The United States is having an identity crisis

by Joan Chittister

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The 19th century was a period of public and political turmoil in Russia, which is perhaps why the influential novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky is said to have commented, "To live without hope is to cease to live." Perhaps Americans have never understood that feeling better than we can now. We are also facing grave national choices in a whirlpool of public and political turmoil. The way ahead is uncertain and the voices of leadership are tangled. It is time to consider what role we play as Americans when hope is at a premium for many and our own very definition of self is stake.

The images of refugees streaming across Europe, clinging to overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, huddled in the middle of rubble in bombed out villages in the Middle East is almost more than I can take. It is as if the world has fallen down around us, as if all of us went to bed one night and woke up the next morning on a different planet. Most damaging of all, it is a planet I do not want to be on. Why? Because this is a planet I grew up believing would never exist. At least not here. Not in the United States. This has become a planet at war with itself.

The United States, I was told as I grew, was a land with an open heart, a land of mixed cultures but one soul. A land made strong and creative by immigrants, it had become a melting pot of ideas. Thanks to all the citizens of the world who came here to escape poverty and oppression, war and destruction, a cross section of the world worked together here to turn its land and build its buildings and staff its business and shape its future.

Most of all, it was a land in which the culture of others mixed its customs with our own so that we could all be proud to be Irish and Italian, Polish and Hispanic, African and Asian, Christian and Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim, Hindu and Orthodox -- "American" -- because so many had come as immigrants to add to the DNA of it.

At the same time, it was not an easy process for any of them, we know. We remember "Irish need not apply," the "Chinese Exclusion Act," "white drinking fountains" and, on election day, non-Catholic presidents only. But, given the time it takes for one worldview to become integrated with another, it did, in the end, always work.

Only in the United States, in fact, is there a "Statue of Liberty," the one national monument to immigrants -- to hope -- in the entire world. As long as the Statue of Liberty stands beckoning the world's "tired and poor" all the little people of the world -- the outcasts and persecuted, the oppressed and dispossessed, the rejected and displaced in the world -- will have something to strive for, something to believe in, something to trust as sign of the humanity of humanity. More than that, we ourselves will have reason to hope that, however dark the world around us, our best selves will forever rise to show us the way beyond prejudice and fear to the height of human development.

In the middle of an immigration crisis, let's just call the historic commitment of this country to welcome refugees the "Lady Liberty Movement." And cling to it. Because if we don't who will we be? What will we become? The moral message of the Lady dims, it seems, when even some of our politicians want to wall us off in fear from those who, carrying children in their arms, beg us again for "room in the inn."

Donald Trump's recommendation that Muslims in general be barred from coming to the United States "until our country's representatives figure out what's going on" is blatant racism and brazen religious discrimination. It smells of Germany, 1939, only this time it is Muslims, not Jews, who are the scapegoats. The argument is that we must do this in the name of defense and security.

The truth is that it is openness that is our best defense under threat. Otherwise, we prove that what those who want to destroy us say is true: that Americans are self-centered, are making their money off the resources of the poor of the world, are hypocrites who plead peace and then arm the rest of the world in order to watch one small group destroy another.

Oh, it's true that our Native American history is still to be resolved. It is true that many of those who don't want to accept the immigrants of today had no trouble accepting the fact of slave ships of yesterday. It's true that we were begged in 1939 to accept a boat full of Jewish immigrants at the beginning of WWII and, instead, returned them to Europe to die. Yes, we moved Japanese Americans to internment camps, but, interestingly enough, we never interred the Germans! Nor did we stop their entry into the United States. But we lived to regret every one of those retreats to xenophobia.

And now, instead of doing our share with other countries in the world to care for families who are leaving one country in order to save their children in another, we want to "pause" the process of hope. It will take as much as two to three years, some say, to create a new system to vet sanctuary seekers while these immigrants -- frightened, desperate, hungry and homeless -- die on the road.

If there is to be hope now, it is the hope in humanity we can ourselves guarantee for others by refusing to turn out the light on the Lady Liberty in our time.

From where I stand it seems that indeed we must each do something: We must talk again about what American values really are and the need to articulate them now. We need to find a way to create both security and sanctuary for the innocent, the daring, the desperate who believe that we are the world's last hope. And we need to ask ourselves why it is that the pope's call to every parish, every religious order, and every convent to each take a refugee family has yet to be invoked here?

Or does the death of immigrants not fit under the category of pro-life in our Catholic Voter's Guide this year?

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]

Editor's notes: We can send you an email alert every time Joan Chittister's column, From Where I Stand, is posted to Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up. (The quote in the first paragraph comes from German Reformed Jürgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope, 1964, but is commonly attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.)

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