Stranger in a Strange Land

This past week, the Little One and I watched “First Contact,” the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Not the Star Trek movie by the same name, but the series episode, which originally aired exactly 21 years ago this past Saturday.

Also this past Saturday, we read as part of our Torah Parsha: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) A happy coincidence, as they say, because it gave me the opportunity to write today about how we treat strangers, a topic that I often find on my heart.

If you’ve never seen the episode “First Contact,” here’s how it goes: The Enterprise crew is tasked with making first contact with Malcor, a planet whose inhabitants are about to develop warp drive. Commander Riker is injured while reconnoitering, disguised as a Malcorian, and they take him to a hospital in the capital city. Unfortunately, most Malcorians are very suspicious of outsiders. And as they begin to suspect that Riker is an alien, they begin to see him as a threat, because he may be followed by an invading force.

Aliens in the Torah

Exodus 20 isn’t the only place foreigners are mentioned in the Torah:

If society helps us to meet our needs, any fair society must also take account of the needs of strangers, immigrants, and aliens.

“If people get scared enough anything could happen.”

In the Star Trek episode, the doctor at the hospital does his level best to protect Riker. He orders that Riker’s room be guarded, and that his case be kept secret, shared only on a need to know, so that people won’t freak out and do something crazy. “I don’t know what else he is, but he is still a patient in this medical facility, and we have a responsibility for his care and recovery.”

Despite the doctor’s efforts, though, Riker tries to escape, and the hospital staff nearly beats him to death when they catch up with him. How could anyone justify that reaction?

Not too long ago, a friend told me that I don’t understand Muslims, that they’re not like us, that they glorify death and violent self-sacrifice, so that they can get 72 virgins in the afterlife. He said this to justify an anti-Islamic comment he had made.

Me, nonplussed. Too busy dragging my jaw across the floor to think of a response that wouldn’t embarrass me to repeat.

It’s so much easier to glorify violence against an enemy that is different than you are, different in a way that terrifies. Because if people get scared enough, anything can happen. We too glorify death and violent self-sacrifice, “to die for one’s country,” as though to die in order to kill the enemy were somehow noble. But God rejoices in the death of no man.

The reality: Muslims are just like us, in every important way. They are human beings, seeking to meet their basic human needs, sometimes succeeding, and sometimes screwing it up, just like us. Muslims don’t want to die for their country or religion any more than you or I do, and only when backed into a corner would they even think about making such a choice, just like you and me.

“However you would describe your intentions, you still represent the end to my way of life. I cannot permit that to occur.”

In “First Contact,” the Malcorian Minister of Security, representing the extreme conservative side of Malcorian society, he gets so worked up that he hatches a plot. He shoots himself with Riker’s phaser, trying to make it look like Riker murdered him. His martyrdom would, he reasoned, incite the people against these aliens from the Enterprise, and against space travel in general. Unfortunately, he foolishly left the phaser on stun, and all he got for his trouble was an embarrassing little boo boo, and one hell of a hangover.

He was so terrified of his culture and his way of life changing, that he was willing to die to prevent it. Frankly, he would have done much better just to take a few deep breaths and let it happen. Sigh.

Here in the US, it’s those damn latinos that get everyone in an uproar. Despite our government’s protestations, they keep coming over the border and taking over our culture. “If we don’t stop them, we’re all going to be speaking Spanish!” I know people off of whose tongues roll those words as though they made sense.

I don’t believe English is on its way out. But even if I did: so what? Spanish is as good a language as any other.

And no one is accusing the Mexicans of mounting a military invasion. Rather, they’re accusing them of seeking to better their own lives by engaging in voluntary relationships with willing US citizens. Here is where the words of the Torah really make an impact. If we are to follow God’s values, we ought to be kind and supportive to the aliens among us, especially when it comes to allowing them to meet their basic needs for food and shelter.

But we’re afraid that they represent a change to our way of life, and we see change as leading us down a road of self-destruction. And that terrifies us.

But change is not self-destruction. Despite humanity’s darkest fears, life continues getting better and better all the time. Over the past century, our quality of life has improved dramatically, along with our life-expectancy. We’re living longer and better than we did in 1900, or in 1950, or even in 2000.

When this episode, “First Contact,” first aired in 1991, there was no iTunes or iPhone or i-anything. Microsoft released Windows version 2 (since version 1 had been so unstable), but it still wasn’t good enough for anyone to want to actually use it. There was no World Wide Web, not as we know today, because it had just been invented. And people were just starting to make international data connections… at telephone-modem speeds. Average life-expectancy was about 3 years shorter than it is today in the US (and 4 years world-wide). And the economy was 35% smaller than it is today.

Change is the one certainty in the world, and most of it is for the better. And if we see change as tending for the better, we should not fear immigrants, and should not demonize them, because they’re part of that change.

“Once we cross the threshold… we shall have to give up this self-importance, this conceit that we are the center of the universe.”

The Malcorians saw themselves at the center of the universe, and being part of a universal community would challenge that myth.

But isn’t that also what we, in our individual nations and cultures, are experiencing in the twenty-first century? More and more, we are facing a world without boundaries, where knowledge and wealth are shared freely. Websites like Twitter and Facebook, Flickr and YouTube serve as conduits of public information against censorial regimes. In this twenty-first-century global economy, you can order goods and services from around the world and enjoy them in your own living room.

Even in my field—writing fiction—I have found invaluable insight into my fictional characters through the work of a movement of psychologists who practice in Europe (and a few in Australia and Africa). Twenty-one years ago, this work did not even exist; and even if it had existed, I would not have access to it.

We now have access to a world full of wealth and variety, but only if we accept it.

And that’s the scary part, because it means our culture meets with all the other cultures of the world. In some cases, we may need to find an inner confidence in our own identities, so that we can meet the world without fear. In other cases, we may need to find a new identity, as elements of our culture merge with the other cultures of the world.

Regardless, however, we must remember first that God gave every human being the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And whenever we presume to vilify a class of people in order to infringe on those rights, we work against peace and prosperity, against God’s moral code, and ultimately against ourselves.