Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Welcoming the Stranger

Welcoming the Stranger

Luis N. Rivera-Pagán, Theologian from Puerto Rico

Commencement address Lutheran School of Theology
May 17, 2009 - Chicago, Illinois

The first confession of faith in the Bible begins with a story of migration and pilgrimage: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…” (Deuteronomy 26: 5, NRSV), or, in another version, “my father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there” (REB).

We might ask, did that “wandering and homeless Aramean” have the proper documents to reside in Egypt? Was he maybe an “illegal alien”? Did he overstay his visa granted time of residence? Did he and his children have the proper Egyptian social security credentials?

We know at least that he and his children were strangers in the midst of a powerful empire, and that as such they were both exploited and feared. This is the plight of most immigrants. In their reduced circumstances they are usually forced to perform the least prestigious and most strenuous kinds of menial work. But at the same time they awaken the schizophrenic paranoia typical of empires, powerful and yet fearful of the stranger, of the other, especially if that stranger resides within its frontiers and becomes populous.

The biblical creedal story continues: “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the… God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction… and our oppression” (26: 6). This statement of faith was to be solemnly recited every year in the thanksgiving liturgy of the harvest festival. It reenacts the memory of the afflictions and humiliations suffered by an immigrant people, strangers in the midst of an empire; the memory of hard and arduous labor, of the contempt and scorn that is frequently the fate of the stranger and foreigner, who has a different skin pigmentation, language, religion, or culture. But it is also the memory of the events of liberation, when God heard the dolorous cries of the suffering immigrants. It is also the memory of another kind of migration, in search of a land where they might live in freedom, peace, and righteousness.

We might ask: who might be today the wandering Arameans and what nation might represent these days Egypt, a strong but fearful empire?

The United States undergoes a significant increase of its Latino/Hispanic population. Today Hispanics number nearly 47 million, around 15 percent of the nation. Some projections estimate that in 2050 its share of the US population might be between 26 to 32 percent. This demographic growth has engendered a complex political and social debate for it highlights the delicate issue of national identity and cultural norms. It also threatens to unleash a new phase in the sad and long history of American racism.

Unfortunately, the conversation about this matter is taking place in an environment clouded by the gradual development of xenophobic attitudes. One can perceive signs of an increasing hostile reaction to what the Mexican American writer Richard Rodríguez has termed “the browning of America.” The spread of fear regarding the so-called “broken borders,” the possible proliferation of Third World epidemic diseases, and the alleged increase of criminal activities by undocumented immigrants. A shadowy sinister specter is created in the minds of the public: the image of the intruding and threatening “other.”

This negative outlook is intensified by the post 9/11 attitudes of phobia regarding the strangers, those people who are here but who do not seem to belong here. Surveillance of immigration is now located under the Department of Homeland Security. This administrative merger links two basically unrelated problems: threat of terrorist activities and unauthorized migration.

One can clearly recognize this mind-set in the frequent use of the derogatory term “illegal alien,” in reference to those immigrants who lack the required documents to reside and work in this nation. As if their illegality would define their entire being. We all know the sinister connotations that “alien” has in popular American culture, thanks in good part to the sequence of four “Alien” [1979, 1986, 1992, and 1997] films with Sigourney Weaver fighting back atrocious inhuman creatures.

In this social context, Samuel P. Huntington, the late chairman of Harvard’s Academy for International and Area Studies, and the intellectual father of the theory of the “clash of civilizations,” with notorious consequences for the failed foreign policies of the past Bush White House, published in 2004 a lengthy and dense book, Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. The former prophet of the theory of an unavoidable abyss and conflict between the West and the Rest now generates the theory of an emerging nefarious cultural conflict inside the United States.

American national identity seems a very complex issue for it deals with an extremely intricate and diverse history. But Huntington has, surprisingly, a simple defining scheme: The US is mainly identified by its “Anglo-Protestant culture” and not only by its liberal republican democratic political creed. In the formation of this collective identity, Christian devotion has been crucial. The British pioneers transported not only their bodies, but also their fundamental cultural and religious viewpoints. The US has been a nation of settlers rather than immigrants.

This national identity has also been forged by a long history of wars against a succession of enemies (from the Native Americans to the Islamic jihadists). National identity seems to require the image of a dangerous adversary, what Huntington terms the “perfect enemy.”

Christianity and war have been the historical sources for the social construction of American national identity, according to this reading. They have provided the rituals, symbols, and ceremonies crucial for the forging of a collective sense of communal loyalty.

After the dissolution of the Soviet threat, however, Huntington perceives and bewails a significant decline, in his view, of the intensity and salience of American national identity and loyalty.

And then emerges the challenge of the Latin American migratory invasion. It is not similar to previous migratory waves. Its contiguity, intensity, lack of education, territorial memory, constant return to the motherland, preservation of a different language, dual citizenship, retention of homeland traditions and allegiance, its distance to Anglo-Protestant culture, its alleged absence of a Puritan work ethic, makes it unique and unprecedented.

Huntington’s discomfiture is intense regarding the encroachment of Spanish in the American public life. He calls attention to the ominous situation that now in some states more children are christened José rather than Michael. Many corporations, before any further procedure, prompt a prior selection: “English or Spanish?” This increasing public bilingualism threatens to fragment the linguistic integrity of the United States. Linguistic bifurcation takes the shape of a veritable menacing Godzilla.

Then comes the big judgmental bombshell. The Latin American migration constitutes “a major potential threat to the cultural and political integrity of the United States” (WAW, 243). Huntington has seen the enemy and the enemy is . . . the Latin American immigrant!

This Ivy League professor does not seem to have any serious concern about the painful social process whereby those Latin American immigrants become the nation’s new servants, our new douloi, at the margins of society, in a kind of social Apartheid, cleaning our stores, hotels and colleges, cooking our meals, doing our dishes, cutting our grass, picking our tomatoes and oranges, painting our buildings, washing our cars, staying out of our way…

He also neglects the history of violence behind a substantial segment of the US Latino/Hispanic population. How can we discourse about these people without bringing into the conversation the 19th century military annexation of several former Mexican provinces, the 1898 conquest of Puerto Rico, and the suffering that many Latin American nations endured from US military actions and foreign policy during the 20th century? Have we already forgotten the plight of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the Reagan White House?

Will the Latino/Hispanics become the new national scapegoats? Do they truly represent “a major potential threat to the cultural and political integrity of the United States”? This is a crucial dilemma that this nation has up to now been unable to face and solve. We are not called, here and now, to solve it. But allow me, from my perspective as a Hispanic and Latin American Christian theologian, to offer some critical observations that might illuminate our way in this bewildering labyrinth.

We began with the creedal memory of a time when the people of Israel were aliens in the midst of an empire, a vulnerable community, socially exploited and culturally scorned. It was the worst of times. It was also the best of times: the times of liberation and redemption from servitude.

That memory shaped the sensibility of the Hebrew nation regarding the strangers, the aliens, within Israel. Their vulnerability was a reminder of their own past helplessness in Egypt, but also an ethical challenge to care for them. The care for the stranger and foreigner became an essential element of the Torah, the covenant of justice and righteousness between Yahweh and Israel. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19: 33f). “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23: 9). “The Lord your God is God of gods… who executes justice to the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10: 17ff).

The prophets constantly chastised the ruling elites of Israel and Judah for their social injustice and their oppression of the vulnerable people. Who were those vulnerable persons? The poor, the widows, the fatherless children, and the foreigners. “The princes of Israel... have been bent on shedding blood… the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezekiel 22: 6f). After condemning with the harshest words possible the apathy and inertia of temple religiosity in Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah, in the name of God, commands the alternative: “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness. .. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow…” (Jeremiah 7: 6).

The perennial temptation is xenophobia. The divine command, enshrined thus in the Torah is xenophilia - the love for those whom we usually find very difficult to love: the strangers, the aliens, and foreign sojourners.

How comforting would be to stop right here, with these fine biblical texts of xenophilia, of love for the other, the stranger. But the Bible happens to be a disconcerting book. It contains a disturbing multiplicity of voices, a perplexing polyphony that frequently complicates our theological hermeneutics. It is not merely that for many key ethical dilemmas we find in the Bible different perspectives; but that these are many times conflictive, even contradictory. Sometimes we jump from our contemporary labyrinths into a biblical maze, and get even more perplexed.

A colleague from this theological faculty, Professor Barbara Rossing has shown in a splendid way that the apocalyptic end of times is conceived in at least two very different ways in the New Testament, as the liberating end of imperial domination or as the end of the created world, with a twist of eternal retribution for too many human beings. We are therefore, she concludes, faced with a serious hermeneutical and ethical decision, in the context of a looming ecological disaster.

In the Hebrew Bible we also discover statements with certain distasteful flavor of nationalist xenophobia. Leviticus 25 is usually read as the classic text for the liberation of the Israelites who have fallen into indebted servitude. Indeed. But it also contains a nefarious distinction: “As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families… and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you... These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness” (Leviticus 24: 44-46). And what about the terrifying fate imposed upon the foreign wives (and their children), in the epilogues of Ezra and Nehemiah? They are thrown away, exiled, as sources of impurity and contamination of the faith and culture of the people of God. Not to mention the atrocious rules of warfare that prescribed forced servitude or annihilation of the peoples encountered in Israel’s route to the “promised land” (Deuteronomy 20: 10-17). These all are, in the apt expression of Phyllis Trible, “texts of terror.”

This conundrum is a constant irritating modus operandi of the Bible. We go to it searching for simple and clear solutions to our ethical enigmas, but it strikes back exacerbating our perplexity. Who said that the Word of God is supposed to make things easier?

But have I not forgotten something? We are in a commencement activity of a Lutheran School of Theology, and it is indeed very difficult to find more christologically- oriented people than Lutherans. Solus Christus, after all, was the main tenet of the Lutheran Reformation. What then about Christ and the stranger?

The parable of the judgment of the nations, in the Gospel of Matthew (25: 31-46), is pure vintage Jesus. It is a text whose connotations I refuse to reduce to a nowadays too common and constraining ecclesiastical confinement. Jesus disrupts, as he loved to do, the familiar criteria of ethical value and religious worthiness by distinguishing between human actions that sacramentally bespeaks divine love for the powerless and vulnerable from those that do not. Who are, according to Jesus, to be divinely blessed and inherit God’s kingdom? Those who in their actions care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and incarcerated, in short, for the marginalized, vulnerable, and powerless human beings. But also those who welcome the strangers, who provide them with hospitality; those who are able to overcome nationalistic exclusions, racism and xenophobia and are daring enough to welcome and embrace the alien, the people in our midst who happen to be different in skin pigmentation, culture, language, and national origins.

Why? Here comes the shocking statement: because they are, in their powerlessness and vulnerability, the sacramental presence of Christ. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25: 35).

When, in this powerful and imperial nation, you, graduates from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, welcome and embrace the immigrant, who reside and work here with or without some documents required by the powers that be, you are blessed, for you will be welcoming and embracing Jesus Christ, your Lord.

Allow me to conclude with some verses of Extranjeros, a song by the Spanish songwriter Pedro Guerra, in the language of the saints, the angels, and most undocumented immigrants of this nation.

Por ser como el aire su patria es el viento

Por ser de la arena su patria es el sol

Por ser extranjero su patria es el mundo

Por ser como todos su patria es tu amor

Recuerda una vez que fuimos así

los barcos y el mar, la fe y el adiós

llegar a un lugar pidiendo vivir

huir de un lugar salvando el dolor

May God bless you all!

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