When I was seven years-old, my mother began teaching at St. Susanna School in Plainfield. Up until then she had enjoyed a life of leisure raising five small children. Five kids born in six years, she being Catholic, and the times being what they were. Mom had attended college for two years, studying elementary education, then had left school to marry, hoping one day to finish her degree, which she eventually did.
I remember feeling relieved when she began working outside the home. There is nothing more unsettling to a young boy than having a mother with time on her hands and ideas for her son’s improvement. So she became a teacher and began improving other people’s children. I remember coming home from school one day, and Mom was already there, which was unusual, but there she was, and there was a strange boy with her. Not strange as in weird, but strange as in a stranger. Mom pulled me aside and told me he would be spending the night with us from time to time. Later, I learned his parents were divorcing and he had reaped the whirlwind of their bitterness. For the next several months, on particularly bad days, my mother would bring him home to stay with us overnight.
“You be nice to him,” she’d tell us.
I wish I could remember his name and know what became of him, but it was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten.
What I’ve never forgotten is my mother’s habit of loving beyond our family. She had a special concern for Native American orphans who would mail her little dream catchers made in China in return for a donation, and children with cleft palates in need of reconstructive surgery. If there had been a charity for Native American children with cleft palates, it would have bankrupted her.
I remembered that about Mom this week when I was thinking about the qualities of healthy nations, our topic these past several weeks. In healthy nations, those who can help those can’t, while holding accountable those who won’t. We also said healthy, responsible nations give careful thought to their alliances, to their commitments, to their promises, and once made, honor them. They give their word, then keep their word.
Today, I want to propose that healthy, responsible nations not only care for their own citizens, they care beyond their country, beyond their borders. They do this not only because it is right to love beyond one’s nation, it is essential for humanity’s survival. Let’s call this a “sacred intrusiveness.” The Jewish scholar and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, said, “Sometimes we must interfere. When humans lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of our universe.”
I rode my motorcycle down to Georgia this week to see our son Sam and his wife Kelsea. Coming and go, I went through five states. Each time I entered a new state, I noticed the little blue arrow on my GPS that represented me would cross a red dotted line that represented a border. It was always exciting. Going down, it meant I was that much closer to seeing Sam and Kelsea. Coming home, it meant I was that much closer to seeing Joan. It made me think how sometimes people have to cross borders to find who and what they love, sometimes people have to cross borders to find home, to find peace. Like my mother’s student so long ago. Like so many today.
I was visiting Emma Alkire at the hospital and met one of her daughter-in-law’s, who as it turns out is the great-granddaughter of my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Betty Conley, one of the finest teachers God ever put in a classroom. Mrs. Conley had two pull-down maps at the front of her classroom. A map of Indiana and her 92 counties. She had placed a gold star on Danville, forever cementing in my mind the shining splendor of my town. And a map of the world, all the countries a different color, the rivers veins of blue, the oceans deep and wide. All those lines and borders, conceived by mapmakers long before we were born. For years, for years, I thought our nation was defined by the lines on Mrs. Conley’s map. The gold United States sandwiched in between the red Canada and the orange Mexico. I would look at that map, at our golden nation, and marvel at my good fortune for being born in the United States.
I’d trace my finger along the Rio Grande River down south, then run my finger over the 49th parallel up north and thought how those lines defined the United States. I thought that for years, and for years I was mistaken. Nations are never defined by lines on a map. Nations are defined by their character, by their commitment to justice and opportunity, by their compassion, by their honor for human dignity, by their commitment to a better world. For years, I thought a squiggly little line down south and a sweeping arc up north defined who we were. Lots of people will tell you that, but don’t you believe them. America is no more defined by those lines, than I am by the property line I share with my neighbor. That line says nothing about me, says nothing about what I value, what I love, or who I want and need to be.
Healthy nations are defined by character, not by lines. They care beyond their own kind, beyond their borders. When the people of any nation define themselves by their lines, it is only because they have lost their character and, like Esau, have settled instead for a mess of pottage. You remember the Bible story of Esau and Jacob, don’t you, when Esau sold off his future for a bowl of mush, a mess of pottage. So too does a nation discard its future when it treasures invisible lines over visible justice and love. Great nations aren’t defined by their borders, but by their character, by their essence, by their willingness to love and care beyond their borders.
In 1986, early in the fall, Elie Wiesel traveled to Indiana to speak and I went to hear him. It was the month before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. There weren’t many people there. Afterwards, because of his fame, he would speak to packed auditoriums, but that evening, 32 years ago in early fall in Indiana, it was some theology and religious studies students sitting in a room with Elie Wiesel, asking questions. So there I sat, listening to a man speak whose family had been destroyed by a government fixated on the inviolate purity of borders, race, religion, and nationality.
That was the day it first occurred to me that great nations weren’t defined by their borders, but by their character. Elie Wiesel was exactly right. “Sometimes we must interfere. When humans lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of our universe.”
Great nations are defined by character, not by lines. Their ethos is compassion, not control. They lift their lamp beside their golden door.