A week and a half back when I took my oath to become a U.S. citizen. I duly decked myself out in suit and Stars and Stripes tie – courtesy of my mother-in-law – piled the family into our minivan, and headed out for the naturalization ceremony, which was at the U.S. courthouse, downtown. I had imagined that there might be a fair few people there to take their oath and others to celebrate them from the viewing gallery, yet as has been my experience with much about life in America over these past 11 years, things were bigger than I had imagined.
The only place where I have ever seen a longer line is at Disneyland. It consisted of about 1700 to be U.S. citizens who snaked their way around two sides of the city block. If the Department of Homeland Security had staged it, I think it would have been hard to come up with a more diverse crowd. There were all manner of national costumes, 105 countries of birth represented, speaking who knows how many more languages and dialects. Filipino, Arabic, Spanish, all around me, bubbling over in excited anticipation for a ceremony that marked the end of a long, hard journey, which for some began with them leaving the country of their birth with only the clothes on their back and the children in their arms to take with them.
‘We the people’, were the words emblazoned on the cover of the brochure they handed us. We the people, a diverse, hopeful, buoyant, cacophony of immigrants. I was right back on Liberty Island, with Emma Lazarus’s New Colossus,
‘A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame,
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome’.
It was an image of the kind of America I had wanted to belong to; the kind of world I want to belong to. Nation by nation, the judge invited us to stand and be applauded as a preamble to taking our collective oath. ‘Our strength as a nation is in our diversity’, the judge told us, and for that hour I truly believed he was right, and with each act of atrocious violence, across this nation, across France, across the Middle East, across this world, those words have meant more and more as a defiant hope in the promise of our global life together: our strength is in our diversity.
In order to make it to the naturalization ceremony in this country you have to pass a test. I am one of those strange people who likes tests, and it had been a long time since I had had the opportunity to take a test in anything, so I duly devoted myself to a hard course of study in U.S. civics and history by watching at least two seasons of ‘The West Wing’ before I sat my exam. After all, being the hopeless overachiever that I am, only 10 out of 10 would do. I had to know the answers.
This is often how we see knowledge, isn’t it? We see it as a question of knowing the right answers about something. Since over a year ago and until November 8th, two political parties will have invested inordinate amounts of money, trying to demonstrate to us that their candidate has the right answers to the questions Americans are asking, and it would seem an equal if not greater amount of money will have been spent on letting us know how the other candidate has all the wrong answers to those questions. It’s not just politics. Religious belief is often seen this way. We either possess right knowledge or we don’t. We are either in the right camp, or we are off the reservation.
This is not, however, what the Bible means when it talks about knowledge. True knowledge is not something that can be taught as much as it is something that needs to be discovered. Just take Jesus’ parable about the foolish rich man who wished to store up his treasured crops in greater and greater barns. As far as he can tell, a bigger barn is simply a wise investment, and there are many who have come to similar conclusions today in their own striving for accumulation. However, it is only when he is faced with the end of his life that he can see that his attempts at feeding his soul have been futile.
For the rich landowner, knowledge has to be discovered, for had been clinging to something, like the ‘alien people’ T. S. Eliot describes in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’, mired in ‘the old dispensation’, ‘clutching their gods’. As long as he kept his grip tight on his wealth, his power, his supposed knowledge of what was best, he was unable to recognize that there was another way to live. His desire for wealth in the power of the world had impoverished him toward God.
To gain true knowledge requires us to let go of our previous certainties, to loosen our grip on our preconceived views of the world and its people. For in many ways, to truly know is a question of truly being able to see. It is for this reason that the Christian vision of diversity is not one that requires you to become like me, but a vision that recognizes that we are all to become like Christ, the one who truly accepts us for who we are, exactly as we are. What’s more, such a vision is not a once for all view of the world, but an ongoing process of being changed moved on of our singular view of reality to the infinite richness of God’s view.
In spite of my UK friends sending me pictures of a disgusted looking Queen, I think those Brits will still let me into the country – after all I still have that British passport and don’t plan on giving that up any time soon. It’s more a case that my tent got a bit larger the Wednesday before last. We need a large tent, don’t we. It’s a diversity worth working for, and glory worth finding in one another.