When I was a child, I had a recurrent nightmare in which I was on a deserted country road, at the bottom of a long hill. As I looked ahead of me, toward the top of the hill, A Very Terrible Thing would appear. As the Thing (a giant, a tornado, a car full of bad men) crested the hill, I was overcome with panic. My mind (and my pulse) raced, attempting to find some way to elude the Thing. But there was no place to hide and I could not, I knew instinctively, outrun the Terrible Thing. I would wake from this dream breathless, sweating, my heart pounding furiously in my chest.
This week, my waking hours – and I’ll wager many of yours – feel like we’re collectively in the grip of this terror. We’re frantically searching for a way to be safe from the Very Terrible Things that have appeared, not in our dreams, but on our very real horizons.
It didn’t take long for the shock and sadness at the lives lost in Paris on Friday night to morph into angry, hate- and fear- based tirades. So on Sunday, I decided to get outside, to just stop watching the news coverage and following the social media sideshow. I got on my bike and rode around a mostly deserted city. Not far from where I live, I noticed a roadside sign pointing me toward a local Cedar Rapids landmark, so I followed it.
A few minutes later I arrived at the Mother Mosque of America, the longest standing mosque in North America – right here in Cedar Rapids! Iowa welcomed its first Muslim immigrants in 1885, I learned (though the mosque was built in 1934). It is a small building, with a mediterranean-blue dome. It gave me pause to think about the many ways the state of Iowa has, throughout its history, stood for what was right over what was popular:
- in 1851 the Iowa legislature passed a law allowing the Meskwaki tribe to purchase land, a very unusual act among states of the time;
- also in 1851 we were the second state to legalize interracial marriage;
- in 1857 the University of Iowa was the first state university in the nation to open its degree programs to women;
- 1867 saw Iowa outlaw segregated schools;
- in 1869, Iowa became the first state to allow women to join the bar;
- in 1934 the Mother Mosque was established;
- 2007 we became the second state to allow full marriage equality.
One of the things people outside of Iowa don’t often realize is just how progressive we can be. But even in Iowa, change is rarely accomplished without fear – without real and/or conceived negative possibilities. That afternoon, I took comfort in the number of times my home state of Iowa has managed to set aside fear in favor of people.
Only a day or so later, Governor Terry Branstad joined thirty plus other governors in stating that Iowa refuses to accept Syrian refugees. But here in Cedar Rapids, where Syrian families have successfully settled for more than a century, this strikes me as a very un-Iowan stance – I’ll leave it to the many other commentators to say whether it is unChristian and/or unAmerican.
People of good faith can disagree about the right course of action to pursue, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. However, I do know that refusing to help people in need because we are afraid is not the right choice. My own faith and worldview tell me that protecting myself, my family, my friends, my goods, should never be confused with the Highest Good.
Let’s make no mistake: this is one of those historic times when the highest good lies in the balance. Our history as humans is rife with examples of both those moments when we chose to shelter and protect, to stand up for what was right, and those times when we closed ourselves to the world’s great need out of fear. (If you can’t cite examples, you haven’t been on social media this week!) There’s a reason that, when we look back, some of those choices are lauded and celebrated while others are decried as shameful.
In history class, or on memorial occasions, we vow “Never again” to the shame. We say, “How could those people have done that?” We say, “I would never…” But here, in THIS moment, even as our hearts whisper that we should rise to the occasion, the fear is real and really hard to conquer. Very Bad Things are out there, the evidence cannot be ignored. However, even in my nightmares, the answer is never to become a Bad Thing myself in response.
So today my response is to argue for openness. To argue that the highest good is the common good – encompassing all people, not only those who share my national or geographic or racial or religious designations. I choose people over fear. I have to say, regardless of our governor’s stance, I think that’s the Iowa way.
Poem Of The One World – Mary Oliver
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water
and then into the sky of this
the one world
we all belong to
sooner or later
is a part of everything else
which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite, beautiful, myself.