When people move

In the course of human events, migration has resembled an unstoppable force, and bigotry has seemed like an unmovable object. Left alone, either could prevail as the primary cause of events. Combined, the two have challenged each other repeatedly, contributing to the ebb and flow of history.

People move. Even after the Neolithic Revolution established settlements where people built homes and cities, tended flocks and herds, raised crops, and set down roots, groups of people have still sought better homes for themselves and their families. People are constantly looking for better farmland and superior water resources, safer and more defendable homes, nicer weather, kinder neighbors, and opportunities to start over after escaping previous problems. When discussing this fact in the classroom, I often asked the students how many of them had parents still living in the same house where they lived when those students were born. The number who said yes was generally small—at times, I was the only one in the room whose parents had not moved.

So, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in southern Asia gradually became home to increasing numbers of Indo-Europeans migrating from the north. The blending of Harappan with Indo-European cultures created the Vedic culture of India. Contemporary scholars are unsure which elements of Vedic civilization came from the Harappan strain and which came from the Indo-European strain. Since no one today can read Harappan writing, this question remains unanswered. But the blend of the two cultures definitely produced something new.

The Chinese culture built a wall to keep northern Asians out of their land. The Great Wall of China also prohibited Chinese people from leaving the country without permission, and it provided a great stimulus project that employed many Chinese workers who would otherwise have been unemployed. The Wall was not built at one time, or even in one century. Different segments were built at different times and were connected later; segments were repaired and improved over the centuries, so that the wall that tourists visit today is not the same wall that the Chinese people built long ago. But the Wall remains as a reminder of the extent to which governments will go to prevent unwanted immigration.

Many centuries later, the Romans also struggled to limit migration into their empire from the north. They also built walls. They positioned legions of soldiers on the borders. They even made agreements with some immigrant groups that they would be granted Roman citizenship if they would remain on the border and prevent other groups from entering the empire. Still, so many northern Europeans wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship and of life in the Mediterranean climate that the Romans were unable to prevent their entry. Goths and Vandals and Franks and Burgundians and Saxons and many other groups migrated into the Empire. They adopted some of its institutions (including Christianity) and adapted others, blending them with their own cultures. The results of this migration are called medieval and modern Europe.

Then came the Vikings. They came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Denmark and northern Germany and France. They entered the Mediterranean Sea and became involved with the Christian and Muslim civilizations living there. They sailed up the Dnieper River and established Kiev, the first capital of Russia. (Although Russia is a Slavic nation, its name comes from the label given to the Vikings of Kiev, whose hair and complexion were red.) The Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland and even found their way to Canada. Hagar the Horrible and the Minnesota football team are far too weak to justly credit the major influence the Vikings had on western civilization.

After 1500, Europeans and Africans poured across the Atlantic Ocean into the Americas. Most Europeans made the trip voluntarily; most Africans were brought as slaves.  Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans were brought to the western hemisphere. After the slave trade was abolished, Europeans continued migrating to the New World, and many east Asians also crossed the Pacific Ocean for life in the Americas.

Yet the story of migration would not be complete without the opposing force of bigotry. Most cultures view the world as divided into “us” and “them.” The books of Genesis and Exodus correctly report the hostility the Egyptians felt toward outsiders, particularly the Semitic people of western Asia. Greeks distinguished between people who spoke Greek and those who spoke other languages—all those other languages sounded like “bar, bar, bar,” to the Greeks, so they called those outsiders “barbarians.” Jews distinguish themselves from Gentiles. The Chinese culture has traditionally seen itself as the only civilization, the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. Migration is hindered by laws, walls, armed forces, and other deterrents because most groups of people consider themselves better than others. After all, if they didn’t consider themselves better, wouldn’t they seek to improve? Differences of appearance, language, food traditions, religious beliefs, social and political organization, and other cultural differences distinguish one group of people from another. Sometimes a group of people migrates successfully and makes its home in a new place, blending its culture with what they find in that new place. Sometimes (as with the Europeans coming to the Americas) the migrants are so dominant that they gain little from those groups they replace. Rarely does a government succeed in preventing migration into the land it controls. The higher the standard of living in a country, the more likely outsiders will want to move into that country and live there.

The dangers of migration and bigotry, when they face one another, can be reduced with a few simple concepts. One is genuine curiosity and interest, from both groups, about the traditions and practices of the other group. Another is willingness of the older group to teach its ways to the newer group. Legal acceptance of some immigrants and rejection of others can be based upon willingness of the migrants to conform to the values of the native culture. A fundamental requirement for peaceful coexistence is that both groups view the members of the other group as people. People deserve respect. Migrants and other outsiders are included among the neighbors that God’s people are commanded to love. But those strangers also have an obligation to respect their new neighbors, to obey the existing laws of their new homes, and to contribute to the success of the place they now call home. When stubbornness turns to fear and hatred, then the history of migration and of bigotry becomes ugly, often tragic. J.

War and migration

Citizens of the United States might assume that, when the wealthy and powerful people of the world gather to talk about important issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are high on the agenda. The rest of the world has some interest in the result of this year’s presidential election, but many other items are of far greater interest, even to Americans.

War and migration is probably the greatest preoccupation for those concerned about contemporary events. Violence in north Africa and west Asia—and the many thousands of people fleeing that violence—affects lives and businesses all over the world. No one who is involved in politics or in economic decisions can afford to ignore what is happening.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus noted that “wars and rumors of war” would continue until the Day of his return. One hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson promised that the Great War would be the last war in history. Instead, it has been labeled “World War I.” Jesus was right; Wilson was wrong. Migration has also been a constant theme of history. People move to escape violence. They move to find jobs or to locate food. They move to enjoy better weather. They move to escape oppressive governments and to find greater freedom. Sometimes they move simply because they are bored.

In some cases governments encourage immigration. Russia once invited German families to relocate into Russia and farm land that was empty. American businesses (such as the railroads) used to advertise in Europe for workers, promising a better life in the New World. The Statue of Liberty in New York welcomes “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Just as often, governments try to limit immigration. Ancient China and ancient Rome built walls to keep the “barbarians” out of their land. Rome even paid some “barbarians” to live on the border and defend it from the next wave of immigrants. Tourists still visit Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, but those walls were not very effective barriers against the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Goths, or the Huns.

The United States once set the standard for an effective modern method of welcoming refugees. When thousands of people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States found homes for many of those people. When 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in 1980, the United States again found homes for them. Both times, the refugee families originally were housed on government property, such as underused military bases. Sponsors were sought and found for these families: relatives of the refugees, other families from the same land, church groups, charitable organizations, and anyone else who was willing and able to help. Refugees were documented and observed; they did not disappear into the general population. Sponsors cared for them and helped them to find homes and jobs and to adjust to life in a new and different culture.

The change was not always easy. American citizens were uneasy about these refugees from another part of the world. In 1980, rumors traveled quickly that the Cuban refugees contained many criminals, mentally ill persons, and other undesirables. In retrospect, the number of such people among the Cuban refugees was proportionally less than in the general population of the United States. Acts of violence did occur among the refugees in their camps while they waited for sponsors. Some of the refugees were displeased with the quality of life in the camps and with the length of time it took to find sponsors for all of them. Their protests over their condition were not always peaceful. Eventually, the United States was able to absorb these many refugees. They are part of the mosaic of cultures that compose the United States today.

Patterns of migration in the twentieth century actually affirm the values of American government. People fled the totalitarian socialist governments that called themselves Communist, seeking the freedom of societies that were democratic and capitalist. The Berlin wall was a powerful symbol of the difference; it was built, not to keep immigrants out, but to keep East Germans from leaving for the west. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist north and a non-Communist south, a few Vietnamese families moved north, but a million Vietnamese moved south. The escape from Cuba in 1980 is another reminder of the difference: that one vast migration alone dwarfs the number of people who have tried to enter Cuba during the decades that the Castro brothers have been in charge there.

The system that worked in 1975 and 1980 can work again today. International cooperation can shelter refugees from north Africa and west Asia for a short time while sponsors are found to integrate these people into a new culture. They can be documented and observed. The risk that terrorists lurk among these refugees is no greater than the risk of home-grown terrorists. Sponsors can be trained and equipped to watch for warning signs and report their suspicions to the proper authorities. That would make these refugees likely to be less dangerous than the boy next door.

Compassion for human beings requires more than walls and guards on the border. Today’s needy refugees can become the hard-working foundation of American and European enterprise tomorrow. Fear of people who are different is a common human trait. Refugees probably will be more frightened of their new neighbors (who outnumber them) than the neighbors are of them. Genuine compassion and sincere curiosity about those who are different can overcome such fear. While compassionate people deplore the violence that makes migration necessary, a touch of kindness can change a terrible situation into a blessing, both for the refugees and for those who welcome them. J.