Ahead of the one-year anniversary on Sunday of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the governor of North Carolina has issued a state of emergency to release funds for public safety. He wants to avoid a repetition of the violence that led to the death of a 32-year-old woman when an alt-right nativist drove his truck into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. It was an ugly scene, and a national disgrace, lifting the nasty underbelly of American racial bigotry into high relief. And it also pointed to a contextualizing component of our current debate over refugees and immigration. There is clear apprehension within a segment of white America about preserving the majority national complexion.
In the spirit of several of our Christ Church core values—we live and practice dynamic hospitality; and we welcome and celebrate diversity—emanating from our mission to love our neighbors as ourselves, I offer two pinpricks-to-conscience from two very different people: President Ronald Reagan and poet/artist Khalil Gibran. First, from the former President:
“[S]ince this is the last speech that I will give as President, I think it’s fitting to leave one final thought, an observation about a country which I love. It was stated best in a letter I received not long ago. A man wrote me and said: ‘You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.’
“Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.
“This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength—from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow. Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”
Among those who passed by Lady Liberty in 1895, was a very poor, young Syrian/Lebanese man who was destined to become the third best-selling poet of all time behind Shakespeare and Laozi. In 1926, Khalil Gibran wrote this poetic reflection:
I believe in you, and I believe in your destiny.
I believe that you are contributors to this new civilization.
I believe that you have inherited from your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy, which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America.
I believe that you can say to the founders of this great nation, “Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful.”
And I believe that you can say to Abraham Lincoln, the blessed, “Jesus of Nazareth touched your lips when you spoke, and guided your hand when you wrote; and I shall uphold all that you have said and all that you have written.”
I believe that you can say to Emerson and Whitman and James, “In my veins runs the blood of the poets and wise men of old, and it is my desire to come to you and receive, but I shall not come with empty hands.”
I believe that even as your fathers came to this land to produce riches, you were born here to produce riches by intelligence, by labor.
I believe that it is in you to be good citizens.
And what is it to be a good citizen?
It is to acknowledge the other person’s rights before asserting your own, but always to be conscious of your own.
It is to be free in word and deed, but it is also to know that your freedom is subject to the other person’s freedom.
It is to create the useful and the beautiful with your own hands, and to admire what others have created in love and with faith.
It is to produce by labor and only by labor, and to spend less than you have produced that your children may not be dependent upon the state for support when you are no more.
It is to stand before the towers of New York and Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, “I am the descendant of a people that builded Damascus and Byblos, and Tyre and Sidon and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.”
You should be proud of being an American, but you should also be proud that your fathers and mothers came from a land upon which God laid His gracious hand and raised His messengers.
Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you.