Our Chance to Show What America Means

When World War II ended in Europe, my father, who passed away recently, was 9 years old, the son of an immigrant and of a son of an immigrant, both German. The War had been hard on everyone of course, but there was a special challenge to being a German immigrant, or the child of one, while the nation feared and fought the Third Reich.

Dad's brother, 10 years his senior, was serving in the Navy in the Pacific, but that did not alleviate the suspicion some neighbors and co-workers would have toward my grandparents. Even after the War was completely won, and America and her allies turned attention toward rebuilding Europe and Japan, some would still mistrust the motives of folks like my grandparents, who sent care packages labeled "To a Needy Family" to Germany under a provision of the Marshall Plan. The first of those packages contained a letter written by my young father. It was received by a boy his age, Horst Meller, in Berlin. It turned out that Horst had lived next door to some Frieses, distant relatives of ours apparently, who had been bombed out of their homes as the allies closed in on the German capitol.

Horst and my father became pen pals, and then lifelong friends. My father spoke of Horst fondly and often, and then always of the importance of the Marshall Plan - the intrinsic good of it, and the tangible results of turning enemies into friends. Thousands upon thousands of refugees left Europe before, during and after the War. These were the "wretched refuse" mentioned in the Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus, inscribed at the Statue of Liberty. These were also people like Raphael Lemkin, from Poland, who coined the term "genocide"; physicist Fritz London; psychologist William Stern, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and a man named Albert Einstein. Policies at the time led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the US signed and helped author, and which guaranteed a "... right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution," and specifically forbade the arbitrary deprivation of nationality.

That was how America and her allies handled the worst refugee crisis in human history. It was not without its failings, as many were interned in camps just because of their nationality, others were turned away out of mere suspicion that they may have been part of the new enemy, the Communists. In the end, however, it rebuilt the whole world.

We haven't seen a refugee crisis like the post-World War II era until now. And in today's fractured and fearful political climate, xenophobes on the right are seething at the notion of increasing the number of refugees we accept from Syria to a mere ten or perhaps twenty thousand. By way of comparison, we took in 125,000 Vietnamese immediately after the fall of Saigon. 169,000 from the former Yugoslavia. Thus far, of the millions of refugees fleeing Syria, the US has accepted approximately 90.

Perhaps most disturbing about this dread and ignorance is that so many will couch their disapproval in religion. They have been terrorized into believing that Christianity and Islam are at war with each other (which they are not) and into believing that because those who attacked us on 9/11 called themselves Muslims then it supposedly follows that all Muslims are terrorists (which they demonstrably are not). All this while apparently unaware that many of the Syrian refugees are in fact Christians.

The religion that my father raised me in has, as its first principle, an admonition that we should respect "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." The second calls for "Justice, equity and compassion in human relations." All Christians are taught to "Love thy neighbor," and that what they do to "the least of these," they are doing to Christ Himself. They also read, in Matthew 21, that Jesus reserved a special form of anger for one particular type of a person: hypocrites.

I was in New York City on the last anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. My wife and I wept at the sight of the "ghost towers," the brilliant beams of light that shine skyward in remembrance on that day every year. But we did not visit the memorial site on that day. Instead, in honor of my father, in honor of all our ancestors who were in fact immigrants and refugees (just like many of yours likely were), we went to the Statue of Liberty, and to Ellis Island. I stood in the hall where my grandmother stood, as a child, staring out the window at the giant statue of the lady with the torch, full of hope and fear for her future.

When did we decide, as a nation, that we no longer wanted to "Lift [our] lamp beside the Golden Door"? At what point did we conclude that Americans should walk the earth unmolested, but that we need not concern ourselves with the plights of others? Was it when al Qaeda attacked us? If so, then we willingly allowed Osama bin Laden to achieve his every goal. His intent was not to destroy us, it was to make us live in fear so that we would destroy ourselves.

We have a need to lead, it is in the American DNA. But to lead without compassion is to be a bully. We have a choice: Love or Fear. Remember that the symbol of our nation is the Statue of Liberty, "The Mother of Exiles." We were built by the "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free." When God sends more people to your home, you do not build a stronger fence, you build a longer table.