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Thanksgiving and Refugees

Would You Harbor Me? Would I Harbor You?
A Sermon Preached at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
On November 18, 2018
By the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, Ph.D.

For this morning’s sermon, I looked at the calendar and the current news. Thanksgiving’s coming up this week, and there are about ten thousand refugees approaching our border,seeking safety from gang violence in their homelands, with just the clothes on their backs, slowly assembling in Mexico, ready to cross into the U.S., pleading for asylum. Will we let them in, as Mexico recently did?

Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all women’s a cappella choir, sings Ysaye Barnwell’s challenging song: “Would You Harbor Me? Would I Harbor You?” The answer might seem easy if the you is familiar and has a respectable reputation. But what if the you is not someone like that? They sing:

Would you harbor me?

Would I harbor you?

Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew

a heretic, convict or spy?

Would you harbor a run away woman, or child,

a poet, a prophet, a king?

Would you harbor an exile, or a refugee,

a person living with AIDS?

Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth

a fugitive or a slave?

Would you harbor a Haitian Korean or Czech,

a lesbian or a gay?

Would you harbor me?

Would I harbor you?

President Trump is attempting to deal with the challenge of refugees almost on our doorstep by alleging that the caravan contains bad hombres, criminals, would-be terrorists. Even if his charge were true, does that excuse us from turning away thousands of innocent people and their children who are fleeing for their lives? The song reminds us that it was once against the law to harbor runaway slaves, and yet some people of deep faith did so anyway. Jesus and his family were refugees, and no doubt King Herod had issued proclamations to punish anyone who dared harbor that child whom he feared would become king of the Jews. Would you or I have harbored that family, fleeing for their lives?

The song’s queries stir our consciences even more as we remembr how our national holiday of Thanksgiving began. Religious refugees known as Pilgrims landed in the autumn of 1620 in New England without adequate food to see them through the winter. The native Wampanoag people of that area harbored them, shared their food with them, and afterwards taught them how to plant for the next season. What if the people who had fished and hunted and planted that land for over 12,000 years had turned away those refugees from afar, who incidentally espoused a good deal of the theology that we inherited, known as Calvinism? Would there be an America as we know it? Would there be this branch of the Puritan tradition that we cherish, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.?

I have come to realize that everything that happens on this small hunk of rock in the vastness of space is connected. Everything! We tend not to comprehend that, and so we neglect to behave in ways that impact our planet in positive ways, so that our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will enjoy safety, peace, and plenty.

Last May Alice and I visited Normandy. As a veteran I wanted to visit the D-Day beaches, but our schedule tightened so we decided to visit a war museum in Caen instead. We learned so much there, because the museum didn’t just deal with the D-Day beaches, it explained how social conditions created by World War I led to World War II. We tend to blame the rise of the Nazis on the evil genius of Adolph Hitler, right? But Hitler was a symptom of his times, not the creator of them. I already knew that the Versailles treaty’s punishing terms of surrender after World War I crippled the German economy. But one exhibit in the Caen museum taught me that the American Depression had an even profounder impact. The mismanagement of farmland in America led to the dust bowl, to the ruin of American agriculture, and to our Great Depression. And the collapse of the American economy caused depression in Europe, adding to suffering in Germany. This fed a politics of resentment which Hitler exploited. Everything is connected, folks. Everything is connected.

As I speak, a caravan of men women and children fleeing grueling poverty and gang violence assembles at our border seeking safety, and our administration does everything possible not only to keep them out but also to deport foreigners already living here, although they have been law abiding and tax paying citizens for years. Will we harbor them? Christians, there is no question how the progenitors of our faith, the Hebrew people, felt about this. Listen to just a few of our sacred scriptures:

inscription saying: equal justice under law
entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court

Exodus 12: 49: “The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.”

Leviticus 19: 33-34 “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God”.

Deuteronomy 24:14 “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.”

1 John 3: 17 “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

Matthew 25: 35 “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Just as Hitler was a symptom of his times and not their creator, our president is a symptom of his times and not their creator. Not only America is turning a cold shoulder to refugees, but other nations too, which quite recently were exemplars for human rights. Nationalistic politics of resentment fueled by xenophobia and racism are growing in France, England, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, and Hungary. We cannot lay the blame for mean spirited politics on our leaders. All these countries are democracies. We elect our leaders, and our complicity maintains them in office. Everything is connected, I have said. What is the historical connection here? What explains these times of waning compassion in democratic and developed countries?

I found an answer in a book about business leadership,called Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, by Joseph Jaworski. I bring to you some excerpts from his chapter called “The Barricades.” Toward the end of this book Jaworski tells about joining a group of highly educated and experienced business leaders who were convened by the Shell Oil Company to predict where history was heading, so that the company could keep abreast of anticipated changes and stay competitive. These leaders divided themselves into several teams. Each team did its own research and came up with differing scenarios about what the future of the world would look like for the next generation. His team called their scenario “The Barricades”. Listen to what Jaworski published in 1996, twenty years before Donald Trump was elected President:

Liberalization can threaten many people, who fear they could lose what they presently value–their national, religious, and cultural identity; their political power; their economic position.

The big fissure is between the richer and poorer countries. The rich fear the turbulent politics of the poor world. They see its spill-over effects in refugees, lawlessness, the drug trade, and environmental damage, and they want to insulate themselves. They are repelled by what they see as alien values: for example, Islamic fundamentalism and the tribal blood-letting in the Balkans. They avert their attention inward and take steps to isolate themselves from these impoverished and disease-ridden countries. (Donald Trump was later to call them S-hole countries).

For their part, poor-country governments are suspicious of the motives of the rich, remembering their history of colonial exploration, gunboat diplomacy, and political destabilization.

The fissure widens as the rich find ways of excluding the poor through immigration controls and restructured import regimes. The poor sometimes have to be kept out physically or repatriated.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century the self-reinforcing problems of overpopulation, resource depletion, disease, and increasing lawlessness cause a tidal flow of migrants beating against the “golden curtains” of the rich. .. .The distinction between war and crime in the poor countries becomes increasingly blurred, and criminal anarchy emerges as a significant strategic danger to the rich countries.

By the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, (that’s our time) the scale of the problems in the world of Barricades is overwhelming. As neglected problem-areas deteriorate rapidly and tensions escalate, there is serious doubt as to whether the barricades can hold.

How could business planners have predicted so accurately twenty years ago how our times would unfold? They weren’t soothsayers. They didn’t have a crystal ball. They understood that everything on this small planet is connected, and they investigated the ramifications of climate change, burgeoning populations, declining natural resources, pollution, and the propensity for human beings who have to jealously guard what they have, even if it means death for those who have not.

We must hold leaders responsible for their sins, but there is plenty of blame to go around.

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew?

Would you harbor a run away woman, or child?

Would you harbor an exile, or a refugee?

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

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