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.
“The Promised Land” is both a place and a state of mind, and many times, it is both things at once. The promised land represents a place or situation in which someone expects to find happiness, or the potential for a better life.
When I say some names they instantly conjure the image of a promised land that is a physical place. In our collective memories these places are iconically linked to some kind of economic promise: New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mumbai, Paris, Shanghai, Frankfurt, Beijing, Delhi, Karachi, Lagos, Guangzhou, Sáo Paulo, Detroit, Seoul, Mexico City, Moscow, and Jakarta. States of mind represented by words are: Hollywood, Wall Street, Broadway, The Castro, Bollywood, Silicon Valley, and The Emerald City.
It is not an accident that most of the places I listed are among the most populous cities on the planet. The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. The year 2007 was estimated to be the turning point when city dwellers formed the majority of global population for the first time in history. The trend has steadily continued to this day. By the year 2050 it is estimated that urbanization will reach 66% of the population. Cities grow in three ways: migration, whether internally from within a country or by international migration, the natural growth of the population within the city, or by the re-classification of non-urban areas - otherwise known as “urban sprawl”.
I will return to the physical “Promised Land” in a bit. Now I want to tell you about the Emerald City. The following description comes from a wikipedia article. The yellow brick road starts in Munchkin county and ends in the Emerald City. The Emerald City is located at the center of the Land of Oz. In the first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, the walls are green, but the city itself is not. However, when they enter, everyone in the Emerald City is made to wear green-tinted eyeglasses; which is explained as an effort to protect their eyes from the “brightness and glory” of the city, but in effect makes everything appear green when it is, in fact, “no more green than any other city”.
There are hundreds of books written by and about the famous Wizard of Oz franchise, and there are about as many tales about the meanings, metaphors used, and philosophies present in the books and the famous movie. So, I feel safe shamelessly using it as a perfect metaphor for all promised lands. I’ll try not to belabor the point, as I imagine most of you can instantly understand why I employ the Land of Oz and its Emerald City in this fashion. In the book, Dorothy’s goal is to “go home,” or reach Nirvana, with the help of “the Wizard” (or guru), who holds the key. Of course, in the end, the key to self-actualization is not with the Wizard, but within Dorothy herself. By the way, the name Dorothy literally means “gift of God”.
People don’t just decide to take Oz-like treks just for the fun of it. There is usually some traumatic event or situation that induces them to brave the additional hardships represented by evil witches, flying monkeys, vicious trees, rabid beasts, giant ditches, and soporific poppy fields in the book. There is a way to get to the promised land the Emerald City. The road is difficult, but paved. If you need to put your time in as a waitperson in Hollywood or Bollywood before your face or script gets in front of the right people, you do it. If you must work at a parking lot during the day so you can play bit parts in off-Broadway productions, you do it. If you write programming code for sandwiches and a promise of stock in a startup company, you do do it. All these things are done so that you can attain a better life... so that you can get to your personal, internal promised land.
So strong is the psychic pull of the phrase “Promised Land”, and so charged it is as a meme, it is simply used as linguistic shorthand to represent almost any existential struggle. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” was the last speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. In that speech he declared, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.”
King did not need to define to his audience what the Promised Land looks like, or where it is, or what it will feel like when it is finally arrived at. He did not need to. Every person in his audience understood that the path towards it is fraught with uncertainty, difficulty, threat of death, resignation, and the moral certainty of God’s will. For African Americans the Promised Land is both a physical and a mental place that is free from fear and persecution.
There is another aspect of the Promised Land meme that speaks to suffering and tragedy. The language almost always has a prophetic quality that refers to the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. Moses, who leads the people of Israel, is not able to go there because of his transgression towards God. God informs Moses that he will not reach the land himself, but he will see it from a distance.
So, to reach the Promised Land, one must be willing to sacrifice for the good of those who will follow behind them: members of their family, their community, or some other disadvantaged group of people. Sometimes the land is already occupied but the fruits of its potential will not be consumed for generations. Such is, of course, the case for African Americans and Native Americans, but it as also true for almost every kind of immigrant.
Sometimes to reach the Promised Land an actual Diaspora is involved, with a scattered population whose origin lies in a different geological place. The term Diaspora is almost always associated with the involuntary mass dispersions of populations and/or some genocidal event. These physical journeys do not necessarily have to take place across continents or nations, like the expulsion of Jews from Judea, Armenians from their homeland, the Greeks after the fall of Constantinople, Native Americans after they lost their homelands, the Irish during the Irish Famine, the African trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the southern Chinese or Indians during what was called the “coolie trade”.
Being free from fear and persecution is the goal of the traveler to the Promised Land. Both the fear and persecution can be real or imagined... and they can often be manifested in both the place being left and the place where the traveler arrives. But the essential thing is the hope for a better situation in the Promised Land.
In my first year of seminary school I took an eye-opening course called “Promised Lands and Immigrants” taught by Dr. Hugo Córdova Quero. The on-line course covered racial/ethnic, gender and religious identity issues of Latina/o migrants to the United States and Japan. We examined the issues around migration and the “Promised Lands” paradigm through the lenses of race, ethnicity, gender identities, and religion. Using a multidisciplinary approach, I came to an understanding of just how difficult it is for both immigrants and their “host” countries to grapple with the needs and expectations of people who are induced, for a wide variety of reasons, to seek a Promised Land.
Imagine what it would like to be gay or lesbian and needing to live in a country that would be hostile towards you. Imagine that you are discriminated against in your host country because you don’t speak the language, you speak too loudly, your mannerisms are considered boorish, you worship differently, your hair is not the right color, and your race is all wrong. This is certainly the case with Latina/o migrants to Japan. Let’s say you are actually of Japanese ancestry but you’ve grown up in a South American country – both your parents are Japanese, you speak Japanese, you were educated in schools that taught in the Japanese language, and you went to live in Japan. You’d think you would be easily assimilated into the culture. You would be tragically wrong!
Although we studied the rather harsh example of Japanese culture, as well as the whacky experience Latina/o migrants have in the United States, the study broadened my intellectual horizons to encompass the experience African Americans and Native Americans have in the United States. Here, the machinations of oppression are the same: you are discriminated against in your host country because you don’t speak the language, you speak too loudly, your mannerisms are considered boorish, you worship differently, your hair is not the right color, and your race is all wrong. Assimilation for these groups, even over many generations, is virtually impossible because of the inherent racism of their “native” country.
So, African Americans for example, experienced their own Diaspora that was “internal” to the United States. They fled the deep South, with its brutally discriminatory Jim Crow laws after the American Civil War, to seek the Promised Lands of the North and (later) the West. There, they became quickly aware that their zip code change did not correspond to a change in attitude about their skin color. On the whole, things were better, but the struggle to find Martin Luther King Jr.’s Promised Land is ongoing.
The indigenous people called “Native Americans” in the United States, have fared at least as badly as African Americans, and mostly for the same reasons. They are like Dorothy in the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, who got to the Emerald City but was told that she had to go back into danger to retrieve the wicked witch’s broom before she could go home. After enduring biological warfare, dislocation from their lands, and endless treaty violations, many Native Americans are the in the unique position of being citizens of the United States and also citizens of a federally recognized Indian nation, a nation recognized by the Supreme Court as a domestic, dependent nation.
In a sermon entitled “The Immigrant”, I spoke about the concept of a “melting pot” in the United States. I said: “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.” In that sermon, I pointed out that United States’ immigration policies have always had a strong racist component.... that the original, and still subconscious preference for immigrants to these shores are people who are European, or of European descent.
The name of the game for anyone wishing to live successfully in a Promised Land is to assimilate into the host culture. That is just a fact of life. Unless you are content to claim some plot of land in Antarctica or a new lava-created island in the Pacific, there are very few places where you can go in the modern era that is not already occupied by someone else. You and your friends might go the Israeli route and conquer lands already occupied by Palestinians... you know, the “we had it first a billion years ago” rationale for acquiring a Promised Land, but generally people frown on that approach.
So, how do you get to your Promised Land? How can you get the people already living there to accept you? How do you change the contours of the land to suit your needs without pissing off the natives?
Unless you’re trapped in that land like the indigenous people in the United States, or your ancestors were enslaved there, like African Americans, you’ve got to choose your Promised Land very carefully. Getting to a Promised Land is a somewhat transactional affair. Generally, it is a good idea to have something to offer the host country, like labor or needed skills. Workers from across the globe have been attracted to the United States for that reason. Unfortunately, the United States has a history of sifting by race and ethnicity after a while. Presently we are in another pendulum swing towards the racist right. The people bearing the brunt of our racist scorn are brown people from anywhere south of our borders and/or anyone who had been enjoying Temporary Protected Status, like those from Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Somalia.
The Gastarbeiter (or Guest Worker) program in what was once West Germany is another example of how transactional arrangements in Promised Lands can go wrong. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Turkish workers arrived in Germany to fill the demand for cheap labor in a booming post-war economy. Many of them never left, creating a minority community that changed the demographics of Germany forever. According to Wikipedia, “By 2010 there were about 4 million people of Turkish descent in Germany. The generation born in Germany attended German schools, but some had a poor command of either German or Turkish, and thus had either low-skilled jobs or were unemployed. Most are Muslims and are presently reluctant to become German citizens.” I imagine you can already guess what I would say about how Turks are treated in Germany... and you would be correct.
It also helps to have some kind of cultural, religious, racial, or ethnic links to the host country. This can be problematical, though. I already mentioned the problems the Japanese have with Latina/o migrants, who you might think should be welcomed by virtue of their genetic ties. Ethiopian Jews in Israel can tell you a lot about the challenges they’ve faced immigrating there. At first, they were welcomed to Israel, starting in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia “The biggest challenge to the Israeli Ethiopian Beta Israel community probably lies in the very low level of formal education of the immigrants. With few exceptions, when they first arrived to Israel they had no useful training for a developed economy like that of Israel, and in addition to that they did not know Hebrew.” As a consequence, discrimination against the Ethiopian Jews is rampant. In May 2015, The Jewish Daily Forward described the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel as one that has “long complained of discrimination, racism and poverty.” The absorption of Ethiopians in Israeli society represents an ambitious attempt to deny the significance of race.
We’ve just taken a look at some ways to get to a Promised Land. The other questions I posed: “How can you get the people already living there to accept you, and how do you change the contours of the land to suit your needs without pissing off the natives?”, are fraught with their own challenges. In this dimension, things are not a bleak as you might think. It turns out that acceptance of people in the Promised Land is best accomplished with allies. To put it simply, you must find the bleeding heart liberals in your host country and work with them.
Richard Kearney wrote: “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.” In all societies there are people who are fearful of strangers and there are people who are not fearful. For whatever their reasons: religious, spiritual, cultural curiosity, better traveled and educated, moral, or humanitarian... people who are not afraid of the stranger are embedded in a host culture.
It is the individuals and organizations that welcome people other than themselves that need to be sought out if you wish to find a home in a Promised Land. These are the “unafraid” who understand that basic human rights must be applied for all human beings at all times. They are individuals who believe that people share the same fundamental values and that the principles of fairness, equity, justice, and compassion must be set at the center of all civilizations. They will be fine if you make a contribution to that civilization by changing some of its contours.
The search for a Promised Land takes place on both personal and group levels. The search can be induced for many reasons, and can find its expression in countless ways. Whether welcoming others on the journey means inviting them to lunch where you both work, or insisting that your government places human rights at the heart of its immigration policies, or speaking out against injustices experienced everyday due to racism, bigotry, or prejudice; your actions and voice can make a real difference. Any Promised Land needs two kinds of people... those who make it a beautiful place to live and those who wish to contribute to its beauty.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
Below is a paper that I completed for the Starr King School for the Ministry on May 12, 2018.
1Barna Group, “Church Attendance Trends Around the Country,” Barna Group, 2017, https://www.barna.com/research/church-attendance-trends-around-country/.
2Christana Wille-McKnight, “The Problem of Retention in Unitarian Universalism – Yet Another Unitarian Universalist,” The problem of retention in Unitarian Universalism – Yet Another Unitarian Universalist, July 11, 2011, https://www.danielharper.org/yauu/2011/07/the-problem-of-retention-in-unitarian-universalism/; Daniel Burke, “Can Unitarian Universalists Make It Another 50 Years?,” Huffington Post, August 29, 2011, sec. Religion, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/29/unitarian-universalists_n_887267.html.
3UUA, “Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources of Inspiration and Spiritual Growth,” UUA.org, February 19, 2015, https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources.
4Linda Woodhead, Christopher Partridge, and Hiroko Kawanami, Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations (UK: Routledge, 2001). pp 71-2.
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!