And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
When the thirteen colonies disbanded their federation and wrote a new constitution in order to form a more perfect union, they didn't even know how far it was to the Pacific Ocean. Many supposed there should be a "northwest passage" through the continent, via rivers and mountain passes, that would permit easy communication and transportation from east to west. They believed the continent at their backs should taper up toward its center and taper down again toward the Pacific; its highest mountains being somewhere in today's Kansas.
That vast unknown land was populated by "Indians" although the native tribes had already been decimated by small pox; but it was claimed by the world's super-powers: Spain, France and England.
When the United States, under President Jefferson, bought "Louisiana" from the French, the nation tripled its size but bought into an immediate crisis. If it could not populate that largely unknown territory its purchase would mean nothing. The Russians might move in from Alaska; the Spaniards might move in from California. But there weren't nearly enough people in the United States to settle the land.
What should they do? Invite immigrants, millions of immigrants -- English, French, German, Dutch at first; then later, eastern Europeans, Asians and others -- anyone who would agree to live by American law.
War-weary Europeans heard the first call and came in droves, happily spawning families of ten and fifteen and twenty children. They plowed the plains and cleared forests and carved states out of uncharted territory.
Many Bible-reading citizens believed they were fulfilling the words of scripture:
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
The process -- apparently ordained by God -- has not gone smoothly. Two centuries later we are still trying to fashion one nation under God out of these diverse peoples. Can a nation with no natural geographical boundaries to the north and south, no established religion, and no common language be formed from so many different racial and ethnic groups? Can nothing more than the rule of law mold them into one people?
We have enjoyed some success. Foreign wars have been described as threats to the homeland and used to inspire patriotism. The military has legitimized citizenship for many people, both immigrants and natives. (Irish Catholics, among the first.) Religions that agree about little reinforce adherence to the law; their proselytizing makes people feel welcome even in new neighborhoods. Most people just want to get along with strangers, whoever they might be.
But we have been plagued with racism. If there is an "original sin" endemic to the United States it is racism. It's the negative image of what we claim to be; it follows like a shadow our every step.
The same scriptures that seem to be fulfilled with the American experiment point the way. We must be a hospitable nation, eager not to tolerate but rather to welcome aliens and strangers into our churches, neighborhoods, shopping malls, parks and work places.
The good citizen is the first person to approach a stranger with open hand and friendly face, the first to offer any kind of assistance "as you get settled." That citizen will be the first to inquire, Where do you come from? What do you think? and What do you believe? He or she will be the first to say, "Thank you for coming to America! We've been waiting for you!"