How can it be? Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames? And, early on Holy Week no less. There are not words to capture the sense of our world’s spiritual and cultural loss. Serge Schmemann, comes close when he writes “beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded” (New York Times, 4/16/19).
In response we hear brave words about rebuilding. Good. Yet, we know some things are forever gone. Amidst the rubble and ashes lies an awareness that all our desires for permanence are ephemeral. Constancy and immutability are never fully within human grasp. Great Cathedrals serve as pointers to something more eternal yet even they come with no guarantee-of-forever. Small rural African-American churches, like those destroyed by fire in Louisiana recently, served as miniature cathedrals, for their faithful. They too now grieve irreplaceable loss. Our call is not to believe we hold a final word or permanent design as to what God is about. At our best we point the way, catch a glimpse of something better, and share what we have seen with others. We offer our best, our highest aspirations, mixed in with our frailties, our vulnerabilities. How then shall we proceed? In the places we live and work? In Louisiana? In Paris?
This Easter, with Notre Dame in view, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Closing lines include these delicious words:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest…
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice Resurrection — My prayer is that you, that we, will practice our Easter prerogatives and that the practice of resurrection will become routine. May it be our habit, our nod to that which is indeed eternal.
How will church nativity pageants be different in 2015? Should we check the visas of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus before they process down the church aisle? Or, should they be detained before they sit beside the manger scene in the chancel? After all, these three family members were “outsiders” threatened by terror. They were vetted by the authorities and found to be dangerous. As a result, they became refugees.
You remember this part of the story, don’t you? As a nation we in the United States seem to forget or perhaps simply say, “Well, that was then and this is now.” Right? Well, no, not really.
The fears generated by tragic events in Paris this past week have resulted in U.S. political leaders loosing their ability to think clearly. To call the response “knee-jerk” is disrespectful to knees everywhere! The ignorance and intolerance displayed by folks like Donald Trump are not worthy of a great nation like ours.
Suddenly, our greatest fear is the 10,000 Syrian refugees who are being forced by terror to seek new homes? While Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are accepting millions of displaced refugees, we proud Americans, who are an ocean away, can’t welcome 10,000 who have been screened for nearly two years — and these are persons who are going to be placed with resettlement organizations most of which are religious groups with long histories of working with such refugees.
Members of the House of Representatives quickly pass a bill that is designed to target persons based on their religion. It is an astonishing nod to the bigotry and ignorance of the cheap seats in the American electorate. It has been said by many and it is true — “we are better than this.”
However, rather than writing a screed on the small mindedness behind the statements and legislation that has been proposed, I choose to believe that these events just might be an early Christmas present, waiting to be unwrapped. An early Christmas gift to be shared at our Thanksgiving dinner tables. There is the opportunity here for imagination, for those who will be guided by thought, prayer, a clear-eyed view of our history to offer another version — not of who the Syrian refugees are, but who we are, especially if we are persons of faith.
I think of heroes like Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, who was faced with the demands of the Roosevelt administration to set up detention camps for Japanese Americans in his state. Carr, a conservative Republican was shaped more by his Christian faith than political expediency. He said, “No, not here, not on my watch” and he paid the price of losing an upcoming election to the U.S. Senate. Today if you visit Denver you will see that the state judicial building is named for Ralph Carr in recognition an ethical clarity, drawn from his faith, that allowed him to stand for justice against the popularity of bigotry on the march.
If you watch the news carefully, you will see politicians already coming to terms with their reactive bigotry. News speak is that they are “walking back statements made about Syrian refugees.” The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia is an example of one who had to change his suggestion that we go back to camps like those used to detain Japanese Americans during WW II. Presidential candidate Ben Carson now says he regrets speaking of the refugees with a rabid dog analogy. Fear is a powerful emotion mixed with self-interest in which human beings sometimes get lost in the worst of our impulses.
These events, put together, provide the occasion to think more holistically and imaginatively about how to proceed. Should we accept Syrian refugees that are carefully screened. Absolutely, YES… and I think we should welcome even more.
HOWEVER, this is only a start — there are dozens of other things that might be done in the United States and in other parts of the world to humanely address this crises. How do we assist those in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey who have borne the brunt of the tragedy in Syria? How do we assist those in Europe facing these challenges? Now is not the time to play the tortoise by hiding inside our shell.
The nations of the world no doubt will make increasing military responses to ISIS. There are arguments to be made as to what might be done and how. Again there will be dozens of ways to respond. As for me, there will need to be a witness against war and violence — as our continuing “go to” solution to every dangerous and hostile situation. Didn’t we get here by trusting too much in overusing the military as a solution to everything?
This week, let’s join one another in unwrapping an early Christmas present at the Thanksgiving table. Make this your early gift — encourage imagination. Help others remember that our Christmas pageants are more than little parades of children in bathrobes and silly hats. Laugh, play and retell the Christmas narrative in fullness, including the parts about a refugee family driven from their home.