut today under the same circumstances?
How many railed against the discrimination and persecution they experienced here?
How are we more deserving of this stolen land than people facing the same situations?

THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTIONS

Thinking about immigration as a matter of justice requires thinking about a much larger story than what is legal or illegal, convenient or inconvenient, or profitable or not profitable at this moment in history. Before I get to what I think is the big question behind the original two questions, I want to make a few things clear:

  • I don’t believe in lawless, open borders; I don’t personally know anyone who does.
  • I do believe we need to recognize the basic human dignity of everyone – not just citizens.
  • I don’t have a problem with prosecuting and deporting criminals.
  • I do have a problem with indefinitely separating and/or detaining children and families.

That last point shifted the focus of my prior blog post, which in turn raised the questions addressed in this one. My post was about exploiting scripture to defend the indefensible, and how that is neither conservative nor liberal but dangerously fundamentalist. I specifically didn’t advocate any policy, yet it raised policy-related questions for at least one reader. And the connecting thread between these questions was a deeper question…

What would other countries do?

My short answer to this question behind the questions is: I don’t think it matters.

I want us as a nation to do what is right and merciful, regardless of whether other nations would reciprocate. I’m not going to pretend I personally have the prescription for what is right, but it’s certainly something better than what we have now. As a Christian – as a human being – I can’t look at something as artificial and shifting and arbitrary and historically cruel as a border to restrict my compassion. I’m not advocating for some liberal theocracy (that would be hypocritical), but I think if Christianity does influence American politics it should be through values like mercy and sacrifice.

Make no mistake, I love my country. Heck, it allows me the freedom to write critiques of it, which in this world is no small thing!  But loving something doesn’t mean excusing everything it’s done or is doing. That’s flag-waving tribalism, which leads to stagnation, collapse, and – at its worst – genocide. We need to be vigilant about avoiding tribalism, about valuing or devaluing others based on their ethnicity, and about dehumanizing notions à la Manifest Destiny.

We may not have any more opportunities for geographic expansion, but we can still be pioneers of justice and dignity, even when it requires sacrifice. At its heart, that will be what keeps us a nation worth seeking.


Note: Regarding the history of U.S. immigration law, I drew heavily from this Wikipedia article. Yeah it’s Wiki, but they’re all sourced.