Thursday, October 21, 2010

Strangers In The Land


Stranger in the Village #13, 1998
Enamel, oil and acrylic paint, gesso, and coal dust on canvas by Glenn Ligon (1960- )
The nearly illegible text is from James Baldwin's 1953 essay of the same title, passages from which follow~~~

…I say that the culture of these people controls me — but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority which I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly , not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have — however unconsciously — inherited.

For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it.…

The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable; this rage, so generally discounted, so little understood even among the people whose daily bread it is, is one of the things that makes history. Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever. This is a fact which ordinary representatives of the Herrenvolk, having never felt this rage and being unable to imagine, quite fail to understand.

---James Baldwin
"Stranger in the Village" is the concluding essay of his Notes of a Native Son, published in 1955.

A few Sundays ago, our Episcopal rector gave us a sermon I promised to post when I had the chance. As usual he was glad to hear that, but said it might be a while because he already had offered it online and wanted to be sure that site got credited. Father Bill Carroll's piece now is available and I urge you to take a moment to reflect on it~~~

On immigration: Are we heeding Moses and the prophets?
Not long ago, we asked people how they preached on the difficult gospel passage below. The Rev. Bill Carroll responded.

By Bill Carroll

Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
(Luke 16:19-31)

I wrote this sermon for one of the women who cleaned my parents' house when I was growing up. Her name is Gilda, and she took over the job from her mother Lupe, whom my mother hired not long after we moved to San Diego when I was ten. Gilda spoke very little English. She was a Mexican citizen with documentation to work in this country. Twice a week she worked at our house, and I assume she had other jobs during the week. She came by public transit from Tijuana, Mexico, some twenty-five miles away.

I remember my mother's efforts to be fair. She paid Gilda more than the going rate. She made or bought lunch for her every day, and she tried to give her a ride to and from the bus stop, which was about a mile from our house. At the same time, however, even as a child, I was aware that Gilda was living on the edge. She must have been bone tired, emotionally and physically weary. Nearly every day, she was harassed and shaken down for bribes by officials on both sides of the border. Despite the fact that she needed the job and seemed to appreciate kindnesses that her other employers did not extend, nothing can really change the brute, social facts surrounding our relationship.

I was thinking about Gilda when the House of Bishops met in Arizona recently. There was some controversy about whether they should meet there at all, in light of recent events in that state. One of the positive things to come out of that decision was a delegation of thirty bishops, who spent two days on both sides of the border, meeting with everyone from immigrants to ranchers to border patrol agents to clergy ministering along the border. The bishops also adopted a pastoral letter, drafted by a committee chaired by our own bishop (Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio), on comprehensive immigration reform.

The letter is available here. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/Pastoral_Letter_9-21-10.pdf It is addressed to "the People of God." As is true of any letter written by committee for a diverse audience, the letter strives for balance. The legitimate concerns of ranchers, law enforcement, and border security advocates are acknowledged. Nevertheless, our bishops do manage to say something clear and substantive. More importantly, they put front and center the needs of poor people crossing the border for work, whether documented or not. Here is the meat of what the bishops had to say:

(1) Ours is a migratory world in which many people move across borders to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence. We categorically reject efforts to criminalize undocumented migrants and immigrants, and deplore the separation of families and the unnecessary incarceration of undocumented workers. Since, as we are convinced, it is natural to seek gainful employment to sustain oneself and one’s family, we cannot agree that the efforts of undocumented workers to feed and shelter their households through honest labor are criminal.

(2) We profess that inhumane policies directed against undocumented persons (raids, separation of families, denial of health services) are intolerable on religious and humanitarian grounds, as is attested by the consensus of a wide range of religious bodies on this matter.

(3) We call on the government of the United States and all governments to create fair and
humane immigration policies...

In taking this stand, which will not be popular in every corner of the Church, our bishops have done what they promised at their ordination. Among the vows that bishops take is a particular promise to "be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper."

But the bishops, seeking to encourage us all, appeal not primarily to this promise of theirs but instead to the baptismal covenant they share with all of us, wherein we promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

In their role as teachers of the Word of God, the bishops also cite the Scriptures. In particular, they mention the law given to Moses on Sinai, as recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Numbers: There shall be for you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. And they refer to a glorious passage from Ephesians, chapter two, which speaks of how in Christ, we are no longer "strangers and aliens" but "citizens with the saints and...members of the household of God."

The bishops might just have well referred to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, appointed for Sunday right after their letter came out. This Gospel is one of several passages in the New Testament, the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew also comes to mind, where it is made clear to us that our decisions about how to respond to brothers and sisters in need, particularly when they are poor and vulnerable, are decisions for or against God and God's Kingdom.

In this life, the rich man ignored the cries of poor Lazarus, who lay wounded and hungry at his gate. Perhaps he could scarcely see him for who he was. Even if he did see him, he averted his gaze, ignored him, and tried to pretend he wasn't there. He certainly didn't respond to his needs, get to know him, or find out what gifts he had to offer.

I believe that for Christians living in the United States, which despite our recent difficulties is still the richest country on earth, this parable provides a challenge and a warning. Do we see the poor of the world? Do we see the poor who are already among us, both immigrant and "native-born"? Do we see the growing underclass among us, as poverty and extreme poverty rates continue to climb?

How do we respond when we notice these children of God lying at our gates? Do we cover our eyes? Do we call the cops? Or do we invite them in, offer them a seat at the table, and find ways for them to contribute and belong? We dare not turn a blind eye to the fundamental realities already on the ground. Immigrants are already contributing mightily to the economy, to the communities they live in, and to the society as a whole. There are law enforcement challenges to be sure and no one has all the answers, but the existing laws are out of touch with reality. And the climate of fear and scapegoating is dangerous. It runs contrary to both our best instincts as a nation and the Gospel mandate to tear down every wall that divides human beings.

This commandment from God is rooted in Israel's history as a nation of migrant workers, who came to Egypt to avoid famine and were mistreated by Pharaoh, until GOD came and set them free. This is why, again and again, the prophets remind us of our obligation to create justice for the poor and vulnerable among us: remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

In the story from Luke 16, when the rich man asks father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him that they already have Moses and the prophets and should listen to them. Truly, brothers and sisters, if WE will not heed Moses and the prophets, and respond to our brothers and sisters in need, there is perhaps no hope for us. No, not even if someone rises from the dead.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. http://gsathens.blogspot.com/ He also blogs at Living the Gospel. http://evangeliumobservare.blogspot.com/ He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.
Posted by Jim Naughton on October 19, 2010 4:17 AM

You may access the original and reply directly to Father Carroll at this site http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/immigration/by_bill_carroll_jesus_said.php where there already are a few fine comments.

5 comments:

Liberality said...

But is there justice because the rich man is being sent to hell to suffer for ETERNITY? I think not. Forever is too long a time, my friend, even for my enemy. There should be mercy and we should strive to eliminate the poverty we see amongst us and we should care for all forms of life I believe. Nevertheless, I applaud the effort you show us in this post that we should all care each for the other.

Indira said...

The US still the richest country in the world? I guess that depends upon what we perceive of as richness.

jazzolog said...

Two smart comments here, and thank you. I'm hoping Father Bill will come in to reply, but if he doesn't I'll attempt Liberality's problem with eternal damnation. Indira knows my feelings about richness.

Bill Carroll said...

I certainly feel the force of both objections.

I understand that true riches are not found in material goods and power held at the expense of others. In the parable, it is precisely this kind of false "wealth" that is being challenged.

I'm not big on damnation, though I'm not strictly speaking a universalist. I do think that there is a great deal of usefulness to language about judgment, understood as accountability and facing up to the truth. The pain of judgment is that of being laid bare before the truth of the goodness and mercy of God and the neighbor (and one's true self), before which we can feel quite vile when we are out of right relationship with these persons. I think it's possible to come to such conclusions on the basis of humanistic arguments, without the reference to the transcendent ground of them (God), because creatures are good in and of themselves.

The reason that I am not a strict universalist is that I believe in free will, and I am aware of people spiteful enough to reject mercy in a definitive manner, no matter how unconditional the offer is. But if there is a blockage, a sort of sclerosis of the soul, it is one that we choose and, in a perverse way, love.

The impassible gulf is something that is real in us. From God's point of view, however, the situation is different. Augustine says "You were with me; I was not with you." Chrysostom compares the sinner to a "blind man standing in the sun."

Hell as torture chamber is a myth I can do without. It has a lot to do with fantasies of revenge and violence. Better to be an atheist than to believe in such a God.

Indira said...

Yes, it is a wonderful parable. I love all the parables of Jesus... the deeper meanings held there.