This article was published in the July issue of “The Winged Ox,” our church newsletter at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Los Gatos, CA.
Not everything is relative, even in our polarized national climate. A few things remain absolute. You do not tear children away from their parents and put them in cages. No matter what. There must be a “zero tolerance policy” for such actions. Because the minute we start trying to justify such wickedness, we will spiral into a moral relativity that will soon condone much worse. The fact that our government backed off from this policy offers two lessons: we must shout, cry foul, and expose such acts when they are committed, because that’s all that stopped this from continuing; and, we are now capable of such behavior in this country.
Duh. Now? How naïve can I be? What about slavery? Genocide of indigenous cultures? Lynchings? Covert participation in government overthrows in Latin America? All the deportations under previous presidents? The hucksterism and exploitation upon which our country was built over 300 years? When did I fall for the myth of America as a great nation, a beacon of freedom for the world? And in what time period was that, exactly? Our golden age as a country was … when, again?
I don’t think I ever fell for it, actually. Yet, like some grinning rubber ducky bobbing back to the surface of turbid bathtub waters, the myth persists in my soul, it refuses to stay down. My friends, my spiritual charges, my Trump supporters and haters, this is a great country. Supremely imperfect, maybe not the best ever or even the best now. But those refugees from terrorizing nations trying to sneak across our borders would whisper the secret we often forget: We still represent hope. Ridiculous, impossible hope. And if they still believe in us, surely we can muster up some belief in ourselves.
We still get to protest our government, to marry whom we love, to make decisions about our body and health … for the most part, for now. It is our patriotic duty to uphold these freedoms and to fight when someone threatens to take them away. I can’t pretend to understand what motivates young men and women to join the armed forces, but I know I could never do it, and I’d like to think they aren’t potentially putting their lives on the line just so that people like me can live timid and self-involved lives. Our part in this compact is to keep caring about each other for as long as we can, with compassion and kindness as our best face, while fiercely defending our best guess at goodness in this age of relative morality, and protecting the most vulnerable among us. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
I was moved this week …
- by the offer from the Tampa Bay Muslim Community to house all 2,300 migrant children until they could be returned to their parents;
- by the tremble in an 85-year-old black man’s voice on a podcast I’m listening to, describing the return to his beloved Georgia after 46 years of living in Buffalo, NY;
- by the flight attendant who refused to work his shift on an airplane where ICE agents were transporting crying children;
- by the memory of Republican parishioners in Long Beach who brought carloads of clothing to our homeless shower program each month, my amulets against demonizing others;
- by the photos of my clergy colleagues in the Diocese of L.A. being arrested during protests against immigration policies;
because they gave me hope. Ridiculous, impossible hope.
While discerning my call to the priesthood in 2005, I wrote this about my struggle with faith: “I feel like the more my skepticism grows, the stronger my yearning for God becomes. It’s as if someone is trying to take something valuable away from me; and the harder they tug, the tighter I grip.” That’s how I felt this week thinking about the American flag, what it represents, the evil and the good. Conflicted at holding onto it, yet don’t you dare take it away from me or say it only means one thing. It’s my flag, too, and my voice joins the diverse chorus that sings out its myth, cries out its despair, trills out its joy.
We can’t let everyone into our country, as heartbreaking or heartening as that sounds to you and your politics. Will we ever resolve the tragedy at our southern border? Or will it continue to bleed, unhealed, and join the pile of open wounds that are this nation’s past tragedies? It’s not enough to believe the myth of greatness; we have to keep working towards goodness. Maybe someday, maybe not, we will make America great for once, for all.
Image credits: 1) Michael Morgenstern/The Economist 11.1.14; 2) Spencer Platt/Getty Images NYC Rally 6.30.18; 3) Mario Tama/Getty Images The Rev. Francisco Garcia L.A. 6.30.18; 4) Sign from San Jose Rally 6.30.18.