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Waiting for the Barbarians

What Does the Empire Fear?

Our extended family chooses a short (100 pages or less) book to read and discuss when on holiday. A few weeks ago we reflected together on our experience reading J.M. Coetzee’s novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians.”

We discovered it as a story timely for most any historical situation, including our own. On the border of an unnamed country Coetzee speaks through the voice of an official of the “Empire.” This ‘Magistrate’ is responsible for warning the Empire and holding off those who would invade. The threat of the ‘barbarians’ is largely the imagination run wild in the Empire. There really is no external threat, so the little outpost gets on with what is a meager existence.

Periodically, the change in seasons and need for sustaining supplies, outpost and the ‘enemy’ exchange commercially and other ways, none very threatening. While these visits provide mostly a pleasant change of pace in the hum drum of village, nothing much happens and the Empire keeps its distance.

Eventually some minor events trigger an overreaction from the Empire and they swoop in to bring ‘law and order’ where none is needed. Foe and friends alike, including the faithful Magistrate become the sacrificial lambs that justifies the Empire’s power.

The Empire does not recognize the ‘other.’ The Empire does not invite. The Empire defends. The Empire attacks. By any means necessary.

The real ‘barbarians’ are not those named such, but rather the ‘Empire’ itself that has reduced its own humanness by dividing and conquering a smaller, out-gunned force. The ‘Empire’ has no tools to build or intent to be part of a loving, peaceful community. What would happen to our precious identify if we embraced these people?

D.H. Lawrence’s poem about the “Three Strange Angels” comes to mind. He says, ‘What is the knocking at the door in the night? It's somebody wants to do us harm. No, no, it is the three strange angels. Admit them, admit them.’

As long as the Empire walls itself off from the presence of others because of its fear, we will be closing ourselves off from the beauty of all of humanity. That is the border we should all desire to tear down. Is not American ‘exceptionalism’ our claim to openness and invitation?

This week, the photo of the small Syrian boy lying face down, dead in the river, an innocent victim of our savagery sticks on our minds.

With thousands of Syrians needing a place to live again, the Empire (European nations)

initially treated them as the invading barbarians. The U.S. response (Empire?) is to offer places for 2-3000 Syrians. It seems kind of minimal. Even as Lutheran Social Services and others with stellar records of resettling Vietnamese, Hmong and Eastern Europeans gear up to assist, fear keeps us from reaching out from more bold action.

Ditto the decades long debate in the United States about closing our border to the south. Never mind that millions of Mexicans and other Central Americans have lived here for generations, worked jobs that keep those of us with resources comfortable at restaurants, motels, resorts and provide us with the fruit, vegetables and meat that allows us to sustain and even brag about the ‘American way of life.’ We have inter-married, share grandchildren, and host soccer matches. Yet, we fear.

One of our former vice-presidential candidates announced publicly that much would be solved if ‘they would speak American.’ Yeah, you betcha!

Without nastiness or arrogance, there is a different message that we can begin to share among each other. As we look at our lives, are they not richer because of difference? Do our hearts not leap for joy when a scene at a German train station shows German citizens welcoming Syrian refugees? Is there not some enriching in my life when I can share a little of my broken Spanish with the men getting the restaurant space in my neighborhood ready for another day?

Of course these connections have their pitfalls. There will absolutely be new challenges in building our neighborhoods and communities. There are fairness and justice issues that are deeply intertwined with opening our communities. There will be two steps forward and one step back at times. However, for now, nurturing a recovered image of citizenship as a form of interdependent community is a step we can all take.

We will need gatherings of those who defend the Empire and those considered barbarians. Truth and reconciliation has one foundational principle—honesty! Our ideals are not strategies. Our fears are not destiny. An alternative perspective is at hand.

Within each of our Milwaukee neighborhoods, the city as a whole, and the region which we share, there exists the Empire, those who fear the barbarians, and those who trust that there is a third way that will lead us to a more healthy life experience. Let the conversation begin!

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