By Cecilia González-Andrieu, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif., and a contributing writer for America.
We know ourselves heirs of a promise that transcends the brief span of our individual lives; the promise of the resurrection. At the same time, we know that we will get there not by avoiding our fragile materiality but by living fully into it. The one we follow, Jesus of Nazareth, began his ministry at a wedding party, abundantly filling the cups of his fellow guests. The party was fleeting, just an instant in history, but for that one moment a group of people rejoiced and delighted as they toasted the bride and groom with the finest wine.
The Christian tradition expresses this apparent duality humans inhabit with the symbol of the reign of God. Christ tells us the kingdom of God is not a place but an event that discloses God’s purpose and vision for all reality. It broke in at the wedding in the small village of Cana. It discloses itself at food banks, hospitals, liturgies and family tables. It is promised as the eschatological banquet, where the last shall be first as we share a common table. The reign of God is both here and not yet, evanescent and eternal, earthly and heavenly, embodied and transcendent. What we do every moment matters precisely because it can help build the reign bit by bit until the day when all creation returns to God in fullness.
On a recent evening, I recoiled while listening to the news as an irate man wanting to dismantle all public health mandates during the pandemic declared imperiously, “If we don’t have individualism, we don’t have America!” It dawned on me that he is a thermometer, flashing the warning light of a high fever that has been raging for a long time. “American” individualism, containing the other “isms” that allow us to feel superior, promotes the fantasy that it can assert itself against a pandemic ravaging bodies and economies. “If I can just have everything for my own comfort and put my interests first, all will be fine,” we tell ourselves as the sickness spreads. Egoism at full throttle is far from the reign of God. Perhaps it is what most clearly defines its opposite.
We need a treatment for this sickness tearing into us. On the streets of my neighborhood and stretching throughout the country, there are two strains contaminating us that are working simultaneously on the “American” psyche. The first, individualism, appeals to absolutist ideals of freedom that place individual benefit always ahead of the communal. As J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur wrote in his paean to budding Americanism in 1782, “the rewards of [the new American’s] industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?” Crèvecoeur was a Frenchman who married an American woman and became a celebrated writer on both continents after publishing Letters From an American Farmer, which included his reflections on life in the United States.
Crèvecoeur left evidence for posterity of a seemingly total disregard for the original peoples inhabiting the land, as well as their destruction, and his is perhaps the first mention of new arrivals from Europe “melting into a new race of men.” He delineates the requirements for being an “American” with precision: Be European, care single-mindedly about your self-interest and your “fat horses,” and privatize your religious beliefs because these have no application to the “welfare of the country.”
In the middle of the pandemic, I convened an online conversation about the idea of the melting pot. The thoughtful responses disclosed understandings forged in diverse contexts. Older folks thought it an outdated idea that had lost its usefulness, yet I was surprised that young people revealed its centrality in their elementary school classrooms. One millennial political scientist, Alejandra Alarcón, recounted that even though it was a relic by her elementary school days, a segment on the melting pot recipe in the “Schoolhouse Rock” television series was formative for her generation. While some who grew into adulthood abroad understood the “melting pot” positively as “merging, not losing,” those from communities of color in the United States reacted with an opposite view.
Using images of “assimilation,” “erasure,” “disappearance” and “lie,” they related painful memories pointing to how the melting pot was weaponized as a way to destroy particularity at the service of a homogenized national identity. What the conversation revealed is that a construction of “Americanism” defined as a melting pot became synonymous with the Euro-American prosperous whiteness defined earlier by Crèvecoeur. The requirement of blending in and disappearing into an undifferentiated mass resulted in the loss of languages, customs and religions, and became an aspirational goal.
As the theologian Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., pointed out in his lecture “Toward a New Narrative for the Latino Presence in U.S. Society and the Church” in 2012, Catholic thinkers in the United States embraced the Americanist principle and “supported the concept of Americanization which they identified with modernity as something positive that would allow the Catholic immigrants to be accepted by and eventually exercise influence over the dominant WASP culture of the United States.” What assimilation based on whiteness makes impossible is any inclusion of people of color. It also strips human dignity away from anyone refusing to submit.
In 1908, the play “The Melting-Pot” opened in New York City, premiering the metaphor that eventually became synonymous with assimilation. Yet, this was far from the intent of the play’s author, the acclaimed Jewish writer Israel Zangwill.
The drama presents a cast of immigrants asking the question “Who shall we be?” as life explodes around them through the aspirations of the young and the suffering of their elders. David, the young Jewish protagonist and sole survivor of a pogrom in Russia on Easter, takes refuge with relatives in the teeming tenements of New York City. He wrestles with ways to make sense of his faith, his language and his ancestors, conscious of the extraordinary suffering of the new immigrants arriving every day. Zangwill uses the phrase “melting-pot” only once in the play: A more prominent metaphor is “God’s Crucible,” a key religious term whose meaning has been subsequently lost.
We are called anew to this question of who we are. Individualism will be our end, and the melting pot betrayed us. We need our metaphors for who we are to be both global and intimate. Perhaps the Holy Spirit breathed some of it into being in Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” meditation on the Gospel of Mark. “We have realized,” the pope tells us, “that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat…are all of us…we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”
Cecilia González-Andrieu,”‘The Melting Pot’ is an outdated image of America. We need a new metaphor to define the nation,” America, Aug. 21, 2020 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/08/21/melting-pot-outdated-image-america-we-need-new-metaphor-define-nation.