The Problem wih “The Other”

Leviticus 19:33-34 Hebrews 13:1-2 ; Luke 10: 25-37


               In 1996, a couple was floating in tubes down the Columbia River in Washington state, right near the town of Kennewick taking in the annual hydroplane races, when they noticed a skull in the bank of the reservoir.

               They called the authorities, worried that they might have discovered the remains of a murder. When the entire body was exhumed, it became apparent that these remains had been buried for quite a long time. We would later determine that they were between 9,300-9,600 years old. That is not only very old; we have very few remains of any type of humans from that period in North America.

               Immediately, the Umatilla tribe of Native Americans indigenous to the area claimed the relics as one of their ancestors and wanted to bury the bones right away with the proper spiritual traditions to their culture.

               And that might have ended things right there, except that we don’t have many relics from that period, so scholars wanted to study them more closely. And there was another curiosity. The skull didn’t look like a Native-American skull. It looked like a European.

               Whoah… think about that guy’s life. He is a young man in Norway or Scotland, decides to strike out on his own, likely with a few of his friends. He builds a boat, starts sailing west with no idea what is out there.

               Undoubtedly hundreds of people have done this before him, and they all have died from rough seas. But this guy somehow manages to make it all the way to Nova Scotia in what is today Canada. And he walks, he walks all the way across our continent.

               His entire adult life, he never meets anyone that speaks his language. He has to negotiate with every group of people that he meets so that they don’t just instantly kill him. And somehow, someway, he makes it all the way to Washington state, where he dies right near the Columbia River. That is an adventurous man. And I have to believe that there were more stories like that from our pre-history than we would imagine.

               We have records of a few of them, of what must have been a normative experience of our ancestors, running into humans that were so different from you, humans that you had never seen before that you weren’t quite sure what to make of them or how to treat them.

               In college, I read a report of one such meeting that involved the philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle had been on an expedition with several Generals in the Athenian army. They found themselves on a journey reasonably far to the east from Greece when they encountered a group of men riding horses.

               The exchange ended without violence, each group going their different directions. But it provoked a lengthy discussion that Aristotle recorded later that night.

               All of the soldiers agreed that they had met men riding these horses. From the description, it appears that they were Mongolians, the able horsemen that we would later fear in the West once Attila the Hun, organized them to lay waste to the eastern edge of the Roman Empire in 400 a.d., some 700 years after the encounter that Aristotle describes.

               Only men could tame a horse and exhibit such skill in riding. But the question was, are these men ‘human’? Should we afford these people the same rights that we would grant each other? Do we respect them in the same way we would recognize, say, Persians or Egyptians, enemies of the Greeks, but citizens of a country?

               Arguments were made back and forth, rather lengthy ones. But the unanimous opinion of these educated leaders of Greek society was ‘No.’ These men are not humans. We don’t owe them our compassion or our understanding. They are ‘The other.’ For men to be fully human, all of them concluded, you had to be raised in a city with a developed civilization… like Greeks. If you were from a hunter-gatherer tribe or from a nomadic people, which would have been over 2/3’s of the world’s population at that time, they didn’t feel obliged to accord them any rights- no co-fraternity; no sense of being a distant family. No, they didn’t seem them as themselves, period.

               If you’ve ever wondered how our ancestors were capable of wanton inhumanity that led to slavery, this is the way that it looked in Greece and Rome. They didn’t recognize a universal human relatedness just because they shared the same DNA, plain and simple.

               It is said that the word ‘Barbarian’ is an ideophone- SAT word. When the Greeks heard people speaking that weren’t Greek, it sounded like ‘Barbar’ to them. We would say, “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

               And they pretty much divided the world into a simple dichotomy: Greek or ‘Barbar’s, the non-Greeks, ‘Them,’ the Other. I suspect our ancestors thought like this pretty much since the founding of cities, some 6,000 years ago.

               It is probably profoundly etched in all of us more than we are aware. It is perhaps still part of our ‘collective subconscious’ as Carl Jung used to call it- values that reflect our social view of the world, the spirit of our time, the shared way we look at the world for everyone born into our era.

               So, when you think about our readings from Leviticus and Hebrews this morning, you can see that they were a step forward morally.

               The Jews identified with the slaves. In the Exodus, God liberates them from slavery and grants them spiritual and social freedom. So the rest of their existence opens before them like “The Promised Land” because they are self-determining. They are free.

               And the first thing God teaches them out of that experience is that slaves do have an identity. They are related to us spiritually. We owe them compassion and the recognition of fundamental human fealty.

               And they have a new social ethic too, new customs, new laws that follow. It is a profound step forward. “When a foreigner (barbarian) is passing through your native soil, do not mistreat them. If a barbarian lives where you live, treat them with the same respect, you would show someone from your tribe. For you were once considered a ‘barbarian’ when you were enslaved in Egypt.’ Do not forget.

               It was a huge step forward morally. Respect for everyone and a fundamental reverence for life. It is the essence of Judaism. Life is precious in all of its forms, treat it so. And God is reflected in all human beings. And we are here to dignify life, to fill it with moral righteousness, and that is how we make things holy.

               Respect them, yes. But live among them or intermarry with them, no. Why not? Because to be Jewish also means to keep kosher. The Rabbi’s used to describe it as a hedge that separates the inside from the outside. Inside we have all our kosher dietary restrictions and our prayer life. Outside the hedge, we must respect everyone, but for the Orthodox, we still keep apart from the world, because if we don’t, we won’t be holy. You can’t keep kosher out there.

               And then we have Jesus. It is an interesting thing about Jesus. The Roman historians say that the crowds followed Jesus because he healed them of sickness, as in physical illness. We have no reason not to believe that.

               But it is also pretty apparent that multitudes came out to hear him because he healed their spiritual sickness as well, and perhaps that is the point.

               Jesus was on the edge of the Empire. He was in the interstitial space- another SAT word. The places on the boundaries between civilization and the barbarian beyond- Saudi Arabia, North Africa, places of very few cities.

He was preaching to people that had been conquered by the Romans. They weren’t citizens. They were ‘The Other.’ They paid exorbitant taxes to Rome for the privilege of not being raped and burned to the ground, but they were not free in their native soil. They felt like barbarians, and the Romans treated them that way each and every day. It was not subtle.

               And Jesus came teaching them that they were all ‘children of God.’ Everyone counts. Everyone is important. Everyone is invited to the spiritual banquet- not just the civilized, not just the powerful and wealthy, but everyone.

               And here is the other thing, Jesus teaches that this spirituality is for everyone. Most of the people that listened to him were Jews. They’d been taught that they were set apart, that they could only really be entirely holy, fully Orthodox, if they practiced their spirituality inside the boundaries.

               But Jesus teaches them, no, spirituality is practiced everywhere in the world. All of our life is filled with spirituality. So everything is full of wonder, and every encounter with other people is an opportunity to express our compassion and humanity and love.

               “Who is my neighbor?” someone asks. What is the range of my compassion? Jesus says, ‘everyone is a child of God, and everyone deserves compassion. Each of us should everyone we see in need because we are all one human family.’

        “Who proved to be the neighbor?” asks Jesus. “The one who showed mercy. Go and do likewise.”

        “But when did we see you naked, or hungry, or imprisoned?” “When you did unto to the least of these.” Every time you respond in compassion to any person anywhere… No qualification.

               Someone once told Jesus that his mother was there to see him. And Jesus responds, “I’ll tell you who my mother is, my brothers and sisters… it is the people that do the will of God,” which is to be God’s compassion towards other people, showing them humane love, helping them where they are.

        This is the universal message of Christianity and Jesus commissioned the 12 apostles to spread to the four corners of the earth, every culture, every ethnicity. Ultimately, we are all spiritually related. And if we could zoom out enough and see the variation and diversity from the perspective of God, we are all wounded healers asked to manifest compassionate love in the context where we live.

        And they took this message to literally every single culture on earth, so that today, we take it as something of spiritual ‘common sense’ at least as an idea, if not actually in practice. But we think everybody should be able to see that.

        Right on time, as our world becomes a global village. The neighborhood is quickly expanding. Our inner connectedness all over the world grows exponentially in the past two decades, our markets and our economies intertwined more complexly, people migrating literally the world over now, people traveling every week literally all around the world.

        It is causing a subconscious social backlash that we are all living through and will continue to live through. Mini-protests of sorts that we are inevitably growing to become one global village. Fear, tribal partisanship, excessive competition. All of them are symptoms

        Left unchecked they will lead to protests and violence. We’ve seen this before in our country, right at the end of the 60’s, our country convulsed over the Vietnam war and the changes that were made permanently in our society by civil rights.

        M.L. King had just been assassinated. Our whole country had erupted in riots. It was a bad time. Bobby Kennedy was asked to speak in Cleveland, Ohio. He was a good person to ask as he had been reflecting on the assassination of his brother for four years.

        I have to say that from what I can tell just reading about Bobby’s life, I think he’d gone through a spiritual evolution. He grew up Catholic, but he became more spiritual and moral in his perspective. This is what he said with our country reeling in grief and fear, convulsing in riots, divided deeply.

“ For when you teach a man to hate and to fear his brother when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies that he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your home or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies–to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and to be mastered.

“We learn, at last, to look at our brothers as aliens, alien men and women with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in a common effort. We learn to share only a common fear–only a common desire to retreat from each other–only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force…

What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero, and an uncontrolled or uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people.

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily–whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of the law, by one man or by a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence–whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children–whenever we do this, then the whole nation is degraded. “Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost.”

I’m surprised by the resonance of his words but I shouldn’t be. This is the challenge of our time because this is how our social world is evolving around us, whether we want it to or not. We have these irrational responses, these reactions of our ‘collective subconscious’, we aren’t entirely aware of them, but we know they are there because this much change towards a global village is threatening. It is disruptive. Backlash is part of the process of evolution.

And I think it is just as obvious that somehow, someway, the Church has to model diversity, cooperation, and compassionate love in our local community because someone has to lead the way towards how our children will live tomorrow. Some community has to show them what is possible. Someone has to let our wider culture know that on the other side of fear is freedom and friendship and neighborly community, and celebration of diversity, and the joy of watching human potential develop in ways you wouldn’t have imagined possible.

It won’t be friction free but we will be better for the experiment of multi-cultural spiritual community. Our children will be better equipped to make connections around the multitude of things we actually have in common despite our diverse variation. And one day, may you look back on our tumultuous era and realize that you have become the change you wanted to see, quite in spite of it all. Amen.

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