One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump

Statue of Liberty

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem makes me emotional. Embossed on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s base in New York Harbor, it articulates a beautiful ideal for the US: we are a welcoming refuge for the “wretched refuse” of the world, and therein lies our strength. The first lines of the sonnet contrast Lady Liberty with the Colossus of Rhodes, a 109-foot statue of Helios, the Greek god of the sun. One of the seven ancient wonders of the world, it was erected in 280 BC to celebrate a military victory. True to its purpose, it was given a fearsome, “Behold our power!” sort of stance.

Liberty has an imposing presence as well, but it’s tempered with “mild eyes” and the epithet “Mother of Exiles.” Maternal love is her stance. I care nothing for riches and glory, she tells the other nations. Send me, instead, the weak, the destitute, the hurting. My light is always on, inviting them to enter in and stay.

Lazarus’s poem is thoroughly in line with biblical values—which is no surprise, because she was herself Jewish. Here are just some of the verses in the Hebrew Bible that prescribe care for immigrants and affirm their rights. (The word “immigrant,” ger, is sometimes translated in scripture as “sojourner,” “stranger,” “foreigner,” or “alien.”)

Exodus 23:9: “You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33–34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

Deuteronomy 10:17–19: “The LORD your God . . . loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are immigrants, for you yourselves were immigrants in Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 14:29: “The immigrant . . . within your towns shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you.”

Deuteronomy 24:17: “You shall not pervert the justice due to the immigrant.”

Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrant. . . . Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”

Jeremiah 7:6: “Do not oppress the immigrant.”

Jeremiah 22:3: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Do what is just and right. . . . Do no wrong or violence to the immigrant.’”

Ezekiel 22:4, 7: “You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] . . . the foreign resident is exploited within you.”

Zechariah 7:10–11: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the . . . immigrant.”

Malachi 3:15: “‘I will come to you in judgment. I will be quick to testify against those . . . who refuse to help the immigrant and in this way show they do not fear me,’ says the LORD who rules over all.”

The immigrant belongs to the “quartet of the vulnerable”—along with widows, orphans, and the poor—whose cause God takes up over and over again throughout the Bible and commands his people to do likewise. “The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups,” writes Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’”  

The Christian New Testament also speaks to immigration on a few occasions:

Matthew 25:34–35, 40: “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for . . . I was a stranger, and you took me in. . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

Hebrews 13:2: “Show hospitality to strangers.”

Emma Lazarus wove this biblical ethic—love and welcome of immigrants—into America’s (aspirational) national identity. Her poem, of course, does not have the force of legislation, and the country’s immigration policies have not been consistently open (just a year prior to the poem’s composition, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers). But for over a century the poem has stood as a reminder of one of our chiefest assets: the fusion of nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities that reside on our soil, enriching it in countless ways—and no, I don’t just mean economically.

The Melting Pot playbill
Playbill for The Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill, 1908. The metaphor of America as a “melting pot” was popularized by this play.

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Last Wednesday, though, “The New Colossus” was publicly repudiated by President Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, in defense of Trump’s new proposal to implement radical changes to US immigration law that would slash the number of immigrants allowed into the country by half. The RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act would create a merit-based immigration system in which “the highest point-getting candidate . . . would be a 26- to 31-year-old with a US-based doctorate or professional degree, who speaks nearly perfect English, and who has a salary offer that’s three times as high as the median income where they are.” The children, spouses, and parents of these “high-value” immigrants would not fare well under the new system.

In an irreverent inversion of Liberty’s proclamation, the RAISE Act essentially says, “Give me, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Keep your tired, your poor . . .”

Responding to a reporter’s concern that the RAISE Act is anti-American in spirit, Miller said that the Statue of Liberty as an icon for welcoming immigrants is fallacious; it is, rather, “a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” and the poem was added later. (For a satirical dressing-down by Stephen Colbert, click here.)

Miller is correct in that the poem was not part of the original design, installation, or dedication of the statue. But it “gives its subject a raison d’être,” wrote poet James Russell Lowell in a letter to Lazarus, which it was lacking at the time—Americans were so unmoved and uninterested by the statue that it was a struggle to raise funds for it. The idea for the Statue of Liberty originated in France in 1870 with abolitionist Édouard René de Laboulaye and sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, who wanted to honor the triumph of republican ideals and the end of institutionalized slavery signified by the recent Union victory. (A lesser known iconographic detail: Liberty rises up over a broken chain.) The project was financed jointly by the French and American people.

A fourth-generation American from a wealthy Sephardic-Ashkenazi Jewish family, Lazarus was, at that time, a published writer and German-to-English translator who was active on behalf of Russian refugees fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms. She aided their arrival, taught them English, provided vocational training, and served as one of their fiercest advocates.

Russian Jewish postcard
This 1909 postcard shows traditionally dressed Russian Jews lining Europe’s shore, prepared to be received in America by their assimilated relatives. An American eagle holds a banner with the Hebrew inscription “Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 17:8).

In 1883, while the Statue of Liberty was lying in a Parisian warehouse, Lazarus was commissioned to write a poem to help raise money for the construction of its pedestal. At first she was hesitant, until her friend Constance Cary Harrison encouraged her to “think of the goddess of liberty standing on her pedestal yonder in the bay and holding the torch out to those refugees you are so fond of visiting at Ward’s Island.” Lazarus then proceeded to pen what has since become the statue’s definitive interpretive key. In her conception, Liberty’s torch is a beckoning porchlight, not an imperialistic instrument of enlightenment brandished at other nations.

“The New Colossus” was well received and fetched $1,500 at auction but was soon forgotten. The statue’s dedication ceremony in 1886 didn’t mention it, nor did Lazarus’s obituary a year later. It wasn’t until 1903, due to the efforts of Lazarus’s friend Georgiana Schuyler, that the poem became memorialized with a plaque mounted inside the lower level of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, where it remains today. An ex post facto inscription! Through being reprinted and taught in schools, the poem became popularized in the 1930s, such that now the meaning Lazarus ascribed to the statue has been widely adopted by the popular imagination.

(For more on the transformation of meaning the statue underwent over the years, see episode 2 of the podcast In the Past Lane, “The Statue of Liberty and Immigration History.” As historian Vincent Cannato reminds us, the idea of America is always changing, always evolving, and therefore our national icons will continue to be reread in different ways as we decide who we are and who we want to be.)

The Proposed Emigrant Dumping Site
The Statue of Liberty wasn’t always a positive symbol of immigration. In this political cartoon by Victor Gillam from the March 22, 1890, cover of Judge magazine, Liberty hikes up her robe to avoid touching the immigrant refuse being dumped on her island by “European Garbage Ships.” Click on the image for more context.

In its July 26, 1941, issue, the New York Times published an editorial on the service held that week at the base of the Statue of Liberty in commemoration of the late Lazarus’s birthday, hosted by the National Park Service and the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born. In nostalgic reflection, the newspaper wrote,

When Miss Lazarus wrote her poem, there were few who wished to dim the torch. Millions were yet to come overseas, to sweat in mill, mine and factory, to climb upward in the democratic whirl and dust. They, too, made today’s America. . . . We will have fallen from our high estate if there is not still a welcome here for the bravest and the hardest-pressed.

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I rarely address national politics on this blog, but I feel compelled to speak out about this issue, at the risk of alienating some of my readers. The bane of the two-party system in America is that every decision is perceived as partisan. I’m not affiliated with either party; I’m simply speaking from my conscience as a Christian. Grace is so fundamental to my worldview, I can’t help but apply it to the political sphere. I was saved by grace, and God deals graciously with me again and again. I am therefore bound to extend grace to others, regardless of their merit as I or my country’s lawbooks define “merit.” As the numerous scripture passages cited above indicate, God loves the immigrant—in his incarnation, he spent his childhood as one—and executes judgment on those who would turn the immigrant away. I realize that the US is not a theocracy and adheres to the separation of church and state. But how can I preach the gospel of grace and then support laws that contradict it?

This new immigration bill, and the refugee ban that preceded it, are inspired in large part by fear: fear of job competition, fear of terrorism, fear of difference, fear of becoming a minority-majority nation, of seeing the power balance tip. There is so much fearmongering in the rhetoric. But as a Christian, my rule is love, and “perfect love casts out fear.” How different the political climate would be if all policymakers were driven by love! And not just an insular love that’s reserved for American citizens, but love for our brothers and sisters around the globe, especially those who are knocking on our “golden door.” I understand that a government’s main concern is to protect its own people and see them flourish, but I’m just saying, “What if . . . ?” What if our arms were wider? I’m reminded of Jesus’s warning: “To whom much has been given, much shall be required.”

Fear itself by R. J. Matson
This January 2017 political cartoon by R. J. Matson references the famous line from FDR’s first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I don’t care if I sound naive or impractical. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. In my insistence on an allegiance that goes broader and deeper than nationalism, I’m in the company of one of history’s bravest and most esteemed activists: Martin Luther King Jr. In “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech delivered April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City in opposition to the Vietnam War, King admonished,

Our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.

The social justice arm of the Christian Reformed Church sent out an e-mail to prayer list subscribers on Monday, stating, “We believe that immigration brings a host of blessings to our communities. We celebrate immigrants’ ingenuity, pride, strong families, hard work, and deep faith.” They continued with a list of reasons why the denomination opposes the RAISE Act:

The church values diversity
The RAISE Act would significantly reduce the number of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and other non-white countries by eliminating the Diversity Visa program.

We are for families
This bill would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to reunite with their brothers and sisters, and parents to reunite with their adult children. It would reduce family-based immigration by potentially more than 85 percent.

We honor the dignity of work
By effectively only permitting individuals who have certain education levels, work history, English-language ability, or high-paying job offers to enter the United States, immigration will become inaccessible to the poor. With up to 70% of agricultural workers being undocumented, we need more channels for legal entry for employment, not less.

We practice radical hospitality
This bill sets the lowest annual refugee resettlement goal in U.S. history in the midst of the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. It would limit annual refugee entry to 50,000 individuals. Now is not the moment to scale back our efforts to welcome.

If you want to tell Congress to oppose the RAISE Act, click here.

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Lest I wander too far from the objective of this website, let me conclude with a piece of theologically informed literary art.

Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” is the subject of a new sonnet, written earlier this year, by Timothy E. G. Bartel, a PhD graduate of the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews. “One sonnet can imbue a history with upright strength when shouted prose demands it bow to fear or riches,” it begins. Looking at the statue’s design, Lazarus imagines what it would mean to a bedraggled newcomer sailing past it into port, anxious for a better life. By virtue of her Jewish heritage, she empathizes with those who are poor, tired, huddled (“her blood knows [it] like an heirloom”). And to America she bequeaths a gift, to complement the French one: her vision of a welcoming America. Recharacterizing the allegorical figure of Liberty, she gives us a picture to believe in and to work toward actualizing. Whereas the man in Washington, and his unstinting fans, seek to lock America’s door to poor, uneducated, non-English-speaking outsiders, Lazarus’s poem acts as a key to undo the bolt.

“Lazarus” by Timothy E. G. Bartel

One sonnet can imbue a history
With upright strength when shouted prose demands
It bow to fear or riches. Emma writes
Though publishers refuse her name in print,
Though civil rights do not include her vote,
Though literati fear that Jewish friends
Will taint their reputation, Emma writes.
She writes a sonnet for the statue-gift,

And crafts a climax that the immigrant
Will need to hear, will recognize as mirror:
“Your poor, your tired, your huddled”—these her blood
Knows like an heirloom—so she smiths a key
To foil the forces in each age that shrink
Before the stranger, lock the golden door.

(This poem was originally published in February in Curator magazine and is reprinted here by permission of the poet.)