Caravans and the Communal Conscience

They’re coming.

It sounds like the tagline to a new action-horror movie. But no, it’s just another week in American political discourse.

As thousands of soldiers are deployed to the southern border, the collective imagination of our country is gripped by the prospect of a coming invasion. The so-called “caravan” making its way through Mexico has already taken on a larger-than-life stature in our national psyche. The mere mention of it is enough to evoke images reminiscent of the Orc army marching on Helm’s Deep.  This frightening horde of brown-skinned migrants headed our way, we are told, will soon pour into our neighborhoods, pillaging the precious resources of our country—and most likely sneaking in a few terrorists along with them.

If this sounds scary to you, then that’s the point. You’re supposed to be scared. Just yesterday the President took a break from tweeting about “Fake News” to pass along this alarming piece of intel: “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

They’re coming. Be afraid.

A few days ago I was poking around in the Old Testament book of Exodus. It’s one of my favorites—a vibrant blend of rugged history, towering theology, and subversive social policy. It tells the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, where they had lived for generations in slavery and oppression. In miraculous fashion, God led them out. But no sooner did they attain their freedom than God began to set forth expectations for their shared life together in their new home. Among those expectations?

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21).

“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).

The Israelites at that point still had the scent of Egypt on their robes. The trauma of slavery was fresh in their minds. So with the Red Sea still visible in the rear-view mirror, God seized the opportunity to shape the way they understood their social responsibility.

“Do you remember what it was like to be oppressed in a foreign land?” he asked. Of course they did. How could they forget? It was a nightmare that lasted way too long.

“Well then, let that memory inform the way you treat those who show up in your land,” God told them. The one who led them out of oppression was calling his people into solidarity with the sojourner. Their freedom didn’t earn them the right to stick their noses in the air and stomp on the dignity of other humans. On the contrary, it obliged them to extend the same compassion to others that God had so generously extended to them.

Now let’s get something straight. The United States of America is not Old Testament Israel. Not by a longshot. In spite of what some evangelicals might think, we aren’t a theocratic nation called into existence directly by God and uniquely entrusted with divine revelation and the future hope of the world’s Messiah. We’re not nearly that special. We’re just one of many secular states trying to thrive and succeed in a global theater of nations.

What this means is that a book like Exodus can’t be expected to do our legislating for us. We can’t simply import all of its laws, dress them up in red, white, and blue, and then follow them all blindly. (And even we could, we would still find that these laws fall well short of offering us a comprehensive immigration policy.)

But verses like the ones we find in Exodus are hardly irrelevant, either. As a caravan of migrants inches closer and closer to our border, I think these ancient words have something to tell us.

When God called upon his people to extend kindness to the sojourner, he was appealing to what we might call a “communal conscience.” In other words, he was drawing upon their shared story as a people, the narrative that had defined their sense of identity. When it came to ethical expectations, the people of Israel were always intended to live in light of their past—to look forward by continually looking back. Their experience as an oppressed foreign population wasn’t just historical, it was formative. It forged a self-awareness that would ultimately define their posture toward others.

In America, we have a communal conscience of our own. It’s different from that of the Israelites, but it’s no less formative.

Our communal conscience is rooted in a history of hard work, individualism, and the power of determination. We tell a story of triumph and strength, a story that reaches its climax in the attainment of the unparalleled American dream. Against all odds, we have prevailed. We have fought for freedom, we have championed democracy, and we have climbed our way to economic prosperity.

And whether we realize it or not, that shapes the way we view outsiders. Like those in the caravan threatening to take refuge within our communities.

See, if we’ve truly earned all that we have by the sweat of our brow and the force of our will, then it’s all ours, isn’t it? I mean, we surely have the right to keep it, don’t we? So if a teeming mass of freeloaders shows up at the back door and says, “Hey, can we come in and have some of your stuff?” we have every right to keep them the heck out. Right? They didn’t earn this. They didn’t make this country great. Why should we let them profit from it? We are justified in fearing them. After all, they threaten to jeopardize all that we’ve worked so hard for.

That logic is compelling. And it’s no wonder that so many people buy into it. But there’s a pretty big problem with it—namely, the fact that it’s built upon a story that simply isn’t true.

As Americans, our actual national identity isn’t quite as flattering as what we’d like to think. Did we get here because of our relentless can-do attitude? Sure. But it’s a relentless can-do attitude that has led us to exploit those who benefit us and crush those who get in our way.

Many years ago, another caravan set out for this land. It set out west across the Atlantic Ocean, made up of weary men and women looking for a better life. When that caravan arrived, its people didn’t ask for permission to enter. They didn’t seek asylum. They didn’t fill out the necessary paperwork at the border. They simply overpowered those who lived here and established a new nation upon the graves of those who opposed them. That caravan entered by force, and it has been here ever since. Like it or not, that’s our national heritage.

Yet somewhere in the midst of our violent invasion of this land and our systematic removal of its native inhabitants (not to mention a host of other evils, chief among which was our ruthless importation of slave laborers), we apparently decided that we needed to craft a more presentable story—one that would strike a more positive patriotic note in middle school history classes. And so we suppressed the ugly features of our narrative in order to emphasize the more palatable ones. And in the end, we managed to build an entire national ethic upon a sense of identity—a shared communal conscience—that is at best misleading, and at worst downright false.

To put it as simply as possible: We’re telling the wrong story. And in telling the wrong story, we’re assuming the wrong posture toward others.

As I observe the fearful attitudes aroused by the northbound caravan, I can’t help but wonder how our view of these sojourners and wanderers might be transformed if only we could embrace a more honest national identity. A more humble national identity. What if we told the truth about our past? By pursuing an authentic communal conscience—one that is rooted in acknowledgement and lament and repentance—maybe we would be able to escape the fear that seems to enslave us.

Yes, as Americans, we do have a lot. But it’s not like we’ve brought it all into existence out of nothing. We live in a land that didn’t originally belong to us, we enjoy wealth we can’t possibly deserve, we benefit from sacrifices we didn’t make, we move about in communities we didn’t build. What this means is that any national ethic rooted in a sense of entitlement is a denial of who we really are and how we actually got here.

We’ll probably never agree on the details of how to handle large groups of people seeking to enter the country—the immigration debate is a complex one and it’s not going to go away anytime soon. But what I’m proposing is that we approach those discussions with a new attitude. Instead of saying, “We worked hard for this, how can we protect it?” perhaps we could start saying, “We don’t deserve this, how can we share it?” We have more in common with the people in that caravan than we realize. So how can we do right by them, instead of merely treating them with suspicion and fear?

America, let’s own up to our sins. Let’s tell the true story. A communal conscience rooted in our own ugly past may not be an easy one to embrace. But it has the potential to guide us toward a redemptive and generous future.

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