The title of Jim Yardley’s essay in the latest New York Times Magazine –“An American in a Strange Land“–reminds me of William Stringfellow’s book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and the biblical roots of “the strange land” metaphor. But the longer I pondered Yardley’s montage of American life, my heart went back to Jesus’s familiar, albeit misunderstood, invitation to the weary.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
[Gospel of Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV].
On his month-long trip across America in search of answers to what had changed during his 10 year absence, Yardley pieced together the vastly different experiences he encountered into a montage that cries out for further explanation. The montage includes the residents of El Paso, Texas, no more than a long baseball throw across the border from Ciudad Juárez, who disdain Donald Trump’s claims about the border.
Jesus’s invitation is offered to the anxious. The church gets that. Trump gets that. They know we are anxious. Anxiety fills the pews and packs the rallies. Anxiety sends folks running to the gun shops and to the offices of the very same government whose existence they decry for permits to conceal-and-carry or for open carry licenses. Anxiety feeds on itself until the size of it no longer fits within the small confines of a king size bed. Few of us in America fit well in our beds these days.
Churches, gun shops, and politicians who thrive on feeding this frenzy sometimes appeal to Jesus’s call to the weary faithful, ignorant of the specific audience to which Jesus invitation was issued—laborers! The “weary” were the landless poor, ploughing the fields the landowner’s field, driven cruelly like an ox-teams (the word “you” is plural) whose yoke chafes and hurts. Their yoke is anything but “easy”; it is ill-fitting. It chafes. It hurts. The landowner’s yoke allows no rest.The burdens are “heavy” (crushing). ‘They are “heavy-laden.”
“Come to me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Placed in its First Century context, it is an invitation to what many now describe as the underclass. Its audience is not the middle class, and certainly not the upper class. The invitation is issued to the working poor of a top-down economic system that offered cushions to landowners and yokes for everyone else.
In Jesus’s time the line between the landless poor and the wealthy landowners was more obvious perhaps. You were either in the field, so to speak, or you owned the field managers who managed the laborers. But, as I’ve pondered Yardley’s article about the America that strikes him as strangely different, and as I ponder my own anxiety, it strikes me that most of us share a common sense of having become dispossessed.
The pace of change and the nature of change leave us in a state of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious turmoil. The anxiety that is intrinsic to the human condition – we are mortals who die no matter how hard we fight against death —quickly turns in one of two directions. Both directions spiritualize what was not an individual invitation to block out the world’s realities. In the one, we sweep aside its political-economic reference point (the collective ‘you’) and use it to anesthetize ourselves against the unsettling social realities of our time. No one appreciates that more than the one-percent who own the land. In the other, sharing the misappropriation of Jesus’s words as spiritual only, we run to the gun shops and the politicians who feed the frenzy, hoping to defend and secure ourselves against the coming calamity of an Armageddon bought on by our own government’s “rigged electoral system” that favors Muslims, Mexicans, and LBGTQ over Christians, Euro whites, and heterosexuals.
Reading Jim Yardley’s article days before the 2016 election, I realize how anxious and irritable I have become. I’ll go to church this morning hoping for a word that sends me home with a less anxious heart and mind but that also charges to take sides with the landless poor. Our numbers are growing in America. The greatest irony of all is that a billionaire businessman who doesn’t pay federal taxes, views women as “bitches” in heat, exploits cheap foreign labor, out-sources jobs to the countries he decries as America’s cheating enemies, and has Hitler’s speeches in his bedroom is drawing the landless poor to the voting booth of the democracy he says is fake.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Take my yoke upon. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
I’m trying, as best I know how, to dismantle the old yoke and the old yoke system and to replace it with the more easy, gentle yoke that better fits us all. In the meantime, we all are foreigners and strangers in a strange land.
-Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN 55318