“American Dreams” March 25, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
Say what you want about Jesus, if the gospel writers are to be believed, he did get off a few good lines now and then. I’m thinking this morning not only of the scriptures we just heard, but also of a passage found in Luke and Matthew:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
Even Wall Street hedge fund managers love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?
Even Steve Bannon’s fans do that.
And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?
Do not even members of the alt right do that?
(I’m paraphrasing, by the way)
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.”
But I tell you, love your enemies and do good to them; pray for those who persecute you.
Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.
The point here, it seems to me, is that love is a slippery concept. Homo sapiens are a social species; we are designed by evolutionary pressures to be in a group with others of our kind. We do not thrive alone. Therefore it is natural – instinctive, if you will – to bond with those close to us. We are set up from our very genetics to behave with generosity, affection and altruism toward our relatives; we are disposed to love our parents, siblings, children, spouses, extended families. Certainly we may encounter cranky or ill-disposed individuals among this collection, people who require effort to get along with, but the will to make that effort is bound up in the concept of family and clan. These are, after all, your people; you belong to them, and they belong to you. And that, says Jesus, is the easy part.
It is the love that does not have its roots in heredity and instinct that is actually an ethical achievement. It is the ability to recognize our common humanity across barriers of difference, as an act of conscious will, that is a spiritual discipline; that takes practice and intention, and that will expand our hearts and change us.
200 years ago, if you were a well-intentioned white person in America, you were concerned about the issue of slavery. You felt it as a political problem in the tension between the slave states and the free states, and you felt it as a blot on the nation’s moral character. On a philosophical level, you thought that slavery was a bad idea, but you were not in favor of its immediate abolition in the current day, because you were worried about what would happen to all those millions of people who would suddenly be turned out to fend for themselves, with no homes, few marketable skills, no education to speak of, and no inherited wealth to get them started. And the more you thought about it, the more you realized that those newly free and impoverished folks might be more than a little perturbed about being left in this situation. You yourself would be quite angry, you thought, in their shoes; perhaps angry enough to want to do some damage, and not be too careful about distinguishing the particular people who actually did this to you from everybody else. It was, of course, wrong that Africans had ever been brought to this continent; if only you could wave a magic wand over history, and undo that whole process, what an infinitely easier place America would be!
It would have made all the sense in the world, when people began talking about sending them back. Of course! They never wanted to be here anyway; they were brought against their will. How could they be happy here, in a place they never would have chosen to come to? Africa – that was their homeland; it was where they belonged, where they would fit in. Not like America, where they could never be truly a part of the rising nation, where they would always be conspicuous by their color, never really accepted or welcome, never really belong. It was liberal people who said this; compassionate people; moral leaders in the white community who were appalled by slavery, who wanted to find a solution for it that was best for everyone. All we had to do was raise the money to pay for the ships to send them back. Of course there was the question of compensating the slave owners for the economic loss they would suffer, but that was an issue that could be worked out later. For the moment, you could start with the growing community of free negroes; the ones who already didn’t belong to anyone, the ones who were available to go immediately. And the best part was, even the politicians and the preachers from the south agreed with this! By all means, take the freed blacks, who were the source of inspiration and example to the slaves, who were their kin and their consolers – get them out of the country as soon as possible! Let them go and settle towns and start farms and set up shops to await the coming of all their ransomed brethren as the time should be fulfilled, and best of all, let them spread European Christianity in Africa while they were about it. They would bring civilization to the dark continent – really it was a win-win scenario for everyone. Conscientious white congregations held church fairs and bake sales and quilting bees to raise money for the national African Colonization Society, certain that they were helping the same black fellow citizens that they would not allow in their homes, or their schools, or their polling places.
Except for one completely unforeseen problem – the wretched negroes didn’t want to go. Particularly not the free blacks, who were unlikely to be first or even second generation arrivals, with any personal memory of Africa. That continent across the ocean might be a spiritual ancestral homeland, a symbol for their stolen heritage of freedom and dignity, but it wasn’t home; this was. They didn’t speak the languages of Africa; they spoke their master’s English and the patios of the slave quarters. They didn’t know African crops or African animals or African crafts; they knew American trades and American money and American laws. The families that they strove desperately to maintain, the community connections that enabled them to survive, were here. Africa was not, and had never been, their home. The home of their forbears, yes, but not their home. And they were not eager, they were not even willing, to leave the only homes they had ever known – homes that they and their parents had labored to hew out of the western hemisphere’s wilderness – for another pioneering adventure in an unknown land. In short, the African Colonization Movement was never anything that the vast majority of slaves and former slaves wanted. It was entirely a function of the guilty conscience and the implicit racism of the liberal white community, that wanted a country without anybody different in it.
Can you see it, from the vantage point of two centuries ago? The assumption of privilege that says, We belong here, and you don’t? The patronizing power that says, This is my home, so yours must be over there, somewhere else? It’s human nature, I suppose; that instinct that makes us glob together and try to keep out anybody who isn’t ‘us’. That’s what Jesus was talking about; there is no wisdom, no virtue, no spiritual demand in that; everybody does it, tax collectors, sinners, any ignorant, unthinking mob does that. What makes you a child of god, said the radical rabbi, is when you give love and respect and dignity and justice beyond those barriers of kinship and alliance, to those who are not like you, and can’t give you something in return, and maybe don’t even like you much. If you want to strengthen your moral core, if you want to practice being a good person, include them; bless them; pray for them. Don’t be shipping them to the other side of the globe; love them. That’s an accomplishment. That’s an ethical victory.
That’s what the ancient Hebrew scriptures were on about, too, in an international culture where it was common for anyone who wasn’t either native born or part of a conquering force to be treated as a de facto slave; an alien with no legal recourse, and no rights. But over and over, the laws and the prophets of Israel remind its citizens, “Don’t forget; you were once foreigners. Remember what that was like; remember the fear, the humiliation, the suffering. And don’t DO that to people. Not to anybody. Treat strangers just as you would your fellow citizens – what is fair for you is fair for them too. Be better than just; be compassionate. Share, and be kind. Even to those who are not from here.”
In case the analogy has eluded you so far, let me be clear. We are right back in that same ethical challenge in our nation, today. America’s immigration policies begin and end in the classic colonialist mind set, which holds that no land is occupied or owned until white Christian Europeans arrive. Once those colonial powers are established, however, they assume the right to decide who else may locate, and under what terms, in the areas they seek to control. These policies inevitably lead to the oppression and attempted genocide of the indigenous populations, as well as the rejection of any at-risk refugees who are not themselves the same kind of white Christian Europeans who claim to be in charge.
Migration is a fact of biology, in human communities as well as among other creatures. Whenever nation states seek to prevent either immigration or emigration across their borders, injustice and suffering follow. By holding the threat of deportation over their heads, such regulations create what is essentially a cohort of second class citizens here in the U.S., who cannot exercise the rights promised to all Americans, of free speech, assembly, and petitioning congress. People who enter the country without official process can be exploited with no recourse by employers, domestic abusers, and law enforcement personnel; as well as subjected to sexual harassment and assault. We have seen in our national history, to our humiliation and enduring regret, what has happened when previous generations allowed the impulse of racism to triumph over the ethical demand to extend justice, compassion, and dignity to all people. Once again, as so many times before in our history, we have yet another opportunity to get this right. Alas that our leaders appear little inclined to seize it!
All over the country, living in the shadow of decisions they did not make, undocumented young people face the threat of being uprooted from the only home they have ever known, in the name of being sent ‘back’ to a place of which they remember almost nothing. That threat is no more than the same old racist impulse in 21st century clothes; the idea that no one who is observably different should be allowed to participate in a country that was, as we should recall, constructed by immigrants relying on the welcome they initially received from those who already dwelt here.
An argument can be made that immigration as a whole is a complicated topic. Personally, the more I hear of that argument, the more I think that the simple solution of allowing people to go wherever they choose makes sense. But if that, like the simple abolition of slavery 200 years ago, is too radical a proposition for our democracy to swallow, at the very least perhaps we could avoid recreating the well-intentioned injustice of the Colonization Society, and desist from sending people ‘back’ to places they never knew, in the service of our own comfort.
It is time, and more than time, that our national policies should reflect our moral aspirations, rather than our instinctive fears. It is time that we should learn from our history, so that we need not repeat it; time that we should call the ethical virus of racism by its true name, and refuse to let it infect our future. We will never build the nation of the founders’ dreams, or of our own best hopes, by sending away those who most deeply believe those hopes, who have grown up sharing those dreams; by pretending that our home is not theirs, pretending that we are not summoned to a larger hospitality and a more inclusive justice.
Jesus entered Jerusalem on a lowly beast of burden, a nursing mother trailed by her colt, spoofing Pilate’s macho posturing on his stallion, mocking the pretensions of Roman imperial power. The common people got the joke, and the truth behind the joke, which was that those who have to make a display of their power are not real leaders, and have little authentic moral authority. As he said in another context, let those who have ears, hear.
Some seventy years ago, the black poet Langston Hughes challenged his fellow citizens to renew their commitment to the essential American dream of freedom, equality and justice, illustrating in poignant words the many ways in which America had failed to be the nation it claimed to a variety of its disenfranchised people. With minor alterations, his words still ring true three quarters of a century later, once again asking us to do our part, in the dilemmas that confront us today, to make America true to its greatest promises. Protecting the Dreamers, and stopping the abusive and violent injustices of deportation, will not complete that process, but it can offer a step in the right direction; a step that we could take to keep faith with the children, and all who believe in what this country is supposed to stand for, and by doing that, to let America be, if not great, at least America again.
The ancient psalmist knew something about the experience of being deported. Wrenched by the Babylonian conquerors from their homes in Judah, the people of Zion sat on the banks of an alien river, and wept for their lost homeland. Their callous captors told them to sing some native songs to entertain the troops, and they wondered – how do you sing the sacred songs of a place, when you no longer belong there? Or indeed, anywhere, anymore? It is a lament that we should all carry in our hearts, so that we might learn not to inflict it yet again.
Now, therefore, since the struggle deepens;
since evil abides and good does not yet prosper,
Let us gather what strength we have,
And summon whatever we may of confidence and valor,
so that our small victories might accumulate,
to end in triumph,
and the world awaited become a world attained.