The summer seems to be a great season for patriotism. It begins with Memorial Day and ends with Labor Day, well not officially, but certainly in practical terms. Both these holidays celebrate what has made and still makes the U.S. the U.S. – people. In between these holidays, of course, we have Flag Day and Independence Day. July does seem to represent the peak of summer and, I think, the peak of summer patriotic fervor, perhaps a lasting effect of the fireworks and cook-outs. Between the celebrations of people, we celebrate nationhood, freedom and this great land.
Just like a church, however, a nation does not exist without people. The land certainly does, but it is the people who make it a social, political and communal place. Freedom is an empty concept without people – the freedoms we celebrate are those that are the inalienable rights of the people of this land. But just who are these people, you know, the ones who have had this freedom?
The Declaration of Independence, the reason to celebrate the July 4th holiday, states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, any member of the congregation will explain that when we say ‘men’ or ‘man’ we mean women, too. But when the Declaration said “men”, it actually meant men, at least until August 18, 1920, when women were recognized as voting citizens. And, if it did not originally include women, who else did it exclude?
Perhaps the Naturalization Act of 1790 sheds light on that subject. It stipulates “any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States”. The use of the word “white” in that Act is now blatantly racist and exclusionary. It is not too difficult to understand why Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Polynesian Americans, Hispanic Americans … etc. – it is not too difficult to understand why these folks might wonder over this celebration of independence, at least the 1776 date attributed to the occurrence.
“White” is not, however, the only word that was used to limit immigration, residency and citizenship in these the United States of America. The word “free” had some very interesting connotations, as well. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” But as each new wave of immigrants from Europe can attest, while that may have been the intention, the reality with which they were faced was considerably different.
Each new immigrant group from England, Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy – and so on – each new group experienced distrust, discrimination and oppression. That is generally because most immigrants did not fall into the category of “free”. Those who were considered “free” were those who were not escaping hardships like poverty, famine, religious intolerance or political persecution – and most of our ancestors didn’t immediately qualify.
So progressively, after arriving, each new wave of immigrants fled into the hinterlands – generally west – to establish communities of like people away from the different people who were here before them. There they relied on their own ingenuity, culture, traditions and, yes, language, to carve out a new life – a life that for many eventually more closely approached the ideal.
And another thing happened – these newer populations distrusted, discriminated against and oppressed the new immigrants that followed them. This, of course, hasn’t stopped. Just ask the people from Southern Mexico and other Central and South American countries who are coming here for the very same reasons that our ancestors did, and are experiencing the same kind of discrimination.
So what does this have to do with our faith? Well, perhaps we need to revisit the message of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the words of Jesus. The prophets spoke of God’s dismay at Israel’s rejection and oppression of the stranger and immigrant. Jesus talked of an integral part of being a follower, “loving your neighbor as yourself.” That must mean welcoming and caring for the immigrant as someone who is just like your ancestors – your family – like you.
Jesus and the Hebrew prophets had a radical message, for their times, to an Israel that was exclusive, nationalistic and protectionist. We have since dropped that radical stand and are reflecting the U.S. culture back to itself. We ignore Jesus’ message when we repeat the popular, cultural rhetoric about exclusion, nationalism and protectionism. Makes one wonder what would happen if a dark-skinned, middle-Eastern, Aramaic speaking, poor and homeless Jesus came to one of our church doors, doesn’t it?