There is an inscription on the Statue of Liberty that reads
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It’s the last few lines of a poem called The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. It represents one of the most fundamental, founding principles of American culture and society, and ultimately of the American nation itself. With the exception of the small group of remaining native Americans, it describes the ancestry of the population of this country, at least, for the most part. It was the observation of outsiders, essentially the French, which led them to present the statue as a gift to the United States commemorating American independence and the liberty that it represents. Ironically, at the time, there was a different perspective, from an African-American newspaper, The Cleveland Gazette after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886:
“Liberty enlightening the world,” indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the “liberty” of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the “liberty” of this country “enlightening the world,” or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.”
The statue represents liberty and freedom as an ideal, not necessarily the absolute reality of the time for everyone in America. The ideal is still not here, nor will it ever be. But the development of this particular ideal, from an American perspective is more about the forward movement and progress that is made toward achieving the ideal. The symbol of liberty, and the ideal it represents, were strong, powerful motivating forces that pushed the culture and society toward achievement.
There is a philosophical divide between those who see the development of American foundational values and principles as the direct result of the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and those who see it as the result of the Judeo-Christian influence brought here by Christians escaping religious persecution in Europe. Things that are happening now, in light of Lazarus’ inscription, and the foundational American value that it represents, along with the Statue of Liberty, make me think that Christians are conceding the point to the secular humanists who believe that America’s values came from Enlightenment philosophy.
I’m talking about the overall political view of immigration that circulates through secular, conservative politics and runs counter to that which is represented by Lazarus’ poem. I’m talking about what’s happening surrounding the 60,000 or so children and teenagers, and some women, who have crossed the border illegally to take refuge here from situations in their countries mainly involving bloody turf wars over control of the drug trade. Perhaps, if put in the position of having to choose, and observing both American politics, and the behavior of people in reaction to their presence in the United States, many of those children and teenagers could relate to the paragraph that I cited from the Cleveland Gazette in 1886. Many Christians, siding with those who advocate immediate deportation, are out there protesting their placement in temporary housing and any provision of humanitarian aid. How is that possible, if we are a nation that is genuinely based on those Judeo-Christian values that we Christians tout as our foundation? The ones that we point to and accuse of leading our country down the wrong path are the ones that are out there looking for temporary food, shelter and clothing for these refugee kids. Ask one of those teenagers that crossed the border to explain his feelings about it.
I’m glad to see some Christians are setting aside the politics of the issue and mobilizing resources and people to provide assistance. But some are standing in protest lines, attempting to prevent the movement of this particular group of refugees from Central America. I can picture a worship service in a church where there’s time for individuals to testify to the blessings that they’ve received from God during the week, where someone stands up and says, “I’m so blessed to have kept a teenager from Honduras from entering the US, and I helped send him back to the middle of a drug war in his country. Praise the Lord, I’ve helped to “get America back”.
Perhaps it is time to take the Lazarus inscription off of the Statue of Liberty, since it seems that it no longer applies.