Thursday, April 24, 2014

“The Moral Response to the Stranger”

Published in the Fiji Times 12 March, 2014

What do Christians learn during the season of Lent? How does all the fasting, giving up, taking on extra responsibilities – all the spiritual growth and transformation Christians hope to experience during Lent – bear fruit in our everyday lives and the life of the community in which we live in?
Last night (Tuesday)the Pacific Conference of Churches in collaboration with the Fiji Council of Churches held its first Lenten Talk. The series of talks are based on a series of Bible studies developed by the Pacific Conference of Churches around the formation of the people of Israel during the Exodus journey, and the implications of that formation on their moral life and their stewardship as the People of God. It connects the Exodus journey with the Christian’s Lenten journey. Formation in morality and in the different aspects on stewardship – governance, social justice, economic justice, and care for the environment – and into Jesus vision of the Kingdom of God are foundational in this journey.

Formation is about the schooling of a person or a group of people, or a nation on a particular way of life. Cultures and religious denominations are good examples, where we are formed to believe and see the world and God in a way that is different from those around us. Formation is a process and the biblical formation process spans the whole Biblical narrative.  For those joining in the Lenten talks and formation, this deeply personal and spiritual journey is also a journey to the kind of freedom that God wants demands of us a process of rethinking and renewal of:
– our morality as a church community and country;
– our stewardship responsibilities:
         political governance and what it ought to be as a nation;
• our view of social justice and our treatment of the poor;
• our view of economic activity and its purpose
• our view of and responsibility towards the environment;
– our faith in Jesus vision of the Kingdom of God.

In his presentation on Formation in Morality, Rev. Francois Pihaatae, PCC’s General Secretary introduced those present to the moral formation of Israel as a people and looked at 3 key moral principles. Ancient Israel’s formation as a people was based on 3 fundamental moral insights from their Exodus experience:
• The problem of the “stranger”
• They are not to do to others what was done to them
• Their way of stewardship must be totally different from that of empire

Rev. Francois made the point that Biblical faith was born as a protest against empires. This is because imperialism (and its successors, totalitarianism and fundamentalism), is an attempt to
impose a single idea on a plural world: to reduce “man” to “Man”, cultures to a single
culture, to eliminate diversity in the name of a single Universalist order. Discussing the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11: 1-9, Rev. Francois illustrated how such a foolish and arrogant undertaking  is an attempt to impose a man-made unity on divinely created diversity which is what is wrong with universalism.

As a result of the dispersion of people after the Babel event, God’s covenant with humanity remains, but from here onwards God will focus on one family, one people, to be God’s witnesses and bearers of the vision – He will ask them to leave all that is familiar and undertake a formative journey with God. They will be a people who will be different (the Hebrew word kadosh means different, set
apart). However the Biblical narrative recognised that Israel's formation journey would be among “strangers” and because t it would have to deal with the problem of the stranger,  it would need a prior experience of being a stranger itself. Exile and slavery in Egypt became their fundamental and formative experience of being a stranger in a strange land

The problem of the stranger is the central moral issue that the biblical system of morality is
build upon. Detail laws in the later Books of the Old Testament (Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Chronicles, etc.) are based fundamentally on this. The Ten Commandments was also based on Israel's painful experience of slavery.

The Biblical narrative of loving the stranger speaks to Israel’s own experience: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the hearts of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9). “When a stranger lives with you in you land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-4). In these two verses God is telling the people of Israel, “You know what it is like to be different, because there was a time
when you, too, were persecuted for being different.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel had to undergo exile and slavery before their birth as a
Nation. They had to learn from the inside and never lose the memory of what it feels like to be an
outsider, a stranger (the ritual of the Passover every year is a reminder of this lesson). Moses had to undergo his own exile in Midian (“Gershom”, the name of his first son, means “there I was a stranger”. Only those who have felt the loneliness of a being stranger find it natural to identify with
strangers. The Bible’s single greatest and most revolutionary contribution to ethics/morality is this:
We encounter God in the face of a stranger.

The greatest religious challenge, therefore, is to see God’s image in the one who is not in our image. Moral dignity extends beyond the boundaries of any one civilisation or culture. The journey of exile and slavery, and wrestling with the problem of the stranger taught the
Israelites this lesson: “They are not to do to others what was done to them”. The call to be different belongs to the social and the political as much as it belongs to the religious.

One key aspect of being different is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a religious virtue; it is not part of human nature. Revenge, therefore, is a moral value, however repulsive it may be. This is because it keeps faith with the past. Because of this that forgiveness is difficult because it must compete with it.

 So how will forgiveness possible? It does not mean forgetting nor abandoning the claims for justice. It is rather an acknowledgement that the past is past and must not be allowed to cast its
shadow over the future. It heals moral wounds the way the body heals physical wounds .It is the only bridge from the pain of loss to reintegration to the present and its tasks.􀁹 It reminds us of our duty to the future no less than to the past – to our children as well as to our ancestors

Another key aspect is Hope. Hope is a human virtue; it is part of our human nature to hope after a sure future. However, the Biblical narrative took it and gave it theological significance that God is mindful of our aspirations, with us in our fumbling ways and has given us the means to save us from ourselves; that we are not wrong to dream, wish and work for a better world. Biblical hope is not born out of an expected heavenly promise but out of taking responsibility for the present on the reflections of the past and responsibility for the future.

 Israel's reflection on the stranger problem gave them 2 further moral insights:
• do not do to others what others have done to you (Jesus later summed these up into
two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, and your
neighbour as yourself)
• their ways of stewardship must be totally different from Egypt (governance,
social justice, economic justice and their care of the environment)

These key experiences and moral insights later became the basis of their understanding of
governance, social justice and stewardship. Much later, Jesus picked these formation insights and presented them in an all encompassing vision, the “Kingdom of God”.

The Lenten Talk series is held every Tuesday at Dudley Church in Toorak at 7pm. Next week: Formation in Governance.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light and peace between you and the strangers you encounter.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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