This post, originally published in November 2015, is relevant again this month as our new president does everything in his power to block both refugees and legal immigrants from targeted countries from entering the United States. A year ago, I thought it reasonable to hope that our country would respond with greatness and nobility to the refugee crisis; it seems far less likely now. To see the names and faces of some of the innocent people our country condemned to death in 1939, visit https://twitter.com/stl_manifest, a Twitter feed that went through the entire ship’s manifest and shared the people who were killed by the Nazis, in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th – it makes the whole tragedy feel more real and less distant. And then remember that the families, the children, fleeing from Syria and Somalia and Iraq are just as real, just as human, as these people from the past whose fate we so vocally lament.
I remember learning, as a child, about the ship St. Louis that sailed from Germany in 1939, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees to a Cuba that had just closed its doors. Turned away from her destination, the St. Louis asked President Roosevelt to give them safe harbor (a choice he could feasibly have made using the power of the executive order), but he never even replied. In the end, the passengers were scattered throughout Britain and Western Europe; half of those who returned to the continent were killed in the war. Hitler received the clear message that the rest of Western civilization was not particularly concerned about the fate of the Jewish people.
Why was the United States so cavalier about the fate of these individuals, so cold to their plight? The USHMM has a good summary:
Despite the ongoing persecution of Jews in Germany, the State Department’s attitude was influenced by the economic hardships of the Depression, which intensified grassroots antisemitism, isolationism, and xenophobia. The number of entry visas was further limited by the Department’s inflexible application of a restrictive Immigration Law passed by the US Congress in 1924. Beginning in 1940, the United States further limited immigration by ordering American consuls abroad to delay visa approvals on national security grounds.
In short, substituting anti-Islamic sentiment for antisemitism, the United States was facing exactly the same attitudes in 1939 that she is today in 2015. Her citizens were afraid – afraid for their own economic security, afraid to be drawn into global problems, afraid of war, and afraid of people whose appearance, culture, and beliefs were different than their own. We have our own problems; let those people take care of themselves and leave us in peace.
In C.S. Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength, he allows the characters to muse for a while on the particular genius or defining characteristic of several different nations – in essence, the way in which those nations, despite the grime and decay of sin, most especially reflect some aspect of the coming kingdom of Christ.
He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China – why, then it will be spring.
Since the first time I read that passage as a teenager I’ve wondered what could define the United States, my own country. It’s only now, as I consider the refugee crisis, that I think I see what is best, most characteristic, most beautiful about us – and what consequently is most violently attacked.
The United States, in theory, as a concept or an ideal, is a nation that welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the pioneer, the explorer, the entrepreneur, the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” and offers to each of them the opportunity to labor, live, learn, and love to the best of their ability. We’re not, historically, a country that supports and provides for each other well, but we are a country that provides opportunity well. In every age people have come here seeking that opportunity, and it has been here waiting for them. And as representatives from all nations and cultures have come here seeking that opportunity, we have taken them in and, though we have most definitely not always embraced the diversity they bring, we have given them the freedom to be and express who they are. With time, they become American, but they don’t need to lose their heritage to do so.
It is the same with God’s kingdom. All nations will come to it, seeking life, seeking love, seeking to learn and labor for a better future, and all those peoples will be assimilated into one people, His people, but they won’t have to lose their traditions and history to do so. We will be proudly and beautifully ourselves, carrying the full rich textured fabric of our past and our culture, as we walk into His kingdom, and all nations will be represented there in the fullness of their glory as well.
Is it any wonder, if this is the divine spark within our nation, that it should be so constantly besieged? It is always our fear that impedes us – our fear of the unknown future and our forgetfulness of the past.
Throughout our history there has been this countercurrent running, this voice that whispers fear in our ears. It tells us that letting in these new people will compromise our own position – steal our jobs, endanger our families, threaten our comfortable way of life. Having received opportunity for ourselves, our temptation is to withhold it from others. Having been born to privilege, safety, and relative wealth, we fear that offering the opportunity for others to work for those things will entail losing them ourselves. Having lived in freedom, we condemn others to oppression even as they beg at our feet for us to open our doors, or risk their lives to enter illegally.
I pray that this time, in this hour of need, our borders would open to those seeking shelter, desiring a new life, wanting simply the opportunity to pursue happiness and love that we have declared an inalienable human right; that we would overcome our fears of different cultures and religions and see the humanity behind them; that we would risk our comfort and security ever so slightly to save families and children from torture and death. I pray that we would not repeat our failure of the 1930s, ISIS terrorism standing in for Hitler’s Holocaust.
Is it too much to ask? I think not.