My mother’s mother was named Elvira Jackson. She was born on July 17, 1896 and lived in Mobile, AL until she died in 1963. We called her “Mamma Vera”. She had a total of fourteen children. Six survived past their first birthday. One of her sons, Herbert, drowned in a swimming accident when he was 14 years old. Mamma Vera’s husband, Vivian Raymond, was killed fifteen months after my mother was born in 1934, on December 5, 1935. He suffered a fatal head injury after falling from a garbage collection truck. Mamma Vera received no insurance payout or pension from the trash collection company he worked for. There was no social security at the time. My grandfather Vivian was one of those “expendable” human beings that Karen Baker-Fletcher wrote about in Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit.
In one of the crown cities of the Jim Crow deep South, Mamma Vera raised six children as a single mother during the Great Depression. She worked as a maid for white people. Meanwhile, her own daughters kept house and looked after the younger siblings. My uncle Vivian Raymond Jr., was the oldest boy. He quit school in the sixth grade and went to work doing anything he could to make up for the lost income caused by his father’s death. It was said that Vivian could, and would, do any kind of work. He would bring all of his money home, except for enough to buy pound cake and buttermilk from Pullman’s Bake Shop (which has been in continuous operation since 1918).
Mamma Vera was gentle, loving, and kind. She was a remarkable person. I knew that about her... and she knew that about me. She would say to my mother “I don’t know what he’s going to be when he grows up, maybe a preacher, but I know he’ll be somebody special. Look at those little ears... that’s one way you can tell!”
In the early 1960s my father was stationed at Brookley Air Force Base. As a young sergeant with a growing family and a small paycheck, we needed an affordable place to stay so we moved into Mamma Vera’s house while she lived with my uncle Leslie and his family. She continued to work hard until just before she died of pancreatic cancer. We stayed on in her small house afterward.
At that time I was about 6 years old. I wanted to go to the funeral. I wanted to understand what happened to Mamma Vera, but my parents did not allow me to see her. My mother told me that Mamma Vera had turned into dust.
The house we lived in had a small front living room that faced to the Southeast. The sun shone through the curtains in shafts of light, especially in the morning when the light was metallically crisp. There, suspended in the light, is where I would see Mamma Vera in the dust. From that time on, whenever I see dust sparkling in a shaft of light I say hello to my grandmother. She always answers by twinkling at me.
It has always interested me that my mother's cursory explanation of death has had such a profound impact on me. It was my introduction to the mystery of life. Instead of the typical Catholic explanation of death as a way to go back into the bosom of God/Jesus/Spirit, my mother inadvertently propelled me headlong into a personal theology that links the earth and its elements to the human spirit. It just made sense to me that the connection between my beloved grandmother would be constantly reaffirmed by such a simple and ever-present bond.
It was not too much later in life that I rejected outright the Catholic heaven and hell version of religion, along with what seemed to me the nonsensical mythology of original sin. What was essential to me is love, and its child creativity. The God that others seek is, in my mind, a love that is absolutely essential and primary to the sustenance of all existence.
Quantum physics now appears to support my contention that consciousness is one of the building blocks of the universe, along with space, time, energy, and matter. The inclusion of consciousness as a key component of the fabric of reality allows scientists like Robert Lanza, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff to theorize that consciousness actually defines how matter acts at the quantum level. Lanza, famous for coining the term “Biocentrism”, believes that everything we experience is created by our consciousness, and that space and time are tools used by our minds to interpret the universe.
Creativity is the expression of infinite love (consciousness). To me it manifests multi-dimensional planes where matter is constructed and energy, in all its forms, exists. Those forms include everything that exists in the universe of universes, all life, and all levels of intelligence. Thus, all worlds and the lifeforms that inhabit them are the product of creative energy. All matter and energy are inextricably linked together. Indeed, physics informs us that the two are fundamentally interchangeable.
So on the deepest levels, our planet and its inhabitants share consciousness. We are constructed from the same elements of matter derived from the stars. The intelligence that has emerged from the design of our brains is immersed in the field of infinite possibility that, on the quantum level, brings forth all things that can be conceived of and/or manifested. Eco-theology is but the study of self-apparent truth: the science of God manifested as a living system to sustain life.
Any act of constructive creativity is the most pure form of interaction with the eternal love that sustains us because, unlike prayer, it does not invoke activation with an object of worship. Instead, creativity is an act of ever-present participation in the joy of connection we share with all things. When we separate ourselves from this divine presence we suffer. I believe we have harmed our planet because we have erected systems of economics, government, and society that separate ourselves from each other. The connections between us have been severed, so a fog obscures recognition of the essential consciousness that is the earth.
This truth of connection with the earth is revealed in dust, which we strive to hermetically seal ourselves from. We do not value the primordial need to dig our hands into soil, in the way many of us do not recognize that we must drink water, and so spend our days on the verge of dehydration. Studies show that we benefit physically and emotionally by walking barefoot on the ground and connecting with the earth’s magnetic field. Instead, we use shoes to shield us from that vital interaction.
I invite you to do as I will, immediately after I write this last paragraph. Take your shoes and socks off and find a patch of grass outside in the sun. Stretch your arms out. Put your head back. Open your mouth wide and suck in clean air (if you can), then breath it out slowly. Now look for our Mamma Vera. I will share her with you. She is never far away. Say hello. She will twinkle back at you. We are all connected.
In a series of five sermons, of which this is the final part, I have examined many different aspects of the issue of immigration. In the first sermon, entitled The Stranger, I discussed what it is like to be “the other” in a society that may not feel comfortable with us as an outsider. The second sermon, The Immigrant, dealt with the history of immigration policies in the United States, and how many of them have been racially motivated. The third sermon, The Promised Land, described how the ideal of a Promised Land for immigrants is both a state of mind and a real, physical, place that needs to accommodate the needs of the immigrant. The fourth sermon, The Refugee, examines the personal needs of immigrants fleeing from persecution or danger.
This final sermon takes a more “spiritual” look at the underlying principle of all the previous sermons... that of justice. One of the definitions of the word justice is “the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action”. This is the context in which I wish discuss justice as it relates to immigration.
States have been granting protection to individuals and groups fleeing persecution for centuries. The modern body of laws dealing with refugees is largely the product of the second half of the twentieth century. Like international human rights law, modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II, as well as the refugee crises of the interwar years that preceded it. That era saw the greatest movement of human beings because warfare was no longer confined to battlefields. In a world that lately seems to want to punish refugees, individuals and organizations advocating for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with justice and compassion, are being hindered. In light of these stressors, let’s take a look at what justice is...
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a person who did something wrong would immediately suffer the consequences of their actions?
What if a person who started forest fires gets his house burned down?
What if a person who hits someone with a car and then drives away also gets run
What if you get sick if you cause someone else to get sick?
I’m certain you can, like me, think of a million other things to add to a list of “What ifs”.
The concept of Justice is so important to Unitarian Universalists that, unlike any other, such as peace or liberty, it appears twice in our principles. In the second principle it is included as: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. In the sixth principle, it is included as: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. This is not just a semantic fluke. It demonstrates the subtle, yet awesome power of the word. Justice is required for “human” (or personal relations), as well as on the level of the “world” community.
According to most contemporary theories of justice, justice is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls claims “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” Justice can be thought of as distinct from and more fundamental than benevolence, charity, mercy, generosity, or compassion.
Studies at UCLA in 2008 have indicated that reactions to fairness are “wired” into the brain and that, “Fairness is activating the same part of the brain that responds to food in rats... This is consistent with the notion that being treated fairly satisfies a basic need”. Research conducted in 2003 at Emory University, Georgia, involving Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that “inequity aversion may not be uniquely human”, indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.
Even without scientific proof that we possess an “instinctive” understanding of justice, we all know this. We human beings understand that fairness, codified as the “Golden Rule”, lies at the heart of justice. The formula is a simple one of reciprocity: I will give another the benefit of the doubt as I would expect the same, I will not gossip as I would not like to be the subject of gossip, I will tell the truth as I would like to be told it, I will treat others with respect as I would like to be treated with respect, and I will not judge others because I do not like to be judged.
As I said earlier, a fascinating aspect of the concept of justice is that it applies in equal importance on both the personal and global levels. Indeed, it is, as Rawls says, “the first virtue of social institutions”, and it is essential to any relationship. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Luther was able to capture both the powerful personal and transcendent quality of justice in three brilliant sentences. In essence, he said, justice is always threatened by injustice, every person is responsible for ensuring that justice is done on every level because we are all affected by injustice.
Have you ever thought about how injustice weighs down even the most hardy individual, organization, or even civilizations? Even a perceived injustice can cause resentment, hurt feelings, anger, withdrawal, and pain. Disputes arise because of perceived, or real slights. The fairness genes we are wired with kick in and we stop thinking. Instead, we emote, we react, and we rush to judgment. We use terms like “justice cries out” or that someone “cries out for justice”.
I actually have friends who are bitter about the Armenian Holocaust that occurred before and after World War I at the hands of the Turks. I have other friends who are angry about how Palestinians were pushed out of their homeland by Jews. I’ve known people whose parents are Jewish holocaust survivors and the children carry the scars of injustice with them as if they were directly involved. I have family members who are still wounded by segregation and the discrimination they experienced during the Jim Crow era of injustices here in the United States, and I sometimes hear others wonder if they will ever see the forty acres and a mule they say African Americans were promised.
Justice is such a powerful force in our lives that its personification has been encoded into our psyches since ancient times. Justitia, the Roman goddess of Justice, is an allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems. She is known to us as Lady Justice. Justitia is most often depicted with a set of scales typically suspended from her right hand, upon which she measures the strengths of a case’s support and opposition. She is also often seen carrying a double-edged sword in her left hand, symbolizing the power of Reason and Justice, which may be wielded either for or against any party.
Did you know that it wasn’t until the 15th century that Lady Justice has been depicted wearing a blindfold. The blindfold represents objectivity, in that justice is or should be meted out objectively, without fear or favor, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness; blind justice and impartiality. The earliest Roman coins depicted Justitia with the sword in one hand and the scale in the other, but with her eyes uncovered.
Because we emote, and react, and rush to judgment we have created an edifice upon which to hang the balances of justice. We need something that allows us to be more rational, and look more objectively on both sides of an issue. We need a buffer to the passions that may consume us. We need some time to reconsider our feelings. That buffer is called the law. Laws are the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision. Because we are talking about the spiritual aspects of justice, we need to dig a little deeper than just what the law is and come to an understanding of how it relates to our deeply ingrained need for justice.
How do we stop injustice and promote justice at the level of the world community? We UUs are deeply committed to the cause of justice. I invite you to do a search on the internet and visit the many UU-sponsored organizations that do work in the cause of justice. Probably the most visible such organization is the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). It is a nonsectarian organization that advances human rights and social justice in the United States and around the world. According to their website, through a combination of advocacy, education, and partnerships with grassroots organizations, they promote economic rights, advance environmental justice, defend civil liberties, and preserve the rights of people in times of humanitarian crisis.
Working for justice on the world level can literally be exhausting. When I am so overwhelmed at injustice at that level, I draw inspiration from people like Marla Rukiza, a local girl from Lakeport, California. Marla was an activist-turned-aid worker. She believed that combatant governments had a legal and moral responsibility to compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in military conflicts. According to the Rolling Stone magazine,
“Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in life — she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience — her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq.”
If you doubt your voice cannot have an effect on the world, think of our Marla.
How do we promote justice in our personal lives? On a personal level, I like to say that I will not do or say anything unless it is kind, fair, or just. What I say or do must meet at least two of these criteria before I act. That is simple advice I gleaned from a Sikh master many years ago has been an invaluable guide for me over the years.
The answer to the question of personal justice is rather simple... we listen to each other, we respect each other, we should be mindful that there are always two sides to a story, we follow the rules designed to help us live in harmony and mutual respect, we apologize, and we forgive. Justice resides in the hearts and minds of individuals. Every human being has a different idea of justice because we are all different people with our own, unique view of the world. Yet, our “fairness gene”, if you will, gives us remarkable access to a vast reservoir of the stored wisdom of our species. If we would only pause for a few moments to seek that wisdom when confronted by injustice, perceived or real, the world would be a much better place. And justice will prevail.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
His name was Mawlânâ Jalâluddîn Muhammad Balkhî-ye Rûmî. He was born September 30, 1207 in present day Afghanistan. His name has been shortened to Rumi, and he is one of the greatest and most popular poets in the world. The poems of this Persian poet born more than eight centuries ago are beloved by millions of readers in around the world. His writings been compared to Shakespeare for his creativity breadth and Saint Francis in its spiritual wisdom.
Rumi descended from a long line of Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystics, including his father, Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, who was known as “Sultan of the Scholars.” When Rumi was still a young man, his father led their family more than 2,000 miles west to avoid the invasion of Genghis Khan’s armies. As a young Persian refugee, Rumi had gone through the traumatic and painful process of adaptation and assimilation - a process which is also so familiar to any refugee and immigrant of our days. He had to adapt to his new hometown, Konya in South central Turkey where he lived the rest of his life, and is currently buried.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. More than half of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.” Borders cannot, and should not, be completely sealed: Many asylum-seekers are fleeing death, and the obligation to save them is legal as well as moral.
Would the man who would arguably become one of the greatest poets to grace our planet be admitted to the United States as a 12 year old refugee under our policy of admitting only the "best and brightest"? Would his father, an Islamic jurists, theologians, and mystic been able to bring his family here? Well, let’s see how they might fare in our present political climate.
Radical declines in the admission of refugees have been instituted, even after a Trump administration study by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2017 found that refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost. Another report from the New American Economy entitled, From Struggle to Resilience: The Economic Impact of Refugees in America, shows that Refugees have an entrepreneurship rate that outshines even that of other immigrants. The United States was home to more than 180,000 refugee entrepreneurs in 2015. That meant that 13 percent of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to just 11.5 percent of non-refugee immigrants and 9.0 percent of the U.S.-born population. The businesses of refugees also generated $4.6 billion in business income that year. Other significant facts are found: 1) while refugees receive initial assistance upon arriving in the United States, they see particularly sharp income increases in subsequent years, 2) refugees make particularly meaningful contributions to the economies of several key states, and 3) in an era when the country faces unprecedented demographic challenges, refugees are uniquely positioned to help because most are of working age.
According to the CATO institute, in an April 23, 2018 article, “During the campaign, Trump referred to Muslim refugees as a ‘Trojan horse’ that could bring down the United States from the inside. Not surprisingly then, Muslim refugees have seen their numbers slashed most dramatically. From October 2015 through December 2016, monthly arrivals of Muslim refugees averaged 3,076. During the first six months of FY 2018, they have fallen to just 275 per month - 91 percent below their rate in FY 2016.”
The U.S. Supreme Court concluded arguments regarding the Trump administration’s third attempt at a travel ban against visitors from Muslim countries on April 25, 2018. At this point, it is not certain how the court will decide, but key justices seem skeptical of challenges to the ban, a result of the post-election shift in the makeup of the court towards the right. A ruling is expected in June, 2018, but to members of one of the United States’ least popular religious minorities, this will be more than a ruling on the president’s authority. It will be a culturally pivotal moment; a statement of the nation’s values.
The effect of the Trump campaign against Muslims has been that many Americans view Muslims far less positively than they view members of most other major religious groups. In a recent topic question on Debate.org the question, “Should the U.S. ban Muslims from entering the country?”, was posed. A not atypical answer was the following: “They do not belong in this great beautiful country of God. They will only steal our jobs, rape our women, and kidnap our children. They belong in the dirt, no, they are dirt. They are good for nothing brown pieces of shit and should not be tolerated if they are caught in the country they should be shot on site.”
There are profound spiritual dimensions to the way refugees should be treated. For those who are Christian among us, I offer these words from the Bible to reflect upon:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:25-36)
These admonitions from the Bible are more than mere suggestions. They lie at the heart of Abrahamic religions; they are essential definitions of humanity. To treat a foreigner, especially a refugee, as “your native-born” is often a challenge. There are sometimes barriers of language and customs to overcome. Cultural differences may seem insurmountable. The “Golden Rule” loses its luster.
I have had direct, personal experience with such a challenge. In the mid-1990s I worked as an instructor teaching the Lingo programming language night class at a large private technical school in Silicon Valley. I once had a student whose last name was Tran in my class. He was a middle-aged Vietnamese man who could not speak English very well. Tran slowed the class down, so I had my TA work more directly with him than anyone else. The TA told me that she simply could not seem to communicate well with Tran or answer his more probing questions about Lingo. I must admit to being annoyed with Tran myself. I had a difficult time understanding him. Instructors in other classes complained about Tran as well.
I then remembered what it was like to live in Germany, not knowing the language well and having to work in a highly technical field with people who were not very patient with me. I had my TA work with other students and I began to spend much more time with Tran. I was determined to help him succeed. My extra attention was rewarded. Once he understood the principles and syntax of Lingo, he began to write truly elegant code. His mathematical constructs were flawless and creative. He became my best student. I came to find out that Tran was formerly a Major General in the South Vietnamese Army in command of a tank brigade. He was one of the lucky few high ranking ARNV to escape from Vietnam and come to the United States as a refugee. On the last evening of class he came with his wife and several of his younger children. He introduced his family and thanked me for helping him through the course.
I certainly hope Tran and his family were able to stay in the United States. We are all enriched by his presence. I am pained by the present attitude of our nation towards non-European refugees. The pain comes not only from a spiritual perspective, but from a basic human level.
How can we know the potential of any refugee to enrich our own culture? What metrics can be used to determine the nationality of a soul? Rumi answers these questions in this poem attributed to him:
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion or cultural system.
I am not from the east or the west, not out of the ocean or
From the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist, I am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any Origin story.
My place is the placeless, a trace of the traceless, neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and
That one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner only that breath breathing human being.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
We are all strangers to each other... a stranger is simply someone you have not engaged with... and a stranger is, most likely more like us than not. Consider that the words “Hospitality” and “Hostility” are both derived from the same root word. Richard Kearney wrote in Religion and Ethics in June, 2012: “Hosting the stranger is not just some abstract virtue, however, but a living existential struggle - a struggle with crucial contemporary implications. The ethos of hospitality is never guaranteed; it is always shadowed by the twin of hostility. In this sense, hosting others - aliens and foreigners - is an on-going task, never a fait accompli.”
Kearney goes on the say “The entire Bible, it could be said, is made up of struggles between two different ways of responding to the alien... The message seems to be this: the divine, as exile, is in each human other who faces us, defenseless and vulnerable, asking to be received into our midst. My hospitable relationship with the stranger, in sum, gives meaning to my relations with all strangers, proximate or distant, human or divine.”
The Christian bible is filled with examples of how to host the stranger, and why it is so important. In fact, hosting the stranger is a central themes in the first three earliest books of the Bible - Job, Ruth, and the Song of Songs. Job challenges Yahweh before finally accepting his strange ways. Ruth is a Moabite alien welcomed by Boas into his home, thereby starting a long line of hybrid descendants including David and Jesus. And the Song of Songs King Solomon takes the foreign “black and beautiful” Shulammite woman as his bride.
In fact, I would argue that the story of Jesus is, in itself, the story of a stranger that dwelt among we humans, then was killed by us. This is the long reach of the archetypical story of the stranger - of the tension between hospitality and hostility writ large. Think of the story of Jesus’ birth. His parents were outcasts, actually refugees, seeking to escape from King Herod’s decree to kill infants where they lived. The baby Jesus, according to Christians, was not only a stranger, but was also a god unbeknownst to his hosts. Echoing a theme present in the writings of nearly all organized religions about the stranger, Omid Safi, the Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, wrote, “The God of the whole cosmos shows up in the humblest of places. This is a theology of cracked spaces, of broken places, and of the healing of God’s presence.”
Buddhism has a long and deep tradition of teachings concerning the stranger. There are many accounts in the narrative literature about how people would interact with Buddhist monks, who always seemed arrive on the scene unexpectedly or at the worst time imaginable. Such stories form the basis for the Buddhist concept of hospitality. Among Indians of all faiths there is a common saying, atithi devo bhavah, which means “the atithi – the guest – is God”.
A Pali compendium of the Buddha’s teaching advocated a life of generous giving as a way of overcoming suffering caused by desire or craving. There are many extraordinary stories in Buddhist culture about hospitality given to those in need, even to the point of sacrificing bodily parts. This kind of generosity is a natural outgrowth of the principal quality of compassion for all sentient beings.
The prophet Muhammad wrote, “Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” In a prominent website called IslamReligion.com Aisha Stacey wrote in 2011, “Many converts to Islam will tell you about feeling as if they were strangers, before finding Islam. They will speak of feeling that they belonged somewhere else, that their lives were just slightly off centre. They often speak about a vague sense of knowing they were not like everyone else around them, feeling like a stranger in a strange land.”
n this passage, Stacey points to a universal experience, or perhaps I can stretch that just a bit to say, a “Universalist” experience, in the way that many of us feel like strangers in our own communities because of the ways we often think so differently from the mainstream about everything; from politics to religion.
Father Daniel Homan writes in Radical Hospitality: “By our best and worst attempts at hospitality we say to ourselves and to the whole world:
You are not alone.
You are more than you know.
The awful thing is not the final word.
Today is all we have and today is enough.
We need each other.
Rumi wrote the following in a poem called “Guest House”:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
This poem, and its companion song in the UU hymn book, could be considered an anthem for people who migrate from one place to another.
The concept of immigration is under scrutiny these days. For various reasons throughout history, nations and states change their immigration policies. In the United States there have been dramatic swings in policy regarding who will and will not be accepted temporarily on visas or permanently as citizens. Of course, underlying all of this is the bitter irony that our government and people have constructed our nation from the ashes of genocidal war waged against the indigenous people who were found here.
That genocide was founded on the idea that the indigenous people deserved to be conquered because... well because. A host of reasons emerged over time. It was felt that the indigenous people did not actually own their land (it is important to understand that most white settlers had been barred from inheriting property in Europe). White Americans needed the land for expansion. They felt that indigenous people did not deserve that land and needed to be civilized. The History channel wrote in an article on March 2, 2018 that “Fundamentally, indigenous people were just too different: their skin was dark. Their languages were foreign. And their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white men’s comprehension... All this stoked racial hatred and paranoia, making it easy to paint indigenous peoples as pagan savages who must be killed in the name of civilization and Christianity.”
Salient among all the reasons, and perhaps the one that made white Americans feel better about what they were doing, was the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny”. According to wikipedia, the phrase was coined by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan in 1845, to express the philosophy that drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion. Manifest Destiny held that the United States was destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:
O’Sullivan predicted in an article in 1839 that there was a “divine destiny” for the United States based upon values such as equality, rights of conscience, and personal enfranchisement “to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man”. Talk about cognitive dissonance, after the fact justification, and a load of crap all wrapped up into a giant rhetorical ball.
The central reason for the brutality of displacement and genocide on the part of white settlers, and the American government that supported them, is simple racism. It should not be forgotten that the United States during most of that time was a nation that legalized human slavery. This is important to remember in order to understand the mindset of the white settlers. Even if they, themselves did not own slaves, or even if they did not agree with slavery, that “peculiar institution” was a part of their lives. The West, especially, could be a rough place to live. Public hangings were common place. Institutional brutality based on race was normalized.
The immigration policies the United States government instituted were against this background. It would be nice to believe that international laws governing the treatment of immigrants were always based upon human rights. After all, the values expressed in the U.S. Constitution would certainly lead one to that conclusion. Recognition of the rights of migrants and the need for the promotion and protection of these rights in the exercise of our national sovereignty would seem to have always been a guiding principle.
Did you know that the metaphor of the “melting pot” to describe the assimilation of immigrants to the United States was in use by the 1780s? It is still a part of our national identity and narrative. The first use in American literature of the concept of immigrants “melting” into the receiving culture are found in the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. In his Letters from an American Farmer he wrote, in response to his own question, “What then is the American, this new man?” that the American is one who “becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” If de Crevecoeur had just left the question and answer right there, a modern reader might be inclined to exclaim, “Wow, that is cool... an enlightened view about the ‘race’ of men in America.”
But, reading further reveals what had always driven American immigration policy:
...whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes... What, then, is the American, this new man? He is either an European or the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.... The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared.
So, there you have it... the simple fact is that most people in what is now the United States could not imagine non-Europeans doing any kind of “mixing of blood” on these shores. The reality is that our immigration policies have always been based on three overriding principles: 1) a need for labor, 2) the race of immigrants, and 3) the ethnicity of immigrants. The history of U.S. immigration policies features many twists and turns, but most of them have these three principles at their core. Some of the policies were basically administrative; typical of what you’d expect of a fledgling country that is new on the world stage.
Instead of chronicling all the laws, I will summarize the 35 years after 1890 as being a time of American tribalism. During that time, more than 20 million immigrants came to America. That is a greater number that in any other period before or since. They were often greeted with hostility and derision. In the book entitled “Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1980-1924” Roger Daniels examined the condition of immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans. Not Like Us analyzed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and considered it the key legislation that signaled an unfriendly climate toward minorities that would prevail for decades. Daniels continues the story through the first World War, and the “tribal twenties,” when nativism and xenophobia dominated American society.
Remember the three principles of U.S. immigration policies I outlined earlier: labor, race, and ethnicity? Let’s compare those principles against some of the laws enacted after 1924:
To be certain, since 1924, the United States has repealed its most blatantly racist immigration policies. My intention is not to dwell of the history of these policies, but to disabuse you of any ideas you might have that our policies have consistently progressed from one morally righteous legislation to another.
Now I want to return to that “melting pot” I talked about earlier and examine it from another perspective... that of religion. By religion, I mean both the prevailing religion of the “host” country and the various religions practiced by immigrants.
According to Aaron Thorpe in an article entitled “Examples of Religious Intolerance in America” : Muslims have long been the targets of discrimination in the U.S., but following the tragedies of 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment and activity have risen sharply.
The persecution of Jews throughout history stands, perhaps, as the epitome of religious intolerance and they've suffered it in the United States as they have almost everywhere else.
Of all the groups that have experienced religious intolerance in what is now the United States, perhaps none have suffered longer than Native Americans. Although the final prohibitions against practicing Native American religions were lifted in 1994, Native religious leaders continue to be surveilled by government agencies and tribes still frequently lose access to sacred sites because of urban and industrial development.
Secular Humanists and other non-theists have not been spared. A 2003 study by the University of Minnesota showed that 39.6 percent said atheists “do not at all agree with my vision of American society.” and 2012 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union found seven states with constitutional prohibitions against atheists holding office.
Despite its dominance among American faiths, Christians have been the victims of religious intolerance throughout our nation's history and non-Protestant denominations – particularly Catholics and Mormons – have borne the brunt of it.
I have returned to the image of the “melting pot” several times because I believe it is important for us to see it for what it is, what it has never been, and to make an attempt to reimagine it.
The “melting pot”, in reality, has always been a metaphor that describes how white Europeans can successfully migrate to the United States and acceptably make contributions to the gene pool. The “melting pot”, contrary to the hopes of our “better angels”, has never described a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous by virtue of the different elements “melting together” into a harmonious whole with a common culture. Those who have promoted the idea of total cultural assimilation for the sake of national unity seem to me, to be living in dream world where: 1) there are no 747 jetliners, 2) there is such a thing as a “heterogeneous society”, and 3) national unity is somehow not antithetical to the individualism we Americans take such great pride in. Given the current state of the world, I prefer to think of the United States as a “salad bowl”, where different cultures and peoples can live in harmony, yet enjoy distinctions of flavor and texture if they desire to.
Our past immigration laws have attempted to accommodate the first version of the “melting pot”, where it was just great for white Europeans. Then, in an effort to force everyone into a common culture version of the “melting pot”, we produced a legacy of nativistic, xenophobic laws which we wrestle with even today (can you say DACA?). The “salad bowl”, based on firm fundamentals of universal human rights might just do the trick.
Unitarian Universalists like to sing the Rumi song because it is so beautifully, idealistically optimistic. The poem, unfortunately, describes a situation for immigrants that exists in very few places on our planet at the present time. Immigration policies in the United States have always been deeply flawed because they have been based on labor needs, race, and ethnicity.
What if O’Sullivan wrote in 1839 advocating for immigration laws for the United States based upon values such as equality, rights of conscience, and personal enfranchisement? What if all international laws governing the treatment of immigrants were always based upon recognition of their basic human rights. What if we really did base our laws on the values expressed in the U.S. Constitution? If this were done, then everyone on our planet could sing the Rumi song and it would ring true:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!