I will grant that our forebearers in the Pleistocene Era survived in part because they learned to assume that the rustling in the grass might be caused a snake rather than merely the wind. This default assumption served them well because in their case a “false positive” resulted in no more harm than to stop them in their tracks for a moment while they assessed the situation before moving on.
By the time of Ancient Israel, human consciousness had progressed to the point that, rather than fear the foreigner, the sojourner, and the alien living in their midst, our forebearers learned to set aside their fears and embrace others from outside their tribe. To minimize risk of harm at the hands sojourners, these forebearers of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed an ethic of hospitality; a reciprocal agreement that the traveler would be welcomed, housed, and fed. The traveler agreed not to plunder the household of the host. The host offered hospitality and protection and the sojourner behaved as a gracious guest, shared news from far away, and did not overstay.
We find evidence of this shared agreement throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Numerous passages declare that the sojourner and the alien must receive just treatment; be allowed to glean the fields and vineyards for sustenance; and participate in festivals and celebrations.
When the prophets spoke out against the injustice of their day, they warned that doom and devastation would come as the consequence of the unjust acts of an unjust society. They repeatedly listed the mistreatment of the sojourner and the alien among the shortcomings that foretold doom.
Now, I am not naïve enough to think that America has no enemies in the world or that there are not people living among us who wish us harm. What I do believe and would ask our leaders to consider is that fear-based policies such as travel bans, extreme vetting, and refusal to admit refugees creates a climate of unwarranted fear and suspicion. Further, that policies that grow out of this fear and suspicion do more to bring about the radicalization of immigrants, inspire homegrown acts of domestic terrorism, and perpetuate unrest than they do to make us secure.
Unlike the rustling in the grass caused by the wind, the “false positive” of assuming that all immigrants, all refugees, and all Muslims pose an imminent threat causes harm to us. It creates an unwarranted climate of fear. It justifies irrational policies like building a border wall, singling out followers of one of the world’s great peace-loving religions, and denying aid and comfort to honest, trustworthy souls who are seeking nothing more than a safe refuge from war, violence, and death.
If we should fear anything in our current circumstances, we should fear the corrosive effects of our fear-based over-reactions and unjust policies. Instead of fearing the immigrant, the refugee, and the sojourner among us, we should fear the hardheartedness that results from exaggerating the threat of international terrorism, homegrown radicalization, and undocumented immigrants living peacefully among us. Instead of walling ourselves off from our neighbors, closing our airports, and attributing hostility to billions of peace-loving Muslims, we must listen to the angels of our better nature, move cautiously yet boldly toward opening our hearts and our borders, and build our national policies on a firm foundation of justice and righteousness rather than upon the sands unwarranted fear and ignorance.
I’ve heard the United States described as an “experiment” in democracy ever since our founders put quill to paper and muskets to shoulder. The experiment continued when industrialization transformed the economy and the workforce in ways the founders could not foresee. Now, the experiment continues as we adapt, yet again, to a world our founders could have never imagined, a globalized economy and the era of big data.
At each fork in the road, we have been led by those who anticipate the future with caution, secure in the comforts of the status quo and cautious of the uncertainties that lie over the horizon. They are joined by others who find their comfort in the anticipation of the undiscovered country and who set their fears aside, inspired by the success of their predecessors who successfully navigated the equally daunting challenges of their day.
As the New Year arrives, I find myself with a foot in each world. When I see the empty factories on the west side of my town, I can only imagine the hardships that those closings have had on thousands of families and how bleak the future must seem to some of them. Contrast that with the energy and vitality of the east side where tens of thousands of young people are pursuing an education and living into the hope of a promising future.
In this microcosm, where fear and discouragement live side by side with hope and possibility, it is easy to see the challenges that face our national leadership. What disheartened me most in 2016 was watching our politicians exacerbate these divisions in their attempts to energize their base of supporters by creating warring factions rather than focusing on the common ground on which we all stand.
Rather than forcing us to choose between environmental regulation and jobs for the unemployed, are there not both/and solutions? Instead of retreating into Fortress America, can we not retain a leadership position in the global economy while launching initiatives that will better equip our workforce to compete in the global economy? Do we really believe that government is the problem that underlies all these challenges and that tearing down the establishment provides the better way?
My hope for 2017 is that the conflicts that are sure to arise as we inaugurate a new president will point us back to the fundamental understanding of our founders that a well conceived government is the guarantor of liberty and prosperity not their antagonist. I hope that these conflicts will inspire a new generation of leaders to enter the game and remind us that politics is a respectable calling that demands the talents of our best and brightest. I hope that our next generation of leaders will again call for our allegiance to create one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.