Stranger in a Strange Land
September 23, 2018
The story of Moses is told with symbolism. He names one of his children “Stranger” because he says to himself, “My people are strangers in this strange land”.
I want you to draw to mind a time that you felt like you were the stranger? You were the Outsider? You didn’t know what to do?
I had a few harmless moments like that this summer. I’m in the parking garage and I cannot read any directions, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how to pay for parking. The cars behind me are backing up, beeping.
One time, I rented a car in England, already driving on the wrong side of the road, when I had to put the car in reverse. No matter what I did, it wouldn’t go in reverse, til some guy came over to the car and showed me that you have to lift the gear shift on European cars to get them in reverse. I’d still be sitting there.
When were you a stranger? How did you feel? When you don’t speak the language; You don’t fit in. You are the ‘other’. It is surprising, isn’t it, how quickly we can become unsure of ourselves, cautious, fearful… How easy it is for us to misinterpret what is happening around us when we don’t when we don’t understand the customs and mores.
And then there are the more horrendous examples from our deeper history, the profound tragedy towards the stranger that has created a trail of tears in our human story. Hannah Arendt wrote one of the definitive books on why so many Jews were murdered for being strangers in a strange land during the Nazi period.
One of her best chapters of her book was title, ‘Race thinking before Racism’. She tells an epic story that I didn’t know about the founding of South Africa, when the Dutch first came there in 1650. Back then Amsterdam was the financial capital of the world and the East India Tea Company was the largest international trading company on Earth.
The Dutch wanted to establish a port in South Africa where they could restock and repair their ships, so they sailed down to what is today Cape Town. Jan Van Riebeek set sail in 1652.
When the Dutch got to the Cape, they left their boats moored off shore only to awaken to a mass gathering of the Bantu warriors on the beaches. The Bantu are comprised of many tribes that are today (the Zulu, The Xhosha, the Swazi, and the Ndebele).
The Dutch had cannons and long rifles, where the Bantu were pretty much limited to spears, swords and arrows. It was no match. But the Bantu soldiers probably numbered about 30,000 men and the Dutch were only a few hundred.
The leader of the Dutch watched from his boat as the Bantu warriors assembled themselves for battle on the beach. The Kings of the Bantu tribes, who were also the priests, were out in front of their tribe. All through the early dawn they were their traditional religious dances, asking their gods to ward off this threat from the sea, asking their gods to protect all of their soldiers from harm.
The Dutch could not tell for sure, but their leader had a pretty good idea of what he was likely looking at. And he had his men man four boats and row him closer with a contingent of soldiers. He stands on the bow of the boat as they draw near to the Bantu Kings.
The Bantu Kings are now more active than eve in their prayers to ward off evil and the warriors behind them are all armed in formation, divided into dozens of divisions.
The Dutch captain takes a long rifle, shoots one Bantu King who falls in the surf. He picks up another gun and shoots the second King who falls in the surf. The third, the fourth and then he has his men row him to shore.
He steps out onto the beach, whereupon 30,000 Bantu warriors fall on their faces and worship this god that has just vanquished their most powerful leaders who were deploying the most powerful Spirit they could muster.
Hannah Arendt said of that moment that a fateful decision was made in an instant. The Dutch leader decided that it was too difficult to relate to all these warriors as peers. They decided that they would rather just be worshipped as gods.
She went on to ask the haunting moral question, “How is it that the Europeans, after they had killed tens of thousands of Africans as they colonialized sub-Saharan Africa, did not seem to realize that they had committed murder?”
They didn’t have those basic bonds of fealty that humans share with one another. Instead they were objectively dismissed as ‘the stranger’, ‘the other’…
She reminds us that, very shortly, South Africa was developed on the promise of riches in Diamonds and Gold and that the European men that were attracted to the place actually wanted to live beyond the law, beyond the bonds of European civility that they left behind back home. They liked the lawlessness and they created the ethos that Joseph Conrad would describe two hundred years later as the ‘Heart of Darkness”.
It was so destructive, so dehumanizing. Such a spiritual waste of life… So deforming down the generations. And it is such a long and sordid part of our history that our spiritual traditions use it to describe the broken part of our world that is need of redemption.
We have the ability to introduce death in the midst of life. Our long history has far, far too many examples of it.
Jesus teaches us the spiritual opposite dimension, the healing power of compassionate presence, when we become shelter for each other and we take care of each other.
I was reflecting on that recently reading the list of people my daughter and her fiancé invited to their wedding, a few of them friends that we have had for a long time. Kate had 6 friends when she was 12. 5 of them are still alive. 4 of them get together from time to time still.
One of them was at college with Kate. I think she was a sophomore, before I met her, when she went home to visit her father who had a really bad bout of depression. Dr. Cochrane was teaching statistics at Bowman Gray Medical School at Wake Forest at the time. When Kate got home, he was in worse shape than she could imagine. She went back to college thinking she might need to take the rest of the semester off.
Dr. Cochrane was admitted to Duke Hospital. Kate was just getting ready to leave to go see him and be with her mother for the weekend, when her Uncle called her from Duke Hospital, where he was on the Medical faculty. He had the awful news that her Dad had taken his life… A gut punch.
Her friend was with her at the time, got her packed up, walked her through the next few days. I once asked Kate what they did. She said, “I don’t know…. We walked.”
That is about right. You don’t really remember the actual content of those awful seasons of our lives. But what you do remember is the divine moments when your people show up for you. When they are compassionate. When they care.
The boys at St. Benedict’s prep school in Newark say “Whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.” Those are divine moments, when we provide shelter and strength for one another.
I was thinking how much has happened since then between Kate and her friend. We watched births together, some deaths, weddings, children blossoming and becoming their own people, children not blooming, the whole wide range of sharing our lives.
We have that capacity to bring life to one another, even in the midst of tragic death. We can bring the power of life.
At the end of his life, Moses addressed the people of Israel and he said simply, “I put before you today, the way of life and the way of death. Choose life.
Choose compassion and be the divine presence of acceptance and shelter, be the divine care.
“Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I am my brother’s brother or sister. Human unity is not something we are called upon to create, only to recognize.
“We all belong to one another. That is the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.
“Prejudice disfigures the observer, not the person observed. If only the latter could remember it.”
Jesus calls us to live out of what is eternally true, the intrinsically authentic way of being through compassion and care.
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
So many of you have chosen the more meaningful way. I think of so many of our families that have adopted children, have blended families together. You provide so much healing and meaning for the rising generation.
You have the same maddening frustrations raising children that all parents have, the same nights of anxiety, worry, concern. And you wouldn’t have it any other way. It is the grounded meaning that makes you dressed on Monday and tackle the commute. It is the deeper, spiritual way of being. In the midst of it all, you are blessed.