Like a Stranger in a Foreign Country

Preparing to live in America under Trump is reminding me that we are not meant to be so at home in this place. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel at home, to feel safe, to feel belonging. There’s only something wrong with mistaking a place that’s not supposed to be ours for home, for security that’s false, for belonging when we’re meant to be estranged.

Hebrews 11:8-10. By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 

Genesis 12:2-3. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 

It’s interesting that the New Testament doesn’t interpret the Old Testament narrative to conclude that Abraham’s example is his triumph as a father of nations, as the one who had seized this blessing of a great name, God’s favor and choosing. Instead, the New Testament reminds us that Abraham’s calling required of him a weirdness, vacating from familiarity, because his longing was supposed to be for something greater. A city with foundations.

I read an educational research article today about schools with “hyper-diversity,” which the ethnographer used to describe schools with a profusion of languages and cultures represented among the students. And a New York Review of Books article by Annette Gordon-Reed I’ve been reading discussed Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, which reminds us that despite the founders’ democratic philosophies and ideals, their oppressive treatment of black and Native American people was not just incidental to circumstances like slavery, but part of the citizenry-defining project of the American Revolution. Pointing towards Parkinson’s book, Gordon-Reed writes:

Instead of being treated as citizens at liberty in a republic who have the right to be free from tyranny, African-Americans are treated as if the words “liberty” “republic,” and “tyranny” have no application to them. These were some of the words the founders used as they made the case for breaking away from the British Empire and setting up a federal union for the benefit of a newly constituted American citizenry. The policing of black people, in contrast to the treatment of true citizens, too often employs tactics that might be used against a captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community. How did this happen?

It takes little stretch to think of how this same treatment might be applied to Native Americans. And the status of “captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community” is not far-fetched when one studies the forces that propel many migrants to leave the familiarity of their home nations to become aliens in a foreign land, one where the earth’s resources convert into measures of security and prosperity that seem to have been stripped from their communities at home.

All this makes me encouraged and challenged by the new sanctuary movements re-emerging in the American church in the wake of Trump. But I’m also reminded, at the same time, that while God’s people are called to be a sanctuary against the injustice of the empire, we are also called to continually identify with the foreigner, the alien, the oppressed. We are not supposed to feel at home in this world.

That has many implications in how we encounter the world. One of them for me, at this moment, is to give me a different stance when I read the news about the latest dismantling of ethical accountability systems or democratic norms from government leaders. After the initial shock and chagrin, I remember that my trust was never in politics or government officials to establish justice in the first place. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting withdrawing politically, and I’m inspired by people like my friend Scott Figgins, who posts daily actions on his Facebook page that rally his friends, or others pointing out how progressives can locally organize to resist. But perhaps the fight to hold the powerful (including ourselves) accountable to justice takes a different shape–one more circumspect, and perhaps more faithful to truth rather than wedded to partisanship–when we aren’t blinded by the assumption that our own arguments can be taken for granted, our own values and virtues are commonly understood, and our “normal” is how our political leaders and institutions will operate.

Another implication is how I respond to the feelings of alienation and estrangement day to day, a feeling that’s hard to articulate or even pin down, but one that reflects what it feels like to be a person somehow on the road, a sojourner, an alien in a shifting landscape. To be in a place that might be somehow called “hyper-diverse” is to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable in many situations. Because unless we want to enshroud ourselves in the familiar at all times, nestled in the safety that we know how things go and the way we do things is the way they ought to be… well, that’s the way most of us live most of the time, right?

But knowing we’re aliens means we don’t gate ourselves up in places where we’ll never be suspicious or feel suspicious. Most people who recognize that reckon with the big picture implications of that, such as losing some status or financial security. What can wear away at us is the mundane, daily ways that being alien feels. Somehow, things are awkward. Often. Somehow,  you’re having to re-learn, again and again, what it means to listen to people, what it means to do right, what it means to serve, to share, to teach, to grow. Just when you think you got it, that you know something, that the hill you’re climbing is conquerable…

It’s a vulnerable position. But it’s not one that we nobly take on. It’s one that we humbly realize about ourselves. Especially when we look in the mirror, dismayed that all our garments of supposed power and security are actually the weights that keep us from taking flight.