After my mother Trudy died, it was left to me as her only surviving child to clear out her apartment. Sifting through bills, photographs, and bits of memorabilia I came across a newspaper clipping from the early 1950’s.
A picture accompanying the article showed a group of smiling adults of various ages. My mom appeared to be one of the youngest. They were all celebrating—and being congratulated for—passing the exam to become naturalized citizens of the United States.
From a legal perspective, citizenship brings with important rights and responsibilities. And my mother was grateful for and attentive to those. But that day meant something more to her.
Mom perceived that she had thrown her lot in with a community whose every member should at least in principle be committed to the nurture and defense of the dignity of every human being. No exceptions.
My mom was not naive. She recognized that this sort of community is an aspiration, not an accomplished reality. Nevertheless, she knew firsthand that the alternative is deadly. If some people can matter more than others, then eventually some people will be seen as contemptible and even disposable.
As some of you have read in my previous writings, my mother had survived a Nazi concentration camp. At the time of her arrest by the Gestapo in 1944, she was a fifteen-year-old Roman Catholic and an Austrian citizen. Her political activities had consisted of skipping school to play in the snow. In other words, she was not the typical Nazi target.
No, no. That was the Jews. And of course the noisy political dissidents. Well, and there were the Roma people. And, oh yes, the disabled. But then, finally, the authorities came for Trudy. They shipped her to a filthy camp to join thousands in a death brought on by starvation, exhaustion, torture, disease, or execution.
You see, my mother recognized that we human beings have tended to organize ourselves into winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, somebodies and nobodies. And she had the audacity to believe not only that there could be a better way, but that our life as a species actually depends upon pursuing that way. My mother was not idealistic. She was a tenderhearted realist.
Strictly speaking, I think my mother was really yearning for what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven. Now Jesus did not have in mind some place we go after our EKG flatlines. Instead, he was talking about a kind of life that extends into eternity but that actually can begin right here and now.
Each of us is created in the image of God, and God is love. So to be fully human is to love. Love is a relationship, not a mere feeling. To love is to yearn for and to work toward the well-being of another. So being human is not a solo act. It’s a group project.
To become fully human requires living in a community whose governing algorithm is compassion. To put that another way, it means loving our neighbor as ourselves.
I can’t be somebody by making anybody else a nobody. I can’t win by making somebody else a loser. Well maybe I can, but that’s how I lose my humanity. It’s how we could all lose our humanity.
Jesus put it this way. A king comes to lay final claim to his kingdom, and he sorts out who belongs in it and who does not. The key to citizenship is how you’ve treated the king.
To almost everybody’s surprise, the king assesses how his subjects have treated him by how they have treated each other. As Jesus put it, “Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 35:40)
If you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and house the homeless, you’re already laying claim to your citizenship. You’ve renounced citizenship with indifference, cruelty, and selfishness.
Let’s face it, a radically compassionate community is an aspiration, not an accomplished reality. And we can grow weary reaching for what seems at times like an impossibly distant ideal.
But I will tell you what keeps me going. Maybe it will be helpful to you. Where there is love, there is God. And where there is God, hope never fails. And with hope, I can take at least the next step.
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