I was, as were many particularly moved by the image of the Pope atop a pyramid-like structure overlooking the border of the Rio Grande, the dividing line between the US and Mexico. The Pope was fully visible to people on both sides of this great dividing line. What struck me forcibly was that the people on either side of the border were exactly the same.
National borders, in so many parts of the world are arbitrary lines drawn in the earth. The peoples on either side are invariably the same. It is this truth that tragically results in our need for more and more fences, borders concretized in the form of physical walls of concrete, wire, and steel. The border between the US and Mexico is but one more example of a wall, built upon the earth, but the product of fearful imagination.
I am not seeking to address the thorny political and economic issues of immigration. The politics are one thing, but invariably the economics are another and these factors are usually in tension. Politically, the US does not want the mass migration from Central America. Economically, it cannot continue to thrive without large injections of migrant labor. This is a story as old as time- remember the Israelites in Egypt? We should not be surprised to find that we are no nearer finding an effective solution in the 21st century than ever before in humanity’s long and frequently sorry history of population migrations.
As a young undergrad at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand I embarked on a course entitled Asian Studies, a comparative study of Indian and Chinese literature and history with Japanese language. In the early decades of the 1970’s N.Z was trying to reposition itself following the recent entry of the UK to the then European Economic Community. Having developed as the farm for the UK, Britain’s entry in the Common Market closed off access to N.Z.’s historical markets for primary produce. I wanted at that point in my life to enter the Foreign Service, and hence knowledge of Asia, especially fluency in Japanese, for Japan was then at the apex of its economic influence, was a prerequisite for building a new economic direction for the country.
While I have since forgotten the bulk of what I learned having decided after my first year to switch to Law, the historical comparison between the empires of China and Rome remains clear in my mind. Both empires experienced multiple waves of inward bound migrations of foreign peoples. In the case of Rome, the invaders eventually destroyed Roman civil order and culture, ushering in for the West a social regression known as the Dark Ages. In China, each new wave of invaders came not to destroy Chinese civilization, but to join it and to become more Chinese than the Chinese. The successive waves of Mongol invasions from Genghis Kahn to the Manchus who formed the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, the last of the great imperial dynasties ending in 1912, demonstrate the veracity of this thesis.
Despite the American Republic’s love affair with Imperial Rome, notably expressed in its civic architecture, American civilization is closer to that of Chinese than to Roman examples from history. Everyone who comes here wants to become American. The increasing atmosphere of paranoia believing that these people are out to destroy us is at variance with this nation’s historical experience. Borders become physical walls when in our imaginations the solidarity of similarity becomes the fear of difference. The movement from one to the other is but a twist in the imagination with dramatic consequences for the lives and livelihood of real men, women, and children.
The Gospel, the Pope, and the popular mood
In the gospel for this Second Sunday in Lent, Luke portrays Jesus setting out on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. One way of conceiving this is that Jesus now sets out in earnest on a journey that would increasingly involve speaking truth to power. As Luke presents it, Jesus already seems to know what the outcome of this will be. It will cost him his life.
Pope Francis seems to believe that it is his sacred duty to speak truth to power on behalf of the poor and oppressed. His record of doing this is well demonstrated. Whether he is speaking to the Vatican culture or to Mexican political society, at every turn of the way he excoriates the moral bankruptcy, corruption, and violence of governance as the abuse of power. I believe he must be fully aware of the personal risks that this involves. For him, it seems American exceptionalism is no protection for US politicians. For Francis the gospel of Jesus is clear. It calls for the building of bridges, not walls.
In a society where a sizeable percentage of the population feels abandoned by the political culture whether it is of the left or the right, building bridges is not a natural thing to do. There are too many to blame for our woe. There is too strong a need to find scapegoats and the proverbial differences of race, religion, gender, sexual identity, and the political stereotypes of right or left, of the alien – the stranger – the foreigner, abound. Everywhere we construct identities to be feared, protection against which walls must be erected. Sometimes the walls are physical – made from concrete and steel. Often they are political as in policies or the lack of policies on immigration. Mostly, the walls we erect are imaginative – created from primitive tribal attitudes fearful of difference and expressed in attitudes and practices of exclusion and contempt.
The sorry fact is that human beings share common aspirations and have common needs. Going back to my earlier comment that everyone who comes here wants to be American; all anyone wants is to participate in what we already enjoy. It’s our choice to extend that hospitality or refuse it, to build bridges or erect walls. The verdict of history is clear that bridges work better in the long run than walls.
In Luke 13 Jesus offers us two archetypal images, one of the fox the other of the mother hen. What I mean by archetypal images is that in the human imagination the fox and the mother hen are associated with certain characteristics that belong to us and which we project into them. This being the case, I don’t need to go into explaining them, but leave them to impact your imaginations.
The point for me is that Jesus associates the hen with himself and with God, a unique association in the history of religious thought – God as hen rather than lion or eagle. The paradox we see being played out all around us at the moment, especially in the presidential primaries is that those most in need of the hen’s protection seem in thrall to the fox. This might be ironic if it wasn’t yet again the endlessly repeating tragedy for human experience.
We are those who kill the prophets and stone those sent to us. How often do we desire to be gathered as children beneath the protective breast of God as a hen gathers her brood under her wings? The question always remains – but at what cost? The cost requires turning resolutely away from the imaginary of fear and with courage embracing the expectations, always profoundly counter-cultural, of the kingdom of God.