Working to Overcome Our Internal Conflicts
Christianity, at least in its earliest phase, was notorious for stepping over boundaries that separated people into categories. The love of strangers overcame the fear of strangers. No one would argue that this was either easy or that it was totally accomplished, but the ideal was there from the beginning, and in many ways it worked. Romans and Scythians became united in faith, as did barbarians and Greeks. A new level of equality between men and women was achieved, begun by that Jesus who overstepped social boundaries to accept women as fully human. Slaves were not initially freed under Christian impetus, but they were seen as equal in church to free people. This equality led to an erosion of confidence in the practice of slavery in Greek and Roman society.
These were necessary steps because the early church had a mandate, through the apostle Paul, to work with people in various cultures, commonly known as “the nations” or, in Latin, “Gentiles.” So strong was this feeling that early writers spoke of the Christian movement as a “third new race,” uniting peoples of different backgrounds beyond the narrow boundaries they had previously defined for themselves.
The early church did not have to work to overcome the American form of racism, which was unknown in that era. Nationalism was the major form of international and internal conflict. Greece was not united, for example, but rather remained a nation of small provincial regions, with Sparta constantly at war with Athens and so forth.
Commercial interest enabled the Greeks to overcome their disunity. When small nation-states went to war with one another, commercial captains would agree to continue trade. Trade agreements were known as koinonia, a word that comes directly into the New Testament and is usually translated as “fellowship.” The word also defined the interior relationships in ancient corporations, and hence it was the basis for the concept of Christian community.
Nationalism has returned throughout history. It’s not all bad. We would not have the international diversity we do have and celebrate without it. The nationalistic spirit created strong cultures in small countries.
When nationalism and racism have mixed, however, a powerful and invariably dangerous brew results. Consider Nazi Germany. Consider Rwanda and Yugoslavia as recent examples.
One hundred and fifty years ago nobody wanted the Irish, let alone free Blacks. Russians and eastern Europeans were accepted because they worked in foundries or mines. A priest friend said, “My people didn’t live in America. They lived under it!” They were miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Struggle was the name of the game. But the people persevered, survived, and ultimately began to flourish. Isn’t that the way it has always been with immigrants? Work and self-respect go hand in hand.
So here we are in 2010 dealing with immigration. Nationalism rears its head again. It’s hard to believe that no racism is involved. People want our borders sealed, even to the extent of erecting walls. We’re all in this debate together, Christians and everyone else.
Arizona’s Immigration Law has raised the issue and created a furor of affirmation and opposition. Everyone seems to agree that we need immigration reform, but the details are doggedly difficult to define. We need to remember that, no matter where you look, we immigrants needed assistance to begin a new life. We got it from family, from religious institutions, and yes even from our government in the form of homestead acts and the like. As debate continues we must strive for civility, for a level of common decency and deep listening in communication, and for a solution that is both just and fair.
published 18 June 2010