Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The dangerous effect of immigrants on native culture...

We have a natural tendency to fear the "other," regardless of how like us that "other" is. Today, the image of the Irish as a dangerous foreign element in Bostonian culture is nonsensical to any but the most elite Brahmin circles. In 1869, however, that was far from the case:
The urge to look backward was particularly strong in Boston, where natives were grappling with the growing presence and power of the Irish. In 1869, the author William Dean Howells took a walk through an immigrant section of Cambridge known as Dublin, where he felt less like a native and more like a traveler in a foreign land. The language, customs, and dress seemed exotic to Howells, and he regretted that the Anglo-Saxon population was "now as extinct in that region as the Pequots." He read the future of his own people in the large number of Irish children playing in the streets. It appeared likely, wrote Howells, that "such increase shall--together with the well-known ambition of Dubliners to rule the land--one day make an end of us poor Yankees as a dominant plurality." The demographic shift from Yankee to Irish would soon become evident in politics as well. In 1884, just fifteen years after Howells's visit to Dublin, Bostonians elected Hugh O'Brien as their first Irish Catholic mayor.
-- Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston, 254

Howells's fear of ceasing to be a "dominant plurality" seems particularly arrogant in modern PC phraseology, but is actually not far from how many of us think. The fear of the "other" helps us to excuse attitudes and theories which denigrate members of other races and ethnicities. The Church is very susceptible to these attitudes too. The connection between "God and country" which I celebrated as a young Christian--along with many other Christians--often leads us to a belief that our specific nationalism is somehow tied to the purest expression of our faith. I have heard numerous comments from Christians which view immigrants with the same attitude Howell exhibited. Given my first European relatives "got off the boat" in 1639, I'm guessing I have plenty of ancestors who took similar attitudes to some of these Christians' ancestors when they arrived...


This is far from the attitude which the Bible commands toward the "other," however: Exodus 23:12 is explicit that the Sabbath laws are to provide rest not only to the people of Israel, but also to the "alien" (Hebrew: ger) Leviticus 16:29 reiterates this idea. Deuteronomy 14:29 holds out that the "stranger" (same word in Hebrew)--as well as many other disadvantaged people--is to be cared for out of the people's generosity. Deut. 16:11 shows that the "sojourner" (same word again) is to be included in the community as an insider. In Deut. 16:14 and Deut. 26:11 the people are instructed to "rejoice" in the good things that God has provided them and to include the sojourner. This is radically different from the usual expectation the "other" would receive in the ancient world, where being outside the tribe was dangerous as the individual was without protection and exposed. Jeremiah 22:3 explicitly condemns this attitude. The Bible pictures a different ethic for the people of God, one in which the vulnerable individual is embraced, taken in, and made to be an insider--not left apart and "other."
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