Tag Archives: immigration

Loving our enemies and others

Nelson Mandela’s birthday was last week. I watched an excerpt from an interview done with him by Bill Moyer some years after he was released from his 27 years in prison. Moyer asked him if he personally was mistreated in prison. Mandela said he and others were subjected frequently cruelty and abuse. They were deprived of freedom in their most productive years of life. They were tortured, beaten and isolated.

Moyer asked if the prisoners felt hatred toward the people who guarded them and tortured them. Mandela was not a saint. He was a flawed human being who was in the middle of a violent and hate-filled struggle. His response to Moyer’s question, however, is worth pondering. He said that the wardens who worked in the prison were human beings. They had problems in their lives as well and, in many ways, were also exploited by apartheid. They, too, were victims of a system they could not control. Mandela said he and his fellow prisoners reached out to their guards and tried to help them with their problems, prayed for them and their families. As a result, they developed a relationship with the very people who imprisoned them. Because Mandela and his fellow prisoners saw their wardens’ humanity, they could not hate them.

It is hard to hate people, even those who hurt us, if we see them as fellow human beings and people like ourselves in some way. One of the techniques used in effective propaganda is to dehumanize the enemy, to make those who are on the opposite side of a problem seem unlike us. The conflict is depicted as one between us and them. “They” are not like us. They are aliens, liberals, conservatives, unpatriotic, anti-this, pro-that. We are, on the other hand, godly, patriotic, wise, thrifty, and brave. It is easy to hate those we understand to be evil, lazy and just plain bad. It is easy to buy into being told that those “others” are just not good like we are. The flattery of that can sway our thinking in dangerous ways to advocate for things that hurt us in the long run. Doing what Mandela did is much harder.

How would the debate on many of the issues we struggle with in the world be different if we did what Mandela did? Would the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, or any other conflict in the world, find a solution if each side tried to help solve the problems of the enemy instead of retaliating against them?

What would happen to the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing our borders from Central America if we saw them not as “illegals” but as some other mother’s children? How would we want our children treated in another country if the problem were reversed? How bad would things have to be at home for you or me to send our twelve year olds across Mexico and over one of the world’s best guarded borders?

If we see these children’s mothers as less caring and different from ourselves, it is easy to separate our lives and our experiences from theirs. The people I have met while on mission trips to Mexico and to Haiti have made me realize that parents love their children. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or the language you speak or the culture in which you live. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. Poverty, hunger, and violence force even loving parents to do things we would not do.

What if, instead of defending ourselves and our own little piece of the world from those “others” we think are trying to take it from us, we prayed for them? What if we worked to make life better for others? What if we took Jesus’s advice to love our enemies and our neighbors?

Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, whose birthday was also last week, said, “We all do better when we all do better.” Resisting the urge to see issues as us versus them and working, instead, for the common good makes life better for everyone. It is in our own best interests to question those Facebook posts, news releases, political advertisements and letters to the editor which depict those who disagree as less human than ourselves. Doing so makes it harder for others to manipulate our opinion and to persuade us to work for and vote for things that are detrimental to our own and others’ best interest.

I have some work to do to before I can follow either Mandela’s or Wellstone’s advice.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


Celebrating Syttende Mai or Cinco de Mayo

I’m writing this from the 36th annual Høstfest. This annual event is said to be the largest celebration of Scandinavian heritage in North America. Although my parents didn’t teach me to speak Norwegian, I grew up listening to the musical rise and fall of Norwegian accents and  occasional exclamations of “uffda.” Holidays at our house still include lutefisk, lease, fruit soup and pickled herring.

Hearing others speaking Norwegian as they walk by seems familiar. The foods served are comfort foods for me, full of butter and cream. Traditional Scandinavian music connects with something deep in my soul. I enjoy learning more about the places where my grandparents grew up. The faces strangers look familiar, as though a common ancestor may have supplied us with shared DNA.

Apparently the need to connect with our roots is deep and wide. The Høstfest brings thousands of people from every state and Canadian province. Bus loads of visitors stream in the gates of the State Fair grounds. Motor homes fill the parking lots and already scarce hotel rooms are filled to capacity.

My grandparents, some of their siblings, and even a couple of my great grandparents left the mountains and fjords of their homeland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They didn’t leave Norway for adventure alone. They didn’t leave because of political oppression or war. They were poor farmers and fisherpeople and opportunities for making a comfortable living were few. My family came to this country as economic refugees.

When my grandparents landed at Ellis Island, they spoke no English. They had little money and few possessions. They were checked for signs of tuberculosis and insanity. Since they were basically healthy, they were allowed into this country, free to seek their fortune.

My email box and Facebook page has had many posts lately about immigration and immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Some strongly support changing our current system for allowing non-citizens to live here. Others, however, seem to attribute all our problems, social, cultural and economic on newcomers. One recent essay, sent to me by a friend, disparaged immigrants for holding on to the culture, language and even religion of their homeland. This writer asserted that multiculturalism was to blame for a lack of unity and cohesiveness in our country. He blamed undocumented worker for low wages and crime. He and others complain that modern day immigrants, especially those from Spanish speaking countries, won’t learn to speak English .

Sitting here at the Høst fest along with thousands of other people who have made this pilgrimage to the middle of the far north, I can’t help but think about immigrants and the struggles new Americans faced a hundred years ago and those they face today.

Yes, things are different today. Our country no longer has wide open spaces waiting for settlers. Unemployment in many places is at the highest rates since the Great Depression. Poverty levels are at record highs. While it is true that my grandparents followed the rules when they immigrated, there are far more rules today. The lines for legal entry into this country as a landed immigrant are years long and the fees to navigate the system are high. My grandparents would probably find it hard to immigrate legally today.

What hasn’t changed since my grandparents came is the reason for moving from the place called home to a strange new land. Most people who risk their lives and being arrested for not having the right papers come to find a better life for themselves and their families. The majority are not criminals or simply looking for a handout. My ancestors were tempted by tales of free land, soil that would grow bumper crops and sugarplum mountains. The desperate poor in our neighboring countries and across the world see television programs and movies where everyone lives in luxury homes and drive new cars.

My Grandparents did not learn English the day they left Ellis Island. My parents were born in this country. Both learned Norwegian first and  spoke English as a second language after they started school. We had a Norwegian-born neighbor who lived here more than eighty years and still did not speak English at her death. There are communities  in North Dakota where a German dialect is still spoken.

Yet we seem to expect something different from new immigrants. They should just want to fit in, to abandon their mother tongue, their traditional clothing, religious practices and culture. We make the rules for coming here nearly impossible to follow and arrest, imprison and deport those who come anyway.

Yet, here I am celebrating the language, traditional dress and culture of the place my family left over a hundred years ago.

What’s the difference between celebrating Syttende Mai and Cinco de Mayo?

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains