December 9, 2015

America’s Backpack

I’m on my morning walk when I should be at work. Except that I’m on vacation.

Footsteps behind me draw up and stride on by. I try to distract myself from an instant obsession with the fractions and multiples that separate me from the strider. I focus on his backpack. This high school kid with a quarter of my maturity and four times my energy and agility must be totally unaware by now of the message he proclaims to the world as he glides along. “Lime Xtreme Bacchanal 2010,” announces his backpack.

I must run to catch up because I have to ask: “Are your parents Trinidadian?”

“No, they are Kittitian.”

“Ah, I saw your backpack and thought it was a Trini thing, but I guess it’s a West Indian thing.”


He knows. He knows the message he bears, and he recognizes its implications.

It made me think about watching Bono talk with journalist Fareed Zakaria, who interviewed him and his drummer, The Edge, for his CNN television show, “GPS.” Bono was explaining why their band, U2, felt compelled to return to Paris for a show in the city where 89 people were massacred at a rock concert less than a month earlier. For Bono, the United States is an idea of freedom that is really a Parisian idea. Performing in Paris was a way of honoring a Paris-inspired idea that America now stands for.

Bono may not be historically accurate. But I thought of Bono’s ideas of America and Paris, and the high school kid’s backpack. I thought of America’s backpack and Emma Lazarus’ poem graven at its foot. Not “Lime Xtreme Bacchanal,” a phrase with meaning mostly for West Indians and tourists to the islands’ carnival celebrations. For Emma’s lines, and the colossus that announces them, do not speak in coded phrasing:

“Give me,” cries this mother of exiles,
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!”

I thought of America’s freedom backpack at a time when the nation’s House of Representatives has voted in favor of halting the U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees. I thought of America’s freedom backpack at a time when prominent public voices are advocating a test of faith for admission to a country founded for the sake of religious liberty. I thought of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to bar all Muslims from entering the United States. I thought of how the terror of Paris, and San Bernardino, and ISIL/ISIS, and civil war in Syria, and the tides of fleeing humans seeking somewhere to sleep without hearing bombs or feeling shrapnel are affecting us.

I came home pondering this latest test of the idea of freedom that America has proclaimed as the nation strode along, young, vigorous, and free, as compellingly successful a political endeavor on its scale as humanity may ever experience this side of heaven.

I sit now, and think, and wonder at the sad twist that might lead America to support choices that seem to defy its mighty freedom statue and belie its awesome backpack message in response to actions by a pathetic fringe of humans who have chosen to employ the name of religion as claimed basis for their evil.

The Syrian refugee crisis is not America’s first test of the integrity of its claims to being the land of welcome for victims of tyranny. There may be history to support that claim: America has admitted at least 70,000 refugees every year since 2009. But there is also history that questions it.

In 1938, Fortune magazine’s poll of public opinion showed that slightly more than two-thirds of the U.S. populace preferred to keep European political refugees from coming to America. The next year the United States turned away a boat carrying Jewish children. It returned to Europe, where some of those children were murdered by the Nazis.

The forced relocation and incarceration of Americans of Japanese ancestry, more than 100,000 of them during World War II, also speaks to the public capacity to commit regrettable violations of freedom when the circumstances of fear are sufficiently powerful. They have been in the past.

Perhaps they are again today. In a land where strangers by the millions have found love, acceptance, and a safer, happier living, some people, conscientious Christians included, are now ready to advocate the exclusion of strangers on the basis of difference. A Syrian refugee family bound for resettlement in Indiana was rejected by the state’s governor, Mike Pence. Pence is one of 26 governors who along with several presidential nomination contenders have expressed sentiments in agreement with the recent House vote on Syrian refugees.

“Mike Pence who calls himself a good Christian, six weeks before Christmas tells this family that's been through hell, who pose no threat, who have children, that there's essentially no room at the inn,” panelist Julie Roginsky said on “Fox News Outnumbered” on Nov. 20.

Roginsky was as good as shouted down by her fellow panelists, who led by Tucker Carlson denounced her language as “appalling, and “melodrama coming from the left.”

The reality of the linkage between the Syrian refugee crisis and any enthusiasm for rejecting Syrian refugees may or may not be captured in the following datum, but it is certainly pertinent: the United States has admitted 785,000 refugees since 9/11. Three of those, two Iraqis and one an Uzbek, have been arrested for terrorism-related charges.

Fear is most terrifying when it postures as authority, when panic may employ the force of law for the confirmation of the irrational. American fear as authority has produced past aberrations. But we do not need to repeat yesterday’s blunders.

And yet there is particularly insightful warning on the instructiveness of yesterday’s errors. Because of those warnings, many people, Seventh-day Adventists in particular, have known that tomorrow will bring more of yesterday’s panic. We also know how, as with refugees and innocent members of America’s own public, in the past or present, those who least deserve it will come to be identified as society’s great threat. (See Ellen G. White, The Great Controversypp. 589-92.)

I recently dialogued with a colleague who now worries about the political correctness of Adventist end-time ideas as the media has found new cause to examine them. On Facebook I’ve seen Adventists comment on the limitedness of our understandings and the inclination to change them for the sake of staying in the mainstream.

I suggest that it may be better for us to enlighten the scared and scoffers than for believers to yield up a privileged faith to public opinion — as dangerous as it keeps showing itself to be. We can still be prepared for the future if we choose. Without the light of God’s Word we are doomed to the darkness of fear and kneejerk reactions in the face of extreme human and or natural disaster.

But God has given us His more sure word of prophecy, “to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 2:19).