The most important lesson I learned in all that I saw and heard during my year of office as President of the Methodist Conference is summed up in the words of a young Bosnian Muslim survivor. He shared these words at the first Holocaust Memorial event held in Britain on 27th January this year. He spoke of so-called “ethnic cleansing”. He described how a diverse community of good neighbours was suddenly brought to the point of enmity and hostility to each other; and how he was tortured by people he knew. Then he spoke these words, and I shall never forget them:
“When one group starts to treat another group of people as less than human that’s the beginning of genocide.”
The diverse communities of Birmingham, Bradford, Belfast as well as Bosnia need to hear the wisdom and warning in the words of this young man. Such atrocity could happen in Bosnia – we don’t want it in Britain.
“Ethnic Cleansing” – as it is termed – is rooted in doctrines of ethnic and religious purity. It fears diversity and difference. People say “You are different, you are dirty, you cannot live near me. You must go and live somewhere else.” To bring people to a point where they move out, violence is threatened or unleashed.
History is littered with ethnic atrocity and genocide. There have been times when religion has been used to sanction or justify such atrocity.
The book Religion and Atrocity: Unholy Alliance by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis spells this out very well. Any person of good will and good faith is ashamed when religion is abused to sanction or justify atrocity. Where religion is used to sanction or justify atrocity, people of good will and good faith will reject it. People will not trust or respect the judgement and wisdom of systems, structures, religion or individuals that support separation of people, however that is attempted.
There have been – and are – numerous ideologies or philosophies or theologies that have been used to separate people.
• the caste system
• the theory of many races, and purity of races
• the doctrine of apartheid
• the strategy of ethnic cleansing
Religion is co-opted in these systems to accord purity and cleanness to the established groups and to support or justify their power or empires, if you like.
In all the ideologies of separation I have listed, ancient and modern, prime of place is given to those of lighted skin colours. We can see it , for example, in Noah who spoke words of curse to his son Canaan who would have been black; in the actions of Abraham who drove out his black wife, Hagar; when Moses is criticised by Aaron and Miriam because he had married a black, Cushite woman.
Such colour discrimination came to be ritualised by language of purity and defilement. The privileged people were pure, and the rest were unclean. The pure and the unclean or impure could not interact. In time, the most sacred of religious qualities, holiness, came to mean being pure – and separate and free of contact with people, animals and things that could defile one. The holy ones, the pure, were seen to be close to God who is holy and separate. Everyone else is an outsider, unclean. The one who is different is the one who is not pure.
Stricter and stricter boundaries were drawn between the inner, holy, circle and those outside it. The “insiders” has space to be. The “outsiders” were outside it. They had no place. They were no people. These are the ones who Biblically are referred to as “strangers”. Strangers are the ones to whom the insiders owe nothing, the ones from whom the insiders should keep separate. The strangers are nameless masses who are an irritation, and embarrassment and unwelcome. To be a stranger is to be denied access to life.
The Biblical term for them is Habiru. Most Biblical scholars now regards Habiru as an alternative rendering of Hebrew. The term Hebrew has roots in the word abar which means “to cross over”. Hebrew therefore id the one who crosses over boundaries in the quest for life. As one author notes (W. Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience, Fortress 1991, p293), Hebrew are “the people who finally became the ‘people of God’ in the OT [and] are among some of those [who had been] declared ‘strangers’, ‘outsiders’, ‘threat’” – by the status quo, i.e. the Egyptian Empire.
In the story of Joseph in Egypt, we read (Gen 43:32):
“They served him by himself,
and them by themselves,
because the Egyptians
might not eat bread with the Hebrews,
for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.”
The word “abomination” shows how the idea of separateness had been ritualised for members of the status quo. To eat with the stranger would be defiling. This ritualising developed into laws and regulations regarding food, sexuality and the priesthood.
In God’s design, the Hebrew, the strangers, the no-people, became God’s people.
God hears the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt.
God hears them and accords them status.
The stranger, the outsider, is seen to be included in God’s community.
This community now lives by a divine ethic. God is seen to side with the stranger. God’s people are required to emulate God.
Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth has written (Faith in the Future, DLT 1995, p.78):
“The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev 19:18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality. But it is not: it is only part of it. The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in 37 places it commands us to love the stranger. Our neighbour is one we love because he is like ourselves. The stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like ourselves.”
That is a remarkable piece of illumination. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the instruction that is readily quoted. Hardly ever do we hear God’s oft repeated command to “love the stranger”.
In Deuteronomy 12:17-19, we read:
“17 The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,
18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the strangers,
providing them with food and clothing.
19 You shall also love the stranger,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Why should you love the stranger?
Because God loves the stranger…and remember, you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The Hebrew – the stranger in Egypt, to whom God showed love, is now required to love the stranger.
God’s holiness is not seen in God’s remoteness or separateness from the stranger, but by God’s utter concern for the stranger, by God’s adoption and embrace of the stranger. God requires nothing less from those who would be holy. God is outraged when “the stranger residing among you suffers extortion” (Ez 22:7). This is the god who is seen in Jesus of Nazareth. God is the incarnate one, the one who is with us.
Jesus cuts through boundaries and separation between who is considered to be holy and profane. You remember the insiders who would not eat with the outsiders, the stranger, because that would be an “abomination”. Jesus’ most subversive and radical activity, for which he is most criticised, is to eat with the social outcasts of his day. It is said that “he eats with sinners and tax collectors”. The tax collectors were not flavour of the day because they collaborated with the “outsiders”.
Jesus expressed his solidarity with the poor and marginalized people of his day by eating with them. He welcomes the poor, “the unclean”, “the sinners”, the harlots and publicans and ate with them. In this he showed God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life. He demonstrates a holiness of connectedness not separateness, of intimacy not aloofness.
• breaks down barriers
• crosses our boundaries
• includes those who would have been excluded
• eats with anyone who would eat with him.
Everything Jesus did and said demonstrated these things.
Guardians of boundaries and holiness of separation don’t like such behaviour. In the end, Jesus’ actions crucified him
Jesus has left an example for his community. Practise hospitality. Eat with each other. Eat with the most vulnerable ones. Eat with “the stranger”. Your lifestyle should be one of hospitality and solidarity, not hostility and segregation.
The ethics of so many are about
They may extend to “love of neighbour”.
The Biblical and gospel demand is for a different, counter-cultural ethic:
“God loves the stranger…
You shall also love the stranger.”
The strength of this requirement is seen in the fact that it is stated 37 times in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus demonstrates the ethics of hospitality and eating with outcasts, and says that in welcoming the stranger, one welcomes Christ:
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”
To be made human in the image of God is to be:
Creative “revolting against everything that is opposed to humanity”
(James Cone, Theology of Liberation Orbis, sixth edition 1995, p 93.)
Hospitable revolting against everything that is opposed to the welcome of “strangers”
Being in the image of God is about recognition of the fact that there is one race, the human race.
It is also the vision and theology that is at the root of every act of resistance by black people when they are refused the status of being human when they are refused welcome and hospitality.
To express confidence and belief in the image of God is to say
yes to our colour
yes to our hospitality
And it is to say “no” to those who think they are God but end up laying an assault on God’s image.
“Black theology emphasises the right of blacks to be black and by so doing to participate in the image of God” (Cone p 93)
To participate in the image of God is to rebel against structures of oppression and segregation; it is to participate in the liberation struggle against the forces of inhumanity.