note: this is a presentation I am working on; all comments would be much appreciated. I’ve also added Roman numerals to help you navigate through this longer piece:
I. Focuses on Ellis Island and the history of excluding immigrants by race;
II. connects the exclusionary practices (“optics”) of Ellis Island to earlier slave auctions and to present day practices of racial profiling.
III. Looks at the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), alluding at points to the discussion in Part I
IV. Examines more closely how the story of the Good Samaritan challenges the “invulnerable seeing” discussed in Part I
V. Concludes by looking briefly at how working with refugees–work that I do–fits within this discussion.
On January 1st, 1892, Ellis Island officially opened. In the following three decades, over 70% of immigrants to the U.S. would be processed there. The decades preceding and following this moment were marked not by an open, receptive embrace of the “tired, poor, huddled masses.” Instead, these decades were filled with an increased focus on immigration, race, and citizenship, and with the refinement of techniques for excluding those deemed unworthy to belong.
In 1870, twenty-two years before Ellis Island opened, Congress passed the naturalization act. Previously, one could not become a “naturalized” citizen–meaning a citizen of the U.S.A. despite being born in another country–unless one were a free white person. The act in 1870 did not erase the qualification of being white but was expanded to include immigrants from Africa. The act was intended to complete what began with the 14th amendment: to grant citizenship rights to those who had been enslaved. However, by not erasing the racial component of citizenship but expanding it, Congress tried to answer the problem of slavery while still continuing racist policies of exclusion. By specifying that free whites and persons of African descent could become citizens, the 1870 Act solidified the link between race and citizenship, for it excluded a growing immigrant population, the Chinese. In 1875, five years after the 1870 Naturalization Act and 20 years before the opening of Ellis Island, Congress passed the Page Act. This act, as well as some legislation following it, focused on “oriental women,” women who disrupted the white social body by supposedly carrying diseases and working in the U.S. as prostitutes. These acts began a more intensified classification of “undesirable immigrants” by focusing on nations and races; the Page Act explicitly declared its focus on “subjects of China, Japan, or any Oriental country.” In 1882, ten years before Ellis Island opened, Congress passed two acts that helped further expand the notion of undesirable immigrants: it passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” which completed what began 1870–the exclusion of Chinese immigrants and the denial of American citizenship to Chinese persons. The other immigration act in 1882 barred “lunatics, idiots, and persons liable to become public charges,” meaning those it deemed unemployable, from entering the States. In1891, one year before the opening of Ellis Island, Congress modified this act by adding to the list polygamists and those carrying contagious diseases.
The focus on health, as should seem obvious from preceding summary, is not just an isolated health issue but one that is intertwined with issues of race, national identity, gender, and the social body. Immigrants were consistently seen as threatening to contaminate, whether by altering the “racial” identity of the American public or corrupting “American” morals and political ideals. In 1891, immigrants became marked as the corrupters in a different sense: they were a threat to the physical health of the American social body. The operations at Ellis Island continued to heighten these associations of race, class, and disease.
Upon arriving in New York, two different teams would inspect the potential immigrants. One team would go into the first and second class cabins; here, the focus was on finding the social aberrant, the one who did not fit, who was not genuinely a 1st or 2nd class passenger. The inspectors would wander around the cabin, looking for signs of illness and for passengers who did not look or act like 1st and 2nd class passengers. Disease and social class were so closely linked that passengers in these cabins who produced signs of ill health were suspected of being lower class individuals. The examinations of these wealthier passengers, therefore, was not explicitly to screen the health of these wealthier immigrants; the screenings were designed to prevent poorer passengers from trying to escape observation by mingling with the higher, healthier classes. The examination also inducted these wealthier immigrants into a kind of self-screening, whereby the manners and appearances of wealth must be strictly adhered to, or the advantages that came from wealth would be stripped: in other words, these classes were taught that if they didn’t keep up looking, talking, and acting like persons of wealth were supposed to act, they would be marked and handled like persons in the lower classes.
Unlike those traveling 1st or 2nd class, every person in the “steerage class,” the more crowded quarters for poorer travelers, was taken off the boat, put on a barge, and transported to Ellis Island. Here, examinations did not consist of inspectors wandering around the room; on the contrary, on Ellis Island, every immigrant had to undergo a direct, hands on physical examination. Each person in this class had his or her body handled; at one point, their eyelids would be held open by a metal buttonhook to check for signs of an eye disease, trachoma. Those who were suspected of having this–or another disease–were marked with a piece of chalk on the back of their clothes. These persons were then sent to private rooms for a more exhaustive examination.
Ellis Island was not just a place for an intensified medical observation–one that produced a linkage between class, immigration, and contamination–the island also enabled medical experimentation. Physicians set up laboratories, testing new medical techniques and drugs on the immigrant population. One of the most prominent physicians of the day, who also worked at Ellis Island and wrote a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly, actually viewed the Island as “an experiemental station in the mental and physical examination of immigrants” (quoted in Behdad, 134). The state was invested in screening the mental and physical “fitness” of the immigrants. Besides the health exam, psychological profiles were given to immigrants; their IQs were tested; some–those suspected of being idiots or lunactics–were even subjected to shock therapy. The unfit–mentally and physically–were a threat to the nation’s health and had to be excluded.
This focus on class and disease did not replace the earlier discourse of race and nation; it actually went hand in hand with developing notions of racial inferiority. The general well being of the immigrant–physically and mentally–became linked to ideas of race. The health and survival of the American–meaning Northern European, Anglo-Saxon–social body depended on the exclusion of inferior races, for these races were seen as prone to disease and mental instability. In 1911, a congressional committee on immigration created a large manual to assist immigration official with the racial classification of new arrivals. By 1921 and again in 1924, Congress used this new racial “knowledge” to pass a new set of exclusionary acts, acts which used quotas to regulate how many immigrants from each population were allowed. Immigrants would only be accepted in numbers that were proportionate to the make up of America before Ellis Island opened, before 1890, that is, before the high influx of non-northern European immigrants. The Chinese had already been excluded; the exclusionary acts of 1921 and 1924 ensured that most immigrants would be from Northern Europe. Ali Behdad, whose work I’ve been relying on throughout this examination of Ellis Island, argues that the focus on health and disease is actually what led to the increased interest in racialized exclusions. The medical hygienists and doctors granted a kind of scientific authority to racial stereotypes, linking harmful germs to harmful genes (p. 132), and creating a vision of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants as threats to and pollutants of the “American” social body.
The growing body of racist classificatory systems enabled a kind of short cut for the screening process. The racial “clues” allowed inspectors to work faster, to read the immigrant bodies and discern their fitness with greater ease and (supposed) regularity. This kind of observational sorting is similar to another, earlier moment of invasive and racist screening, the process of buying slaves (a connection Behdad makes but does not explore, 133).
In Soul By Soul, Walter Johnson provides a detailed and disturbing account of the way slave buyers sought to acquire and display the ability to read a slave’s body. Like the examiners at Ellis Island, slave buyers had to be quick studies, equipped with a vast array of racial and medical knowledge, and able to access that knowledge immediately. They had to move from “visible sign to invisible essence” (Johnson, 139), discerning the truth of the object through the power of their own observation. The slave’s body was broken down into a series of components: skin color, skin texture, hair color and texture, muscles, teeth, breasts, abdomen, eyes, feet, scars, callouses, etc. These parts were then analyzed and classified, arranged in a variety of ways in order to give the buyer a sense of the fitness of the slave–physical, as well as intellectual and moral. For example, a fainter complexion might mean illness if the rest of the body was darker; if the general skin tone was light, it could mean trouble in a male (combining masculine strength with white intelligence) but could be an asset in women, making them more suited for work in the house. Sometimes the slaves would be asked questions; their characters could supposedly be discerned not just from the content of the answer, but from the demeanor, the tone, and the way the answer was phrased. This preliminary examination could be, if desired, followed by a more thorough and private examination, where the slave would be stripped and examined, an examination that blurred the line between economic self-interest and erotic desire.
The observation of bodies was a display of mastery–both to other white men as well as to the slaves being sold. Under the eyes of his white audience, the slave buyers established a kind communal mastery, whereby the elevated slave was exposed, analyzed, and judged by the community of white men. The slave sellers and slave buyers competed with each other for mastery over the readability of black bodies. The sellers tried to disguise, and the buyers tried to uncover, the truth supposedly clearly written on the black bodies. Though the two parties might seem opposed, they actually worked together, for both the buyers and sellers contributed to an optics of mastery. They both created a spectacle in which white men were always the ones who saw the truth, and black people were the objects, the bodies, they read. Both slave buyers and sellers were invested in the creation and defense of this optics, whereby the white community saw and black bodies were seen, analyzed, and sorted. The theatrical spectacle of the slave auction produced a form of communal interaction, and even a community, whereby one group was brought together by the power of its vision (the white community) and another group was marked as the potential threat to this group, a threat that reinforced the need for this community to perfect its ability to see and discern the truth supposedly displayed on these bodies, and to exclude (or, more precisely, to break) those deemed unfit for this community’s use.
This kind of imprecise empirical knowledge, whereby slight physical clues are interpreted as signs of a hidden reality, not only stretches back from Ellis Island to the slave auction; it continues today at the immigration border. Immigration officials are taught to rely on a kind of tacit knowledge, through which they learn to detect when something is “off,” when reality is not corresponding to the perceived stereotypes. Race, national origin, class, gender, profession, clothing, and all other kinds of detailed information are used to sort immigrants into those who are acceptable and those who need further examination. For example, an INS (Immigration and Nationalization Service) employee noted that sweaty palms are an ambiguous sign; a young person from a Latin American country could be running drugs; whereas a European woman with the same condition might just be nervous. INS agents, like slave buyers, are invested with this “authority to interpret” (Behdad, 151). Their training and experience supposedly provide them with the knowledge through which they can accurately judge and organize the wide variety of details they perceive. In responses to questions, they are looking for faint traces of an accent, grammatical errors, bodily gestures, in short, any and all observable details that might betray a hidden secret and ensnare an undesirable immigrant. Also, like the slave buyers and the agents at Ellis Island, this racial and cultural knowledge is imprecise and does not frequently achieve its stated goal: unhealthy slaves get purchased, poor persons pass as wealthier immigrants, and criminals cross into the States without detection.
Though these practice of observation and reading bodies might not effectively curtail the admittance of an unwanted person, they do allow the display of a kind of observation power, a power that can read, examine, and probe the body and mind of the person being observed. Its failure to exclude all or even most unwanted immigrants (or slaves) only reinforces the necessity of this observational power: at the American borders today, on Ellis Island in the early 1900’s, and on the slave block in the antebellum period, the public body was under threat of being corrupted and undermined by its acceptance of undesirable persons and contaminated bodies. The very failure of the practices of observation only heightened the sense of the threat–these unwanted forces that threatened the economic, social, and racial health of the nation might actually get in. The undesirable immigrant–unhealthy, racially inferior, impoverished, and morally corrupt–is not stopped by the practice of observation but is in fact produced by those forms of knowledge: the most undesirable immigrant is not the one that is easily excluded, but the one who might sneak past, the one who could already be among us. The failure then, of racial observation (whether at the slave block, at Ellis Island, or on the border in post 9/11 America) actually helps reinforce a sense of urgent threat, a state of emergency. The policing of the slave and immigrant body helps establish the need to police the entire social body, for the government is invested in maintaining a healthy, pure, economically productive, and properly ordered social body. These undesirable persons could be here now, and the only way to preserve the health of the social body is to recruit all “legitimate” citizens to police the social body, looking for signs of aberrations, and making sure they themselves do not deviate from the healthy norm.
As a way of highlighting the connection between these three different historical stages, I want to note the way vision operates on all three scenes. At every stage, there is a community bound together by its power to see without being subjected to the gaze of those seen. The slave buyers see the slave but do not consider themselves open to be seen by the slave. The doctors on Ellis Island see and examine the poor, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant, but they are not subjected to his or her sight. The border agents today see–and with the help of technology, become almost “all seeing”–without having to expose themselves to the other’s sight. It is not that the slave buyers or immigration officials are invisible; no, they are seen, and this visibility is important. They intend to be seen as those who see, as those who screen and are not subjected to this process of screening: they intend to be seen as those who see but are immune, unaffected, by the sight of others. Those they see are supposed to experience both the fact that they are seen and that their own sight is irrelevant–they are seen but have no power to see. Let me be clear: it is not that those who were seen did not have sight, or that they accepted the message that their sight was irrelevant. Slaves, for instance, found ways to draw attention to the “invisible” observer, to make these invulnerable spectators aware of their vulnerability to the slave’s sight. However, the slave market, Ellis Island, and the borders of America today, are designed to create the existence of two groups: those who are exposed (vulnerable to another’s sight) and those who see without vulnerability (who see without being themselves exposed). This attempt at invulnerable seeing is understood by its practitioners as essential to the vitality of the social body: without these practices of invulnerable seeing, and the exclusions this sight allows, the social body would be infiltrated by corrupting forces (the bad slave and the bad immigrant). The very life of the nation is understood to depend on these exclusionary optics–the undesirable immigrant must be made visible–and made to submit to visibility–so as to be prevented from contaminating the American social body.
With this long history of visual interrogation and exclusion in mind, let us turn to the familiar story of the Good Samaritan. In Luke, the story of the Good Samaritan follows the “testing” of Jesus by a lawyer. In a public setting, the lawyer stands up and challenges Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a question–what is written in the law? The lawyer responds that we should love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Both are quotations from the law, so they answer Jesus’ question, and in a way that is so accurate that Jesus says, you’re right; if you do it, you will live. Not satisfied with this answer, the lawyer then asks–wanting to justify himself, as Luke says–well, who is my neighbor? Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan.
The question, who is my neighbor, seems to be a legitimate one. In fact, we often read the story as giving a straightforward answer to the question, telling us that our neighbor is the one who needs us, or is in fact anyone and everyone. But given that Luke states that the question is asked by one who was “testing” Jesus and who wanted to “justify himself,” we should be hesitant to take the story as a simple answer to the question. As Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian, wrote regarding the lawyer’s question, “If he had no wish to justify himself, he would know the commandments in that case, and he would then know who is his neighbor, and everything else that has to be known at this point” (CD I/2, 418). The question–who is my neighbor–is a failed question, not because the answer is obviously universal (everyone is your neighbor, stupid) but because it reveals a wrong mindset, a mindset focused on self-justification.
Before we start to harp on some supposed “Jewish” tendency to misuse the law, or think that they could “earn” grace, let us feel the weight of the question. Given the history of slavery and immigrant exclusions, don’t you want to be able to get the right answer, to know who is your neighbor? Don’t you want to be able to ask–and answer–the question, who should we let immigrate? Given the obvious failures, don’t you want to make sure we get this right? I want to be welcoming, to be hospitable, to show love to my neighbor–just tell me who my neighbor is and I’ll start. Before we preach against some supposed Jewish legalism, let us appreciate how much we want to, and how often we actually do, ask that question. It is a question that stems from the desire to get it right and act accordingly. It is precisely this question that the story of the Good Samaritan takes away from us. Jesus takes away from us the question, how do I make sure I get it right, how do I ensure that I am (and know that I am) a good neighbor.
Immediately after asking the question, who is my neighbor, the lawyer is told a story in which a man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho, and falls into the hands of robbers. As the story continues to unfold, it becomes clear that this fallen man is not my neighbor but the one who needs a neighbor. Let me restate this point, because we often miss it. The lawyer asked Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is, not how he ought to be a good neighbor. Jesus answers the question–who is my neighbor–with the story of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor, therefore is not the one who needs me, but the one who gives me help. The lawyer had not asked a generic question–what defines “a neighbor,” but a specific question–who is my neighbor. Maybe it dawned on the lawyer, maybe it didn’t, but it should dawn on us that when Jesus tells us that our neighbor is the one who gives us help, we are being asked to identify ourselves not with the Samaritan, but with the fallen man, the one who is stripped, beaten, robbed, and then left “half dead.”
The first move to undo this self-justifying question is to remind the lawyer–and us readers–that we are half dead. The self-justifying question, who is my neighbor, presupposes that we are in a position of power, that we are able to see who our neighbor is and help accordingly. The question “who is my neighbor” is not a question on the lips of the half-dead. If we are able to say anything at all–and given that we are half-dead, it is not clear that we are able–it is simply the words, “help me.” The inquiry regarding the identity of our neighbor–who is my neighbor–is the inquiry of someone who has forgotten that he or she is half-dead. Jesus takes the question–how can I be a good neighbor–away from us by reminding us that we need the good neighbor, for we are half dead and forgotten on the side of the road.
Jesus continues the story, for we–the lawyer and ourselves, the half dead people–are told that two people pass us by. We lie, helpless, and those we think will come to our assistance, our own people, the devout, the religious persons, a priest and then a Levite, walk on by. The priest and the Levite not only leave us, they cross the street to avoid us. Jesus pays no attention to their motive; the only clue we get is that Jesus does mention the motive of the Samaritan. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all “saw” us–we’ll return to this vision–but only the Samaritan was “moved with pity.” The other two, by contrast, apparently, were not moved by pity by the sight…of us, the half dead lying on the ground, covered in our own blood and filth.
Not only are we half-dead, but our own fellow citizens and religious community pass us by. They see us, but not with pity; they see us with horror, perhaps with disgust, or perhaps with fear of becoming unclean (after all, those who touch a corpse are ceremonially unclean and we certainly look dead). Regardless, not only are we half-dead, but we are without any seemingly natural community to help us. The proud Jewish lawyer–and we proud 21st century American Christians–are being told that not only are we half dead but our community will not come to our aid.
But then, along comes the samaritan, “the foreigner,” (Barth, 418), the one who we’ve excluded and who likewise excludes us, the one from whom no help should be expected. This one shows us mercy, and therefore, according to the story, this one is our neighbor.
The early church understood this to be a story first and foremost about Jesus. Jesus is telling the lawyer about himself–Jesus is the neighbor, the good samaritan. Jesus, the one we’ve exposed to a rigorous, public examination, the one whose truth we’ve tried to read through our powerful questions, this one who’ve we stood up to test and before whom we seek to display our righteousness, this one is the one we need. Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He is the one we need, who comes to us in the form we do not want, the form of a samaritan, an outsider, someone who is near to us, but still foreign, and so someone we think ought to be forcefully excluded. God comes to us half dead persons in that form, in the form of the one who ought to be excluded. He comes to us and tells us–you are half dead and only I, because of my goodness, would even stop to take the time to pity you, and help you. Only I would pour out my wine and oil–my blood and my life–to save you.
Jesus then asks us, the lawyer, “which of these three”–the priest, the levite, and the samaritan–was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Jesus asks us–you, who think you can justify yourself, who is your neighbor? We answer, along with the lawyer, the one who showed him mercy. Our answer shows we’ve still missed it.
If we hear the story, and identify with man who fell into the hands of the robbers, then the answer to our question is not an abstract, “the one who showed him mercy,” but a concrete, “the samaritan,” meaning, you, Jesus, you are my neighbor. You are the one who took pity and did not cross to the other side to avoid the taint of our sin and our death. You stepped over to us, pouring out your oil and wine on our wounds, and then promising to pay whatever it will take to save us from death. You Jesus, are my neighbor, and I live only by your mercy.
But we do not want to live by that mercy. We do not want to hear that we are half-dead and pitiable, that even our fellow citizens would pass us by if they saw us in this state. We do not want to be exposed–to be seen–as weak, vulnerable, disfigured, helpless, and near death. We do not want to hear that we can only live by God’s merciful pity, his condescension and his unwarranted sacrifice. We do not want to hear that we do not recognize the God we profess to love; we do not want to hear that the God who saves us will be seen by us as a samaritan, as the one we think we ought to avoid. Like the lawyer, we want to justify ourselves, we want to be good neighbors, to have the knowledge and ability to fulfill what is required of us. We do not want to live by mercy.
Jesus ends the story by saying to the lawyer–to us–“go and do likewise.” It’s an answer to a question we didn’t ask. We never asked how do I act like a good neighbor; we asked who is our neighbor. Jesus knows what we meant, and so he tells us, go and do like the good samaritan, show mercy. But this is not any person saying this; it is Jesus who says this, and Jesus says this after the parable, after he has destroyed our attempt to justify ourselves. Go and do likewise now means, simply, come follow me (Barth, 419). The question, who is my neighbor, has been taken from us–for we now see it is a stupid question to ask when we are half dead and in desperate need of help. Only now, after having been told the truth of who we are, are we told to go and do likewise–only now, if he have ears to hear, do we hear Christ’s words: come follow me, the Good Samaritan, the one whom you did not know and did not want to know, the dangerous foreigner, the one who crosses your boundaries and sees you in your helplessness, and yet has mercy.
This story of the Good Samaritan disrupts the practices of exclusion and the optics of invulnerability that mark the slave auction, Ellis Island, and the continued policing of our borders and entry points today. I want to draw out more clearly a few of the way Jesus is leading us to see, and love, our neighbor in a different way.
First, Jesus makes clear that we have nothing to offer to show that we ought to belong. Let us place ourselves back in those first and second class cabins. The health inspectors were not closely examining our health, unless we showed signs of not belonging, of not performing–looking, acting, talking, dressing, etc–like persons of this class. In these cabins, we were assumed to belong–to this class, and hence to the nation–as long as we dutifully fulfilled our role, as long as we showed we were worthy, that is, as long as we demonstrated that we were not like those in the steerage class. We, unlike those steerage types, are healthy, wealthy, articulate, strong, hard workers, intelligent, and, of the right heritage (racially and culturally). To those of us who have been formed into this class and given this pressure to distinguish ourselves as successful, and hence truly belonging, Jesus says–you are half dead. You have nothing to offer. Your own community will pass you by–for you are helpless, you are a sinner, you are damaged and near death. Every time you try to distinguish yourself as worthy of belonging, you have to hide yourself and exclude others; you have to try to become unseen and invulnerable masters over other people. But Jesus sees you, he sees that you are empty and half dead, and he has pity. He comes to help. Do not hide yourself, do not try to distinguish yourself and cover up your vulnerability, for in so doing, you might end up excluding the one who has come to your assistance, the good samaritan, Jesus Christ.
Secondly, if our salvation depends on Jesus’ compassionate sight, and Jesus comes to us in the form of the Samaritan, then our salvation depends on our visibility. Once we have been freed from the need to prove our ability to belong, Jesus allows us to live without attempting to appear invulnerable. We can be seen by others because we know that we have been seen–in our sinfulness–and not excluded. What the Good Samaritan makes clear, though, is that Jesus does not offer us the easy way out. The ones we would like to see us in our weakness–the priests of our own community–walk on by. The one we want to exclude, the Samaritan, is the one who sees us and has pity. Jesus is telling us that we cannot just drop the mask for those we accept, those we have already welcomed into our community. Jesus tells us that we must drop the mask and expose ourselves to those we want to exclude. We have no choice. We are half dead and need to be seen. We are willing to be exposed because our only hope is that someone will see us and have pity. It just may be the undocumented worker, the unhealthy immigrant, or the ungrateful refugee will be the person God uses to remind us that we are seen, and loved, even in our brokenness.
Thirdly, not only are we called to be seen, we are no longer able to read the body of the other. The invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to live by faith and not by sight. If Jesus comes to us in an unexpected and hidden way–in the form of a Samaritan–then I can no longer trust my sight. I cannot trust in my ability to note the style of clothing, the skin color, the hair cut, the body posture, the accent, and all the other details I use to try to “classify” the one I see; I cannot trust that my attention to these details will lead me correctly, for Christ comes to me in the form of one I would want to–we would all want to, and did–exclude. We must now give up the desire to discern the truth of a person from his or her external markings. It is not how one appears to me that determines who is my neighbor; it is how God chooses to use them. My neighbor testifies to me that, although I ought to be excluded and passed over, God has seen me in my misery, and had compassion. My neighbor witnesses to Christ’s mercy, and I can never tell by appearances who Christ will use to bring me this witness. However, I can be confident that it is not the person I would expect. I will be told of Christ’s mercy by those I would prefer didn’t see my misery, by those I would like to exclude, by those I think threaten me and my community. And if this is the case, then I cannot try to move from my vision of a person’s body to the truth of who they are. I cannot classify them, for I know that my systems of classification would exclude the one I need the most, the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ. I must see differently, no longer reading the truth on their body, but exposing myself to their sight, and letting them speak to me who they are, and who I am to them.
Fourth, we never leave this position of dependence and vulnerability. In the story, the Good Samaritan entrusts us to the inn-keeper; telling him he will come and pay for whatever it took to bring us back to health. Christ came to us by mercy, and it is on the basis of this mercy that we continue to live. We never move beyond our neediness; we never move beyond our dependency on Christ. Therefore, we must live prayerfully, asking Jesus to come again to us who are half-dead. We have seen that by following the Good Samaritan, we do not need to prove we are worthy of belonging, we are free to be seen, and we cannot try to discern a person’s essence by looking at their body. If this is the case, then following the Good Samaritan means we are left in a state of exposure. We are willing to let ourselves be exposed, to let our sinfulness be seen. We do not try to protect ourselves by securing our place on the inside. We do not strive to maintain the health and purity of our community by excluding those we think will damage its well being. We allow ourselves to be exposed, continually, and therefore, we depend, continually, on signs that God is with us in our vulnerability. We must always live by Christ’s mercy; we keep our eyes open, praying that we will see Christ, even when Christ comes to us in an unexpected form. Every time our eyes gaze upon another’s appearance, every time we want to mark them as unfit and unwelcome, Jesus calls us to slow down, to turn to prayer, and to ask where Jesus is with this person, and to beg Jesus to speak to us through this person. We cannot sustain our own lives; our existence depends on God’s faithfulness. The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that it the one we think we should exclude who might be Christ’s messenger. We do not know beforehand, and cannot know, and so we pray that God would give us welcoming eyes and receptive ears, to listen to the words of the one we want to force outside of our community.
By way of conclusion, I want to mention how working with refugees fits within this picture. I have been speaking of immigration in general, but I work at World Relief, at a refugee resettlement agency. In this work, I find myself–and the churches I work with–exposed to the temptation to justify ourselves. Refugees can easily become useful signs to show how righteous we are. Through them, we (and our country) can affirm ourselves as “good neighbors.” They are welcomed in as those who reinforce our own sense of our hospitality; and they are given the pressure to measure up, to distinguish themselves, as worthy of belonging. Hopefully, it is clear to you why I think that is a problem. Working with refugees can help bring to light these sinful patterns in our lives, and to let us follow Jesus into a different way of being with others.
The question we have to ask is not whether we want refugees here but whether it matter to us that they are here. Refugees are coming, and the complicated motivations that lead our nation to accept them aren’t really relevant to us. What is at stake for us is whether we care. Working with refugees has the possibility of disrupting our lives, of forcing us to see and be seen in different ways. We cannot rely on our normal habits and patterns–these are people we do not know, whose language we do not share, and who are forced to do something most of us have never done, namely, rebuild new lives in exile. Some of our instincts, we will learn, stem from a long and sinful history that shapes our identities; our instinct to evaluate refugees, to see who will measure up either by working hard or being grateful for our beneficence, is something that Jesus will challenge. Other times, Jesus will use what we know or are coming to know as a way to witness to his love for these new arrivals. It might be as simple as looking them in the eye, or trying to learn a word in their own language–small things that affirm they are more than just problems or potential threats, and that we are willing to open up our lives to them. No matter what, working with refugees will shape who you are–they will shape who you are. If what I’ve said about the Good Samaritan is right, then it might just be the case that what you will hear and see through these refugees is the good news on which your life depends. It will no doubt come to you in an unexpected way; but we live by faith in the promise that it will come, that he will come, to us, and bring us back to life.