When I was six years old, I sat in a very small building with a handful of other kids, most of them much older than me, and together with a Vacation Bible School teacher, we looked at a world map.
I can’t recall what we were discussing on that day. But I do know that the very small, Southern Baptist congregation of my early childhood thought a lot about missionaries and prayed regularly for them. I also recall that there were photos of Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist missionary who had lived in China for 40 years, in the church itself. So it’s quite possible that we were talking about missionary work (… which was often religiously-sanctioned colonialism).
At some point, while looking at this world map, I said to the teacher and the other kids, “When I grow up, I want to live in Switzerland!” I’m not sure how I had come to this conclusion or what I might have known about Switzerland at age six. But I suspect I had seen some photos or scenery on tv because I began to talk about how beautiful it is.
But I didn’t get very far because the teacher cut me off. He was also my neighbor across the street and the husband of the woman who sometimes babysat me. He felt he needed to address me and all the other kids with utmost seriousness. He even seemed a bit offended.
“Don’t ever say that,” he said. “We live in the United States, and it is the best country on earth. We are so lucky to live here,” he added, which seemed to shame me for my ungratefulness. “The United States is the best country on earth.” I think he probably said that statement more than once. Or at least, he said it strongly.
In that moment, I felt badly for not upholding the greatness of my nation. But mostly, I felt sad because I really wanted to be able to live in Switzerland. And I wanted to be able to tell people I wanted to live in Switzerland. But that was clearly the wrong thing to do. I learned quite early that the United States always had primacy.
And then, already ever the people pleaser at age six, I immediately found a way to redirect any criticism. I told the classroom some other news too: Earlier in the day at VBS, “I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”
“I want to be baptized,” I said.
That changed the mood.
But also, I meant it. I had been raised Christian since birth, yet in this tradition, you typically have a moment when you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior for yourself. That’s the framing, and that’s the language for it. The teacher asked me a few questions, probably trying to make sure this was a genuine moment, and then, he concluded that it was. A few weeks later, I was baptized at age 6, a very young age for a Southern Baptist.
Now, I return to this scene again…
I recall this moment looking at the world map… this moment when national supremacy and faith formation were built into the same conversation … I remember hearing that the United States is the best nation on earth and internalizing that this should never be questioned… or that it might be wrong even to make space to admire the beauty of another nation.
Now, I return to this scene again…
I thought about all of this last night when I read the horrific accounts of the U.S. Customs and Border Control sending tear gas into Mexico, causing non-violent asylum seekers to run in order to protect themselves and their vulnerable children. I’ve also heard that one of those young children died.
I thought about how I grew up feeling a distanced sense of pity for people of other nations who knew war and hunger but didn’t know Jesus (even though there were fellow Christians in those nations). My distanced sense of pity was also an internalized dismissal which seemed to say, “Things are bad there, but that’s just how it is.” I accepted violence. I accepted poverty. I numbed any of the obvious feelings that would question those things. “That’s just how it is for those people.”
Somehow, I didn’t grow up feeling much of a shared humanity with people elsewhere. They just seemed really far away.
I wonder if this internalized sense of distant-pity-mixed-with-dismissal was alive and well in others last night when people responded to the news with comments like,
“That’s too bad, but they knew what they were risking when they decided to come here,” as if it ever crossed our neighbors’ minds that they might be attacked with chemical weapons at a border where there’s a legal process of entry to seek asylum.
Or, “they should have entered legally!” as if asylum is not a legal process, or as if legality is a ever benchmark determining whether people live or die.
Or, “but they were cutting through the fence,” as if chemical weapons are a proportional response, a justified response, or an inevitable response.
Chemical weapons are never a proportional, justified, or inevitable response. Not to fellow human beings. Not to asylum seekers. Not to migrant toddlers.
This primacy — this sense that the United States is the best and only nation that gets to count, or matter, or deserve empathy; this internalized belief, sometimes conscious, sometimes unquestioned and unconscious, that white people are superior to others and more worthy of resources; this warped theology built upon a belief that God loves Americans more than people of other nations — it kills.
This primacy kills.