taking the words of Jesus seriously

I am not one who believes there is such a thing as a “Christian nation” or who imagines that the United States counts as one. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the American tradition that I think are worthy of accolades from people of faith. The Statue of Liberty is the most prominent symbol of the best of America and points to values that resonates well with a compassionate faith like that which looks to Jesus. Sadly, the Statue of Liberty was attacked this week by the Trump Administration’s acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli.

In an interview this week, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the well-known words at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” He suggested a revision: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Essentially, he suggests taking the love out of the Statue of Liberty. The Trump administration wants to end any welcome to immigrants who may need some initial help getting on their feet.

Not just illegal immigration, but now legal immigration is also coming under attack by the Trump Administration. A new regulation announced Monday denies green cards and visas to immigrants if they use — or are considered likely to use — federal, state, and local government benefits including food stamps, housing vouchers, and Medicaid. This change will predictably impact hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrive legally in the U.S. every year. When it was pointed out to Cuccinelli that the Trump policy seems at odds with the sentiment of the words on the Statue of Liberty, his response basically was, “Keep the policy. Scrap the words!”

I have long thought that there are two basic types of Americans: flag Americans and Statue of Liberty Americans. Sure, this is a gross over-simplification, but I believe there is an important degree of truth in it.

The flag is often associated with war and battlefields. It flies “proudly,” we are told. It stands over other flags in a position of superiority. Any perceived slights to the flag predictably evokes anger and sometimes aggression from its devotees. President Trump has even suggested that anyone who would dare to burn the American flag should be imprisoned for a year or be deprived of citizenship.

How many times have you heard someone say, “Countless soldiers have fought and died for the flag?” On the other hand, no one says, “Members of the military died for the Statue of Liberty.” The Statue of Liberty has no association with battlefields and blood. The light that illumes it does not come from “rockets’ red glare.” This grand statue does not face off with enemies. It is not backed up by bullets or bombs. Rather the Statue of Liberty welcomes strangers as friends.

It is a peaceful gaze that comes from this colossus, not a threatening grimace. Her presence is not an attempt to ward off intruders but the opposite. She does not stand as an intimidating show of strength or pompous glory. Rather, she is presented as a powerful display of nurturing hospitality, a warm welcome to the suffering, rejected, and weak.

There’s a bit of the Good Samaritan in the Statue of Liberty (Luke 10:25-37). The Good Samaritan offered to pay for the help needed by the wounded stranger he encountered. Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” But the Trump Administration has no interest in following this example.

The bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty speaks of her as,

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The author of those words, poet and activist Emma Lazarus, knew something of outsider status. Though she grew up economically privileged, she was born into a large Sephardic Jewish family. Well before the American Revolution, her family fled the Portuguese Inquisition and eventually arrived in New Amsterdam, later to be New York. She was an advocate on behalf of indigent Jewish immigrants and active in organizations that aided immigrants. She saw in the Statue of Liberty a magnificent symbol of the compassion she put into practice and the compassion she believed was found in the American character at its best.

The best of America is under assault by the Trump Administration in the name of making America “great again.” Trump and those who are aiding him are accentuating the worst in America and undercutting the most virtuous aspects of the nation. Instead of seeking ways to aid the marginalized, the weak, and the struggling, the Trump Administration is determined to find ways to deprive them of what help had been available in the past. Not only has this administration callously turned the back of America on desperate refugees, but it has responded in ways that are vicious — both to the needy outside the country and to those within it.

The Statue of Liberty stands as a rebuke to the Trump Administration. While Trump and friends prefer to welcome only those “who can stand on their own two feet,” the “Mother of Exiles” gives preference to the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses.”

I cannot help but remember the words of the One who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In contrast, the Trump Administration has no interest in welcoming such people. Rather, his response takes the form of a wall.

We need to oppose the efforts to take the love out of the Statue of Liberty. There is no greatness for America or anything else apart from the sort of love that reaches out to those in need and welcomes those who are too burdened to stand on their own two feet.

About The Author

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Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist.

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