Foreigners and Strangers

statueoflibertyI’m not going to brag about how great a country the United States of America is, but I’m not going to condemn it either. The lections assigned for this celebration tell us how to celebrate this day and that is how I’m going to do it.

In Deuteronomy (10:17-21), Yahweh claims to be the God of Gods. That is God is God of all nations, not just Israel and certainly not just of the United States. Yahweh goes on to remind the Israelites of their humble origins as escaped slaves and commands them to lend the same compassion to other foreigners. It is easy for us to forget that all of us here are descended from foreigners, even the Native Americans, although they go way back. Yahweh, who defends the poor and the fatherless, embraces the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free. As descendants of tired and poor teeming masses yearning to breathe free, we should open this country to those whom Yahweh loves and not just to the energetic, rich people who breathe easily. In order for a country to practice such radical hospitality, it is necessary to practice the same hospitality to all who already live here so that others may wish to come.

When we gather in any way, whether as a family, a community, or a nation, we need to be sure that our bonding is not at the expense of others. That is, we should not need enemies to know who we are or who we think we are. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, which amounts to not considering anyone our enemies, even if they think that of us. Jesus says that pagans greet those who are of “their sort.” Jesus asks much more of us than that. If God gives rain to all, then we should give peace to all. That is, we should treat those of other countries the way we treat our own, provided we treat our own as the passage from Deuteronomy teaches us.

The author of Hebrews (11:816) reminds us that our country, any country, is not ultimate, is not our final dwelling place. Even the most supposedly settled of us were nomads once and fundamentally we still are. We all should be looking for a “better country—a heavenly one” while we live as foreigners and strangers here. If we all live as foreigners, we will not be strangers to each other and we will be surprised at how pleasant our stopping place is on the Way to the better Home.

On Being Interdependent on Independence Day

fireworksIndependence Day in the US is a day for fireworks and parade and speeches. It can be a field day for jingoism but it can also be a day of collective self-examination of how we might make our country better and not worse.

Reflecting on the concept of mimetic desire, the human tendency to imitate not just the actions of other people but the desires of other people, can help us greatly in getting a sense of direction on how we might make our country better rather than worse. With the way anything in social media can go viral, we need to be conscious about how the media are infecting our desires in ways we can easily not see. Media gone viral constantly blows up into scapegoating of victims that make everybody else feel “better” about themselves, a process that makes our country worse instead of better. It is worth noting that Alexander Hamilton favored a strong executive branch for our government vested in one person because that made it easier for everybody else to know whom to blame if anything went wrong.

In our global age, we are all of also members of an economic body. Adam Smith wrote about its emergence in The Wealth of Nations, published in the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed. This system, vast as Leviathan, is fueled by mimetic desire that is way out of control. I don’t buy the notion that this system somehow works out for good even though most people in the system act out of self-interest. The system has its own life and self-interest that we can see clearly enough grinds huge numbers of people into destitution unimaginable for those of us living in our own bubble. Since the US is such a leading participant in this system, it is tempting to equate the two, but they are not the same and can easily work at cross-purposes. The effort to become aware of how our own desires are being formed and manipulated by this system is much stronger than with the system of the political body.

Standing alone against such vast social systems is hopeless, but we don’t have to do that. In the simple story about the Emperor’s new clothes, one child cried out that the Emperor had no clothes and suddenly the mimetic perception of the kingdom shifted and he was not alone. Saying what we see and what we desire connects us to the desires of others. We will not be alone.

Most important, those of us who are Christians are members of another body, the Body of Christ. (Other faith traditions form bodies with the same kind of power.) The mimetic processes of the political and economic systems easily confuse us into thinking that this Body is equivalent to one or both of the others, but it is not. Acting out of self-interest in the faith that everything will work out fine falls infinitely short of the Gospel and the Messiah who sacrificed himself for us. This Body can also be exasperating when those in it fail to strengthen us when we need it, but it is still the Body where we can join up with those who had gathered around the woman caught in adultery and join the mimetic social process started by the eldest and walk away because we know we are not without sin. Where do we end up if we take this walk? The arms of Jesus who enfolds us in His Desire.