GOD’S HEART HAS NO BORDERS
Texts: Ruth 1: 1-18; John 13: 31-35
Going through the Baltimore Museum of Art one can find a pitcher designed by Karl Müller and manufactured by the Union Porcelain Works in 1876 with the image of a white man with a knife choking a stereotype of a Chinese man with his braid and long fingernails. It was one of the best-selling pitchers of the time.
Beginning in the 1860s, more than 15,000 Chinese laborers were imported by railroad companies to help build the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. By the 1870s white workers, especially in the West, began complaining of the cheap “slave labor” of the Chinese. In response, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to stem Chinese immigration. Western states passed laws prohibiting persons ineligible for citizenship, aimed at Asians from China and Japan, from owning land.
In 1924 the Reed-Johnson Act prohibited immigration from Asian countries. In fact, it was only in 1943 that the Chinese became eligible for citizenship while at the same time more than 120,000 ethnic Japanese, including American born children and adults, were interned in so-called “relocation camps.”
The pandemic, fueled by political leaders blaming China for the illness, produced another wave of anti-Chinese sentiment. Blaming people considered to be outsiders, whether Hispanics for drug trafficking and crime or American Muslims for 9/11 has been a hallmark of American politicians.
So here we have Ruth ready to cross the border with her mother-in-law Naomi. Today, she would have been stopped by the border patrol and asked for her papers. Of course, Naomi and her departed husband Elimelech hadn’t been stopped when they went to Moab during the time of famine some ten years before. As they approach the border, Naomi bids them to return to their land, acquire new husbands, begin new lives. Orpah decides to return, but Ruth, loyal to Naomi beyond language, borders, and fear, goes with Naomi. As you all may remember, she goes to pick up the remains of the first gleaning, doing the hard work and caring for her mother-in-law.
Immigration is still a hot button issue in today’s world. Some point to 9-11 and the fears that emerged after the terrorist attack, but Mohammed Atta and the men who were with him were not Central Americans looking for work, Haitians escaping the terror of their corrupt and brutal government, or even Pakistani food vendors who send most of their earnings back home. For over two hundred years, we in the United States had had a conflicting tradition of hospitality and hostility toward the stranger. Benjamin Franklin once noted, “America has hailed newcomers to its shores as the bulwark of democracy; however, in times of crisis, it has also used the foreign born as a scapegoat for unsolved social problems.” He had his conflicts as well, resenting German language store signs in that area of Philadelphia known as Germantown.
For the first hundred years, the United States welcomed immigrants with open arms. In fact, in 1819, Congress encouraged immigration by setting standards for passenger ships to make the voyage to America more comfortable. Only after the frontier was settled in the late 1800’s did limits on immigration begin. It was only in the late 1880s, just as the Statue of Liberty was constructed that Congress began looking at immigration limits, first to types of people, such as refusing convicts and prostitutes.
Even as playwright, Israel Zangwill in 1908 coined the phrase, “Melting Pot”, Congress kept adding others to the excluded list: paupers, polygamists, epileptics and the mentally ill. In 1924, based on the so-called science of eugenics, a numerical system to limit southern and eastern Europeans, people who might not be as “white” as desired began. Since then, Congress has modified those restrictions several times: 1952, 1965, 1980, 1986, 1990, and the 1996, which radically changed how our government would treat people already in the country living with U.S. citizen or resident family members.
What is it about immigration that makes us so fearful? Yes, 9-11 plays a part but I suggest that there is something even more insidious than fear working in us. During World War I states passed laws against speaking German publicly and even from a pulpit; during World War II, we held thousands of people, including U.S. citizens, in concentration camps called relocation centers based solely on their race.
We were a bit better after 9-11 although hundreds of Muslims were rounded up off the streets right here in New Jersey and Sikhs, hardly Muslims, were assaulted by local yahoos. But it runs deeper than that. I think we are afraid of losing an identity that we have concocted in our minds, the identity of an America that never existed. In fact, I would suggest that we cannot even articulate this identity.
It’s color but not in the old sense of black and white. It’s language, but as a nation, the Spanish were here well before the English speaking Pilgrims and settlers. It’s the feeling of something called legality, but we ignore the fact that most of our ancestors would never have met that test.
There are economic issues, to be sure, but most of the immigrants working in our midst are not taking the jobs that Americans would do The jobs being supplanted by corporate greed bring in very limited numbers of college trained H 1-Bs who under Federal law and regulation must be paid what Americans earn. The disparity does not come in the wage or health benefits but in the other kinds of benefits offered, such as retirement.
As a nation, we are reaping the result of our own greed and misguided foreign policy. Our greed pushes us to get ever and ever cheaper services and products. Our greed allows us to turn a blind eye towards Tyson and Perdue as they exploit workers in their processing plants. Our foreign policy supported corrupt governments and brutal dictatorships in Central and South America because they reflected corporate interests. We have created our own problem and now we must ask ourselves if we are truly American, if we are as Christian as we claim to be. There are no easy answers to the problems we have ourselves created.
God calls us to welcome the stranger in our midst. Scripture enjoins us to treat the alien, the foreigner with respect, to care for those not born here, just as the alien, the foreigner was entitled to the gleanings of the field.
This is not just a matter of public policy but of Christian hospitality. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus said, “that you love one another.” If we are to truly love as commanded, then we need to look at the plight of immigrants in our midst, often torn from their families, and reform the harsh laws and policies that are really destroying our society. This is a critical area in which the future of American democracy is being played out.
Let us pray: O God, who welcomes all into your realm, help us to welcome others as we have been welcomed. Help us to look beyond our fears and live our hopes In the name of him who welcomes all, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.