The eye of the needle

If our country wants to talk the talk of Christianity, it needs to walk the walk.

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In the earth

there are doorways

from this earth

but they are narrow.

From boyhood on I was fascinated by doorways and gates: our white paneled door in Brooklyn with four small windows at the top (above our address: 1851), with a brass mailbox at the bottom; tricky subway turnstiles; iron gates in the country that creaked open with a hard push. We had a poster of the colorful "Doors of Dublin" — so much livelier than ours! — which, decades later, Jeanne and I saw in reality.

In Brooklyn we lived in a row of attached houses, separated by an alley leading to the garages and little gardens out back. We had brick steps in the front but wooden steps in the back. In the 1930's unemployed men trudged through the alleys, lifted the gate-latches to the garden, came to the back door to ask for a cup of coffee, and were generally given something to go with it, which they'd eat at our small kitchen table. I looked with envy at these poorly dressed men, who spoke softly with caps in hand. How lucky they were, walking around through all these interesting gates and doors, getting treats just for being polite! I could do that, I thought.

Our nearby Lutheran church had heavy carved entrances, and it was there that I first learned of metaphorical doors, like the gates to heaven and hell, complete with trumpets and whips. But the one that intrigued me most was the one implied by a favorite quotation of our Sunday School teacher: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24). What's that camel doing there, we wondered; and he told us that in Biblical days, whoever designed the gates of Jerusalem had made one entrance too small, so the camels had to be unloaded and made to crawl in order to pass through. We had all been to the Bronx Zoo and loved the idea of crawling camels. Later, in college, I learned that this was apocryphal; and the translators got confused between the Greek words "kamilos" (camel) and "kamêlos" (rope). Nevertheless, despite countless individual exceptions, the sense of the saying rings true either way, camel or rope: the average homeless person on our streets is more worthy of God's (and our) compassion than Donald Trump.

The doors of America are getting smaller. Immigrants have made us the country we are today, but we've turned against them. We seem afraid of them, afraid of the poor in general. Poverty's a calamity; right now 4 million families are dependent on jobless benefits, and Republican legislators want to renege on extending these benefits through 2011 — while supporting tax breaks for the oil companies, the insurance companies and the rich. These are tough times, but we're picking on the most vulnerable, who are the least responsible for our economic mess. Piece by piece, we're passing laws that will expand the one thing we should really fear: the huge gap between our rich and poor.

If our country wants to talk the talk of Christianity, it should walk the walk. It won't fit through the eye of the needle for the same reason implied by Matthew: we're becoming mean. Some years ago, the poet Edward Field and a friend took a trip through depressed East Germany and booming West Germany. When they returned he told us, "You know, the East Germans were much nicer, kinder, more generous." And last week, a friend just back from Cuba said the same thing: The Cubans were suffering, but were warm and friendly, despite how America has oppressed their country. (I'm all for capitalism, but we seem to be going in the wrong direction in several ways: in Francine Prose's My New American Life, an Albanian immigrant observes that America's "not like communism. The shopping is better. The sex is worse." Bummer!)

Still, I believe that there's another, better, America; or can be. Our own doorway is at the end of a curved brick path. At night, when the 40-watt bulb in our lamppost sheds its faint light, it can seem either sinister or welcoming, depending on the wind. Who knows what's behind that shadowy door?

Home, I hope.

Even light

is far too heavy.

It must be dark

through there.

- both quotes from "Eye of the Needle"

by Philip Ian Hodgins (1959-1995)

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