College brings together the strangest thoughts, ideas, and stories. Just the other day, I was working on a presentation about the American Dream. Wanting a nice picture to illustrate my title slide, I decided to look up photos of the Statue of Liberty. One thing led to another, and I was suddenly thinking about Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. I could only remember snatches, so I decided to read it again, and when I did so, news stories and recent conversations with Christian friends sprang to mind.
We Americans pride ourselves on being a land of opportunity, welcoming strangers to come and make a better life—or we once did. That’s what the Statue of Liberty symbolized as it greeted immigrants entering America at Ellis Island. But now we live in a time where many of us want to refuse safe harbor to others because we see them as a threat. We want to turn back those masses which we once claimed to welcome. Lazarus’ poem is very poignant as I read it now.
“The New Colossus”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Lazarus)
I’m not such an idealist or romantic that I deny the dangers of letting masses of people into our country. Shutting ourselves off from the world isn’t the answer, though. Erecting physical and bureaucratic walls and cutting ourselves off won’t keep us safe, for danger and terrorism can arise from inside a country as easily as they can penetrate it from without.
For Christians, I think the answer is somewhere in between the two extremes of keeping refugees out and indiscriminately letting them in. The Bible calls us to charity and hospitality, to welcoming strangers and loving neighbors. People seem to forget that the story of the Good Samaritan is about a man who helped a stranger of a different race and religion and in doing so put himself in danger of being attacked by the same robbers who had left the stranger for dead.
God’s Word also calls us to prudence and compassion, to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). This is far easier said than done, but the Bible never claims being a Christian and obeying God is easy. The Christian life requires discernment, faith, and sacrifice of safety. Even when people take advantage of charity or return evil for good, these are no excuses for not ministering to those in need. In Luke 6:29, Jesus commands his disciples, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.” Peter tells the Church, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:13-17).
While “The New Colossus” stems from 19th century American idealism, I think it can be a true wakeup call to modern Americans, especially Christians. The time has come for us to renew the spirit of generosity that led to the penning of those lines, for if we lose sight of the principles and ideals that form the foundation of our nation, America will weaken and fall. So, out of our abundance, let us share, let us offer homes to the homeless who seek our help, and let America once again be a land which offers opportunities for the diligent and welcomes refugees as a “Mother of Exiles” (Lazarus 6).
Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” National Park Service, nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.