Listening to Weekend Edition on the way to preach at First Parish Church in Fitchburg this morning, Rachel Martin interviewed a white North Carolinian she had spoken with over the course of the campaign. Though he said he didn’t consider President-elect Trump ideal, he was very pleased with the outcome of the election. Rachel Martin asked several questions and finally inquired whether the man favored a diverse, multicultural country and he quickly replied that he did not. He doubts it could ever work and he fears people coming here who don’t share “American values.” For the rest of the drive, I searched for a flicker of myself in him, since that is my spiritual practice (looking for myself in another, or the us in them).
At first of course, I wanted Rachel Martin to have asked where his ancestors had come from, and then she could have tactfully pointed out that pretty much every immigrant group (including his forebears’) has been met with suspicion, animosity or something in-between upon arrival to our shores; and even if his lineage descends directly from the Mayflower, then she might have said the Native Americans probably weren’t so keen on immigrants either, so how about we just concede Standing Rock and all get back to whatever continent our ancestors came from.
But then I remembered an article that stated the countries with the least violence are fairly homogenous. And then I recalled a clash of cultures I experienced in Ontario when white Canadians were understandably disconcerted by some of the men in the Somali community who felt it was their duty to physically discipline female family members. What felt like a filial obligation to the Somali men constituted domestic violence to the Canadians I knew.
They asserted that the Somali men needed to abide by Canadian values and whether it was their patriarchal culture or their interpretation of Islam, hitting their wives, sisters and daughters was completely unacceptable.
Recollecting those good liberal Canadians who are probably all shaking their heads incredulously at the election of Donald Trump, I thought of the man on the radio and heard an echo. His fear that immigrants will enter his country with completely different values is not unfounded because truthfully, values differ and there are cultures, whether they be rooted in a particular expression of a religion or ethnicity, whose beliefs and practices don’t tidily mesh.
When I visited Israel and met my Israeli-born first cousins, they resented the hell out of Orthodox Jews who stoke the coals of theocracy burning beneath the flames of a modern democracy. I encountered Ashkenazi Israelis who were quick to disparage the recent wave of Russian immigrants for their coarseness and the Ethiopians with their black skin and unfamiliar ways.
Pluralism is hard; while biodiversity is optimal, it isn’t easy. Perhaps that’s why humans have destroyed a good deal of it. And honestly, I am much more comfortable surrounded by people who know NPR hosts and contemporary African American writers, folks who don’t mount deer heads on the wall or amass automatic weapons. Religious fundamentalism of any stripe unnerves me and I don’t cotton to monster jeeps tearing up the woods.
If Rachel Martin had asked whether I favor a diverse multicultural America, she would have gotten an enthusiastic yes! And if she had pressed me to describe the rich diversity of my acquaintances, I could have happily ticked off my Zambian goddaughter and my exquisite, brilliant Zimbabwean/Zambian cousin by marriage, my Mexican former nun friend (the seventeenth child of nineteen), my formerly Southern Baptist friend in prison and the many men I’ve met volunteering behind bars. I suspect a couple of my friends from childhood voted for Donald Trump, and maybe the neighbor who kindly cut up the tree that fell on my back porch during the ice storm in 2008. So sure, I cope with variations in political temperament but honestly, I don’t interact regularly in any substantive way with folks whose core values or daily practice sharply diverge from my own.
I don’t hang out with people well-armed with anything but wit or humor. If a neighbor plays loud music, I fantasize about calling the police. When the nice folks at the bible conference next door were busy logging at the edge of their property line, even though they had every right legally to do so, I sent two letters politely expressing my discontent. I even included a little biblical passage in favor of protecting trees because the sound of chainsaws rang of death.
The hardest part about hearing that man on the radio this morning was recognizing myself in him. That’s why my first response was to call him out for overlooking how his people immigrated to this country at some point— and who is he to want Donald Trump to build that wall because this is a nation of immigrants, and dammit, preferring homogeneity is downright wrong!
My late father, truly a mensch, spent his last twenty years as an immigration attorney in Texas helping all sorts of folks—Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Russians, Guatemalans, Vietnamese, shrimpers, business owners, engineers— gain legal entrance to the United States. He was horrified by what his clients had been through in their home countries and often, almost as upset by the obstacles they faced obtaining political asylum. So compassion for migrating peoples comes naturally to me. Until I am asked to live next to folks whose religious rituals or cultural imperatives include slaughtering goats or female genital mutilation.
If we are honest, even those of us who extoll diversity and welcome multiculturalism conjure both within a context of certain shared values and practices. We all have limits to what we wish to encounter in our daily lives.
Today I had lunch with two friends and their delightful twenty-one-year-old son who refers to himself as a Siddhartha, eager to learn from Buddhas everywhere. Before I got in my car this morning, I would not have imagined a Siddhartha moment listening to a guy say Donald Trump will lose all credibility if he doesn’t build that wall—but ironically, the election of Donald Trump summons me to listen more attentively to a North Carolinian whose honesty, no matter how distasteful the content, calls me to recognize a familiarity and a complexity the Buddha might consider a worthwhile koan.