A while back, I spent some time with Luke 14:25-33—a passage that starts with the very straightforward advice to consider the cost of an undertaking before committing to it. The text moves on though from a simple budgetary decision (I can either afford this, or I can’t afford this) to a much less straightforward cost/benefit analysis with the awareness that a high cost—even the highest cost, at times, in some circumstances, might be justified. And at such times, in such circumstance, the question that confronts us changes from “Can I afford to do this?” to “Can I afford not to do this?”.
Thinking such thoughts, I considered home projects and date nights with a dollar amount to budget to be sure, but with the intangibles of creating a home and celebrating a relationship to also factor into the equation. I pondered also the cost of our country—which pondering was not included in the preaching for fear of the political being heard not as one more example but as an agenda—which pondering has also remained with me—too important to simply dismiss.
So what is the cost of our country? There are some who would answer that with the dollar amount they pay in taxes. That’s certainly one answer. Others might quote the federal budget. That’s another answer. Still others might suggest the cost is both the federal budget and all the additional expenses committed to but for some reason left out of the budget, and they have a point too.
What do we pay though, to maintain the idea of who we are? What do we pay to sustain the dreaming that has shaped us as much as anything else from our very beginning?
Who we say we are has always had a cost. Freedom has never been the safest option, but always the bravest. For part of the cost of freedom is always the possibility that some will abuse it.
Or do we now want to somehow claim the stories and symbols of our best self while declining to pay the cost of that identity? Do we really think it won’t be noticed—that our dreams have become rhetoric—soundbytes recited by rote—words not made flesh and presumed to never have to be made flesh—that that won’t be noticed if we just keep pretending we’re still who we were … or, at least, who we once aimed at being.
Remember the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted to an inner wall of the pedestal in 1903? It’s entitled “The New Colossus.”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That’s who the Statue of Liberty is. But it’s not who we are—not anymore. We’re rather a border fence. We’re guarding our coasts to turn boats away before people can come ashore. I know there are real problems—of population control, and health care, and citizenship rights, and to whom minimum wage requirements apply, and I know that there aren’t easy answers. But I also know, these days, we’re turning away the ones for whom the Statue of Liberty actually exists. Because she’s not there for us, already here, but for the dreamers now no longer welcome. That’s a real problem too—not a legal problem, not a business problem. That’s an identity problem—one facet—one representative facet of our identity problem.
But now we have our own storied pomp, and we want to keep it for ourselves. We want to protect it, and to do so, we turn away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse, the homeless and the tempest-tost—the ones who years ago would work their way—educate their way—sacrifice their way—dream their way into us.
We are more conquering Colossus now than welcoming mother, and we risk becoming who we ran from—risk becoming that in defiance of which we were once dreamed. I’m truly not sure there’s a scarier prospect. We could end up but the shell of who we might have been. An impressive green-washed tomb of what we once represented with death and decay inside.
Once we imprisoned lightning in a spell-binding dreaming. In the image we tried to live into, we claimed such great power, harnessed such sizzling energy, and projected a searing illumination into the darkness.
We are setting loose the lightning. We are losing the dream. And that is a colossal mistake.