Today is Memorial Day. While I realize that for many Americans, the day has become merely the reason for a three-day weekend or the unofficial beginning of the summer season, Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering.
First and foremost, the day is supposed to be about remembering those who have served the United States in uniform, and particularly those who lost their lives in the process. For a blog on immigration, I could certainly focus on the many immigrants serving in the Armed Forces: presently there are more than 114,000 foreign-born individuals serving in the U.S. military. While many are naturalized U.S. citizens—including scores of thousands who have naturalized under special provisions of law for those in the military—more than 10,000 currently serving are still not citizens. In fact, one of the first U.S. soldiers to give his life in the current conflict in Iraq, Guatemalan immigrant Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, entered the United States illegally; he was one of more than 100 non-citizens to be naturalized posthumously after losing their lives in Afghanistan or Iraq. Non-citizens serving—and sometimes giving their lives for—their adopted country is not a new phenomenon, either: half of all military recruits in the 1840s were foreign-born, as were 20% of those in the Union Army during the Civil War.
As important as the specific memory of those who have died in military service is, though, I’d like to focus more generally on the concept of remembrance, and on a related biblical passage that struck me last week. The Israelites, after God has rescued them from the oppression of Pharaoh in the miraculous story of the Exodus, very quickly begin remembering things selectively. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” they complain to Moses, seeming to forget that they were also slaves in Egypt (Numbers 11:5). How quickly they forgot.
We’re not so different, though. We very quickly forget, and view with rose-colored nostalgia, the past. Songwriter Sara Groves writes of
painting pictures of Egypt
leaving out what it lacks
I think that’s an apt description of how many of us remember our own immigrant histories. We embrace our ancestral heritages enough to appreciate certain foods, beverages, and holidays, but most of us have forgotten how our ancestors were treated when they arrived in the United States—in many cases, not very well—and the trials that they went through. We’ve mostly forgotten the “No Irish Need Apply” signs, the congressional Dillingham Commission’s suggestions that Italian and Jewish immigrants were biologically inferior to previous generations of immigrants and thus ought to be restricted entry, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the widespread violence toward Chinese immigrants that preceded its passage, and Benjamin Franklin’s (now humorously unreasonable) fears that German immigrants would “never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they [could] acquire our Complexion.”
This sort of selective memory is dangerous. God commanded his people to remember their own history, that they “were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21), because if they forgot God’s gracious hand in their liberation—that he had rescued them from a place of desperation (and that they hadn’t, as we tend to imagine of our own ancestors, “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps”)—then they would turn to the immigrants who came to their land and respond with the same fear, hostility, and oppression as Pharaoh had to their ancestors.
This was so important to God that he instituted a liturgy that the Israelites were to recite each time they brought forward their offering of the first fruits of their harvest:
You shall declare before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)
That liturgy ended with setting aside a portion of their crops specifically for the immigrants who had come into Israel (Deuteronomy 26:12). God’s people were to love (Deuteronomy 10:19) and not to oppress these immigrants, he said, because “you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners” (Exodus 23:9).
As Americans—unless your ancestry is entirely Native American—we know how it feels to be foreigners, too. Unless we forget.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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