On the Edge
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The story of Icarus is one of the perennial stories of the human condition. In the Greek story, Icarus was a man who escaped Crete using wings his father had made from feathers and wax. And in the story, the wings took him up into the heavens, but as he neared the heavens, the sun melted the wax. His wings fell apart and he began to fall. The Greek version of this story is told to warn against what they saw to be the basic human problem: Hubris, overweening pride
A friend and colleague of mine, Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, told a simlar story from the Hindu tradition, the Story of Trisanku (THREE-SHUN-KOO), when he lead the Sunday worship at General Assembly nearly three years ago. In this version of the story, the Icarus character, Trisanku, did not fall to his death as Icarus did. In this version of the story, one of the gods felt sympathy for him and caught him – and there Trisanku was stuck, caught between heaven and earth, near to flying and near to falling. Caught in between. The Hindu version of this story is told to warn against what they saw to be the basic human problem: being caught in between.
My friend Ahbi related the story to the feeling he had coming from India to America, the feeling of mixing his Hindu upbringing with his Unitarian Universalist ministry. Truly issues of race and immigration bring out this Trisanku-type of experience of being on the edge, caught between seemingly conflicting communities.
Have you ever been out the edge? Have you ever really noticed how close you have been at times to the edge? We might be talking about any number of edges. We might be speaking of the brink of environmental collapse or a personal nervous breakdown. But that’s not quite what I mean, though it is close.
Today I mean something closer to the experience of moving along the fringe of the in-group or passing for middleclass while living from paycheck to paycheck. Have you ever been caught between seemingly conflicting communities, on the edge? We can be talking about any number of edges in life. And perhaps every experience of being at the edge will evoke the type of feeling I am tugging at.
Surely we all recognize that state of being. The lucky among us either experience it as a temporary thing or something from our past. Others roll along the edge with grace and aplomb that defy the thin reality. But for many, being on the edge is frightening and exhausting and dangerous. I suggest that most of us have some experience with being on the edge.
What I am trying to evoke is a parallel to the Quote from Leviticus: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong, the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as natives among you, and you love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) This passage is a common piece of the Passover liturgy. It is a Jewish injunction to treat others well because, ‘you know what it feels like,’ the passage reminds them. One strong Passover message is to reach out to the stranger, not to fear the stranger as is the baser human instinct. Why? Because you know what it is like to have been a stranger. And so I say today, we each know what it feels like to be on the edge. Be gentle and have compassion for those you see in this life who are on the edge.
The Press & Sun Bulletin (Thursday, March, 22; B1) offered a brief headline article about Immigration being talked about from pulpits. But rather than lead with this passage, they talked about how preachers are leading with something from one of Paul’s letters about obeying authorities and laws, something from Romans, chapter 13. It wouldn’t be the first time some Christians have mistakenly claimed obedience as God’s greatest commandment.
I don’t know a lot of the details of the immigration laws and the legal issues. I am not a political junkie paying close attention to how it all works so as to notice and point out some of the places where the system is broken. I do pay attention to cultural dynamics, but I still would not consider myself to be ‘on top’ of what’s going on. Two years ago when I preached on Immigration I tried to figure some of that out and to find something interesting, intelligent, and somewhat radical things to say on the topic. But I have to admit: I really don’t know much about what’s going on with immigration in our country.
But here’s what I do know: compassion is always a good idea. Remember the times in your life when you have been at the edge; have compassion for those you meet who are there now. I don’t know much about immigration, but it keeps coming up around me so I’ve tried to learn more about it.
Did you know that according to senate reports, travelogues, and the Guinness book of world records, the U.S. – Mexico border is the most frequently crossed international border in the world, with approximately three hundred fifty million crossings per year. The boarder between the United States and Mexico is nearly 2,000 miles long. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, we have built nearly 600 miles of fences (as of 2009) to control border crossing. By some estimates the fence has cost about a million dollars per mile to construct. Later this summer I’ll be about a hundred miles north of that wall in Phoenix.
This year’s 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be held in Phoenix Arizona. It has been termed Justice GA because “Arizona – where one of the most aggressive state laws on immigration enforcement has been enacted and where the sheriff has been called out by federal authorities for racial profiling and civil liberties violations.” (UU World Spring 2012, p 25) In July of 2010, UUA president Peter Morales, the UUA’s first Latino president was arrested for civil disobedience while protesting Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration enforcement bill. Minister from our sister congregation in Albany, Rev Sam Trumbore went down to Arizona two summers ago for that protest.
Over the past few years leading up to this General Assembly there have been debates and discussions about how to deal with the upcoming General Assembly in Phoenix given the troubling immigration situation that has galvanized there. Some suggested we boycott. Others encouraged us to come but to not have business as usual. Thus, Justice GA will be a different time of gathering. There will still be business brought before the delegates, but the bulk of programming will be focused around training for advocacy and witness, and Saturday will be given over as a day of service and action with local partnerships.
I imagine, I will learn a good deal about immigration while I am down there this summer. But I have a suspicion. Yes, our country has an immigration problem; but I suspect that deeper down, our country has a compassion problem. Perhaps most countries have this problem, but we seem to be exceptionally poor at allowing compassion to influence our politics and our culture. We have a tendency to turn people into ‘the other.’ The authors of Leviticus knew this thousands of years ago, Jesus spoke of this; all the world religions speak of having compassion … and of having compassion for the stranger, the alien, the other in our midst.
Trayvon Martin, the young black teen in Florida armed with skittles and wearing a hoodie, was a stranger to the self-appointed neighborhood watchman. This story is all over the news now; I trust you’ve seen it. All Zimmerman saw was a stranger, someone who he thought should not be there, someone on the edge, crossing the boundaries. The shooting of Trayvon Martin is tangled up in race, gun rights, and fear. And it is tangled up in how we treat those we view as “other.”
It all starts to flow together and get tangled up in my mind because it isn’t just about immigration. I think immigration is nested within a larger problem of racism in America. It is about how we treat those not like us as “other.” It is about how we categorize groups of “other” and treat them as less than ourselves. It is about how we have lost sight of the dream our county was reaching for at its founding. We began as a mix; we began as a pluralist mix seeking unity not in nationalism but in the yearning for shared freedom. Diversity was a key ingredient to the American Dream. But lately the American Dream, like some many other great ideas, has become privatized and commodified.
The American Dream is still out there, but I think many people have lost a sense of what it is. When the housing bubble burst a few years back, people talked about how it was more than just homeownership at stake. The American Dream itself was being lost, people said. But I say the concept is bigger than mere materialism. Yes, it is about joining the middle class, about owning a home and getting a college education. But it is more than that. We’ve lost sight of what all of the material and status markers are supposed to be pointing toward.
The true scope of the American Dream is that our children will be better off than we are. Really, the American Dream is about the possibility of generational improvement. By focusing on the materialistic and status aspects of it, we cheapen the dream and we pervert it from being an opportunity we can work toward for our children into something we personally deserve simply because we’re American! Immigrants understand the American Dream. It is not about personal gain or status. It’s about opportunity.
Consider the image of the Statue of Liberty: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.” That’s what the poem New Colossus says about her, the poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 that 20 years later was engraved on a bronze plaque at the pedestal of the statute; “From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.” The more remembered lines solidify the perspective that we are a land of immigrants:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “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-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That message says it doesn’t matter if you are on the edge. No, actually it does matter: because when you have been on the edge, when you are tired and poor, homeless and tempest-tossed, you have a better sense of what freedom can be, of what it can mean to breathe free. It does matter. Let’s start not with a point of privilege, but with a shared sense of how much it is worth to us to build a land where all people shall be free. Because once we loose that feeling of being on the edge – that’s when we begin to think the American Dream is about luxury cars and huge houses. That’s when we begin to forget that the goal of this whole experiment in self-governance is about building a land where our children can breathe free, where other people’s children can breathe free; where anyone, even someone caught on the edge, living between two seeming conflicting communities, can be offered the opportunity to breathe free at last.
I want to close with this poem by Alberto Blanco entitled “My Tribe.”
My Tribe by Alberto Blanco (English translation: James Nolan)
Earth is the same
Sky is the same
From lake to lake,
Forest to forest”
Which tribe is mine?
–I ask myself—
Where’s my place?
Perhaps I belong to the tribe
Of those who have none;
Or to the black sheep tribe;
Or to a tribe whose ancestors
come from the future:
A tribe on the horizon.
But if I have to belong to some
–I tell myself—
Make it a large tribe,
Make it a strong tribe,
One in which nobody
Is left out,
In which everybody,
For once and for all
Has a God-given place.
I’m not talking about a human
I’m not talking about a planetary
I’m not even talking about a
I’m talking about a tribe you can’t
A tribe that’s always been
But whose existence must yet be
A tribe that’s always been
But whose existence
We can prove right now.
In a world without end
May it be so