Monday, January 22, 2018

Get Out

The scriptures referred to are Jonah 3:1-5, 10.

As chaplain, I try to meet the spiritual needs of all inmates: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Rastas, Buddhists, etc. So I have to know more than the average person about religions I don't belong to. But the inmates who dumbfound me usually call themselves Christian while having a unique and idiosyncratic take on the theology. I recently had one start out by asking me about the divine names in Genesis but when I explained about the Hebrew words underlying the English translations, he stopped me. The English words “God” and “Lord” were really acronyms, he said. G.O.D. stands for Governor of Denizens. I forget what Lord stands for. And then he explained his very different personal interpretation of the Bible. I just listened. I usually correct misconceptions when they are about things that don't require interpretation, like what the text of the Bible actually says or church history. No, the Caesar mentioned in the account of Jesus' birth is not Julius but Augustus. No, Constantine did not determine which books should be included in the Bible. You are entitled to your own opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts. But this inmate's retelling of the birth of Jesus was so original in so many details, there was no place to start. One thing I did push back on was his assertion that people in churches blindly follow their clergy. In cults, yes, but in the average church, I am afraid not. There are times when I wish I had the power to make everyone do what I say. There is a TV series in which a preacher has that power but it is correctly labeled as fantasy. And as we see in the book of Jonah, not even God can make a prophet do what he says. It takes spending 3 days in a fish's gut to persuade Jonah to preach to Nineveh.

What is Jonah's problem with Nineveh, anyway? It's probably that it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, one of the cruelest in history. We have unearthed ancient tablets showing their soldiers torturing their enemies, skinning them alive, blinding them, impaling them on stakes. One of their kings boasted of burning teenage boys and girls and building a pillar of heads in front of his city. They would often totally obliterate cities that resisted them. When Senacherib conquered Babylon, he burned its buildings and then diverted the river to flood it, eventually turning it into a field. So fearsome were they that, upon learning the Assyrian army was approaching, the king of Urartu stabbed himself in the chest rather than face it. This is the empire which would conquer the northern kingdom of Israel and take the so-called 10 lost tribes into exile, never to return. So this was like sending a Jew in the 1930s to preach to Berlin in Nazi Germany. And the thing that really stuck in Jonah's craw was that God was giving the people of Nineveh the chance to repent. And Jonah didn't want them to. So the whole book acts like a parable and the message is that God is cares about the welfare of all people.

That's a pretty radical message for the Hebrew Bible. More often the focus is on Israel as God's chosen people and usually references to its enemies are pronouncements of judgment upon them. Yet if you really pay attention you can detect even in the Old Testament the fact that Yahweh is not merely a local, tribal god. He created all people and he cares about them and has a plan for them.

It begins in Genesis. When God calls Abram out of Ur, he promises “...all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3) And in fact, you can see the entire Bible as God executing his plan to save the world, by working through Abraham, and then his son Isaac, and his son Jacob, and his son Judah, and his descendant David and finally through his descendant Jesus. And then it reverses. Mirroring how God's focus narrows throughout the Old Testament from many people down to one, in the New Testament the focus widens from Jesus to the disciples to the church to the whole world.

We see this foretold in Isaiah, a book Jesus quotes frequently in the gospels. In the 2nd chapter it says, “Many peoples will come and say, ' Come, let us go up to the Lord's mountain, to the temple of the God of Jacob, so he can teach us his requirements and we can follow his standards.' For Zion will be the center for moral instruction; the Lord will issue edicts from Jerusalem. He will judge disputes between nations; he will settle cases for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up the sword against other nations, and they will no longer train for war.” (Isaiah 2:3-4, NET) And more importantly in one of the passages addressing the Suffering Servant of the Lord, God says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:5-6) Indeed, Simeon echoes this when he calls the infant Jesus “a light, for revelation to the Gentiles...” (Luke 2:32)

Perhaps the richest source of evidence of God's universal love is the book of Psalms, the book that Jesus quoted the most. Psalm 145:9 says, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” In Psalm 22:27 it says, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” And Psalm 67:1-4 proclaims, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us—so that your ways may be known on the earth, your salvation among all nations. May the people praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the people with equity and guide the nations of the earth.”

One area where we see surprising but consistent ongoing support for non-Jews in the Hebrew Bible is when it comes to foreigners or aliens in Israel. This starts in Exodus, just 3 chapters after the giving of the Ten Commandments. This was their charter as a nation and it says, “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) So God here is appealing to the empathy of the Israelites. They were recently aliens living in a foreign county so they should understand what it's like for aliens living among them and therefore treat them with compassion. This is expressed even more forcefully in Leviticus 19 where it says, “The alien living among you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34) Not just tolerate, but love these resident aliens! This is the same chapter and just 16 verses after the command to love our neighbor as yourself. So you should love him even if he is an alien. After all, as it says of God in Deuteronomy 10, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:17)

This means, of course, equal justice must be given to aliens. Again the Bible says, “You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 24:22) You are to help the alien as you would a fellow citizen, looking out for his welfare. “If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you.” (Leviticus 25:35)

Consequently, mistreatment of aliens was one of the things the prophets warned God's people about. In Malachi it says, “'So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,' says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:5) Notice that a lot of the things fundamentalists think God is especially concerned about are absent, while things they rarely preach about, like not paying workers and not giving aliens justice, are highlighted.

God's concern with all people, including those who are not part of his covenant people, becomes even clearer in the New Testament. Jesus heals Gentiles. (Luke 7:1-10; Matthew 15:21-28) In his parable of the last judgment, Jesus says how we treat the less fortunate is how we treat him and he includes aliens along with the naked, hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned. (Matthew 25:31-46) When speaking of himself as the good shepherd, he says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16) And of course when the Risen Christ sends out the disciples, he says, “...make disciples of all nations.” The Hebrew word for “nations” is goyim, usually translated Gentiles. He is sending them outside their our country and into the world of Gentiles.

Surprisingly the person whom God chooses to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8) is Paul, a Jew and zealous Pharisee. Seeing who chiefly responds to the gospel when he preaches, Paul realizes that his view of God was too narrow. “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” (Romans 3:29-30) Paul also writes, “There is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

It would be nice to say that this resistance to those outside a group was limited to the Israelites of the Bible. But all groups tend to be nice to their own members and not so nice to those outside the group. This is true whether the group is made up of people belonging to a political party, a profession, a country, a race, a fandom, sports team supporters or even a religion. Studies show that infants seem to very early prefer those who look like their parents over those who are different. Sadly in some families and cultures, this feeling is not transcended but is built on and expanded into an explicit doctrine of racism and xenophobia.

When we lived in tribes of about 150 individuals, most of whom were blood relatives, it may have been a good rule of thumb to be suspicious of those who were different. But ever since we started living in towns and cities and countries with people of all kinds of origins, ethnicities, languages and customs, we have needed to live with and work with those who are different. It was and is vital to the survival of the community and the nation. Here in the US, where everyone who is not a pure-blooded Native American has descended from immigrants, we are supposedly united by our adherence to the ideals embodied in our Constitution. As it says in the Declaration of Independence, we believe God created all people as equals, in their worth and in their treatment. Having a darker skin tone or a different language or a different country of origin doesn't enter into what makes you an American. It recalls what Paul said about there being no race or gender or class in the church because we are all one in Christ.

In Revelation, John has a vision of heaven. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) There are no external qualifiers that set Christians apart from other people; we are united by the love of Jesus.

And since everyone we meet was made in God's image and was someone for whom Jesus died, we cannot treat anyone differently than we would treat Christ. God has a special interest in those who lack power, who lack food or water or shelter or health or freedom or who have lost a spouse or a parent or have come here from another country. Comedian Peter White has the best take on how not to sexually harass a woman. He said, “If you're a man, don't say anything to a woman in the street that you wouldn't want a man to say to you in prison.” In the same way, if you're a Christian, don't say or do anything to a person of a different race or nationality or citizenship status that you wouldn't say or do to Jesus. Instead, look for Jesus in them and be Jesus to them.

As the Spirit pushed the apostles out of Jerusalem and out of the Holy Land to spread the good news, so he is pushing us out of our comfort zone. He is calling us to reach out to those who are different, who do not look or speak or dress or act like us. Because just as he created a huge variety of animals and plants and other organisms, and a tremendous diversity of breeds and lines within species, so also he has created an enormous array of human beings. He made them all, he loves them all, and he expects us to do the same.

For all our apparent differences, we are so alike that we can receive blood transfusions and organ transplants from any race; we all have the same emotions—sadness, anger, fear, disgust, happiness and love; once we translate them, we can share and understand the same stories and ideas; and to a large extent we share the same values: care for family, loyalty to friends, an expectation of justice and fairness. Our similarity is so obvious that folks have to really twist the facts and torture their interpretation to argue that this race or that nationality is radically different from another.

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War 2, said, “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” That's because it is based on love and love draws us out of ourselves. Love makes us care for someone other than ourselves. Love can even make us care for someone more than ourselves. It can do so to the point that we will give up our lives to save them. That is what divine love made Jesus do for us. And that is what our love of Jesus should move us to do as well.

"The safest place for a ship is in the harbor. But that's not why ships are made." Jesus didn't come for you to stay safe and cozy, surrounded by what and who is familiar. Get out. Let the Spirit of God's love drive you out into the ocean of humanity, into the larger world. That's what the world needs and that's why you were made.

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