From Homeland to Beloved Community: An American Reckoning

Norman Rockwell, “Golden Rule” (1961)

Norman Rockwell, “Golden Rule” (1961)

With a budget exceeding $70 billon, the Department of Homeland Security warehouses, separates, and deprives migrant families who flee their homelands. The ostensible goal is to sift out “criminal aliens” in the name of “border security.” We did not have a Homeland Security department until, awash with patriotic adrenalin, the Bush administration and Congress created one after the 9/11 attacks. Why homeland – or, more significantly, whose homeland?

Only through a public reckoning with our terminology can we get to the truth of the United States, which is that we are a nation of homes, not a homeland. By recognizing that we are a collection of peoples not a People, bound together by a Constitution, we can take the necessary first step through the looking glass of homeland, past the vertical American flag planted on the moon fifty years ago, to the sea-to-shining-sea horizontal truth: community.

Homeland is an evocative word. It is laden with the nostalgic aura of Eden. For ethnic peoples throughout the world with roots in patches of soil – among them Native Americans, Jews in the Diaspora praying “next year in Jerusalem,” Palestinians, Armenians, tribal people in every continent – homeland is tinged with suffering, viewed most clearly through the retrospective lens of involuntary loss. Because it is when the rug is pulled out from under our feet that we are most aware that before we did not think about who we were. We did not have to. We did not think about how we were perceived by an “Other” who could threaten us. Our sense of identity and sense of place were one.

Homeland in this sense has no extrinsic value; it cannot be monetized, because it cannot be separated in any spiritual or physical sense from the beings who inhabit it. For that reason, people can only be added to a homeland since there is no such thing as Other.

But Homeland has another, sinister interpretation over the last hundred years, one based on ownership, power, and exclusion.

I hear the word homeland and I think of Nazi Germany. I think of the concept of volk, people of one race united by Lebensraum, the goal of conquering and conjoining lands populated by this “master race,” and the imperative of keep this race pure under one defensible heimat, or homeland.

It is this nationalistic, militarized conception of homeland, with the implied modifier “defensible,” that gained currency in the United States especially since 9/11 and enshrined in the resulting “Department of Homeland Security.” The fact that this originated from the political Right is a clue to the discriminatory underpinning of this phrase, something African American poet Langston Hughes captured in a 1935 poem whose parentheses lend irony to the poem’s title, “Let America Be America Again”:

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

 The Washington Post traces our vogue for the word to a 1997 report to Congress, “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century”, which concluded that threats are more likely to come in stealth fashion on our soil through terrorism, “powerful non-state entities,” or anything but conventional warfare abroad. “Congress’ foremost obligation in a constitutional republic is to preserve freedom and provide for national security”, the Post quotes then-Rep. Ron Paul; but with the 9/11 attacks “our efforts to protect our homeland came up short.”

But therein lies the crux of our appropriation of Homeland: a Trojan Horse to justify an endless loop of perpetual fear and a growing stockpile of weapons and sanctions. The Bush administration was only concerned with “preserving freedom” as subordinate and not equal to “providing for national security.” “Freedom” and “liberty” were simply props for a beefed up patriotism. Jim Talent, former Missouri Senator, interprets the Constitution as declaring “national defense is the priority job of the national government.” His interpretation contrasts with James Madison’s argument in Federalist Papers No. 10, supported by liberals, that “the protection of these faculties [different opinions] is the first object of government.”

Stepping back and taking a look at what we have become, what utter fools we have become, the word homeland makes no sense in a nation of native peoples, people who came here forcibly through slavery, immigrants and refugees.

To me as a first- and second-generation American, the concept is meaningless. My father’s parents immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe after World War I as a result of anti-Semitism. My mother’s parents similarly fled Romania but went to France. Hardly safer, my grandfather and numerous extended family members were rounded up and deported twenty years later by Nazis and their Parisian collaborators to Auschwitz where they were systematically killed.

What’s a homeland when one is perpetually on the run? Aharon Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor and writer, recounts in his 2001 memoir, A Table for One, that the Carpathian mountains never had the “intimacy” of a homeland, even after two hundred years of settlement. For that reason, he did not think of Israel, where he lived since the War, as his homeland either.

Homeland today is a loaded phrase, empty of content while laced with sentimentality and bigotry, used as justification for might makes right in defense of some mythical once great America in which the freedom most prized was the freedom to prosper, through plunder if necessary.

It is time for us to reject the concept of homeland as a lie at best and an excuse for violence at worst.

Let us replace homeland with its opposite: the Beloved Community. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the phrase, which originated with 19th Century American philosopher Josiah Royce, he was speaking of a nation populated by those of diverse races, ethnicities, political beliefs and religious creeds. This was the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, a quest to reclaim from our foundational document, the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The emphasis on all is the essence of social justice and the basis of political democracy.

“I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end of that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community,” Dr. King wrote in 1966 in Christian Century Magazine, quoted by The King Center.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is based on the Greek concept of agape, a love of all people bar none, which he describes in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958):

 Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. … Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both…. Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.

Agape is also about “restoring broken community,” which means ultimately reconciliation between victim and perpetrator once the harm is recognized and atoned.

When the Beloved Community becomes our central narrative, we do not respond to aggression by warehousing people like cattle, condoning segregated schools, or prioritizing taxpayer dollars to pay for violent solutions to conflict. We become committed first and foremost to a world of “liberty and justice for all,” which means ending poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, and suffering. We look for root causes by walking in their shoes: why are people fleeing their countries? To live the credo that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is not to justify invasion or displacement, but to call for collaboration toward nonviolent, just solutions.

Terrorist attacks in the Beloved Community are not met with Islamophobia, closing our borders, an arms race, and restricting free speech.

There is no Department of Homeland Security in the Beloved Community. Instead, our security strengthens or weakens only as a measure of our communality. Homeland is transformed into a doctrine of mutual responsibility, grounded in our common humanity.