Speaking to an audience of 450,000 the American president said the words that electrified his listeners. Standing in the heart of what had been the enemy’s capital and surrounded both literally and metaphorically by the emerging “Cold War”, John F. Kennedy proclaimed: “Ich bin ein Berliner!” “I am a Berliner!” Such a declaration – of solidarity, of support, of citizenship – electrified the crowd and set the stage for the face-off between two global powers that would define politics for the next three decades.
President Kennedy was as Irish as you can be, and his accent situated him firmly and unequivocally in the American state of Massachusetts. As his statement has been parsed over the years some say he claimed to be a German pastry; however, in its time and context, no one questioned the essence or intent of that line. He went on to imply that we are all “Berliners” and when he did, the entire “free world” gave up a raucous cheer. I wonder how it would play if an American president announced to the world: “I am a Muslim!” Could such a proclamation be made in our own nation’s capital, to say nothing of saying it in Riyadh? How much confusion, acrimony, hatred would such a pronouncement generate?
First of all, it would have to be true – literally. The times have changed such that our “I am” statements won’t work metaphorically anymore. We have become a literal world. Dr. Lyricia Hawkins found out that symbolic gestures of solidarity simply aren’t allowed.
Second of all, claims of national citizenship and of religious affiliation are more blurred than ever. This is especially, but not exclusively true when it comes to Islam. Dr. Zareena Grewal notes that Muslims in America are having to do what Blacks living in America have done for generations – live with a “double consciousness”.
There is another “I am” statement that is becoming more dangerous to say these days: “I am a refugee.” With the blurring of borders and boundaries we are also experiencing a reactionary resolve to harden the lines and build the walls that keep us separate from one another. The national debate in our country that is as old as the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act and as current as the endless presidential campaigning, has to do with who is welcome here and what it takes to be “one of us”.
Throughout the month of January at First UMC Burlington we will explore our sacred texts for guidance with regard to the Christian relationship to state and country and our responsibilities to the alien and stranger and sojourner. This exercise will mean nothing if we aren’t also willing to examine our own conscience as individuals and as a congregation. Where do we stand? Where does Christ call us to be?
The most powerful statement in the annals of the biblical books is the one attributed to God when asked by Moses: What is your name? It is a statement that is also attributed to Jesus – one that caused great consternation among his listeners. Perhaps the statement is so powerful because it is so open-ended. It leaves God without a country and us without any claim to privilege. It throws wide open the doors to discovery. While we want the deity to be on our side, to be an ally that gives us an edge, God is unwilling to do so. Who are you?
“I am …” That’s it. “I am who I am.” Or, as Jesus put it: “Before Abraham was, I am.” If we are honest we have to acknowledge that all the qualifiers and attributes, as important as they might be, pale in significance in the light of the mystery and miracle of our existence.
“I am.” Let it stop there … because that is where our hope for peace, respect, even love for one another truly begins.
With prayers for a year of peace, calm and joy.
 Zareena Grewal, “Islam is a Foreign Country”. NYU Press. 2013.
 Exodus 3:14.
 John 8:58.