Thursday, October 11, 2012

Elmore Leonard, Robert Duvall, and a neglected corner

I enjoy Elmore Leonard.  His Westerns are mind candy, but with good grit.  I am grateful to him for getting me to pay more attention to Jose Marti, who showed up in the background of one of his stories.  I also think very highly of Robert Duvall, who played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, had parts in a long list of great movies, and directed his own powerful and complex movie, The Apostle.  So when I came across an old movie with screen play by Leonard, co-starring Duvall, I checked it out.  Joe Kidd, starring Clint Eastwood, 1972 – when Clint’s glints were amazing.

Netflix summary: A wealthy landowner (Robert Duvall) attempts to hire former bounty hunter Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) and a band of killers to track down a group of armed revolutionary Mexicans (led by John Saxon's Luis Chama) whose U.S. land claims were denied and then burned by the government. At first, Kidd turns down the offer, until Chama steals his horse and terrorizes his friends. John Sturges directs from an original screenplay by Elmore Leonard.

“… Mexicans whose land claims were denied and then burned by the government.”  Interesting background, and another aspect of the immigration horror show.

Check it out, for a great show!  (And think it over.)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

by the streams we sat and wept

1948.  In the Bracero program, Americans hired Mexicans to work the fields, then deported them when the work was done.  In a friendly fashion.

Larry Hamm, a good friend since 1962, sent me a great article today about Woody Guthrie, and in the article I came across a reference to “The Plane Wreck at Los Gatos.”  There was a plane crash in California in 1948.  The people who died were "just deportees." Pete Seeger said that Woody Guthrie wanted to give their names back to the deportees.

 I found the lyrics (below) and a performance ( 

(also known as "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos")
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Martin Hoffman

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Contact The Publisher-
The Richmond Organization (TRO)
Attention: Kathryn Ostien
266 West 37th Street, 17th Floor / New York, NY 10018-6609

Monday, September 10, 2012

Product Details

New book on immigration PUBLISHED!

  Sign of the Crossing, by John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, cover by JeanPaul Badjo. 

I completed a book on immigration.  It's available on Kindle ($3), or Amazon ($6).  I don't think that any any honest person can read the book and still argue that the Bible is neutral on immigration, or that the forceful demand in Scripture -- from Genesis to the last prophets, on through the Gospels to Acts -- applies only to "legal immigrants."  The argument only matters for about 3% of voters, but I think the argument is over.

The work on campuses remains.  I am still looking for people whose religious views and political views collide -- people who consider themselves to be serious about Scripture, but who are currently planning to vote against hospitality for immigrants (or, "for better enforcement of restrictions against ...").  Peruse the blog, check the website (, or get the book.

Back on track ...

I got knocked out of the fight for a few weeks.  A wonderful surgeon with a delightful sense of humor removed a few stray scraps of drying and worthless disk from my spine.  When I woke up, I thought my leg was going to float away, it felt so light.  That was a good day's work, ending some pain and recovering the use of some thigh muscles.  In a few days, I guess, I'll be mobile.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

where's the word "immigrant"?

I am my father’s son.  He read the Encyclopedia Britannica for entertainment, and it stood on a long shelf in his bedroom.  When he was dying, we all clustered around his deathbed, praying and singing for a couple of days.  But prayer and study were tied together in our lives, and we took time to use the encyclopedia in his room.  In fact, as death got closer, perhaps an hour away, two of his children were in the room with him, checking a footnote in the encyclopedia.  So this morning, I bounced out of bed hunting for my Oxford English Dictionary, my beloved OED.  Some barbarian displaced/misplaced and/or failed to replace it during a recent domestic renovation/demolition.

I went to bed last night puzzling about why no one translates “ger” (in Hebrew) or “xenos” (in Greek) in the Bible as “immigrant.”  Nearly every translation of the Bible says “stranger.”  Why?  When I got up, I was on fire with a potential solution.  How old is the word “immigrant”?

And, by God, I was right!  It is a new word, or fairly new as Biblical translations go.  I could not lay my hands on my OED, but the Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word “immigrant” first appeared in America in 1792.  It started as an American English word.  The French, around the same time, were talking about the émigrés, the people who fled France to avoid the guillotine.  Americans needed a new word to talk about the shiploads of new Americans.  It is based on a Latin word (immigrare), so inventing the word was not a great stretch; but the word is pretty new, and it was American at the outset.  So translators did not use the word before the 19th century -- because it wasn’t a word.

To be sure, there have been translations made since 1792.  But when you are translating into English and already know the beauty and strength of several translations, it is hard to step away from them.  A translator will use words that have worked well previously.  If translators were working with the Hebrew and Greek, without any knowledge of English versions, some would translate the words as “immigrant.”  But they all know the music of the “stranger,” and can be seduced by the music.

Still, I see another reason to stick with the word “stranger” most of the time, even when you know that “immigrant” is a good translation.

The starting point for this word concerns Abraham and his descendants in Egypt, up to Moses – “strangers in a strange land.”  The magic of this phrase is that the word “strange” is used twice, with two different perspectives.  “We were strangers”: that is, in the eyes of the Egyptians, we (Hebrews) were foreigners.  “In a strange land”:  that is, in our (Hebrew) eyes, Egypt was a foreign land.  The phrase reflects the perspective of the Egyptians, and then the perspective of the Hebrews.  You can’t do that with “immigrant.”  You can’t say, “We were immigrants in an immigrant land.”  We were exotics in an exotic land; we were foreigners in a foreign land – those work, but not as well as “stranger” – to my ear.

The equivalence of hosts and guests is an ancient and fascinating issue, and turns out to be a matter of huge importance, it seems to me.

In Greek, the word “xenos” means “stranger,” or “host,” or “guest.”  That it, it refers to people whom you do not know.  When you come in contact with strangers, politeness – that is, the rules of civilization, some civilization, any civilization – requires that you and the stranger deal with each other respectfully.  He is a stranger to you and you are a stranger to him.  The issue of mutual respect overshadows the issue of who is sedentary and who is traveling when the meeting occurs.  What decides who is host and who is guest?  If you are both nomads and you meet at a waterhole, who has been there longer? Does that decide the issue of who is host, who is guest?  Or: who has more food?  Does that decide who is who host, who is guest?  Our language suggests that these are important questions.  Greek does not distinguish between host and guest.
Latin has the same challenge/blessing/difficulty.  The word “hostis” means “stranger” or “host” or “guest.”  When St. Jerome translated the Bible into the language of the common man (that is, Latin, of course), he translated Hebrew “ger” and Greek “xenos” as “hostis.”

In the first five books of the Bible (the Torah, the Pentateuch), Moses deals with the issue of how to treat foreigners with great eloquence and power.  The issue that he deals with has complicated details, but is simple at heart.  There’s US, and there’s THEM: how do we think about them, how do we treat them?  There are some interesting details about behavior, but what Moses comes back to, repeatedly, is simple: remember our experience as strangers, and do not do to THEM what was done to US.  Remember, remember, remember – and sympathize because you remember.  There is an US and there is a THEM, but rule number one about THEM is an appeal to the heart, not a law: remember and sympathize.   Who’s “ger”?  It depends on your perspective. 

It seems to me that this is exactly the same question that Jesus dealt with, and Jesus adopts the same approach as Moses.  The words are a little different, but the question is the same: “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus, like Moses, doesn’t challenge the difference between US and THEM, between neighbor and stranger.  His approach to the question is not to define the line, and list the rules.  Like Moses, he urges sympathy.  He responds with the story of the Good Samaritan.  In that story, what is clear is that the priest and the Levite on the road do not feel obliged to help the man attacked by bandits, because he is not one of US.  The injured man wants US to be a broad category; he needs help from whoever passes by.  The priest and Levite have a clearly defined and somewhat smaller, somewhat more exclusive, US.  The Samaritan has a broader definition of US.  He understands, hears, feels, the appeal from the victim in the road.  In this simple story, Jesus does the same thing that Moses did: he asks his followers to see the question of US versus THEM through the eyes of the person on the other side of the divide.  Moses says, remember what it’s like to be THEM.  Jesus says, don’t define US from the inside, but from the outside, from the perspective of the needy who need the definition to be broad.

If you want to say, the host should be quick to understand the view of the guest, and the guest should be quick to understand the view of the host, it may be simpler to avoid words that define the host/guest relationship.  Remember what’s like to be a stranger in a strange land (says Moses), and let the issue of need define who has a claim on you (says Jesus). 

To summarize: (1) translators have not used the word “immigrant” to translate “ger” or “xenos” because the word is new.  But (2) “stranger” may still be the best translation, because it makes it a little easier to approach the boundary between US and THEM in a balanced fashion, encouraging each side to understand the other side.  (3) The way we treat strangers/immigrants is startlingly significant in the teaching of both Moses and Jesus.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

money -- real issue, but central?

The nation’s major anti-immigration organization, FAIR, focuses on the cost to taxpayers.  They put a lot of effort into this green eye-shade labor, but accountants better than I have scrutinized their work elsewhere.  I offer five responses, not about their worthy details.
1.       Obviously, for many people, if it seems possible to discern what God asks of us, and we come to believe that God has asked us to welcome immigrants, the cost is interesting but not terribly important.  We’ll do it.

2.       Same point, slightly revised. Obviously, for many people, if it seems possible to help good people in real need, and we come to believe that many immigrants fit that description, the cost is interesting but not terribly important.  We’ll do it.

3.       The arguments made about the costs associated with Latino immigration were made about the Irish in the middle of the 19th century.  While the Irish were fleeing from famine and poverty, and for a generation after the disaster, they (we) were a burden, including an economic burden.  But since then, we have proved ourselves to be a huge benefit to the nation.  So for people who are careful and thoughtful about history, the arguments about cost suddenly seem transparently bogus, unless FAIR can explain the difference between Latino immigrants and Irish immigrants.

4.       The United States is a shrinking country, except for immigration.  Average family size for people born in the USA is already below replacement level.  So Social Security is certain to fail unless we permit immigration.  Assuming for the moment that all of FAIR’s numbers are right, and immigration is a financial drain (I don’t accept it, but assume for the moment), what cost in their whiny list comes close to balancing off the financial catastrophe of destroying Social Security? 

5.       Just Maryland, for the moment: Maryland’s Dream Act is about in-state tuition rates for students who have: (a) settled in Maryland (at least five years), (b) paid taxes for five years (they and/or their parents), (c) shown themselves to be serious students and likely successful citizens by three years in a Maryland high school, earning a high school diploma, and performed successfully in college for two years, earning at least 60 credits.  Maryland taxpayers have already invested in these students for at least five years.  Now, we are two years away from cashing in on the investment, when they enter our workforce with a college degree.  Will we help for the last two years?  Not only justice, but also finance suggests we should!  Isn’t this a no-brainer?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Volunteers NEEDED -- on Maryland campuses

I have organized my ideas about the Dream Act at a website, so that the first ideas are at the front, instead of the most recent ideas -- which is what a blog does.  The website currently has a humungous link:

It's the same as the blog, arranged differently.



If you are in college in or near Maryland, and have a heart and a few hours to spare between now and November 6, please let me know, now!  Use the comments box, or send me a message at

If you know of someone in college in or near Maryland who might help, please let me know, now!   Use the comments box, or send me a message at