Our story begins in Bethlehem actually, more than one thousand years before Christ. A man and woman set out from Judah, because there was a famine in the land, into the neighboring hostile territory of Moab. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, had two sons, and they each married Moabite women—Orpah and Ruth. The husband died, and then the two sons died, leaving their wives and their mother to survive as best they could. Another famine arose and Naomi, having heard there was food in her homeland, decided to return to Bethlehem, but she discouraged her two daughters from coming with her.
I. Our time is one not just one of difference and opposition, but of bitter estrangement. This diverse nation has cracked open along the fissures defined by diverse ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and religions. What was once a matter of disagreement over points of opinion or philosophy has become armed rage.
We all know what happened last January 6th at the Capitol. Everybody followed the buildup to this climax, going back to Charlottesville, going back further to having a black President in this white country. According to one scholar, Danielle Allen at Harvard, it goes back to 1955.
Prof. Allen writes, “Citizens of the U.S. have not yet fully come to grips with what changed for them since the 1955 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education.” Slowly, painfully, tortuously, as the meaning of that decision became real on the ground, the push back came slowly, painfully and tortuously until it climaxed three weeks ago. Part of this country wants no part of democracy, if it means sharing life with strangers.
Increasing population since then, increasing diversity, the white majority about to be in the minority, led to where the gated community became the logical conclusion. This fortress mentality, at first a defensive move, has taken to the offensive. Which is where we are in 2021.
What is it about strangers, anyway? It is a way of thinking that keeps us in power by drawing a line around ourselves, or at least allows us to maintain the illusion of power. Everyone else is Other, as Toni Morrison writes in her last book, The Origin of Others (The Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard). The designation of Other to someone, to some nation, to some class, to some race, ascribes impurity, contagion, and threat to them—imputes a well-nigh extra-planetary mystery about them. And woe to anyone who befriends the Stranger, for to identify with the Other is to risk becoming a stranger to your own group. And so, the ever-tightening circle gives to mere difference of skin color (etc.) an absolutely negative value.
Toni Morrison wondered out loud, “How can you create a coherent nation out of immigrants?” There is only one way—when you accept the possibility of a friendship with strangers who may never become your friends. How to explain this paradox requires a look at the Book of Ruth and the political philosophy of Danielle Allen.
The Book of Ruth is a short book of 4 short chapters essentially about immigrants across enemy boundaries. As you heard in this morning’s scripture, Naomi was living in a foreign land when her husband and two sons eventually all died and she decided to go back to her native land. She would have gone alone, but one daughter in law, Ruth, insisted on going with her, although that would make her a stranger in a strange land with no husband. Ruth said, “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God.” Making this extraordinary testimony of love, loyalty, and complete bonding with the Other, she will leave her native country to become an alien in another and seems utterly unafraid.
When Ruth arrives in Judah, in the precincts of Bethlehem, although she stays out of the way as much as possible, eventually she is befriended by a wealthy landowner and they get married. (Aside: Ruth the foreigner became a mother to a son who was to be the grandfather of King David.) The moral: societies can absorb immigrants—they can even give birth to rulers.
III. Although making democracy work suddenly seems harder than ever, as I said last week, Amanda Gorman held up for our inspiration the imperative to “be the light.” What that light reveals is that the stranger is hidden treasure. To make friends of the stranger is possible if you see friendship the way Danielle Allen does, not as an emotion but as a practice. I would add, it is a spiritual practice, not just an institutional duty. And like all spiritual practices, it involves sacrifice, according to Prof Allen.
The first sacrifice is dealing justly even though we can’t address everyone’s interests to the same degree at the same time. Sacrifice is required by the democratic covenant when all agree: my consent is required, my autonomy will be respected; nevertheless, I am not above the law. We also have to sacrifice the luxury of our personal judgements about other people—it’s none of their business what I think of them. It is a sacrifice to give up our hatreds, as James Baldwin said it was given to him to do. It is a sacrifice to have to negotiate loss and reciprocity. And worst sacrifice of all is to exercise self-restraint in the freedoms you are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights—you just may find it advisable not to use a right in certain cases.
All of this sacrifice in the service of maintaining faith with people who are strangers to us. And why should that be so novel to a Christian—Jesus taught us to love our enemies, by which he never meant anything like “liking” them—it was more like the friendship of strangers. How remarkable that a nation founded on Enlightenment principles should require application of Christian virtues, now more than ever before.
So, churches still have a vocation—we have work we can do. People are asking, what can we “do” about racism, how do we eliminate it. It seems that we never can and never will, such a tall mountain of kryptonite rises before us! But it will help if we understood that it is not the abstraction of racism to be fought, but the very human reality of “interracial distrust,” the rejection of strangers. Let’s rethink our public mission and goals to focus on what it would take to rebuild trust as the path to a society that is just.