Sunday, October 15, 2023

Sermon: "Bound By Love", Ruth 1:1-17 (October 15, 2023)

Just over a week ago, the world reacted in horror when Hamas, the so-called “Islamic Resistance Movement” within Palestine, violently and unexpectedly attacked Israel. Although this specific strike came as a surprise, it was far from an isolated incident: it’s just the latest event in the long and complicated history of conflict between Israel and Palestine, dating back to over 70 years ago. Yet even though there are many factors in play (including the fact that between 40-50% of the Palestinian and Israeli people oppose Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, respectively)[1],[2] many people see this struggle as a black and white issue: one side is right, and the other side is wrong. The global community seems to be just as starkly divided as the nations that are actually involved in the conflict. Each nation has done whatever moral calculus makes sense to them, and they’ve chosen a side.

The United States is, of course, no exception: our government has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization and is officially supporting our ally Israel in this ongoing conflict. Plenty of private citizens, however, see Israel as an occupying force wielding its superior military strength unfairly (much as Rome was for the Jewish people during Jesus’ time). As for me, I don’t understand enough about the history and intricacies of this conflict to feel comfortable making any sort of definitive judgement about it as a whole, apart from believing that Israel has a right to defend itself from this heinous attack and believing that every possible effort should be made to protect civilians on both sides. But I also believe that this conflict is the direct result of the universal human tendency to draw impermeable and intractable lines between “us” and “them”: this is, at least on the part of those deliberately perpetuating this conflict, yet another example of identity politics gone wrong.

In recent times, concern with “identity politics” has become an insult lobbed at anyone who’s seen as uplifting one aspect of their identity, such as race, sexuality, gender, or religion, above issues that affect a broader cross-section of people. But although identity politics is defined wildly differently depending on who you ask, it is, at its heart, an observation about how humans tend to organize themselves. A shared identity binds people together more strongly than shared ideology, shared geography, or even shared history. This has played out dramatically in the modern Middle East. The ancestors of the Israeli and Palestinian people have been living in the same general region for centuries. Most of them worship the same God and consider many of the same figures and stories to be holy. Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths advocate for justice and peace, in addition to treating everyone with dignity and respect.[3] By all accounts, they should be bound together by all sorts of similarities. And yet, they’re locked in a deadly ongoing conflict because those in charge are unable to look past the parts of their identities that separate them.

Before we make the mistake of assuming that this way of thinking is unique to other cultures, we need to take a good, hard look at our own. For all that we like to talk about “the great American melting pot” and “freedom of beliefs”, none of us are quite as open minded and accepting as we might like to think. We don’t actually like living among people that are different from us any more than people in other parts of the world do. How many times have you heard, “If you don’t like it, you can leave,” or, “Go back to California”? I’m not trying to pick on Idaho exclusively; the obsession with designating states as “red” or “blue” is a nationwide phenomenon. And I haven’t even touched on the prevalence of “NIMBYism” in neighborhoods across the country (“Not in my back yard”). You can find this sort of attitude, in one form or another, almost anywhere.

This desire to live among others like yourself isn’t, in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, it’s an instinctual self-preservation tactic. It’s human nature to want to surround yourself with people who share your identity, because that gives YOUR concerns, needs, and desires the best chance of being heard and addressed. Broadly speaking, identity politics are a way to ensure your survival.

That was certainly the case in the time that the book of Ruth takes place, “in the days when the judges ruled”. By that point, the next generation of Israelites had successfully settled in the Promised Land, but there were new challenges waiting for them there. It’s not easy to build a nation essentially from scratch, especially one that hinges on everyone believing the same thing. The Hebrew people were bound primarily by their shared faith, and therefore were understandably concerned about the prospect of their people intermarrying with foreigners who worshiped other gods. Their society would not survive if they drifted away from YHWH. While this policy of self-isolation developed for practical (and understandable) reasons, it quickly grew into an inescapable “us” versus “them” mentality.

But when principles and policies get in the way of basic physical needs, they tend to get thrown to the backburner. So, when there was a famine in Judah, Naomi’s family left their people behind and moved across the Dead Sea to live among the Moabites. (Interestingly, the Judaeans and Moabites were ethnically related – the Moabites were descended from Lot – but because the Moabites had moved away from YHWH worship to follow different gods, the Judaeans considered them “pagan” and generally wanted nothing to do with them.) Although they lived in Moab for at least ten years, Naomi’s family never considered themselves a part of “those people”. At the same time, though, they didn’t live isolated lives as foreigners in Moab: Naomi’s sons married Moabite women, and they made the best life that they could under the circumstances.

But something happened over those ten years that Naomi and her family lived across the sea. Although they still understood themselves as Hebrews in a foreign land, separate from the people among whom they lived, their blended family eventually became bound above and beyond their separate identities by something even more powerful: love. So much so, in fact, that Orpah was willing to leave her homeland, the place where she was surrounded by others like her, to remain with Naomi, and Ruth was even willing to GIVE UP the parts of her identity that she thought stood in the way of her ongoing relationship with her mother-in-law.

Given the relationship between Judah and Moab at the time, it might sound like Orpah and Ruth were switching their allegiance, but that’s not what was happening at all. They simply realized that some things are more important than belonging to the right “side”. They weren’t picking a side at all; they were picking a PERSON. THIS is identity politics gone right. Naomi was a Judaean, and Orpah and Ruth were Moabites. “Us” and “Them” (or “them” and “us”, depending on your perspective). But the younger women saw that, in that context, their cultural identities needed less protecting than their beloved mother-in-law. So, they allowed their own identities to take a back seat to Naomi’s more urgent needs, because of the great love that they felt for this older woman.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should all completely forget who we are for someone else’s sake, or that the other person’s needs are always more urgent than our own. Orpah ultimately returned to Moab because Naomi reminded her that she, too, was vulnerable and needed to take care of herself. (Honestly, I don’t think Ruth was any more righteous or caring than Orpah; she was just way more stubborn.) Israel and Palestine won’t find the solution to their conflict by forcing one group to assimilate into the other, or by ignoring the rockets and missiles over their respective heads.

That would be “identity politics gone sideways” – we are who we are, and we should never try to become someone else just to please another person or to fit in. But we SHOULD be willing to see when someone else has a need that isn’t being met. We SHOULD be willing to compromise with “those people” so that no one is left wanting. We SHOULD recognize when our loyalty to those just like us is doing more harm than good (especially for those of us in positions of power or privilege). And as people of God, we should ALWAYS choose, first and foremost, just like Christ, to be bound instead by love of the other. This is the only way for us to find a path forward together, and the only way that God’s kindom will ever be fully realized.

My prayer for the people of Israel and Palestine, today and always, is for their leaders to figure out how to work together to find a solution that honors the identities of both of their people. I pray that those caught in the crossfire will be remembered and offered sanctuary, and I pray that peace will ultimately triumph over pride. As for us, I pray that we, the global witnesses of the horrors unfolding on the other side of the world, will honor more than the bonds of allyship – that we’ll honor the bonds of humanity that connect us to every suffering person.

We have a choice, as followers of Christ, as a nation, and as citizens of the earth: what will we be bound by? Will we be bound by indifference, offering platitudinous gratitude for our own safety and nothing else? Will we be bound by nationalism, insisting that our wants and needs are the only ones that matter? Will we be bound by the parts of our identities that keep us separated from each other? Or will we be bound by empathy? By compassion? By the love through which God has claimed us in our baptism, above and beyond all other identities? I know which choice Orpah and Ruth would make. Are we courageous enough to make the same one? Amen.


[3] Quran 5:32, 17:70, 60:8-9; Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19

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