Right now, you are probably attempting to guess just how I am going to favorably compare Heaven to America. Which aspect of American society am I going to say is too sinful, too unfair, or too degraded to measure up? Or could I perhaps be going a more ironic route, venting my frustration about the current trends of reality television, blood-constricting pants, or “twerking” that I happen to believe will not be present in the great beyond?
Well, let me first say that this is not a plea for my life to be free of Miley Cyrus: a Google Chrome extension has already been created that will go a long way toward achieving that goal. Neither am I going to be complaining about the uptick in gay marriages, the inability of any of our politicians to get along with the other children in the sandbox, or the state of the roads in Michigan (which are paved with anything but gold). No, what I intend to talk about is immigration.
If you visit the Statue of Liberty, you’ll find a plaque containing a famous poem by Emma Lazarus, a 19th century New Yorker of Sephardic Jewish origin. It is titled “The New Colossus”, a reference to the ancient Colossus of Rhodes that was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. Lazarus pictured the new Statue of Liberty as a different kind of symbol: not one purely of strength, but a beckoning icon which she called “Mother of Exiles”. In the poem, this Mother speaks to the old nations of Europe.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This poem represents the American ideal of being a nation of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, and a haven for those who are “yearning to breathe free”. It also reminds me of something that Jesus Christ once said: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
With similar words to those the Statue of Liberty uses to call immigrants to American shores, the Son of God calls humanity to find rest on heavenly shores. The catch is that only one of these two callings reflects the truth. While Christ really does offer salvation freely to all, regardless of background or status, America has not always been so kind.
Although the history of America is one of immigration, that process has been far from smooth. I am not just talking about today’s immigrants, who often face great prejudice when trying to start their lives in this country. I am referring to the ancestors of most Americans, who faced more difficulties than many of us realize.
The first foreigners to arrive in what became the United States of America were mostly of western European descent, citizens of the countries that were attempting to colonize this vast land. The millions of people already living in North and South America were forced to put up with this influx of humanity as they did not possess sufficient military forces to defeat European armies.
By the time the American colonies first achieved their independence from Britain, the population along the East Coast was mostly made up of the descendants of British people and a few other European countries, along with a substantial slave population of African descent. There were few Catholics in the country at this point.
Beginning in the 19th century, harsh conditions and persecution in their home countries drove many Irish, Germans, Italians, and Eastern European Jews to New York City and the United States in search of a better life. For the first time, Americans were surrounded by “huddled masses” of people who held vastly different religious views, spoke different languages, ate different food, and in so many other ways were just different. In many cases, the reaction of the native population was not positive. Take a look at this description from USHistory.org.
With the vast numbers of German and Irish coming to America, hostility to them erupted. Part of the reason for the opposition was religious. All of the Irish and many of the Germans were Roman Catholic. Part of the opposition was political. Most immigrants living in cities became Democrats because the party focused on the needs of commoners. Part of the opposition occurred because Americans in low-paying jobs were threatened and sometimes replaced by groups willing to work for almost nothing in order to survive. Signs that read NINA — “NO IRISH NEED APPLY” — sprang up throughout the country.
It was not only the Irish and the Germans who faced tremendous hostility upon their arrival and were not viewed as being “real” Americans in the same way as everyone else. Many ethnic groups that are now placed under the umbrella term of “White” in this country were considered to be very different at earlier points in American history. As another article explains,
In the U.S., during the 1800s and early 20th Century, both Jews and Italian immigrants were subject to extreme prejudice, racism, and, in many cases, violence. During this time, both groups were seen as non-Anglo and non-white. In fact, Italian Americans were the second most likely ethnic group to be lynched.
Today, immigrants from Hispanic and Muslim countries seem most likely to be the recipients of prejudice. Less vicious but still telling are demands by politicians and members of the public that immigrants be able to speak fluent English, be skilled workers, and generally be model citizens before they are able to become one of us. My purpose in bringing this up is not to call for some kind of policy change when it comes to immigration, but to point out the vast difference between how we treat those trying to get to America and how God treats those trying to get to His country.
The Apostle Paul once pointed out to the Corinthians how fortunate they were that God was not particularly picky about which people He accepted into His kingdom. “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble,” he said. “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26, 30)
From God’s point of view, we are “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”. However, those who gain admittance to Heaven will not be met with racial division, but an amazing celebration of racial diversity. They will not be ranked according to economic class, but all people will enjoy the vast riches of God. There is no language fluency requirement for those who wish to follow Christ, no talent threshold, and no citizenship test. The only question is if we will accept the new identity that is being offered to us.
Let me try just one more metaphor. Because of concerns about illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border, the American government has been hard at work building a bigger and bigger wall to keep people out. This is exactly the opposite of how God deals with us. Instead of a barrier, He greets us with open arms, if only we are willing to come. As Christ said, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)
The problem with getting into God’s presence is not that He puts up a wall to keep us out: it is that we put up a wall to keep Him out. God knows that there is nothing that will benefit us more than being with Him, but we prefer to live our lives without His interference. The barriers preventing us from getting there are of our own invention: sin, pride, denial, unbelief, ignorance, etc.
I am glad that Heaven is not like America. I know that on my own I am incapable of meeting the requirements for being in God’s presence. I long to be accepted for who I am, not judged by those who do not want to admit me. America undoubtedly has more work to do politically and culturally if we are to make progress on the issue of immigration. But regardless of our political positions, all of us ought to follow the example of our Father and open our arms to those who are yearning for spiritual freedom. Far be it from us to build an unnecessary wall of judgment and hypocrisy that only serves to keep people out.
All biblical references are from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.