Strangers in a Strange Land: What I Didn’t Know about the U.S. Immigration Controversy

In recent weeks a friend and I have enjoyed meeting at a local gastropub for long conversations about building the controversial wall along the southern border of the United States. Well, why not? Timely topic, good food, tasty brews. What began as an informal “wall / no wall” debate did not get us very far, but not because we ended up seething at each as many do on Facebook and other social media about this topic. Nor did we get very far because we had exhausted the topic. Just the opposite. The “wall / no wall,” either-or polarization, we realized, had merely offered us a starting point that necessitated stepping back to see the bigger picture of immigration control, what President Trump and others call the broken immigration system.

Fixing a system of course entails engaging in systems thinking. As someone has aptly said, if you jiggle over here, something is going to wiggle over there. Said another way, you can never do merely one thing to fix a system – just ask any car buff who has restored an old jalopy. So Jim and I met again, but not to talk about fixing the system. Our goal was to start getting to grips with the bigger picture, or at least to see as much of it as we could identify given our resources. After all, how can wise decisions be made about fixing a system with multiple problems unless the bigger picture is first known?

This article identifies key aspects of the immigration big picture along our southern border, but what follows is not the last word on the subject. I offer it as a learner. The immigration picture at the southern border is complex and changing, and it has been grossly misrepresented by politicians, news media, and influential others who have us focused on watching a “wall / no wall” game of ping-pong. My aim is to share what I have learned so far (some of which was surprising) about a system that is not working. If it helps you, I would like to know about that. If you can help me further in my understanding, I would like to hear from you too.

The “wall / no wall” way of seeing is like a race horse wearing blinders. The thoroughbred’s peripheral vision is deliberately eliminated for the purpose of focusing the horse’s attention on the track ahead. Blinders narrow the horse’s vision to help keep it from running off course and to protect both jockey and horse from accidents and injuries. During a horse race this is beneficial for the horses, the jockeys, and the sport. Nothing beneficial, or sporting, has accrued to our country, or to the immigrants, by having a blinkered vision of immigration.

THE BORDERLAND
The U.S. – Mexico border is the world’s most transited international border. Four states make up its approximately 1,950 miles. California: 140 miles. Arizona: 370 miles. New Mexico: 180 miles. Texas: 1,254 miles. There are 5 Mexican states along the border: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, and 23 U.S. counties and 39 Mexican municipalities. A variety of towns, cities, small farms, deserts, and ecosystems comprise the borderland area, whose total population is estimated at 12 million people.

There are 48 legal crossing points along the long border (that figure does not include numerous railroad and ferry crossings). The crossings are staffed with thousands of U.S. Customs and Border personnel and maintained around the clock year after year. To that large number add tens of thousands of U.S. Border Patrol agents (they typically do not work at the crossing points) and their vast amount of equipment and its maintenance. Add up all the personnel, their equipment, and its maintenance and it is easy to see why the economic cost of running three shifts (24/7/365) to secure that border runs into hundreds of billions of dollars annually. (This figure does not include ICE agents and their equipment or the military.)

Health concerns and socioeconomic issues are also in play, especially at major crossings such as the three between San Diego and Tijuana, where as many as 50 million people pass through those three border crossings every year. The population for that region is estimated at 4,900,000, making it the second largest bi-national area of conurbation in the U.S., not far behind the Detroit – Windsor area’s population of 5,700,000.

Increasing air pollution has been a significant problem in the San Diego and Tijuana region due to the tens of thousands of cars and trucks that transit through the three crossings every year. And San Diego, already the second largest city in California, is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. Because of its location on the Mexico border, developers in San Diego are seeking ways to expand into Tijuana. Although increased development would benefit many people in Tijuana, if handled unwisely it would adversely effect the city’s poor, which includes thousands of deportees from California who are typically turned over to Mexican authorities in Tijuana, where many have no place else to go and live in dreadful conditions.

California’s and Arizona’s borders with Mexico are nearly completely sealed. New Mexico has many miles of old fencing; it is one of the Trump administration’s chief goals to replace that fencing with better barriers. Sealing the border of Texas with Mexico is also a priority of the Administration. But that project is hugely problematic. The Texas-Mexico border is formed by the winding Rio Grande River, whose often twisting, jagged route not only serves as a natural barrier but also creates problems both for crossers and patrol agents. This long common border has 28 international bridges and border crossings, including two dams and one hand-drawn ferry, for commercial, vehicular, and pedestrian traffic. Also, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, the “Texas and Mexico border crossings are vital to the economies of Texas and Mexico, and have contributed to Mexico’s status as Texas’ #1 trading partner.”

One hundred and fifteen miles of the Texas border with Mexico are fenced (e.g., tall steel slating), the longest stretch near El Paso. Business Insider reports that a “host of laws and regulations – from international treaties to flood-zone requirements – make wall-construction along the Texas-Mexico border a daunting task.” When fencing does get constructed, it usually ends up being placed far inland, cutting across private property. “And Texas landowners haven’t taken too kindly in the past to government officials attempting to co-opt their land.”

Amid all this are the immigrants themselves. Although they live in today’s world, they are part of the perennial human problem of “the stranger,” and they are at the mercy of how both the U.S. and Mexico authorities treat them.

MOSES THE STRANGER
Let’s remind ourselves that the United States is not the only country that has been embattled over seemingly unresolvable differences of political opinion and prolonged legal wranglings over the status of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria to nearby countries and to European nations is a recent case in point. Previously, the war in Iraq saw millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes. Just over forty years ago, huge numbers of the so-called Vietnamese boat people were arriving by boats and ships on the shores of many countries, including the United States. Seventy-five years ago, Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany. And so it has been throughout history.

The challenges that countries face from immigrants date back even to biblical times, to what the Bible calls the treatment of “the alien,” “the foreigner,” “the stranger.” The well-known story of Moses offers insight into the perennial challenges. In brief: the Hebrew people (aka the ancient Israelites) lived for hundreds of years as resident aliens in Egypt. Under Egyptian immigration policy they fared well and “were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous” (Exodus 1:7). But when a new leader of Egypt perceived this large population of resident aliens as a national security threat, he changed the policy toward them. He turned the Hebrews into slaves and forced them to live and work in the harshest of conditions.

Enter Moses, raised from infancy in Egypt and specially educated from childhood in Pharaoh’s royal court. It was an unusual upbringing because Moses was not an Egyptian. He was a Hebrew. Yet he was groomed as an Egyptian prince and led a privileged life among the Egyptian elite. At age forty, however, after killing an Egyptian and burying the body, Moses fled from Egypt to escape the death penalty. He ended up hundreds of miles away in the land of Midian, in the northwest Arabian desert somewhere, and worked as a shepherd for forty years.

What is not well known is that in Midian Moses was given the status of a gēr (“alien” or”stranger”) and was taken in by a gracious Midianite priest and his family. Moses married one of the priest’s daughters, who gave birth to a son, to whom Moses gave the name Gērshom (“stranger in a strange land”).

When Moses turned eighty, he was called by God to return to Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery. As God’s appointed leader of a million-plus refugees out of Egypt, the Bible records that Moses received a set of commands from God for the social legislation of this large unwieldy population. One of those commands, which stands out by virtue of its repetition in a number of contexts, applied to how the Israelites were to treat the strangers (aliens, foreigners) in their midst.

“Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

This was a significant law because it was not only Israelites who had fled from Egypt. Many non-Israelites had left Egypt with the Israelites and had become refugees themselves. God, apparently, had no qualms about that. If there had been a question among the Israelites about how to treat non-Israelites in their midst, it was no longer a question. They had God’s view on the matter.

Some rabbis have discovered as many as four dozen places in the Torah where the alien/foreigner/stranger is mentioned, including in the context of the treatment of widows, orphans, and the poor. And more than once the Torah specifies:

“You shall have the same law for the strangers as for the native-born” (Exodus 22:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16, 29).

As Rabbi Sacks reminds us, “Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare of Israelite / Jewish society.” But even more remarkably, the “law goes beyond this; the stranger must be loved”:

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

This divine law, echoed in Deuteronomy 10:19, signifies the high value of life that God places on the human beings that today we call immigrants, refugees, foreigners, aliens, and asylum seekers. It is a law focused on the treatment of strangers. It is a law to which the people will be held accountable. It is a law implied when Jesus, the archetypal alien in the world, says, “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35). It is a law that fits hand-in-glove to another of the Torah’s repeated commands: the exercise of impartial justice, which, incidentally, Jesus took to soaring heights, blowing some minds, in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Ultimately, it is a law that finds its root in the truth of Genesis chapter one, where we see that human beings, male an female, created in the image of God, are called good, and very good. That is the value God placed on human beings.

ARTICLE 14(1)
Down through history, nations have granted protection, if not possibilities for citizenship, to individuals, families, and groups fleeing persecution, slavery, and threats of death, even if these nations do not acknowledge its basis in divine law. Today, one finds this protection appearing in Article 14(1) of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a milestone document that owes much of its emergence to a biblical influence.

Article 14(1) does not define what kind of protection policies nations must implement. It leaves each nation to its own jurisprudence for determining that. The same was true for ancient Israel. Its commands regarding treatment of strangers was a kind of general social-legislative principle to which the people would be held accountable (by God). But the commands were not themselves policy. As is frequently the case in the Torah, once a general principle has been revealed it is then up to the monarch, the courts, or the political system to hammer out a policy consistent with the principle.

CITIES OF REFUGE
A compelling example of ancient Israelite policy grounded in the above concert of laws appears in the appointment of six cities as “cities of refuge,” as they are called in the biblical text. After the people were no longer wandering refugees in the Arabian desert but settled in a new land, they turned six of the already-existing cities of that land into sanctuary cities. The chief reason for doing so was to provide legal asylum for anyone to flee to who had killed another person. As safe havens, the cities of refuge limited and controlled injustices, for they gave the accused a place to stand trial, where it would be determined if the killing was accidental or intentional. And these cities were spread out in key locations throughout the land, so no one involved in a court case would have to travel too far.

The legal proceedings for determining guilt or innocence are spelled out in Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 but do not concern us here. What needs underlining, however, is that the six cities were places of physical and legal refuge not just for Israelites but for “aliens and any other people living among them” (Numbers 35:15; Joshua 20:9).

Also, these cities were overtly religious cities, in that all six had to be Levitical cities, that is, cities of the priests, the Levites. In other words, these places of asylum were an integral part of ancient Israel’s religious life. This was significant. For it was not just to the king, or to the courts, or to the elders but also to the priests that the people looked for rulings of justice.

With the law of asylum in place across the country in six of the (forty-eight) Levitical cities, the accused (who may be an alien, and innocent), when received into a sanctuary city, knew that he awaited trial under the protection of divine mercy and grace. Whenever the accuser (aka the “avenger of blood”) had tracked down the accused to a city of refuge, the accuser was forbidden by divine law from taking the life of the accused, and a trial would determine the latter’s legal status.

U.S. SANCTUARY CITIES & THE CONSTITUTION
Here, then, in the ancient Middle East we see an example of a nation-wide policy in a criminal justice system that is based on the high value of life that God has placed on immigrants, refugees, foreigners, and asylum seekers even if they have been accused of committing a capital offense. The United States, of course, has no official religion. Constitutionally, it is not a religious polity. It is not possible for Congress to replicate ancient Israel’s religious cities of refuge in the country but, as the apostle Paul recommends, we can learn from ancient Israel’s history (1 Corinthians 10:1).

In the difficult context of America’s broken immigration system, controversy has swirled around so-called sanctuary cities in recent years, particularly after President Trump signed an executive order in January 2017 to withhold federal funding from jurisdictions that limited cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities. Many of these jurisdictions include sanctuary cities – an imprecise term used for cities across the U.S. that are viewed as lenient toward non-criminal undocumented immigrants.

I am not an immigration professional, but here are some discoveries I made about this area of jurisprudence. Although the Trump administration implied that the President’s executive order was issued because sanctuary cities or counties don’t cooperate with U.S. immigration authorities, that is a misnomer. From what I can tell, a sanctuary jurisdiction is probably not working outside federal law. It tries to work within federal immigration law to limit its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agents in order to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation. But it will turn over to relevant authorities those who have committed crimes. For instance, being undocumented is not a crime; it is a civil violation, which can be handled by local jurisdictions (2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. U.S. ).

Also, undocumented immigrants have the right of due process under the U.S. Constitution. The due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which concern the administration of justice, act as safeguards from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the government outside the sanction of law. For example, police cannot detain anyone who hasn’t at least been suspected of a crime. Meaning: to hold a non-criminal undocumented immigrant past the point when he or she should be released just so that ICE can pick the person up is unconstitutional. (ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a law enforcement agency of the federal government.)

In a sanctuary city, local police will most likely release an arrested immigrant after he has been cleared of charges, posted bail, or completed jail time for whatever he was arrested for. A non-sanctuary city might hold that same person until ICE can come to pick him up – even though that extra holding is not constitutional.

A piece of legislation from Congress, or a dictate from the Attorney General, or an executive order from the President that seeks to penalize sanctuary cities because they refuse to hold non-criminal undocumented immigrants for ICE pickup has marked the wrong target. For it is the cities that hold non-criminal undocumented immigrants for ICE pickup who are acting unconstitutionally. I would argue that sanctuary cities, in following the Constitution, are also practicing their own version (consciously or not) of the general law of Leviticus 19:33: not mistreating a foreigner who resides among them but treating them as native-born.

Further, when non-criminal undocumented immigrants know that they won’t be treated outside the law, it’s an incentive for them to cooperate with local law enforcement authorities when they need to. This kind of cooperation has been long understood and needed by police departments, sheriff departments, and other law enforcement agencies in sanctuary jurisdictions, which is why they pushed back against President Trump’s combative stance against their (legal) handling of non-criminal undocumented immigrants. Police chiefs in Los Angeles, Denver, Tucson, and other cities have made strong cases that their communities have been made safer and better because non-criminal immigrants know that when they come forward, for instance, to report a crime or to act as a witness, they will not be turned over to ICE.

SANCTUARY CHURCHES
Besides cities of refuge, houses of worship in ancient Israel protected people under threat of death. Across the United States today, sanctuary churches perform a Good Samaritan role for non-criminal undocumented immigrants who get stuck in the most desperate straits. Daily care for these “church families,” which includes food and finances, is multi-faceted and provided by members of the congregation and networks of pro bono lawyers, advocacy support groups, concerned individuals in the wider community, and even sympathetic synagogues and mosques.

Although the total number of persons in the U.S. who have sought protection from deportation inside churches remains relatively small, they have good and sufficient reasons for wanting to remain in the U.S. Many have worked and raised families here for years, if not decades. As with other aspects of our broken immigration system, this one is also complex and not easily resolved. Here’s a typical scenario: undocumented immigrant parents seeking legal status but unable to obtain it yet and facing imminent deportation. But their children were born in the U.S. and are therefore U.S. citizens (Fourteenth Amendment) and cannot be deported. The parents quite naturally and reasonably don’t want to be separated from their children, so they enter the safety of a sanctuary church in order to pursue their options and continue to plead their case with relevant authorities. Another scenario would be that of an undocumented parent with a child who is gravely ill.

These families are not trying to hide from ICE or USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles citizenship eligibility for immigrants, work permits, green cards, adoption requests, humanitarian services, and much more.) The families notify USCIS and ICE of their new address. There is no law that prevents ICE from entering a church, mosque, or synagogue to detain an undocumented immigrant, but ICE has typically refrained from doing that, for any number of reasons. The agency will, however, enter to make arrests if it concerns terrorism or public safety.

Reports are surfacing, however, of a trend developing in which ICE may not be so accommodating to sanctuary churches as it was during the previous administration. Perhaps Congress could pass a temporary law that would ensure undocumented immigrants safety from arrest in a sanctuary church while USCIS and the courts are sorting out the family’s status.

COURT SYSTEMS & THE SIXTH AMENDMENT
Court systems in the U.S. are also significant in how undocumented strangers are treated. Because ancient Israel’s cities of refuge were deliberately located in strategic areas throughout the land, no one involved in a case would be burdened with traveling a long distance for the trial. The accused would find asylum quickly and the accuser and any witnesses would most likely be nearby. The parties would have recourse to a speedy trial and a case could be adjudicated quickly.

Although the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, adjudication of immigration cases in the U.S. has slowed to a crawl. Near the end of 2018, there were approximately 400 immigration judges in 58 courts across the country. This was up from approximately 300 at the end of 2016. But the system remains overwhelmed. According to Executive Office for Immigration Review of the Department of Justice, as of August, 2018, there were more than 730,000 pending immigration cases, which means that the average immigration judge would have a backlog of 1800+ cases. It is not unusual for average wait times for cases to be fully heard to stretch to two to three years.

Even if it cost as much as $100 million, or even $200 million, to add or reassign judges or other necessary personnel in order to lessen the backlog of immigration cases, including the reuniting of children with their parents, that is only two percent or four percent (respectively) of the $5.7 billion that President Trumped sought from Congress in January 2019. I suppose some ungenerous soul would say, “Let ‘em wait three years. No big deal.” Well, put yourself in their shoes. It’s a big deal to the families who are stuck in the queue. How would you want to be treated? Processing them through the system in a fairer amount of time would be more humane than keeping them on pins and needles about their final status for years.

DACA
Another part of the immigration big picture is the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Launched in 2012, DACA allowed young people who came to the U.S. as children to be “lawfully present” without threat of being deported and to apply for a driver’s license and a work permit. When the program was rescinded in September 2018, federal courts kept most of the DACA recipients (700,000+ young people) from deportation pending a permanent legislative solution.

DACA is not a free-for-all. Immigrants who apply must have arrived in the U.S. before their sixteenth birthday and have lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007. They are required to be in school, or a high school graduate or hold a GED, or an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or the Coast Guard. They are ineligible if they have been convicted of a felony or various other crimes, and if they are deemed a national security threat. There is also a $495 application fee. DACA does not grant permanent resident status or a path to citizenship. (Much more straightforward information about DACA can be found here, which is where I found most of this information.)

EDUCATION
Education is another part of the picture. The education of undocumented immigrant children in K-12 public schools is guaranteed by law (Plyler vs. Doe; U.S. Supreme Court decision, 1982). Also, except in instances of a subpoena being served, federal law (the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) prohibits public schools from providing any outside agency, including ICE, with information from a child’s school file that would disclose the student’s undocumented status.

Educating undocumented immigrants benefits our country. The sooner the immigration status of undocumented students is resolved, including the status of those stuck waiting in DACA limbo, the sooner those who can stay in the country are free to dream about how they will become long-term contributors to American society.

“BUILD A WALL”: A MISLEADING SOUND BITE
In March 2017, during an address to Congress, President Trump stated that “we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border.” No surprise there. “Building a wall” had been a hallmark of candidate Trump’s campaign for President. In January 2018, he began negotiations with Congress for $25 billion to build it. After that appropriation for funding failed, chiefly due to months of wrangling between the White House and Congress over the status of 700,000 DACA immigrants, the President in January 2019 asked Congress for $5.7 billion to build it. When those funds were withheld, the President promptly declared a formal national emergency to find funding for the wall. Resistance to Trump’s wall also comes from many in Congress who have said that open borders are best.

As I write this, it is far from evident what will be the outcome of the lawsuit filed in February by sixteen states to prevent the President from using that declared national emergency to access funds to build the wall. Meantime, on March 11, it was announced that the President wants $8.6 billion from Congress for “the wall,” as part of his proposed $4.7 trillion 2020 budget.

Since the presidential campaign of 2015, however, the sound bite “to build a wall” – repeated endlessly in the news media, blogosphere, social media, and on talk radio – has been a misnomer, if not misleading. Personally, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I never paid much attention to happenings along our southern border until the 2015 campaign. My excuse is that my work on foreign policy and diplomacy focused on U.S. – Middle East relations; migrants coming into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America were not part of that geography.

When I heard Donald Trump’s frequent take on “building a wall,” and with that sound bite becoming ubiquitous in the media, I got the impression that there was no wall. So I was surprised when, after doing a little research, I learned that a total of approximately 650 miles of wall already existed. I felt misled by candidate Trump’s repeated refrain about building a wall. It would have been more honest, I thought, if he had talked about repairing existing barriers and building additional sections.

Vertical barriers (various kinds of fencing) began to be built in 1994 during the Bill Clinton administration. Twelve years later, during the George W. Bush administration, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border. President Bush announced that the Act would make the border more secure and that it was “an important step toward immigration reform.” Twenty-six Democratic senators, including notables such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Diane Feinstein, and Christopher Dodd voted for the Act. As did the then Senator Barack Obama, who said on the Senate flood that the bill “will certainly do some good.” It will provide “better fences and better security along our borders” and “help stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.”

If Congress had authorized the $5.7 billion the President wanted “to build the wall,” and if he had used the funds strictly for that, the respected Office of Management and Budget estimated the he would have been able to build 230 miles. In February 2019, Congress did approve $1.4 billion to add more vertical barriers, which would finance about 60 more miles. That puts the price at roughly $24 million per mile, not including cost overruns.

The dollar figures, then, are all over the map, as are the locations of the barriers. And the President’s material proposals (concrete or steel) have shifted over time and may shift again. The U.S. government has commissioned numerous prototypes (typically about thirty feet high) for testing and evaluation. So questions about what kind of barriers and their costs remain. In short, Congressional purse strings dictate how many miles of barriers get built. If past history is any indication, even if Donald Trump were elected to a second term it is unlikely his promised wall becomes reality by 2024.

Further, the refrain to “Build the wall! Build the wall!” lends itself to disassociating human beings (immigrants) from their humanness and moving them into the abstract, as if the crucial problems of immigration control were equations of math or physics awaiting to be solved. This subtle but significant shift of perspective has dire consequences on how we think, talk, debate, and propose solutions to a problem in which human beings and their treatment is the fundamental reality of the big picture of immigration control.

ECOLOGY AND WILDLIFE
Harmful consequences to wildlife and biological life have arisen around sections of border wall built during past White House administrations. Along the approximately 650 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers of various lengths and compositions that currently exist along the 2,000 mile border, six eco-regions support abundant biological life and wildlife. As more sections go up, studies suggest the negative impact on animal life and natural ecosystems will continue unless the current and future Administrations take steps to reduce that.

Reporting on the adverse effect of the borderland’s fence, steel, and concrete barriers has been largely neglected by the national news media, downplayed by many politicians, and brushed aside by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS – the government agency tasked with building the barriers). But the negative consequences have not been ignored by science.

In 2018, the journal BioScience published a paper signed by more than 2,500 scientists from the U.S., Mexico, and forty-one other countries urging President Trump to think twice about the wall and the infrastructures that will be supporting it. The report documents how previous and current building of barriers bypasses environmental laws, harms wildlife populations, and devalues conservation investment and scientific research. The report concludes with practical advice for moving ahead more wisely.

The paper is not limp on national security, nor does is call for abandoning barriers. It does, however, argue for “forgoing physical barriers in places with high ecological sensitivity, such as cross-border corridors [for animal populations] or critical habitats for endangered species.” The scientists also call for Congress, the DHS, the EPA, the Mexican government, and relevant others to “recognize and give high priority to conserving the ecological, economic, political, and cultural value of the US-Mexico borderlands. National security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage.”

One of the wildest areas of Texas is a particular case in point. Big Bend National Park lies in the jagged U-bend in the middle of the Texas-Mexico border. Covering more than 800,000 acres, it holds some of the most treasured conservation areas on the continent. The massive 1,125 square mile park protects 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds, 56 species of reptiles, and 75 species of mammals. Its archeological history dates back 10,000 years and includes sea fossils, dinosaur bones, and volcanic rocks. Business Insider reports that the park, which has no manmade barriers, “is home to several highly precarious ecosystems that have undergone intense conservation efforts in recent years…. [And] river, mountain, and desert ecosystems … sustain fragile populations of black bears and other large mammals, which are slowly recovering from an over-hunting epidemic that began back in the 1950s.”

(Numerous credible reports and articles can be found on the Web documenting why barriers can have negative impacts on the borderland’s animal life and biodiversity. To comment further on this here would take us too far afield. Here is an article that I found illuminating.)

CHOKE POINTS
Besides the other exigencies about building the wall that are being introduced in this article, “choke points” is another. A choke point (so-called: the strategy comes from the military) narrows down the distance that you or your group must pass through to reach a destination. Consider the 370-mile long Arizona-Mexico border for instance. Sans any kind of barrier, border guards, or surveillance anyone could cross that border whenever he or she wished.

But if you don’t want anyone to be that free, you could build a tall solid 370-mile long wall, and then no one could walk or drive across the border. That wall would of course play havoc with vital concerns such as tourism, commerce, and the ecology. It would also impose travel restrictions on family members and others who are living in, say, Phoenix or Tucson who needed to go by car to, say, Nogales, Mexico, just the other side of the Arizona state line. They would need to make long detours. A long detour would also be necessary for folk in Nogales, Mexico who had to get next-door to its “twin” city, Nogales, Arizona.

Knowing all this, you still have good and sufficient reasons to manage the flow of people across the border. So instead of building one long wall, you build sections of wall to funnel would-be crossers to choke points, which in theory would control the flow of people by forcing them to a check point where their identity and other relevant information can be discovered.

Arizona’s total of nine vehicle and pedestrian crossings act in principle as choke, or check, points. There are a total of forty other legal points of entry in California, Nevada, and Texas. For every new one that is added along the 2,000 mile border comes construction costs as well as ongoing costs for additional personnel and equipment and its maintenance, 24/7/365.

ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE
Federal and state governments have long recognized that physical barriers alone are not sufficient along the southern border. Underground sensors, infrared cameras, radar blimps, unmanned drones, tethered aerostats, laser illuminators, microwave transmitters, sensor towers, and other high tech surveillance tools have been deployed to help border patrol agents and law enforcement officials monitor illegal crossings and locate drug smugglers – all of which must be manned and maintained at a cost of billions of dollars each year.

And new tools continue to emerge. It was recently reported in the news that a new mobile video surveillance system is being deployed. Mounted on trucks that roam the roads and open areas, it can look into the mountains with infrared scopes from several miles distance in the day and at night to help locate smugglers.

It seems unlikely, however, that electronic surveillance will ever render the need for some physical barriers obsolete. One costly experiment seems to bear this out. Begun in 2006 under the George W. Bush administration and run by Boeing Co., the $1 billion SBInet program was meant to link and integrate existing video cameras, radar, and sensors along the highly traveled southwest border in order to provide U.S. patrol agencies quicker response times to locate and arrest illegal crossers.

By 2010, that “virtual fence” program had become untenable due to cost overruns, missed deadlines, accumulating red tape, and other setbacks. It was cancelled in 2011 by President Obama and replaced by a strategy “tailored to the unique needs of each border region.” This strategy would deploy “commercially available surveillance systems, unmanned aerial drones, thermal imaging, and other equipment” to provide “faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and effectivity” (Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Secretary, 2011). (In 2010, President Obama authorized $600 million to pay for two more unmanned drones and 1,500 new customs inspectors, patrol agents, and law enforce officials along the border.

THE FUTURE?
Drama surrounding “the wall” from the political right and conservative media creates the impression that every immigrant at the southern border is an enemy. Drama surrounding “the wall” from the political left and liberal media creates the impression that anyone and everyone may immigrate. Both views serve the absolutized ideological politics behind each drama and ill-serve the strangers arriving at our southern border. Some are even dying in our deserts.

While working on this article I spoke by phone with Steve Johnstone, who has worked with No More Deaths (NMD), an advocacy group in southern Arizona founded by Catholic, Presbyterian, and Jewish leaders. NMD maintains a year-round humanitarian presence in the deserts of southwestern Arizona, where migrants often get lost and die. NMD volunteers hike the trails and leave water, food, socks, blankets, and if possible they provide emergency first-aid treatment. Earlier this year four of NMD’s volunteer aid workers were arrested while searching for three migrants who were lost in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The workers, who were trying to find the migrants and get water and canned food to them, were convicted of misdemeanor charges and fined. Two of the migrants were found.

A large percentage of those rescued are mothers with their children and they often have similar stories. Their husbands were displaced from small farms in Mexico when NAFTA began to benefit U.S. agribusiness in ways that put countless small Mexican farmers out of business and their husbands out of work. In order to feed their families, the men crossed the border seeking farm work in the U.S. while their families remained in Mexico, but the government has made it increasingly difficult for these men to visit their families back in Mexico.

If more walls, tougher policies, and tighter border security did not deter these undocumented wives from trying to enter the U.S., the feds assumed that large hot deserts would. But the government did not consider the grief and determination of these wives and mothers. Out of desperation, many are willing to risk walking up to eighty miles in the Arizona desert in hopes of reuniting their families. An increasing number, however, are dying from dehydration, heatstroke, or hypothermia, having lost their way and run out of food and water.

Johnstone, who has worked with NMD to rescue lost migrants, told me that before the 9/11 security sanctions emerged hardly anyone died in the Arizona desert, but afterward the deaths increased. “Just in the three-county area around Tucson,” he said, “the number of bodies that we know about is around 200, and that is a low estimate. The remains are taken to the medical examiner’s office, declared homeless, and buried without caskets.”

So maybe you thought it was all about the wall. It isn’t. More than 2,500 human remains have been found in the deserts of southern Arizona since 2000, and as a friend recently reminded me, leadership usually begins by defining reality. There are many aspects to immigration control reality, but relentless political focus on “the wall” is diminishing our capacity as responsible Americans to see that the human person is at the heart of the reality.

A deeply Christian culture shows hospitality to strangers. The book of Hebrews, in a subtle dig at one of Sodom’s sins, exhorts us not to neglect showing hospitality to strangers (13:2). And there is this:

“Listen also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation, because they will hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm” (1 Kings 8:41-42).

We also have the words of Jesus himself, the archetypal alien in this world: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

This article has touched on only a number of aspects of the immigration big picture, but I hope that it has offered enough background to show that problems of immigration control are systemic, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I hope that it has helped to bring the reality from the abstract into the human. It will not be easy to repair all that is wrong to everyone’s satisfaction, but we will be greater as a nation when we pull together in that direction.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Charles Strohmer is a researcher, freelance writer, and author of eight books.

Images: Washington Post/Carolyn van Houten; John Morre/Ghetty Images; Conde Nast Traaveler; CNN.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem

It’s no surprise to Christians that the star of Bethlehem and the wise men who followed it occupy a prominent place in the Nativity. My childhood memory is typical of many. Our family Christmas tree was topped off every year by a large star. Below it on the carpeted floor near the tree was our nativity scene, peopled by Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds holding their staffs, and several winged angels and tiny white sheep. And of course three colorfully dressed wise men stood at a respectful distance gazing toward the newborn child.

But this might surprise. Around Christmastime every year, the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christian. Every December you will find them reading magazine articles or listening to current affairs stories purporting to explain the true meaning of the mysterious star. These explanations, however, typically lean heavily on naturalistic interpretations, particularly from the field of astronomy, ignoring important details from the narrative provided by Matthew’s Gospel. The net effect is the de-enchantment of the mysterious star. This approach may sit well within the larger cultural zeitgeist of secularism but it does not square with Christian belief.

A solely naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of the star ignores its revelatory nature. This is a serious matter, much more so than the historical inaccuracies commonly depicted in nativity scenes. A careful reading of Matthew 2 with Luke 2, for instance, suggests that the wise men, or magi, were not present at the birth manger. Apparently they arrived many months, if not a year or more, after the birth, and at a house in Bethlehem where Jesus was then staying with Mary and Joseph. Also, there is no biblical reason to limit the magi to three in number, despite their gifts being three (gold, frankincense, myrrh). And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Such historical conjectures are small change when compared to accepting purely naturalist or materialist conclusions, which bankrupt the Nativity of its divine otherness. The star of Bethlehem is then robbed of its mystery, the magi are reduced to being clever astrologers, and Christ’s birth loses its revelatory meaning. Here’s how that occurs and why we don’t have Christmas when it does.

The problem with naturalistic explanations of the star
Solely naturalistic or materialistic views of the starry visitor that led the magi are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, or the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these stellar occurrences, any one of which could have produced a bright phenomenon in the night sky to set the ancient world abuzz. A new nova, for example, was discovered about 125 years before the birth of Christ by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds (see Luke’s account, chapter 2:8-15) must have mistaken the bright nova for the angelic visitation that appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Daft, lonely shepherds. Spending so much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!

Another natural phenomenon was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets of our solar system, around the time most scholars place Christ’s birth (4 BC). There is a consensus among astronomers since Kepler that this planetary conjunction occurred around 7–4 BC. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers typically assume that the magi interpreted this planetary conjunction as an astrological sign indicating the birth of such a significant person that it warranted their arduous trip from the East to Jerusalem.

Comets, too, were not unknown in ancient times. The famous Halley’s comet, originally discovered in 240 BC by Chinese astronomers, was also visible in 12–11 BC. Another comet appeared around 4 BC. If the star in Matthew was a comet, as the early church theologian Origen assumed, its dramatic appearance in the night sky would have quite the attention-getter. And its linear movement across the heavens would more closely approximate the account of the star in Matthew than would the movement of a planetary conjunction. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to any purely naturalistic interpretations; nor can the way the magi followed the star to the Christ child be justified astrologically.

The star has a mind of its own
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy. Fair enough. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain any phenomenon to complete satisfaction. That attitude is not being questioned here. At issue is the naturalism that explains away the divine otherness and meaning of the star of Bethlehem as silly religious nonsense or superstitious belief.

Also at issue is the occult method that astrologers claim the magi used as a kind of road map to follow the star from the East to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. As someone who once practiced astrology, I have some sympathy for what astrologers are trying to achieve by this. Like many sensitive people they refuse to allow themselves to be suffocated within the metaphysical box of naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism. Their way out, when it comes to the star of Bethlehem, is to accept astronomical evidence for the conjunction but then to claim the magi among their number by introducing a tincture of occult otherness to the nativity narrative.

Mindful of potential audiences likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments on radio or television will combine elements astronomy and astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. A close reading of Matthew chapter two, however, tells a different story. Here are the essentials.

The phenomenon that is called the star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and intention of its own. According to the text – and as Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, “Stick with the text” – the star “appeared” at a particular time and it “went ahead of them [the magi]” … “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” In other words, the star is not governed only by the laws of nature any more than a human being is. This “star” apparently has some sort of personal intention in its nature. As such, its meaning cannot be reduced to the laws of nature, whether by those of a nova, a planetary conjunction, or a comet.

If we set aside the bias of “silly religious nonsense,” the text of Matthew 2:1-12 seems to be revealing some sort of presence to the magi that is as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (see Luke’s account). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account lends itself to this view. The word translated with our English word “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and is occasionally used to describe the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared” to his followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14). It is a term, therefore, that can denote forms of luminous bodies other than literal heavenly astral phenomena, including stars.

The verb phrase “went ahead … until it stopped” is another case in point. The word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have chosen to “stand still” (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). The verb “went ahead” is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for “to lead” or “precede.” So the crowds are leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) and Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Curiously, the construction is used once about prophecies being fulfilled (1 Timothy 1:18).

The text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as the shepherds heard the angels). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects (comets, planets) obeying natural laws only.

The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the magi, to their careers and to the actual way they got their leading to Bethlehem and the child, and to the revelatory message and meaning of the Nativity.

The word “magi” (singular: “magus”) originated centuries before the time of Christ to describe a caste of very learned priests and scholars among the ancient Medes and Persians. Like Her Majesty’s Privy Council today, magi were the go-to advisors for kings of the time, for taking decisions domestic and international. They were educated in the literature and languages of surrounding nations and in the equivalent of a world religions curriculum that included studies in divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices, dream interpretation, and the zodiac (astronomy and astrology for them a single discipline).

In the Bible they are first mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called “Rabmag” (AV), or “chief of the Magi.” In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish young men Daniel and his three friends were put through an education in Babylon similar to that of the magi before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors (Daniel, chapter one) . The Greek word in Matthew 2:1, often rendered “wise men,” is magoi (magi), and “Simon the magician” (Acts 8:5-25) is known traditionally as Simon Magus.

The magi of the Nativity, however, do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric art or method to make the long trip to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures and took their cues for the journey from that source. So, upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers about the coming Messiah, which was prophesied hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17). This verse was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. Taking their cue from Scripture, the magi head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to seek further instruction.

In Jerusalem, the magi’s determination to learn the whereabouts of this new king of the Jews raises havoc throughout the city and enrages King Herod, who interrogates the city’s rabbis. They crack the books and tell Herod that any fool knows where this ruler will he born: Bethlehem; and they show him a prophecy in Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth to rule Israel for Me – one whose origin is from old, from ancient times” (5:1; The Jewish Study Bible). With murder in his heart, Herod secretly questions the magi and sends them off to Bethlehem, several miles south of Jerusalem. Again, the magi are following Scripture not astrology.

But on the outskirts of Bethlehem the magi get stuck. “Where do we go now?” I can hear them saying. “We’ve got the right town but now we need Jesus’ address.” Here, the otherness of the star may again be noticed. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Thrilled to bits with this personal guidance from the “star”, the magi, “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:9-11).

Finally it’s time for the arduous trek back to their own land. But earlier in Jerusalem, Herod had lied to the magi. He had told them to report back to him from Bethlehem so that he, too, could go and worship the child. But he wanted to know the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. The magi, unaware of Herod’s plot, are warned by God in a dream to return to their country by “another way.” Which they do.

This little phrase – “another way” – is for me a key to the revelatory nature and meaning of the Nativity. It speaks a phenomenon (the “star”) that cuts across the grain whatever esoteric knowledge and learning the magi may typically have relied on, whether for their personal guidance or their counsel to kings. In this sense, the Matthew narrative of the star carries a message for us that is, in fact, like that of the Genesis 1 narrative, where we learn of God’s creation of all things. In that narrative, God’s creation of the stars is mentioned but, as important as stars are, the text merely states that God “also made the stars.”

In the context of reading the entire detailed account of creation, this brief mention of stars appears almost as an afterthought. There is no mention that stars, or any other part of God’s creation, is to be used as a system of esoteric knowledge and learning. Yet that is precisely how neighboring cultures (of the ancient Hebrews) such as Babylon and Egypt used the stars (the sun and moon, too). And there is a consensus among Bible scholars that the afterthought mention of stars in Genesis 1 is an implicit warning to those ancient cultures, and to any today, not to employ the stars as a means of esoteric or occult knowledge, but to instead rely on God for guidance. Which brings us full circle back to the star of Bethlehem and the message of the magi.

To conclude, conjectures may be made, and many people have made them, about the nature of the astēr (the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2), but it is not possible to make a solid conclusion about its nature. If you were standing in my backyard on a clear night, I could point out to you any number of planets or stars by name. “There’s Venus, there’s Mars, there’s Vega, there’s Sirius.” No such solid conclusion can be made about the astēr of Bethlehem.

I don’t doubt that there may have been a conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova during the period of Jesus’ birth. I just don’t think that the astēr of Bethlehem refers to any of them. Instead, it seems meant to indicate a miraculous star. And the appearance of that, my friends, would certainly have gotten the profound attention of the magi, who were well-skilled in knowing what the appearance of the night sky should look like to them. This astēr was something other than that. And they knew it. This is why I say that it cut across the grain of their esotericism.

Any meaning of the Nativity that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism ends up with a God whose greatest claim to glory is being able to time historic events, like the birth of Jesus, to coincide with natural phenomena. This may be Immanuel Velikovsky’s god, who cleverly times the Exodus to occur during an earthquake that parted the Red Sea. It may be Curt Vonnegut’s god, who presumes that there was a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touched it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural current affairs stories and magazine articles about the Nativity. But it is not the God of Creation, who by his mighty power can and does use all sorts of natural and supernatural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

(A shorter version of this article appeared at Premier Christianity, 14 December 2018.)

Images: courtesy of Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Dave Morrow photography respectively

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

Prophetic Wisdom?

From 40 years ago:

“Without the self-restraint derived from a common moral ideal, a nation becomes ungovernable except by tyranny. Unless our nation has a spiritual awakening soon, we will probably have little freedom at all to debate Christian attitudes. The trouble is, there isn’t that much time. Revival doesn’t guarantee results that fulfil all its possibilities. An expanding church might still fuss about a few obvious moral problems in society but be unable to relate its faith to the basic problems. Indeed, it might not even be able to handle its own problems. If God’s people propagate a Christian faith without proliferating a Christian mind—a Christian philosophy of life, or way of looking at the world – then there may follow a vengeful reaction from a society deprived of truly Christian insight into its problems; a society driven by spiritual ignorance into despair, despotism, and persecution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about those words lately. They are from the late John Peck, Christian theologian and philosopher, writing in 1978 about his country, England. Quoted in: Uncommon Sense; God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, John Peck & Charles Strohmer; The Wise Press, 2000; SPCK, 2001; p 10.

The book was written to both English and American Christians. We included those words in Uncommon Sense because as we were writing the book (it took 4+ years) we felt their relevance also to America. The book is not a polemic. It actually offers a way ahead. Just saying.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while. See if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Bullying of a different sort

There are bullies, and then there are bullies. I was reminded of two kinds in as many days. Today I was working out in our local gym, which had its three televisions running, each in different sections of the gym. A sports program was on at the far end and FOX News was running in another section. The program on the television near me was naff, so after determining that the middle-aged woman exercising nearby was not watching it, I found the remote and started surfing. When I landed on CNN News, I left it there and followed along using the “closed caption” option after I got back to my workout.

That was going along well until the middle-aged lady’s husband walked over from the other end of the gym. Nearly finished with his workout, he wanted to know when she would be done. They sorted that out, and he walked off to finish his workout, but not before he had made a rude remark about CNN. I hadn’t paid any attention to this man until the rude remark, which was impossible for me to miss. So I looked more closely and remembered him from the only conversation I ever had with him, in the gym a couple months ago. To each his own, but during that brief chat the guy really put me off with his Mr. Macho personality and hyper-aggressive patriotism. I was glad when he returned to the other end of the gym today. We did not speak this time, and I don’t know if he recognized me.

I kept watching CNN and working out. His wife moved to another nearby machine. Out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later I noticed the husband coming to talk to his wife again. He was done working out. I’ll be done soon, she explained. I got the feeling he was frustrated to wait. He looks up at the monitor, makes more rude remarks about CNN, and then plops himself down on the nearby couch and takes the remote and starts watching the History channel. He knows I’m watching CNN but he doesn’t consult me. Doesn’t even look at me.

Having had that previous distasteful encounter with him I decide to keep my mouth shut. Almost immediately the wife stops working out, walks past the couch, says, “Let’s go,” and heads for the door. This scene takes place about ten feet from me. It’s impossible not to notice some issues there, and I turn and look elsewhere. I’m not completely clear on what then occurred, but apparently the husband jumped off couch and took a few steps toward the door, but then stopped, retrieved the remote and changed the monitor back to CNN. He then spoke to me. “That’s what you were watching wasn’t it?” I look up and nod. He makes more rude remarks, complete with hand gestures, and then exits the building.

It’s annoying, that kind of soft bullying, and it is easily dismissed. Not so the hard-nosed bullying that yesterday strong-armed not only an adversary but also allies with its misguided foreign policy decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. When a child bullies, parents can step in. Who can step into this?

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by dhruvgpatel via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

It’s the Presidency Not the President

dominoes“The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

“If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

“Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.

“Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.”

[clip]

“Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office. It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat.

“Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. ‘I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me,’ he wrote his friend Edward Rutledge in 1789. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.”

Those are the opening and closing words of a significant essay by John Dickerson in The Atlantic Monthly. Significant to liberals and conservatives alike. In between those words, Dickerson thoughtfully moves back and forth through U.S. history to contrast what the Framers (and the Constitution) wanted the office of the President of the United States to be and how radically different the contemporary office has become today. And why that is a huge problem.

I have interrupted writing the next article I want to put on this blog in order to call our attention to this essay. Here’s why. My work on The Wisdom Project during the last fifteen years has of necessity included much research to try to get my mind around the U.S. presidency. Dickerson’s essay filled in an important area of my thinking. It scratched a deep itch that I have had for a long time. But that’s not why I offer the essay to you here.

After reading it I realized that its clear presentation of major changes to the office of the presidency (changes Dickerson identifies as beginning with the Great Depression and steadily increasing in complexity since then) would be very helpful to anyone who really wants to understand the contemporary U.S. presidency and why its ever-expanding job description does not bode well for the county or for the world. You may or may not agree with some of his equally thoughtful recommendations for the current and future presidents, but it is hard to gainsay his thesis: the problem might not be the president but the presidency.

NOTE: this is a topic that I would like to have some conversation about on this blog. If you’d like to get one going, please use the Comments area to share your thoughts. Using the Comments, rather than email, gives others who read this blog an opportunity to chime in. So we can learn wisdom from each other. Thank you.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by Great Beyond via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Like it or not, politics plays a key role in society

In his witty book The Devil’s Dictionary, the late nineteenth social critic and satirist Ambrose Bierce defined politics thusly: “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” He being dead yet speaketh. Certainly, politics in America today would be similarly defined by many people.

I thought about Bierce’s definition recently, after a long conversation with someone who wanted nothing to do with politics. His final words on the subject, said with great conviction, were, “I don’t believe in politics.” End of conversation.

Not long afterward I ran into someone on the other end of the spectrum, who told me, “I’m running for political office.” That reminded me of Noah Webster’s definition. The language reformer famous for compiling a comprehensive dictionary, and a near-contemporary of Bierce, defined politics this way:

“The science and art of government; the science dealing with the organization and regulation of a state, in both its internal and external affairs. The theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties; hence political affairs, principles, convictions, opinions, sympathies.”

Seen that way, certainly politics has an essential role to play in the proper functioning of a city, country, state, or nation.

And yet we hear widespread disillusion of politics in sound bites across the land. “We need to fire this President and hire a new one.” “Government needs to be run like a business.” “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” “They just want your money.” “Government is the problem.”

James Skillen, the president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice (Washington, DC), and a leading political theologian of our time, has a lot of sympathy for people who are mad as a hornet at politics and want nothing to do with it. But he goes beyond sympathy to solutions. Skillen calls for us to rethink how we understand politics and government. This we can do, he says, if we take time to reflect on important, and often ignored, questions, such as what is government for and how should its responsibilities be properly exercised? And what responsibilities are we as citizens to have in political life?

Answers to such questions aid in discovering what government should be. If we don’t know what government should be, how will we be responsible citizens? How will we know what our politicians should be doing? This is true of all other areas of life as well. If we don’t know what families or businesses or schools are for, how will we know how to run them for the good of society? How would we know what parents or managers or educators should be doing?

As parents, managers, or educators, we don’t begin from scratch. From childhood we are situated in a cultural context and have absorbed, or been taught, ideas, values, and principles about parenting, managing, and teaching in that context. If we had lived in ancient Greece or feudal Europe we would have had quite a different view of these areas. In whatever age we are talking about, including in America today, we cannot avoid asking how should we responsibly engage in these areas?

human eyeOf political life, Skillen writes that one of our big problems is that we tend to think more in terms of what government can do, rather than what it should be. And he has thought long and hard about what government should be. His answer in The Good of Politics, his most recent book, is to understand politics and government as “political community.” And he goes further, offering a vision for developing “just political communities,” whether they are local, statewide, or national.

In a just political community, he writes, echoing Webster, not Bierce, “Those who would aspire to become governing officials should be trained in the art of governance, the art of public service, the art of statecraft. As in other spheres of life, officers of government should be servant leaders, that is, public servants. And the politics of such a political community must be organized around the participation and representation of citizens who bear a responsibility for the common good.”

It’s a good vision, worthy of developing and acting on, whether we are fed up with politics or running for office or somewhere on the spectrum between the two poles. Anyone who cares about the good of this country should take Webster and Skillen up on it.

Charles Strohmer writes about politics, religion, international relations, and diplomacy. He is the author of several books and numerous articles.

This editorial originally published in The Mountain Press (Sunday, February 18, 2018).

Images: U.S. Capitol/AP Photo John Elswick. Human eye, via Creative Commons, (Cesar R).

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

A word about the following essay
The succor and largesse being given to those whose lives have been devastated by Hurricane Harvey turned my thoughts to five remarkable days when I was unexpectedly on the receiving end of it, with thousands of others. I share the following essay with you at this time in the hope that it inspires some good thoughts about what it means to be humans beings bearing witness to the image of God in us.

Strangers As Good Neighbors

Three hours out of London and flying uneventfully through florescent blue sky six miles above the Atlantic, the passengers aboard Delta Flight 59 were digesting their lunches, quietly absorbed in laptops, or reading novels. Others fell drowsily captive to that vespertine atmosphere created on planes when the movies are running. Other than departing Gatwick 30 minutes late, at Noon (7 a.m. EDT), the only bother aboard the plane so far could now be heard in hushed buzz of passengers asking why all the video screens had suddenly gone blank. “The movies should be back on in a few minutes,” an air hostess said over the intercom. “A computer needs re-booting. It happens. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Yawn. Passengers stretched, ordered drinks, queued for toilets. Someone across the aisle from me lifted his porthole shade and broke the spell of counterfeit evening. My eyes adjusting to the blinding light, I was overwhelmed. The bright blue evanescence, which I once heard a pilot call “severe clear,” stretched out into forever. It hurt your eyes to gaze at that way for too long and I turned away. Twenty minutes passed. The Boeing 777 droned on. Still no movies. People fidgeted. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta.

Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.” The dreaded words. Your nightmare sprang from wherever you had stowed it before boarding. No one spoke. No one dared. We’re going down. Afterward, it seemed to me that a holy moment spread throughout the cabin.

It also seemed much longer than the actually millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: “There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed. All planes in the air in the United States are being directed to land at the nearest airports, and all international flights into the U.S. are being diverted. We are okay. I repeat. We are okay. But we cannot land in the U.S. We will be landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia in about two hours. We can’t give you any more information at this time. Please be patient and bear with us. We will have more details for you when we get on the ground in Halifax. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Like synchronized swimmers on cue, passengers turned to face their seat-neighbors. Whispers arose. What do you think it is? Who knows? Maybe that announcement was just a ploy and we’re really going down? Must have been a huge earthquake? No, a nuclear bomb. Maybe the air traffic control system has failed? Does the captain even know what’s going on?

None of that made any sense to me. The important question was: why had the FAA closed all the airports? I had to find out. Knowing would help me beat back worst-case-scenario self-talk. I quickly calculated to Eastern Daylight Time and realized that my wife would be in class with her first-graders. But how could I even be sure of that? Was she safe? That became an even more important question. What had happened, anyway?! And where? And who had been effected? Was I even going to get home? Someone must know.

inside delta planeAhh. Walking down the aisle toward me was the hostess whom I had befriended on the plane. I was traveling alone and no passengers were seated near me. I decided to try to take advantage of that privacy. From my aisle seat our eyes met and I motioned inconspicuously to flag her down, hoping she would stop. She did, and she crouched to listen. “I know you can’t tell me what happened, even if you know,” I whispered, “and I’m not asking you to. But can you at least tell me, does the crew know what’s happened?” She nodded discreetly, stood, and then continued on her errand at the back of the plane. It was something, a least. A kindness. The first of many that was to come.

Delta Flight 59 became the penultimate of 42 planeloads of international air travelers permitted safe harbor at Halifax International before the tarmac ran out of wing space. As we circled before landing, I was surprised to see the long, asphalt service road jammed with cars, vans, and pick-ups filled with on-lookers. Like bystanders congregating to stare at a blazing warehouse fire, they had queued to watch the emergency landings. Later I realized it was more than that. It wasn’t just the stunning sight of landing dozens of huge commercial jets one after another after another that had brought them out of their homes and businesses that sunny afternoon. They knew what had happened. We were still in the dark.

Taxiing to our place at the end of the long queue of planes, far from the terminal, we slowly eased along past the staring congregation of on-lookers until Captain Williams brought the 777 to a gentle halt. We heard the mic cue. Captain Williams immediately thanked us for our patient cooperation and then provided what details he had been given of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. “Hopefully,” he concluded, “they’ll re-open U.S. airspace to get these international flights to their destinations. Hopefully we’ll get out of here in a few hours.”

We asked a thousand questions of the crew, but the only information they had was what Captain Williams had been given, and those details were sketchy. Cell phone service had been turned off as we flew to Halifax, and there were no televisions aboard. Later I realized that during the first couple of hours on the plane in Halifax we were living way behind the historic news curve. The pilots had tuned to an AM radio in the cockpit, a source of constant news about the attacks, ninety percent of it still rumor. “Another attack may be imminent.” “A plane may have crashed in Pennsylvania.” “Who had launched the attack?” It would be nearly 24 hours before our own imaginations would be seared by television images of flying machines, twisted I-beams, and charred bodies crashing, falling, and billowing in the explosive chemistry of terror, dust, and loss.

9/11: 42 commercial passenger jets parked on Halifax International runwayTwo long and perfectly executed lines of 747s, 767s, 777s, Air Buses, and L1011s were now parked side-by-side along the tarmac. None would be flying anywhere for the foreseeable future. Ten thousand stranded passengers – a small town, and all the problems that come with it – had suddenly arrived – a scene repeated across Canada, from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Many trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights had been ordered back to their departure cities.

That the extreme and unprecedented workout demanded of thousands of air traffic controllers across America went without incident is astonishing. The FAA had ordered some 5,000 civilian planes to be landed immediately so that the military could isolate any rogue planes still in the air. Within four minutes, 700 planes had been landed. Nearly 3,000 within the next hour. All 5,000 had been safely guided to the ground in under two hours. An impressive impromptu performance, never once rehearsed in aviation history.

Now free to mill about the entire plane – a gracious gesture itself – I found a spot to stand unobtrusively near the open cockpit door to listen to the scratchy, AM radio signal coming out of Halifax. But there were stories in this cockpit. I decided to put on my journalist’s hat, informally however. I listened closely as flight attendants came to the cockpit with reports from the cabin and as the two pilots and their navigator talked. And I chatted them up when they were free to do so. Personally for me, it was a akin to therapy to have the freedom to do this, and I think the pilots seemed glad to talk.

“Why did you make that kind of announcement over the Atlantic?” I asked Captain Williams during a break in the activity. “Why not just tell us what had happened?” He didn’t hedge. “We’ve got almost sixty years’ experience between us,” he told me. “Personally, we’ve never been in this kind of a situation, but colleagues who have been have told us that, in the air, some passengers may panic when they hear the words ‘terrorist attack’ or ‘hijacking.’ So we talked for a long time about the wisest language to use to describe the urgency but not panic anyone.”

As the hours passed, snacks and water ran low, it was getting stuffy in the cabin, a couple infants needed baby formula, the crew reported, and some passengers wanted a smoke. The main theme was the need for fresh air. Passengers were being deplaned and taken to stay overnight in Halifax in the order of their arrival. It would be many hours, we learned, before those of at the end of the queue would be breathing in fresh air.

Still squeezed into my spot near the cockpit, I listened to nearly sixty years of experience process each problem as it arose wisely resolve it. The Halifax ground crew was notified about our need snacks, bottled water, and infant formula. The rear starboard door would be opened for smokers. “But for those of you who need to smoke,” Captain Williams announced, “please take turns and don’t crowd the area. And try to keep the smoke from filtering into the cabin.”

The want of fresh air was solved when the front starboard door was opened to admit supplies. And then left open. Such gestures, including access to the pilots, made a world of difference in the social microcosm that had begun forming, and that would gain in largess, for the passengers of Flight 59. These seemingly small grace gifts defused the building tensions and made the confines bearable. I later learned that passengers on some of the other carriers had fared as favorably.

gobsmackedThe matter of reaching my wife was pressing in on me, so I surrendered my post near the cockpit and looked for someone who might lend me a phone. But getting as signal was still nearly impossible. Those with phones had been wearing down their fingerprints since landing, punching numbers robotically every few minutes gambling against a busy signal. Few won during those first hours. When the hostess I had befriended told me the battery in her phone had died, I stopped asking anyone for a try and instead struck up a conversation – not about phoning – with a friendly couple who, apparently, had no phone. They introduced themselves as Robert and Georgia Matthews, from Memphis. A Christian minister, he explained that he had been in London for the opening ceremonies of a colleague’s church. As I was explaining that I’d been traveling in England on a book tour, we heard the mic suddenly cue – everyone had become acutely attuned to that sound. Captain Williams announced that the FAA had decided not to reopen U.S. airspace today. “We might be here for a day or two,” he said.

The Matthews and I were digesting this development when Robert’s trouser pocket suddenly began beeping. His daughter in Memphis had been playing phone robotics herself and had finally beat the odds. Voilà! A connection with the outside world. Passengers around us were astounded. After he finished talking to his daughter, he handed me the phone and I gave her my wife’s name and number. An hour or two later she beat the odds again, to say that she had got hold of Linda and explained where I was and that I was okay.

Blessedly, our flight was only half full, which made the seventeen hours we spent on board more tolerable. Around midnight I copped three empty side-by-side seats at the rear of the cabin and stretched out as best I could and entered a fitful sleep. Around 3am, we were quickly deplaned on to the runway, shuttled to the terminal, and sped through customs. Outside the terminal we were immediately escorted through the street-lamp atmosphere to a yellow school bus where, after we had boarded, a local politician jumped in and, standing in the doorway, gave us a warm Canadian welcome to “our friends from the south.” He then announced that we were being taken to Shearwater Air Force Base in Dartmouth, ten miles away, where, “You will be well looked after as guests of Canada,” he concluded, promising with many promises. The persistent question of how long we would be there was met with, “We’re taking it a day at a time.”

Legends in their own time, forty-two winged ghost towns now awaited repopulation on the tarmac, the topic of talk radio, news coverage, and hourly conversations in every Halifax and Dartmouth home. The Shearwater encampment rose to about 750 stranded passengers – two Delta flights besides ours, two British Air, and one Air Tours group from Scotland filled with partying vacationers to Florida. The remaining ten thousand strandeds, we discovered, had been housed across the area in houses, school gyms, and in what remained available of hotel rooms (it was the area’s busy tourist season). Some families who had queued in their cars and vans along the access road had not been there just to gawk but to receive us into their homes. Our time as guests of Canada would become the subject of the PBS documentary “Stranded Yanks,” which aired during the one-year anniversary of 9/11.

I awoke at 7am amid dim lighting and much snoring. My back ached from the stiff cot after only three hours of (broken) sleep. I slipped out from under the blue blanket, sat on the edge of the cot, bent over to touch my toes, stood to loosen other muscles, and then took in the unfamiliar surroundings of the massive gymnasium. From the cot I had procured near a hallway door, before me from wall-to-wall stretched the serried ranks of two hundred others curled up on cots or mattresses in various stages of sleep. A few military personnel and Canadian Red Cross workers were in the hallway, where I also saw two of the stranded carrying large white bath towels, evidently returning from the showers.

Where would I eat? How long would I be here? What would I do for clothes, underwear, a tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant, a hair brush, my Norelco electric shaver? We had only been permitted to bring our carry-on bags to the Base. My contained a couple books, a yellow pad, pens, folders with the paperwork for my three-week UK itinerary, my phone book, and suchlike.

I grabbed a large white towel and asked directions to the showers. In the long hallway I heard a television blaring in the distance and remembered my wife cautioning me, when we were finally able to connect by phone, about the images I’d be seeing. “You’re going to be shocked.” I was. It was unbelievable. September 12, I realized, had dawned.

What do strangers stuck in crisis do? Although the choice is a simple one, the effect differs as markedly as day from night. They can make their situation worse or they can try to improve it. Somehow we went for the latter. Later I realized, to use a Christian image, that we gave grace to onhelping hande another. It began aboard the 777 with the gestures of the pilots and crew and it spread exponentially at Shearwater. Military personnel had worked for hours to set up the cots, mattresses, and bedding. There were the hot showers, and even earplugs! We were given free roam of the huge Base and use of it televisions, recreational facilities, and movie hall. They fed us three superb meals a day from a large buffet-style restaurant. On our second day there some kind officer opened the officers’ mess to us, where chefs grilled steaks and barbecued chicken outside in a terraced courtyard.

Not to be outdone by the military, the Red Cross workers, teachers, and schoolchildren and their parents from the Tallahassee Community School of Dartmouth joined forces. Throughout the night and into the morning of September 12 – in what I was sure was a combined effort to blow our minds – they had been arriving at the Base carrying many dozens of very large cardboard boxes, which were now arranged on long table in a huge lobby. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, underwear, hair brushes, mousse, razors. You name it. “Take what you need. It’s our gift to you.” This neighborly grace to strangers really got to me. I was going to write that it made life more normal. But it wasn’t that. Something else was taking place. Life in this world was enjoying a taste heaven.

Navy personnel, brought in just to open up more of the Base and help run it during our stay, gave lifts into town when they went off-duty to those stranded who wanted it. I copped a ride to WalMart to buy some tennis shoes when my feet began aching terribly from meandering around the large Base for hours a day. Even the weather was a grace to us. With the exception of a couple hours one afternoon, blue skies and delightful temperatures helped keep our spirits up. I remember someone joking that “the service” here was so good that, if we were now offered a hotel room, we’d decline it and stay put.

We may have been strangers, but we were also good neighbors. Kathy _____from Salt Lake City told me: “It reminds me of Jesus saying, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in and fed me and clothed me.’” I thought about a time described in the Book of Acts, when communal Christian living was one of “great grace” because everything was shared and so no one lacked any needed thing. And Jesus’ Good Samaritan no longer seemed a mere story to me.

On Wednesday, I remembered that I had the phone number for Leslie McCurdy, a pastor in Halifax whom I had met a year earlier in Romania. I wondered if he was in town. He was. He asked if I needed anything. Are you kidding, I said, this place is like a four star hotel. The next day we met at the Base. He brought his Norelco electric shaver. Bless you, brother.

Afterward I had to admit that there had been a givingness among us that seemed so normal that it judged the way I did “normal” life back home. The community of Halifx-Dartmouth had expressed to us strandeds something durable of the image of God in human beings: the ability to give grace to defeat the deeds even of great evil. Well, we strandeds did our small bit as well. It may have only been to run some errand or carry some message, but we helped each other as we were able. And we struck up friendships with the officers. You may think I’m lying when I add that during our days on the Base, only one of the strandeds raised a stink. He did it so often, and for what most of us considered superficial reasons, that he failed to be taken seriously.

Halifax Nova Scotia AirportI also noticed that we seemed to have entered a curious new relationship to time. I’m tempted to say that time had stopped for us, but that’s too clichéd, besides being inaccurate. Time had not stopped but had somehow been altered. Yesterday, we were busy westerners on tight schedules. Deadlines to meet. Places to be. Lives to lead. Today we had time. Humanly speaking we could thank the FAA for part of this, as the days of our departure kept getting pushed into the future – each new day we were informed that “they” (the FAA) would not be flying us out “today,” or if we would fly “tomorrow.” There was no future beyond the present. There was just today. And within that novel existential period time seemed quite remarkable.

Here’s a for-instance. When people’s paths would cross on the Base, as repeatedly they did, we had time for one another. And you never knew who you were going to run into again, or when, or where. It might be in or outside the gym, in the mess hall or at a barbeque, in a lounge or by a shower locker, or on a path to and from the barracks. Wherever and whenever it occurred, there was time to stop and say with smile,“Oh, hello, again,” and then pick up a previous conversation as if we had all the time in the world. After all, what else was there to do but to get to know each other?

In this new relationship that we had been given with time, narrative abounded, often between the unlikeliest of persons. A shy 19-year old student from Oxford kneels beside the cot of a lonely 40-year old Kenyan woman, befriending her. A 25-year-old designer from Germany gets into an animated discussion with a 60-year-old CEO from England in the lunch queue. A middle-aged man from the States strolls the grounds alongside a twentysomething from France and learns what it’s like to be an au pair. Reverend Matthews and his wife comfort young newlyweds from England whose honeymoon had been interrupted. A knot of strangers from different nations and races share their histories with one another while seated on uncomfortable gray plastic chairs in the sun outside the gym. A lone stranded emerges from the cafeteria line carrying a tray of food, but he’s been late to the queue and can’t spot an empty table; two Canadian Navy Lieutenants notice and invite him over. Far beyond any powers of the FAA, however, was the power of heaven, which, I later concluded, must have been the giver of the new relationship with time that I had experienced.

Full disclosure: I noticed a mental habit that was at first hostile to the new time. It revealed itself this way. I would find myself pleasantly absorbed into someone a stranger-turned-neighbor narrative when I would suddenly think I’ve got to go now. But then it would hit me. I don’t have anyplace to go, nowhere to be, I’ve got time. Here was time to get to know the other. Where are you from? Where were you headed? How are you getting on here? Need anything? No? Okay. At the very least, heaven must be like this, as much time as you want to get to know all sorts of people. “Oh, there you are again. Remember when we were talking about….”

At Shearwater, selfish interest, disappointment, and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, mutual support, and common good among the different. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we were capable of expressing. It kicked out fear and renewed our faith in the better angels of our nature. When heaven broke in, walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities and human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.

There was no more stunning awareness of the transformation than the one that occurred when the FAA finally green-lighted Flight 59 to fly to Atlanta on September 15. During our three-hour flight that Saturday morning, the dark blue curtains that separate the economy seats from business and first class were never pulled. They remained opened for the entire flight.

Twin Towers smokingThe no-longer-strandeds had boarded to their previously assigned seats, but once the Fasten Seat Belt signs were clicked off, the neighborliness that had matured on the ground between people of all classes effortlessly continued in the air. People rose and moved about the plane. Without hint of reproof regarding status or class, people from economy walked into first class and picked up conversations that had been left hanging in the hustle from the Base to the airport. I watched the suits and the blue-jeaned exchanging phone numbers. I’m a frequent flyer and I’ve never seen the ritual “pulling of the veils” suspended before. I really believe that it just never occurred to anyone to revive the old barriers.

And so there I. Having slipped from economy to first class to talk to someone, I eventually sat down by myself and stared out a porthole. It was another gorgeous morning, bright and clear. Captain Williams took us down the Atlantic Coast. Time slowed to a crawl as we flew over New York City and saw, even five days on, plumes of smoke spiraling up toward us from the huge gray crater. Ground Zero; nee: the World Trade Center. I snapped a photo and then stared until I could no longer see the ascending trails of tears. So, it really had happened.

(Shorter versions of this essay were published for the first anniversary of 9/11 in Third Way, September, 2002, and in Crosspoint, Fall 2002, 9/11.)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images in order of appearance: Getty Images. Creative Commons. N/C. CBC News. Magdalena Roeseler. Creative Commons. Creative Commons.

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