If Jesus were trying to get into the U.S. these days, we wouldn’t let him in.
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
March 12, 2017 (Matt. 2.13-15a)
There’s a line halfway through Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer that lands like a fist to the chest. It is the last line in a paragraph of longing. The narrator, a Vietnamese refugee now living in the United States, has offered a long litany of things remembered from his homeland. The music, the noodle soup, the parks, the mangos, the bomb craters, the mud roads, the sea. It’s a breathless, page-long paragraph that grows in intensity and grief until the narrator catches himself at the end. The most important thing we could never forget, he says, was that we could never forget.
When I read that sentence I had to put the book down for a moment. I have never been to Vietnam, but I grew up around people who could never forget. Most of you know the story of my father’s work with Vietnamese refugees in Hawaii in the 1970s, then later in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1980s. My American boyhood was punctuated by visits to Vietnamese markets and Buddhist temples. I remember the grandmothers putting extra spring rolls onto my plate. You’re a growing boy, they said. And the monks inviting me to slip off my shoes and pad across the cool floor of the meditation hall. So while I never went to Vietnam, a part of it came to me. It welcomed me into its own culture and traditions, hidden just around the corner from the dominant culture of which I was a part. If you knew where to look, my father taught me, and if you were a good listener and respectful, you could learn many stories.
I couldn’t help but wipe the tears away, then, when I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen read from his work last month at the University of Georgia. He ended his first reading with the sentence that had struck me so hard. The most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget. And I wasn’t tearful because being in a roomful of Vietnamese-Americans conjured my boyhood and my father, although it did. I was tearful because I felt like the majority community had forgotten. As I sat in the hall on campus, I was aware of the current attempts to ban refugees and immigrants from entering our country. I couldn’t decide if we had forgotten who we were or if we had misremembered, if we had never really been who we thought we were at all.
One thing Viet Thanh Nguyen does perhaps better than anyone is put theory into practice. His first book was fiction, The Sympathizer. It tells the story of a double agent, skillfully playing with questions of identity known to any refugee community. His second book was nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It offers the theory that undergirds the storytelling. And his new book is a collection of short stories, The Refugees. It could hardly have come at a better time, sharing fictionalized versions of the lived experiences of Vietnamese people who fled their country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen has spent a lifetime telling the same story in different ways. But it is a story we desperately need to hear.
At the heart of his project is a certain ethic. And I offer it here because it has something to do with faith. Nguyen is asking us to tell true stories. He begins by asserting that every war is fought twice, the first time on the battlefield and the second time in memory. So he considers how we remember. The most common form of remembering, he suggests, is remembering our own. When we tell stories, we remember those who were like us. We favor them, take their sides, imagine ourselves in their places, confirm our allegiance to the group. Remembering our own is the most natural way to tell a story, but it is also the narrowest. Moving beyond this, Nguyen offers a second way we tell stories. We remember others. When we tell stories remembering others, we try to consider those who are not like us. We include their points of view, we value their experiences, we try to tell a fuller story and offer a whole picture. But Nguyen cautions that when we do this we too often implicitly compare these others to ourselves, whom we take to be normative. We remember others only insofar as they actually relate to us. A third way of remembering, which Nguyen would like to move us toward, is remembering our shared inhumanity. When we remember ourselves, he says, we are remembering our humanity. When we remember others, we are trying to affirm their humanity. But the truest story, he says, especially in wartime, is that a deep inhumanity is realized. Everybody on every side is human, but everybody on every side is conflicted, complicated, and capable of acting in cruel and inhumane ways. To paraphrase my old professor Bill Schulz of Amnesty International, the first rule of ethics is that nobody’s hands are clean. That’s what Nguyen would say, adding that it’s also the first rule of storytelling.
We may wonder what ethics and storytelling have to do with faith. But we gather on Sunday in a place where we tell stories every week. We read sacred stories, passed down to us. We tell personal stories of how our lives are going. We listen to the stories of others over coffee or during the time of prayer. And we’re trying to tell our stories in a true way, recognizing our own complex subjectivity. We are beautifully and wonderfully made, but sometimes we all act in ways that are cruel and inhumane. We remember this is true about ourselves. It is true about others. It is true about all of us. We find it in the stories.
At the very beginning of Jesus’ story according to Matthew, we remember our inhumanity. We don’t often focus on it because we read it at Christmastime. All the kids are here and families who haven’t visited for a while. So we center on Joseph and Mary, the birth of their baby, the poetry of shepherds and angels and hills. But Jesus represents a threat to the existing order. He is born, called king, and revered. King Herod, the sitting monarch, hears of the baby, senses him as a rival, and seeks to kill him. And this is the beginning of our faith, our own origin story. A baby is born who will teach a different ethic. He will speak prophetic critique. He will practice radical inclusion. He will follow the way of creative nonviolence. And he’s a very real threat to the status quo. Kill him, says King Herod, and an angel warns his parents. Get up, says the angel, take the child, and flee to Egypt, and remain there. . .Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt. They were refugees.
Anyone who is forced to flee is a refugee. And at the very heart of Christianity is the story of two refugee parents and their child. We should hold that story in mind anytime we read the headlines. I leafed through The New York Times earlier this week and read an article detailing who is barred and who is not according the ban that is scheduled to go into effect this Thursday. Syrian refugees are barred, it said. Parents and children fleeing for their lives. It wasn’t an easy article to read, and afterwards I looked forward to The New Yorker. But the last issue in February had a story about the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe fleeing war. Approximately 100,000 children a year. The next issue I picked up had a story about the new Underground Railroad from the U. S. to Canada, as refugees flee our country in hopes of a safer, more welcoming place. Since 2011, it said, requests for asylum in the U.S. have grown tenfold. And our response to the requests is to delay and deny. It leaves little doubt in my mind that if Jesus were trying to get into the U.S. today, we wouldn’t let him in. Or if he were already here, we might drive him away.
Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us that the refugee crisis is related to another crisis, a crisis in our imagination. Refugees are fleeing war, as they always have. And we are making more and more war. We have so narrowed our imaginations that we see war as a kind of solution, we militarize every problem, we invest all our resources in violence and its machinery and then find ourselves surprised that we are engaged in unending wars. According to Nguyen, wars are no longer discreet events for us. War is our way of life. It is our condition. We now spend 51% of our resources, he says, on the military. We now have over 800 bases in foreign countries. We now have an administration that seeks to gut social programs in order to spend even more money on militarization. And this is the crisis of our imagination. That this the way we see ourselves? That this the way we see others? That this the way we see our future?
Those who resist war, says Nguyen, fight for the imagination, not the nation. And if we would resist, we would have to do so with our imagination. Which has everything to do with faith.
The refugees Mary and Joseph watched their baby grow up possessed by a religious imagination. He was a prophet and a poet, a teller of stories and a crosser of boundaries. He encouraged us to receive others with grace and hospitality and to welcome and include all people, especially the most vulnerable and those we have been taught are our enemies. He refused the way of violence.
It is with him in mind that we, as people who claim to follow in his way, must free our imaginations to see what he saw. And to say what he said. And to live the way he lived. Because we all know he wouldn’t have turned them away. The families and children who are fleeing. Those who are cold and hungry and afraid. The refugees who are coming to our door. I wonder, in the spirit of Viet Thanh Nguyen, how their stories will be told. And I wonder, in the spirit of Jesus, if we will turn them away as enemies or welcome them in as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.
At the end of his final talk, I handed Viet Thanh Nguyen a copy of The Refugees and asked if he might sign it for my dear friend, Phuc Luu. Phuc and his family left in 1974, I said. We lived near each other in Houston, but we didn’t meet until we were grown. He was my best man. Viet looked up at me with a smile. At your wedding, he asked. Yes, at my wedding, I said. He finished signing the book, handed it back, and we spoke for a moment longer. As I walked out of the building, I opened the book to the first page and looked at the inscription, written in a beautiful hand from one refugee to another. To Phuc Luu, it read, May you always be at home.
 Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015), 239.
 Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 2.
 Author’s notes, Betty Jean Craige Lecture, featuring Viet Thanh Nguyen, University of Georgia, February 13, 2017.
 Matthew 2.13-14, New Revised Standard Version.
 Anjali Singhvi and Alicia Parlapiano, “Trump’s New Immigration Ban: Who is Barred and Who is Not,” The New York Times, March 6, 2017.
 Lauren Collins, “The Children’s Odyssey,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017.
 Jake Halpern, “A New Underground Railroad,” The New Yorker, March 13, 2017.