On the way back to Indiana after Thanksgiving, my sixteen-year-old son was driving us across Missouri on I-70, and as much as I wanted to keep my eyes on the road as a surrogate-driving-intelligence-master, seeing all that wide open space in rural Missouri inspired me to do a few Google searches.
The population density of the United States (people per square mile) is 86 (for comparison, the population density of Syria is 259). The density in Missouri is slightly above that, at 89, well above the least densely populated states: Alaska (1.3), Wyoming (6.0), and Montana (7.1). So in addition to their advantage every four years in the Electoral College . . .
. . . these states with low population density also have something that humans have desired for millennia: space. For humans, as for other animals, increased population density leads to increased intraspecific competition, also known, in our case, as war.
Why do we deserve so much space? Why do Americans deserve such a moderate population density? We know how we came to have it: by taking it from the Native Americans. But why do we deserve it? Many Americans believe that we deserve it because we are good and because the god Yahweh favors us, but this is certainly a self-interested interpretation.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time feeling personally guilty over atrocities committed by white Europeans in taking over this enormous mass of land, but could we perhaps agree to consider being born in America, a huge land mass with an enviable population density and lots and lots of natural resources, to be an unearned advantage?
If we adopt an attitude of humility toward benefits we have as a result of chance rather than merit, it will orient us differently when we consider the refugees and immigrants who want to live here. The Internet has repeatedly scolded me in the past month, reminding me that there are poor people in rural America for whom being American doesn’t mean economic security and that those people shouldn’t be judged or shamed for voting for a hate-mongering, narcissistic, fascistic charlatan. But there are people in the world who would love to come live in peace in our underpopulated states, places where economic instability is the least of people’s fears. In Aleppo today, for example, there are thousands of civilians who don’t know if they will be alive tonight, people who have watched loved ones die in front of them, people who walk past dead bodies in the street when they dare to go into the street.
The discourse against accepting Syrian refugees focuses on fear of terrorism, but the underlying ideas are about deserving: we deserve the good things we have, and therefore if we share them, it is a voluntary act of charity.
We should not think this way. We should think instead of the virtue of hospitality, enjoined in the Bible to which so many Americans claim to adhere, as summarized in this Patheos blog:
‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers’ (Hebrews 13:2), ‘Show hospitality to one another without grumbling’ (1 Peter 4:9), ‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:34) and ‘hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined’ (Titus 1:8, all quotations ESV). Clearly, God wants us to be hospitable not in the sense of entertaining, but in a much deeper sense, and it’s not an optional extra. It is fundamental to our work for God.
So, we are to welcome people, even strangers from other lands. We are to love them as we love ourselves, in other words, to consider their needs not at the expense of our own, but as equal with them. We should seek to care for others just as willingly as we care for ourselves. Hospitality is about perceiving the needs of others and doing our best to meet them and it’s also about service (1 Timothy 5:10).
Theologian Henri Nouwen writes of hospitality as a way of being open to other people’s humanity and individuality:
Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. . . . Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.
Opening our land in hospitality, sharing our space and safety with refugees, would look a lot like what we have done my whole life—I remember the Vietnamese refugees who came to live in my Kansas City neighborhood when I was a child, and my current city, Fort Wayne, Indiana, has been one of the principal destinations for Burmese refugees. It would not be economically feasible to place refugees in the truly underpopulated rural areas of the United States; instead, they should go, as has been the practice, to mid-sized cities in lower-population-density states, where they can be supported in the slow process of becoming part of a new country. This 2015 article discusses how the Burmese refugees in Fort Wayne were doing twenty-three years after the first refugees arrived. Parent-children conflicts—exacerbated by the cultural conflicts between first- and second-generation immigrants—are the major concern mentioned, but the majority of the story’s details focus on increasing levels of economic and cultural success, with the majority “hav[ing] gone from depending on the government to becoming taxpaying citizens of the United States.”
We are fortunate beyond our deserving to live in a land so large and rich. How morally impoverished, though, if we allow Donald Trump to demonize people fleeing for their lives as a “Trojan horse” who will ruin our country if we share with them our benefits.