Updated: Apr 24, 2020
I have always been able to forgive your unkindness to me—I was an awkward missionary kid, dressed funny, messed up words in the wrong language at the wrong time. Even if I couldn’t hear Jesus knocking on a vine-covered door to my heart, even if Nossa Senhora de Fátima seemed to more readily absolve my childish sins, I still figured you all cared about me. I could always translate “I’m praying for you, Joia” into “I care what happens to you.”
It’s gotten more difficult these past years. I used to say there but for the grace of God go I when I saw someone less fortunate, but now I just see me, in a cage, in a cell, speaking the wrong language, screaming in the dark, my arms and legs shackled, giving birth, giving grief, giving…up.
I know none of you would wish this on me. And you’d tell me Christ was only talking about Himself when he said “you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.” I know. But I can’t stop taking it personally, the woman turned away bleeding and in pain, the child torn from its mother’s arms, the bodies marshalled toward another refugee camp—my heart races, my breathing gets shallow, the danger is real. Maybe just old PTSD symptoms? I don’t know. I don’t think so.
When I returned from India in 1979, I was surprised to hear my brother say that our folks supported Reagan. What? Christians can be Republicans? Working backwards, I had to ask, “They’re Baptist but they didn’t vote for Jimmy Carter? Really?” By the time I got to Nixon I was totally confused. It would be years before I could piece together what was happening with fiscal Republicans and social Republicans, the Moral Majority—shaped by Frankie Schaeffer’s father—and begin to see the appeal of these doctrines for you. Meanwhile I did my best to understand all of you, this Midwestern German-English family I’d been born into, albeit half-way around the world in the old British Hospital in Lisbon, Portugal.
You all loved my Dad, called back to Europe on his final 35th mission after bombing the Nazis. Teaching at the Seminário Teológico Baptista de Leiria was perfect, and thankfully God’s Will included my beautiful mother and baby brother. I was unsure why America was called Home with a capital H—my Leiria school friends said movie stars and cowboys lived there and everybody chewed gum and went to baseball games. Weird. During a furlough over first grade I met most of you, in Kalamazoo, Minneapolis, Salinas. No movie stars or cowboys, but I sure liked the corn on the cob, graham cracker mush, the Three Stooges. Still, it was good to get back to my real home in Leiria.
Here I grew up on either side of a Looking Glass, pushing through its filmy thin space every time I went in and out of the house. What was validated on the outside was punishable inside, and I got good at reading signs. Crisscrossing boundaries is what I do, after all—propelled me right into my interdisciplinary field and gave me the philosophical chutzpah to fight every imperialist dualism that came my way. Made a whole career of it. But all the while I was busy dichotomy-busting Western injustice, something ever more sinister seeped into the divide you saw between the Saved and Unsaved, something tarry and obstinate toughened up that wall and ran barb wire along the top.
By the time Fox-phenomena clouded your interest in other channels, even the cool ones pointing to the universal noumena that keeps our inquisitive natures humble, my translation skills were suffering. This was a new and hardened language, one I’d heard before—in Soviet Moscow at the Pushkin Language Institute, in old black and white newsreels, a frightening voice resounding through military parades and dystopian novels. Us vs. Them! it proclaimed.
Dad use to say he wanted to be a big fish in a little pond. I'd say, no Daddy, I want to be a little fish in a big pond!
We are tiny. Cosmos—huge. Plenty of room for all of us.
So please, please, stop seeing Them. There isn't any Them. When you say Stop the Muslims or Send back the Latinos or Save the babies or Salt-pillar the sodomizers, please stop seeing Them. See me, stuck at an airport and cavity-searched because the wrong scarf is on my head. See me, exhausted and sick, reaching the El Paso bridge alone with my children because their father was shot as we escaped. See me, pregnant not with my amazing daughter but with a baby dead in my womb, or without a brain, or whose father terrorized me—see me turned away, charged with murder, imprisoned for saving myself and my children. See me, persecuted for the women I have loved but not the men, the ones who do "normal sex" even if they are rapists and want to kill me. I feel paralyzed, I can’t move, I can't see, everything goes dark. Maybe just the MS symptoms? I don’t know. I don’t think so.
Am I forgetting, that Christ loves you more than me? That God chose you and not me?
So I must now ask: When exactly did you stop seeing through a glass darkly? When did you decide that even a false prophet could speed up the Apocalypse for you? Did the role of Hitler in human history cause you to worship him? Were you not called upon to put an end to the Holocaust evil destroying innocent lives? Did Moses not smash the tablets when he saw the Golden Calf? Did the Angel not stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac? When did your impatience for the Promised Land supersede your faith? God’s silence can be deafening, yes, but this does not mean you get a promotion, the one offered to you by the oligarchs, the robber barons, the godfathers. These overlords need you. You do not need such masters.
I remember as a kid going to the Mosteiro da Batalha not far from our home. I'd always go around the back of the apse to the roofless capelas imperfeitas and stare up at the Gothic-framed sky. I knew it was the same sky everywhere, but here in the chapel it seemed to hold grand mysteries far beyond the atmospheric...I see it now, this blueness reaching up past human imagination, past the unknown, past the unknowable, up through infinity and into the transfinite, where space and time is no more.
That's a big pond.
There isn't any Them or Us in it. There's only Us.
9 NOVEMBER 2019
(This essay was sent to Christianity Today in December 2019.)
Joia Lewis is retired philosophy of science professor and former president of International Women in Portugal. She is the daughter of Arthur H. Lewis, 1st Lt Bombardier in WWII, CBFMS missionary to Portugal, and professor of Old Testament at Bethel College.