When my oldest child was born in the Dominican Republic my wife and I brought him to the American consulate to get his American passport.
When you arrive at the consulate in Santo Domingo you immediately see an enormous line of Dominican nationals waiting to apply or interview for a visa or some other legal means to enter the United States. My wife and I, armed with blue passports did not need to wait in this line. We had made our appointment so we went to a different door, showed our blue passports to the guards and let inside to a quiet, air-conditioned room to await our interview.
We presented the consulate worker with our documents, my son’s Dominican birth certificate and pictures of the birth to try to demonstrate that this little white baby was indeed our own. Upon examination of the child and the documents our paperwork was approved and in time our little baby boy received his own blue passport. With that passport he could now travel, with his parents, to that great promised land to the North.
Nationality as Story
My family benefited from the most common and accepted form of discrimination on the planet today, discrimination based on nationality.
If I were stripped of my clothing and subject to a medical examination a doctor would be unable to conclude what my nationality is. The doctor might make some educated guesses and might guess correctly, but there is nothing in my biological person that qualifies me for my nationality.
If you are an ardent materialist you also must conclude that my nationality is fictitious. It doesn’t really exist in the material world which is why we use paper and computer records of zeros and ones to track and document it.
While my nationality doesn’t exist as matter it determines hugely consequential things for myself and my loved ones. It gives us access to clean water, good schools, public protection by the law, access to calm neighborhoods and more. My nationality is enormously valuable on the planet today. Billions of people don’t have it and many of them would very much like to have it, but they are discriminated against on the basis of it by border guards and national laws.
What then is my nationality? It is in fact a story to which my identity tied to my physical body is connected. It is the basis for both privilege and discrimination.
The Historical “We”
Even though my biological ancestors came to the USA in the 1890s I was raised to appropriate the story of America as “we”. We came with the pilgrims to settling in what is today Massachusetts. We enslaved Africans and benefited from their forced servitude. We subjugated the Native Americans, broke promises and appropriated their land for our enrichment. I feel guilty about these things because not only am I an American but I also have white skin so I connect to the part of the story where the oppressors had white skin so here I stand with the guilty. Surely the story line of skin whiteness has, like my blue passport, afforded me privilege in this long story, far older than my biological self which has only been on the planet since the 60s.
With the last name of Vander Klay I was also raised to understand myself as part of a Dutch story. When I watch the Olympics I not only cheer for American athletes but also Dutch athletes even though I have never been to the Netherlands, only really know one person who lives there much at all, nor do I speak the language. Because I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church which like my ancestors came from the Netherlands I feel a sense of identity, pride and ownership over “the Dutch.”
A bit later on I began to learn about my Frisian roots on my mother’s side. I met Frisians who greatly resisted “Dutch” identity. In one conversation with a Frisian man married to a Dutch woman I innocently commented to him “It must be nice that you can speak Dutch to your wife.”
He angrily snapped back at me “I don’t speak Dutch. Dutch is for the preachers and the lawyers!”
I asked, “then in what language do you speak to your wife?”
“English” he responded.
But because my family on my mother’s side came with the Dutch dairy cows to Whitinsville MA after their dairy cows were wiped out in cow flu I take pride when I hear the Frisians mentioned, in either a positive or a negative way.
About a year ago my family on my father’s side received some interesting news. We had always known we had some Jewish blood on our side, we were about to learn about a family secret. My father’s father’s side of the family were in fact Jews who a few generations ago dropped their Jewish name to take on a more Dutch name. We discovered that many of the extended family from back in the Netherlands were arrested by the Germans during WWII and died in the concentration camps. Now we knew why our last name kept showing up in Jewish cemetaries.
Prior to this discovery I would take pride listening to stories of the Dutch hiding Jews from the Germans. Now I imagine myself being hid more than hiding.
I was also raised in a community and at a time when American was working through some of its story with respect to African Americans. I didn’t know it at the time but the story of “The Great Migration” was shaping my own life as my father tried to help African migrants make a life in Paterson New Jersey. I was raised to side with African Americans in their struggle for freedom and equal rights under the law. I remember babysitting for a Jr. High Christian school teacher who had recommended that the students watch Alex Hailey’s Roots on TV. When I answered the phone while babysitting the father of a classmate of mine was quite irate at the teacher for recommending his daughter watch this program. I simply took the message but felt the separation from this Dutch father because of the African American story that I was grafted into.
So who is “me” and how to do I relate to all of these stories that I am grafted into? I have in many ways been the beneficiary of various strains of discrimination throughout the years based on national and group story quite apart from any material connection to any of it. While my DNA has very long story that a scientist may be able to track and tell me about, my relationship with that DNA doesn’t feel anywhere as gripping as the hosts of stories I see my self as living within and from. How can it be that a 50 year old organism feels himself so deeply tied to these very long, old stories.
Long Relational Networks and their Economies
What these stories are are long relational networks and economies. I was afforded a blue passport as an American because my parents were Americans. My son was grafted into that network even though he was born on foreign soil. He too began to benefit from the world’s most obvious and acceptable discrimination based on relationship to laws and a national entity, all of which, again, are material manifestations born out of immaterial ideas and stories. What IS after all a nationality but a relational economy established by story? Because of that story and that relational economy my son is not a virtual prisoner on the island of Hispaniola who can’t travel to the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries by virtue of his Dominican passport. The nationhood story dominates all other stories.
Many of us with American passports don’t realize this because we have always lived with this privilege. We possess enormous power because we can in fact bridge that gulf and through marriage MAKE someone else an American and graft them into OUR story.
Bigger, Longer, Older Stories
Religions are of course longer, older stories and communities.
According to Christianity in my baptism I was grafted into the Christian story, the Christian community and even into the cosmic “Christ” as the Apostle Paul talks about in his letters. The Christian story became my story.
This story makes claims that are truly astounding. Not only do they make claims about a me beyond the biological me that you can find today, but it makes claims, like nationalistic claims, before I was born. I was in the garden of Eden. I was with the children of Israel in Egypt. I was there with Christ at the cross. I will be with Christ when he comes into his kingdom. All of this pertains to me.
This relational network, this grafting is according to Jesus of utmost importance. When he says to some “depart from me I never knew you” he is claiming authority over their story. It is not unlike a border officer saying “you have no evidence of legitimate appropriation to the story of the United States of America. Depart from here the USA never knew you.”
We are regularly comfortable with one of these, the other we might not be so sure about. We are comfortable with national discrimination but this other kind of discrimination people often protest. What gives Jesus the right? We might as well ask “what gives the USA the right?” We don’t ask that much because we benefit from that form of discrimination.
The Christian faith even makes claims about me and my biology. It claims that I will, even after my death be once more re-connected with my biology but a new biology not subject to decay like the entire cosmos is today. That my story in all of its parts will be connected with that new body and somehow the story will continue in a new creation where my story will continue.
Selective Believing and Living
What is noteworthy in all of this is how we are selective about believing, choosing and living. We easily and uncritically connect ourselves with our various stories from the past. On the basis of these stories we demand rights and privileges backed by discrimination that literally mean life and death for people around the world. We are also subject to blame, guilt and recriminations. We do this so naturally, so uncritically that even the most ardent secularist or atheist backs these national, legal stories without a thought to any connection to material reality. According to their story it’s all simply human convention, but only the “religious” stories.
So what is the real difference between religious stories and national ones?
As our society grapples with high speed change on many fronts, the questions of discrimination and stories will increasingly come to the front. Logic so easily flows within cultural streams so that moral judgments seem “obvious” to those within the stream. What we see, however, is that moral streams are actually manifestations of the great stories and communities of the world.
Andrew DelBanco in his book The Real American Dream notes this about us.
The premise of this book is that human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days-pain, desire, pleasure, fear-into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope. And if such a sustaining narrative establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture. Without some such symbolic structure by which hope is expressed, one would be, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has put it, “a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions.” We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the “dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world.”‘
Andrew Delbanco. The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Kindle Locations 19-24). Kindle Edition.
He asserts that America has been on a trajectory in understanding its governing story from God to Nation to Self.
In the grappling over the question of religious liberty and whether religious stories will be publicly recognized we see the evolution of this process. The national story is asserts its supremacy and its powers to discriminate over the religious. We similarly see the struggle for “self” in the mix. What is my “self” and upon what can it be based if not story? Finding a basis for it apart from story is also being tried. This too is an old thing. You might argue that Stoics and Buddhists have been working this angle for a long time.
An Old Struggle
This is of course not a new struggle. Scholars have long noted how claims about Jesus like “Jesus is Lord” are parodies older political slogans like “Caesar is Lord”. The first of which was done by Pilate with his sign above Jesus’ crucified head which took jabs at Jesus and his Jewish adversaries alike.
At bottom is the question of whether this Jesus story is true at all. Will he return? Will he stand at a fork and say to some “well done good and faithful servants” and to others “depart from me I never knew you?”
Ironically the story that we live out and through becomes the persons that we are and shape the lives that we live. We are all enormous mixtures of stories from families, nations, cultures and religions. We live in a strange place where we don’t really pick our stories. I didn’t chose to be born into a Christian family or a Jewish/Dutch family or an American household. But I do have power over how I live into the stories I was born into.
The Christian story is amazing in that it is a story you don’t need to be born into from below. You can be baptized into it and born from above. In fact Jesus says both MUST be true.
Just like a Dominican baby can’t choose to be American, Jesus says you can’t really choose to be born of his kingdom except he also invites you to enter saying that this is enough and that even that starts from him.
So what is your story? What story are you rehearsing, trusting in, enjoying, living out of? We sometimes imagine “if I had been born to a different family” or in a different country X, Y, and Z would be different. YOU would be different, YOU wouldn’t really still be YOU. So what story are you? What stories shape you? What story will remain?