It’s Holy Week, time once again to remember the price paid — suffering, passion, and death — for the resurrection. It doesn’t matter if you are a believer because the point is not just about religion. It’s also about political and cultural values. The point is that we are at a social crossroads. What do we believe in? What do we value? What is our future as a nation? The crucial questions are distilled down to a bitter drink. A chalice is offered to you, to me, to us. And we must drink it.
This cup is the crucible of bitter hatred and division that has torn our nation apart to a degree unseen since the Civil War. This passion looms before our eyes. As Christ said, “Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink of it, thy will be done.” Because enough of us believe that we are a Christian nation the cup is not going to pass until we drain it to the lees. Nobody set us up for this. Nobody except ourselves. Believers and nonbelievers, enough of us still have a conscience. That much is certainly true. For that reason we are swept along to a confrontation with ourselves. Because we have traveled far on our path, the crisis is inevitable. We cannot ignore it or escape it and it is torture enough to raise a bloody sweat like Christ’s in Gethsemane. I solemnly assure you that there will be an agony awaiting us in the garden of our future if we do not change our ways. We must drink the cup, which is the only way to neutralize the poison. We must change, we must learn to live up to the promise of our creed.
Many of us know what it is like to watch, not to sleep. This is especially true for us who have always been U.S. citizens, descended from the original Spanish Mexicans whose land this was before the arrival of Anglo Americans. What is that like? Long ago I was a young man, growing up in the borderlands, so far on the edge of the country that it was hard to believe that I was indeed part of the country. But I knew that all men, all people, are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Knowledge is a sharp sword. To assume the mantle of citizenship quickly became a conscious choice for me. It is an all-enveloping cloak. It can wrap around you and change your entire perspective. When we persist in our evil treatment of refugees on the southern border the mantle of conscience becomes heavy indeed. The burden is there. It wasn’t the banks of the Jordan, but that cloth was laid on my shoulders nevertheless.
It is a difficult role to play. Those of us on the border might not have been as well-versed as other citizens in the traditions of the United States. But we believed in them. We may not have been accepted by our compatriots as citizens, equal under the law. But we still volunteered and continue to volunteer in large numbers for the combat arms. We might not have been given our rightful place at the banquet table of American democracy, but we still claimed our inheritance and sat down to partake of that repast. We may have been constantly confounded with the immigrants, and still are, recent arrivals who look just like us, but we never tire of correcting the misperception, asserting our rights as citizens while at the same time opening the doors and welcoming those who approach the banquet with hope in their eyes.
I drank a cup in the war. It happened when I saw the sacrifice. Many comrades with us had crossed the border illegally to join the Army and fight in the war, so great was their love for the United States. To get them into the Army infantry, recruiters were creative in those days, promising legal status in return for service. But the sacrifice was for more than a piece of paper. The border crossers carried a heavy cross to the Calvary of combat. The covenant was this: blood for citizenship. It was too steep a price. It had to be for love.
As many of us know, sometimes the dead will come to us at night. Each one of those casualties always says the same thing. “Remember me.” I remember them, the KIAs, especially those who first risked their lives crossing the deserts, and then again in Vietnam in the futile war, and what they did in order to become Americans. I know that I have to give them an accounting. Their memory causes me to forever beg, like Pvt. Ryan, “Tell me that I have been a good man!” Have I done enough to faithfully claim my birthright? Have I lived a good enough life as a veteran, as a faithful soldier, as one who carries the cross of survivor’s guilt, to warrant my privilege as a U.S. citizen?
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.