Opening Doors on a Difficult Debate
By Harlon Dalton
“We should fling the church doors wide open!” That was the first thing that came to mind as we grappled with how to respond to the horrifying news on September 11, 2001. “Yes, we should fling the doors wide open.”
I had spent that morning at Yale Law School straddling the line between teacher and pastor, knowing better than to engage my students in the intricacies of civil procedure, but uncertain about how far I should go in providing comfort and care.
I felt oddly constrained by the fact that in addition to being a law professor I am an Episcopal priest. Even though I had (figuratively speaking) removed my clerical collar before entering the Temple of Reason, I worried that my efforts to do what any empathetic person would do might be misinterpreted.
Later in the day, I made the trek from the law school to the parish I serve as part-time associate rector. Usually I did not drop by on Tuesdays, but I had a feeling that it was where I needed to be. Others felt that way too. The entire staff spontaneously gathered there, as did several parishioners. We quickly set about discerning how the church should respond to the unfolding events.
I think it was Barbara Cheney, the rector, who first came up with the idea of flinging wide the doors, from early in the morning to late at night. We all instantly agreed. Such a move was not without risk, given our urban location and a recent spate of thefts, but it was still an easy call. We then turned our attention to liturgy. What should we say and do? Given the tangled emotions and deep uncertainty of the moment, what could we offer that would be comforting, reassuring, uplifting?
|The church occupies a moral, conceptual, and existential space separate and apart from the nation-state. One consequence of this apartness is that boundaries which can seem so fixed to us as citizens become quite contingent when we imagine the church universal.|
Hearing the Hurt
At the end of one of the services that week, I was approached by a parishioner whom I did not know well. “Mary” was clearly on edge and she spoke with an edge. “Why are we not flying the American flag? Our country has been attacked. Don’t you care? Why are we not flying the flag? We should be showing our patriotism.”
I tried to acknowledge Mary’s feelings, and to honor her sense of having been violated, but in truth I was eager to get to the theological heart of the matter.
“The church,” I explained in tones more selfrighteous than I care to admit, “does not belong to any one country, including our own. As Christians, we are members of the body of Christ, a community of the faithful that bridges every division that we human beings create, including national borders. God does not care whether we are Americans or Russians or whatever, only that we remain loving and faithful.”
I could tell from Mary’s body language that my theological brilliance did not sway her. She had not heard a thing I said, because of how much she was hurting and because of my failure to speak to that hurt.
A few years later, long after Mary’s questions had faded from memory, I was flagged down at coffee hour by one of the newer members of the congregation, “Tim.”
“I just wanted you to know,” he said, “how grateful I am to be here. It is such a comfort to know that I can settle into the worship service and not have to worry about being excluded or demeaned.”
Noting my quizzical look, he continued: “This is one of the few places I’ve been where being faithful doesn’t get mixed up with being patriotic. In most churches I’ve been to, there is a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle suggestion that you can’t be a good Christian if you don’t also worship America. As someone whose allegiance isn’t solely to the United States, it leaves me feeling like I don’t belong. That never happens here.”
Tim’s observations took me aback. Although I knew that his father immigrated from Thailand and that he strongly identified with his Thai heritage, I had not given two seconds’ thought to how this allegiance might affect his experience of worship. That said, we do refrain from jingoism at St. PJ’s, not out of pastoral concern for the Tims among us (although that would be appropriate), but because we understand the church and the nation to be disparate realms.
I begin with these scenes from a parish because together they illustrate why people of faith are uniquely positioned to re-frame how we think and talk about immigration. As Christians we observe the world from a distinctive vantage point. The church occupies a moral, conceptual, and existential space separate and apart from the nation-state. One consequence of this apartness is that boundaries that can seem so fixed to us as citizens – boundaries based on geography and language, kinship and descent – become quite contingent when we imagine the church universal. Moreover, many Christians, especially those who belong to denominations or polities that transcend civic boundaries, have firsthand experience of the possibilities when we wear our “man-made” lines of demarcation lightly. Imagine how different our thinking would be were we to bring that same sense of contingency and permeability to the immigration conversation.
|What is America? We need to offer a vision that is rooted in values rather than ethnic appearances, in commitments rather than lines of descent.|
Similarly, how different would the conversation be if we approached immigration from a global rather than a national perspective? What would happen, for example, if we took seriously George Rupp’s suggestion in this Reflections issue that we attend to the political, cultural, and economic dynamics of “sender” countries instead of focusing narrowly on protecting our own borders and dealing with those who unlawfully cross them? We just might discover that a wise immigration policy would include significant financial and other assistance to such countries in order to relieve the pressures that drive out-migration in the first place.
As citizens, we often succumb to the tyranny of “is” over “ought.” We wind up using the status quo as the template for all our thinking, rendering transformation impossible. I suspect that the world “as it is” would have far less of a grip on our imaginations if we brought to the civic arena the capacity we prize as Christians to envision and then live into the world as it ought to be. A whole new set of possibilities would present themselves were we to infuse the immigration conversation with what might be thought of as “civic eschatology.”
The conversation would be further enriched by the introduction of a moral dimension rooted in Scripture. Several of the essays in this volume testify to the richness of the Bible’s many migration stories and the lessons we can draw from them. In addition to such stories, both the law and the prophets are clear that nations as well as individuals will be condemned for mistreating aliens in their midst. At a minimum, the Biblical witness provides powerful support for those who insist that justice for immigrants be a central concern in any debate over immigration policy. Moreover, it is easy to imagine people of faith becoming a powerful force in moving the conversation away from self-interest, narrowly understood.
I hold out even more hope for the role that theology can play in re-framing the conversation. That is because the essence of theology as a discipline is to structure and organize how we think about basic questions of faith, and to provide a lens for answering them. In other words, theology is all about framing. In this Reflections we are fortunate to have a contribution from Daniel Groody, who has played a leading role in mapping out the contours of a prophetic theology of immigration.
Recasting the conversation will not be easy. And doing so is just the first step.
If we are faithful, we need also to act in ways that further our vision. In part that means supporting sound immigration policies and opposing policies that are xenophobic, short-sighted, morally suspect, or incompatible with our basic understandings of how God would have us order our lives. This, too, is no mean task, primarily because immigration policy and law are notoriously arcane and complex. We need, therefore, to search out and rely upon lawyers and policy experts who not only are technically competent but also are attuned to our concerns as people of faith. As you will soon discover, two of the very best – Julia Thorne and Bill Ong Hing – are contributors to this Reflections issue.
There is another kind of action that is ours to take, action of a sort that is quite familiar. We are called to be present to the strangers among us. To those who qualify as refugees or asylum seekers, and to those who are simply undocumented. To those who eagerly embrace every opportunity afforded them, and to those who have difficulty adjusting and act out in ways that trouble us. To do this we have to extend ourselves and learn about cultures different from our own. To do this we get to extend ourselves and are blessed to learn about cultures different from our own.
Empathy All Around
We are called, as well, to be pastoral to those in our midst who are struggling with the prospect of immigration, who feel threatened by it, who are troubled by the fact that the undocumented are skirting the law, or whose compassion for the stranger is offset by a genuine concern that their own lives will be negatively affected. I press this point with some trepidation, having already confessed to you my pastoral shortcoming with my parishioner Mary, but the flip side is that that encounter has become a great teaching moment for me. I now appreciate how important it is to be pastoral and prophetic at the same time. My goal is (our goal should be) that no one gets ground down or left by the wayside in our pursuit of justice.
Quite often, I suspect, opposition to immigration is rooted in a fear not just of personal displacement but of national displacement as well. Some years ago I read about several small towns in California whose citizens had readily embraced an influx of Taiwanese immigrants. The townsfolk found the newcomers to be congenial and were particularly pleased with the new businesses they had launched. But then something happened that changed all that. Several of the immigrants in each of the towns scraped together enough money to purchase signs advertising their businesses. And though some signs were in Eng- lish, others were in Chinese. Several townspeople became visibly upset at this and began agitating for ordinances that would limit any further growth of the Taiwanese population. When pressed to explain why, one man captured the sentiment of many when he said: “When I walk down the street and see those signs on those shops, I feel like I am not in America anymore.”
Immigration does indeed pose a challenge to what America looks like. Of course, what America does or should look like is contestable. I am reminded of a phrase that President-elect Bill Clinton frequently used during the transition period before he took office. He said: “I want to appoint a Cabinet that looks like America.” For him, America looks like a land of equal opportunity, a place where all of God’s children come to the table. For him, “looks like” was a proxy for “is.”
That, indeed, is the deeper question behind the California townfolks’ lament: What is America? For them, the appearance of things may come as close as they could come to articulating the essence of things. They felt that America herself, a recognizable America, was slipping through their grasp – that they were in danger of losing whatever it is that makes America America, which is to say distinctive and a source of pride.
I’m guessing that a similar dynamic may be in play for most people whose reaction to immigration is negative and visceral. Like the California townsfolk, they equate America with what it looks like, or rather with what it used to look like, racially and ethnically, in their immediate surroundings. Given that equation, immigration indeed does threaten to upset or undo who we are as a nation.
In Search of American Values
If I am right about this, then in order to respond pastorally we have to acknowledge and honor their sense of loss. At the same time, we need to engage them in a conversation about how best to “see” America, about what America truly “is.” We need to offer a vision that is rooted in values rather than appearances, in commitments rather than lines of descent.
If we fail to articulate a national identity that is not based on the ethnic identity of its citizens, then Reflections contributor Amy Chua’s dour prediction may be right, that the immigration wars will continue unabated. On the other hand, if we succeed in achieving reasonable consensus on a set of values that “is” America, we will utterly transform the intellectual and emotional backdrop against which the immigration conversation takes place.
My fondest hope is that as a result of that transformation, our immigration policy will undergo a radical transformation. We need not fling the doors wide open, but we need to open them wide enough to accommodate those who yearn to breathe free, whose lives are in grave peril, or who suffer want far beyond our imagining. If we are wise, we will welcome as well those who have much to contribute to this country – not just those who possess rare and highly valued skills, but also people willing and eager to harness lesser talents that are increasingly needed in our ever-evolving economy.
Harlon Dalton ( J.D. Yale, 1973) is professor of law at Yale Law School and an adjunct faculty member of Yale Divinity School. His books include Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks & Whites (Doubleday, 1995). He is associate rector of Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James in New Haven, CT.