What should we do if it becomes intolerable to stay in our homeland? In recent decades, the increasingly common answer is to emigrate. People have learned that despite the risks and miseries of immigration, support from various sources frequently arrives to enable people to survive and eventually to make a better life. The political crisis in Syria and the resulting movement of refugees into Europe and elsewhere is the most salient current example. The movement of peoples from one country to another puts new demands for wisdom upon spiritually minded persons.
The golden rule and the demand to love the neighbor as oneself do not substitute for political deliberation. Nor should legitimate concerns for the integrity of a nation dictate the way we relate with our neighbors. Wisdom combines scientific realism with spiritual idealism. Easier said than done, but much harder if we do not clearly acknowledge the dimensions of the problem.
My brand of religious philosophy avoids getting entangled in social, economic, and political controversies. The emerging philosophy of living to which this conversation is dedicated sets forth truths of the universal family that illuminate our privilege and duty to engage in unselfish social service. We cannot help being at least somewhat aware of the facts of political injustice, economic unfairness, and social inequity. Directly or indirectly, our efforts to participate in divine goodness must contribute to historical progress, which must now be accelerated.
I believe that religion awakens us to the fact that all people are created by one God. Nationalism which asserts what seems to be national self-interest with no regard for the rights of outsiders is indefensible. Economic behavior which aims to maximize profits with no regard for the welfare of others is indefensible. Indifference to social inequity, to the needs of others, only adds to the pressures that make living difficult.
My comments bear some relevance to Syrian immigration, but they do not imply answers to political or economic questions. They are autobiographical and on a social level. They represent my effort to encourage readers who may have had fewer cosmopolitan opportunities to reach out and find some new friends. Of course there is always uncertainty with “strangers,” but religion adds spiritual trust to practical prudence.
From my boyhood I remember my father’s continual interest in foreigners. We lived in Rockford, Illinois, which was not a cosmopolitan place. When he met foreigners in church or at Rockford College where he taught, he would invite them to our home, extend himself to help them, learn from them, and treat them with interest, respect, affection, good humor, and intelligent care for their real needs. To some extent, our whole family would become friends with these guests and their families. I was supported in my interest in learning French and German. When my father left his career in business to become an economics professor, my mother upgraded her education by joining a book club that introduced her to classics of world literature. She became active in Community Concerts, an organization that brought world-class musicians, including Van Cliburn and Rudolf Serkin, to Rockford; and we hosted them after the concerts. Some years later, she took a demanding program of courses in art history, with an emphasis on Rodin and East Asian art. I was blessed with opportunities to travel to Canada, Indonesia, China, Senegal, Japan a few times, and Europe several times for a total of about two and a half years. During my year in seminary I lived in the foreign student dorm and had a roommate from Ghana. In Berkeley, I taught for seven years at an international school. Over the years, I taught world history, world literature, world philosophy, and world religions. My wife is Japanese, and our son lives in Tokyo.
I came to the conclusion that in order to get to know another culture, we need to come to know and love persons from that culture, and know its history and its arts (since most individuals do not know much about their own culture in those ways). When we have that kind of exposure, it becomes impossible for the average person to nurse prejudices based on stereotypes. You understand the stereotypes; in a majority of the cases we can see the grounds for them; but you don’t take them seriously. They do not infringe on the brotherhood of man/siblinghood of humankind; they show the delightfully variegated differences between human groups. Beginning in the 1960s, I countless times heard Europeans make fun of each other with linguistic, gestural, and attitudinal caricatures of “the French,” “the Germans,” “the Italians,” and so on. The humor that I heard was never aggressive or unkind. Unflattering, yes, but not serious. A German and an Austrian were fighting side by side against the Allies. The German said, “Ernst, aber nicht hoffnungslos”—“Serious, but not hopeless.” The Austrian replied, “Hopeless, but not serious.” The caricatures were based on generalizations that had a degree of empirical support; but it was a game without viciousness.
Some people have a strong, healthy, sunny, good-hearted, cheerful disposition. They love and serve and brighten up the landscape for those around them. They have a knack for making strangers feel instantly at home. I am not one of these people, but I believe that our attitude has a center of gravity, positive or negative; that our center of attitudinal gravity has a profound effect on our inner life and our social surroundings; and that faith, living faith (not the “you of little faith” that Jesus observed at times in some people) makes a tremendous difference. An overall positive attitude toward humankind affect the direction of our growth and the health of our society.
The harder life gets, the deeper we need to dig the wells to get down to the water of life. And when we do so, we are empowered with the joy and resilience (and the capacity to develop these qualities) that express the spiritual light which alone will sustain us and lead us through our present planetary troubles.
Reaching out to neighbors in need, be they immigrants or not, no matter what they believe or don’t believe, upholds life. My wife Hagiko is keen to detect need, quiet and effective in helping, which she does filled with a spontaneously generous spirit.
We have a tremendous opportunity to forge good relationships and to help immigrants identify positively with their new home.
The small international school at which I taught, now out of business, was Armstrong College. When I joined the faculty in 1977, the largest segment of the student population were Iranians. The men were there partly to avoid having to serve in the Shah’s army. There were not very many university places in Iran; they would have preferred to be at the nearby University of California, but Armstrong was easy to get into for those who could afford it, and they came. We had students from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries; many from West Africa; a sprinkling from Europe and South America, and twenty percent from the U.S. By the 1980s, the Japanese would be our dominant import. At Armstrong I got to know lots of Muslims.
They would get off the airplane, see the prostitute advertisements in the news stands on their way to school, and have their worst stereotypes confirmed. They had been told that “freedom” in America meant doing whatever you please, hedonism, disregard for the Creator and morality. Like every ethnic group, they tended to stay together in the lunch room; but after four years when it was time for most of them to go home, they knew better than to believe the stereotypes.
Having read the Qur’an a few times, appreciating some of the ideas of Ali Shari’ati, and feeling quite at home in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the San Francisco Bay area and Armstrong College, I provided spiritual ministry to the Muslims that I knew who shared personal difficulties with me. They were religiously isolated and had spiritual needs. In some cases, my faith was stronger than theirs. I knew their religious language well enough to use it to minister to them. And the friendships and prayers and support were often effective. I did not conceal the fact that I was a follower of Jesus; I simply followed Jesus according to my understanding of his way. I did not try to take anything away from the hearts and souls of these brothers and sisters. I took the best that I found in their tradition and added meaning and spiritual vigor according to my lights, and it worked.
At Kent State University, my world religions course would always conclude with a project in which the non-Muslims would make arrangements to sit down for conversation for at least a half-hour with a Muslim. Most arrangements were made with the assistance of friendly and graciously helpful Muslim Students Association members. My student’s assignment for the conversation was to facilitate the other’s self-expression of his or her own religious experience and perspective. This assignment was consistently the most transformative component of the entire course.
In retirement, I continue to maintain occasional contact with Muslim friends at the Unity Center in nearby Bedford. I have spoken there and been recently invited to schedule another talk; and I am in the process of helping a church group that wants to visit a mosque to make the acquaintance of these brothers and sisters.
Such relationships matter. Defensiveness, ignorance, and stiff-armed silence makes things worse. Willingness to venture, to meet, to introduce oneself, to learn and discover, to help—these are the micro steps that seem so optional, so invisible, like so many drops in a bottomless bucket that we easily rationalize our practical indifference as we collapse after a busy day before the television with its evening news. If we are overcommitted, it is because we are undercommitted to the will of God. It is of course impossible for me to state what specific duty or project may be the will of God for you. But if the golden rule and the command to love the neighbor including “the stranger in the gate,” we can stay open. We can cultivate a heart that is at least as ready to help someone who “looks Middle Eastern” as someone who may look more like “us.”