How many of you, as a youth, ever made fun of one of your siblings? How many *defended* that sibling, if others criticized them? How many are at least a little uncomfortable when your spouse or partner makes the same observations about your family out loud that you admit silently to yourself?
Just because we love something, it does not mean that we don’t recognize its faults.
I *love* the United States of America. I admire its ideals, its grand democratic experiment; I love the way the people of the USA have struggled and fought and protested and celebrated to extend their freedoms to an ever-widening circle of our human cousins.
And I also grieve for my country: that, in this land of liberty, we sometimes work so hard to *deny* freedoms to people whom we believe to be different from “us” (whatever “us” means, at a particular time and place in history).
There is a Facebook meme circulating, which I will paraphrase, with more polite language: “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy. 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports.
We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe [that] angels are real, and defense spending[—] where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined.
So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what … you’re talking about.”
Now, I did not verify all those statistics, but I did do enough that I am satisfied with the overall thrust of the argument. So I feel a little angry, and a little defensive on behalf of my nation.
Part of that is just wanting to be on the winning team, I suppose; but part of it is that I do find something special in the people around me. I know many people who do believe in “justice for all,” who are working very hard to make that happen. I know people who believe in *more* people participating in the electoral process, not fewer, and who work to enroll and educate those voters; I believe in a country where creativity and hard work are rewarded, and where those rewards are shared—-at least a little—-to provide for the common good.
All of the above is true, both the hopeful and the tragic aspects of reality. We are both a land of justice for all and the nation which jails a larger percentage of its population than any other country on earth. I used to think that these were competing sides of the same complex nation, but after my experiences at our annual UU General Assembly, a week ago, I fear that we may be ripping our once-united country into two parallel USAs.
A quick side note, here: Don, Jenny and Carl all attended GA, too; they may be presenting their experience in a service in two weeks. They will go into more detail than I will, this morning. I will say that I had a marvelous time, and I encourage everyone to begin saving for a trip next year, when our General Assembly will be in Louisville. GA really can be a life-changing, inspiring event; and I want to work with any and all of you to help make it possible for you to attend.
Now, I understand that reasonable people can disagree about law and order, justice and mercy. We can and do differ about how to best administer a criminal justice system.
But hearing about human beings in “my” country treated in ways that are worse than in some third-world torture states makes me want to scream in anger, and wail in despair.
I have two friends who did go into Tent City, which Sheriff Joe Arpaio himself calls his own concentration camp. The haunted looks on my friends’ faces, even a day later, communicated more eloquently than words about the human misery they observed there.
And many of the people in that jail did not even commit a violent crime. A significant percentage of those prisoners, treated worse than we would treat a dog, are there because of the *misdemeanor* offense of improper immigration.
Maria Hinojosa, the award-winning journalist and the first Latina to produce her own national news program, reported on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department—-better known by its acronym, ICE.
Many of the ICE detention centers are run by private corporations. These corporations, and ICE itself (because it is part of Homeland Security) do not have the same standards of accountability as do other government-run prisons.
Detainees do *not* have the right to a lawyer, nor a phone call. They disappear and may or may not ever be heard from again. There have been over 100 deaths in the last year, in ICE detention centers. There have been few investigations, even; and virtually no punishments or changes.
There are few windows, no televisions and no books just unending, torturous monotony sometimes punctuated by violence or rape from the guards. Anyone who complains is simply deported. There is little or no medical care and the food is atrocious, often squirming with maggots.
Ms. Hinojosa notes further that many of the people thus detained were captured because of a crime they committed decades previously: a traffic violation, perhaps, for which they already paid their fine, or perhaps served their jail sentence, years ago. But that one offense landed them on an ICE “most wanted” list. And now they rot with no legal recourse.
That is not the United States that I believe in, not the “land of the free,” not a nation of “equality before the law.” In this parallel USA, there is no due process, and there *is* double jeopardy, for people with brown skin.
The hymn we sang earlier asked, “where do we come from?” It did not mean “in what town were you born?” but rather where were we *before* we were born?
None of us know the answer to that question. Whether we were born north or south of a particular geopolitical boundary, whether or not we possess the right pieces of paper, we still come from Mystery and we are still bound for Mystery and we deserve the same basic treatment within the *same* legal framework while we are here.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that fundamental right, as does our own Constitution, even though some of our shadow agencies more recently created have not been held accountable to those documents.
I said that there were objections to some of the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” Did you find any objectionable phrases there?
In the second verse, we sang, “O beautiful for pilgrim feet Whose stern impassioned stress A thoroughfare of freedom beat Across the wilderness!” Of course, it wasn’t actually a *wilderness* when the Europeans arrived here. There were quite a few nations of indigenous peoples living on this land. And from the indigenous peoples’ perspective, it was not a “thoroughfare of freedom” which was beaten by those settlers. From smallpox-laced blankets to the Trail of Tears, to Wounded Knee and the corruption of white politicians in the “Indian Affairs” offices, our country has essentially committed genocide against the Native American peoples.
I do not believe that these oppressions, these failures of our higher ideals completely negate the promise of our shared nation. But I am afraid that I do see that promise being eclipsed in our lifetimes if we do not stand against it, now.
In our first reading, Alice Walker asked us to “love Americans.” It is easy to point to others and say “they are not loving Americans enough.” While that may be true, it is also true of *us*. We, too, have prejudices, blind spots, people whose customs and cultures we do not understand, and whom we therefore fear.
Let us resolve to work on that: let us read good books written from the perspective of “those” people. We could form discussion groups to hold us accountable to each other and to all of our human cousins. We could even make contact, work with organizations which support equality for such persons.
And we must stand up and demonstrate—-*for* equal rights for all and *against* the heinous oppressions visited upon our cousins of color in Arizona and Alabama and Indiana and every other state in our imperfect union.
Tandi Rogers, a friend and fellow UU, gave me permission to share her story of leaving Phoenix, after GA. In her story, she refers to the Yellow Shirts—-that is how many Arizonans know us Unitarian Universalists, by these yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts that so many of us wear to protest events.
She writes, “I wore my ‘Arrest Arpaio’ shirt to the airport…One TSA [agent] chuckled, but I couldn’t get a read on how he [actually] felt about it. [Another] TSA agent [(a female, who appeared white)] leaned over and quietly asked if I was a Yellow Shirt. When I confirmed [that I was,] she said, ‘Thank you for being here. Please come back. Most of us are scared and you help.’”
Our United States, like many other countries, around the globe, is wrestling with the issues of immigration. We wonder how best to integrate all these human cousins arriving in our land, and we wonder how best to minimize the fear and violence of anti-immigrant groups.
If we meet these issues with love, we may be able to co-create win-win solutions. If we address them from fear, we will create lose-lose scenarios.
If our United States could conquer our xenophobia, we could again lead the world into liberty and justice for all, and could again legitimately claim to be the greatest nation in the world.
So may we be.
(photo from libcom.org)