I began this intending to write about things I love about the US for a lighthearted Happy 4th of July Facebook post. This is still about the country I love, and it is still about love, but not quite in the way I anticipated. Loving a country doesn’t mean not noticing what is going wrong in it. I think the reverse must be true. Because I love the US, I want it to be beautiful and good, and indeed it was created to be those things. So I mean this as a loving July 4th message. However, if you don’t want to read about love and the border on the 4th of July as you prepare for a festive family reunion or recover from a road race, I entirely understand, and in that case I invite you to skip to the bottom where I’ve pasted in two beautiful songs and one extremely cheery one, with love from me to you on our day. Right above the paragraph about the music is a paragraph in which I refer to my mother and also Carl and Margarethe Schurz — even if you don’t care to read any of the rest of this, you might like that part.
Maybe because I am far away and therefore do not have any reunions or other festivities to distract me, I cannot hear the stirring words of this season’s songs without yearning for us to extend some of that goodness to the souls suffering in captivity now at the border, especially the wee souls. Every one of us in the US, unless you are 100 percent native American, is descended from someone who came from somewhere else out of a sense of desperation or of hope (or, in a minority of cases, a kind of nothing-to-lose confidence), just like the people on the border. I understand that the border cannot be unregulated and that we function as a society by all being held accountable to one another. But that starts somewhere. Certainly we have a responsibility to give refuge to all of the refugees (because that is what normal human beings do and because I believe we are legally bound to do so), but for the rest, I know only that how we are treating them when they get to us is unacceptably cruel and that we of all people should be extra-understanding since almost all of us have ancestors who arrived at the shores or borders of the country from somewhere else at some point.
In our land of the pilgrim’s pride from whose every mountainside freedom is ringing, children should not be separated from their parents and stuck in cages after they make their own pilgrimage to get to us. I do not view this as is a partisan issue. This is something we are all somehow allowing to happen, not just one half of the country or the other, and it is something we must all now together fix right quick.
There will always be things in our country and in each of our selves about which we are dismayed because while having tremendous potential for enormous goodness we are also imperfect. Some things we cannot change, and there’s no point dwelling on those or anything else for that matter. Dwelling does no good – the only use of being haunted by things is to get us to face them – that is how we stop the haunting, by facing the thing head-on (so much harder than I just made it sound, in some cases, but moving right along, as my mother would have said). We figure out what we can fix and go about fixing it, and we figure out what we cannot change at the moment or cannot change ever (and in some cases ought not even be trying to change – I reckon that 90 percent of what just came to your mind when I mentioned being dismayed about your own self is actually just you being human and no cause for dismay and doesn’t need changing so much as it needs you letting go of it or getting a helping hand if you need it) – and if we cannot change it, then there is even more reason not to dwell (but again dwelling is only useful as a way to get us to be aware of the thing and figure out what it is telling us). But some things we just have to change. Children in cages we have to change.
I know that many of our own citizens have grave problems and urgently need our help and that our prison system needs a good drenching of justice and righteousness, and we must also attend to those things with love and care. But none of that makes the mistreatment of people at the border acceptable. I also know that children all over the world are suffering in large and small ways, and that is heartbreaking — no child should ever be unsafe or alone or hungry — but I am focusing on this one thing because it seems so outlandishly awful that it is our country doing this as a country in an official capacity.
I read an article today about how we have to start doing something, not just feeling bad. And I am all for that. I did briefly reflect on whether I am one of those people who can organize a march or organize millions of people to stand at the border with food and water so that there are too many of us to be arrested. And I must be honest and tell you that I am not that person. I also am not in the country. But even if I were, I am not the person to organize the march or the food-and-water-providing brigade. So I am sympathetic with all the ones of you like me who feel helpless as you read this. I am also aware that there are good people doing good things about this problem in an urgent manner even as I type (including perhaps many or all of the people reading this). “Look for the helpers,” Mister Rodgers says his mother told him. And I know that there are helpers on the loose all over the place including at the border. But this problem clearly needs a big push of help in an organized way, and writing this (and the prayer I wrote last week) are my small way of attempting to be part of that larger movement toward goodness.
I do not have an answer for what this solution should look like. But my particular vocation does equip me to say with certainty that the solution should be loving and that holy love is brimming with care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Jesus’ first, greatest, and new commandment is to love, and Jesus specifies that included among the neighbors we are to love are people we revile and who revile us, and we are also to love our enemies. It is an extraordinary kind of love. So everybody at the border must fit in there somewhere. Being loving does not mean setting ourselves up for needless abuse so that we are ruined or dead, and I realize that is the tricky part. How do we protect our country as part of our vocation to love so that it stays a place of safety and goodness for us and for those who come for refuge and a new beginning? But we can all agree that cruelty cannot play a part in it.
And we can agree that we must in the first place *choose* to love because, as we all know, this kind of love I am talking about here (the Jesus kind) is not a feeling. If it were a feeling, it could not be a commandment. We do not have to like everybody, even people who really need our help like the people at the border. The feeling of liking people isn’t a commandment. Feelings are what they are. They drift around. We just try to be aware if the feelings so that they don’t get in the way of our vocation to love (because it is what we don’t allow ourselves to notice lovingly, in ourselves and in the groups to which we belong, that often messes us up — and one reason we don’t allow ourselves to notice is that it seems too icky or hard, which is why we have to learn to be infinitely kind to ourselves too so that we will have a safe space in our own hearts — and in that way we can build up a little well of kindness in us for the world). Then, having noticed what is going on in us and in our country, we can try to make decisions based not on what is fleeting or small but on what is enduring and expansive, which is love.
Choosing love is the vocation of every human being. And it is our patriotic duty.
“My country right or wrong,” my mother used to say, and that most patriotic of phrases invites us to notice when the country we love isn’t right and to do something about it in love. As Carl Schurz (click on his name to find out more — he was an immigrant, a journalist, a general in the Civil War, a senator, and secretary of the interior, and his wife, Margarethe, was instrumental in founding the kindergarten system in the US — you may click on her name for more too — and since I’m giving you links for them, I’ll also give you a link to a post I created about Momma in celebration of her 100th birthday, in which you will find photos of her as a child, also a Mary Oliver poem — Mary Oliver had the same birthday as Momma) — as Carl Schurz famously said in 1872: “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”
With that final word from Momma and Carl and a nod toward Margarethe, who would especially want us to take care of those children and would know how to organize it, I wish you Happy 4th of July. Enjoy your veggie burger 😉 We don’t celebrate here because, you know, they lost. I leave you with three celebratory songs — a lovely arrangement of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” because the words have been running through my mind as we’ve moved toward July 4th and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” because it has been going through my mind (and I’ve listened to it repeatedly) ever since NPR mentioned it on Twitter yesterday and the third one because “I’m the kid that’s all the candy, I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, I’m glad I am.”