First Lesson: Exodus 22:21
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Second Lesson: Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Brexit has been in the news all week: the vote to remove the UK from the EU, and all the ways that might change the world. Will Scotland separate from England? What about N. Ireland or Wales? London? Most of the talk has been about economic fallout, and as always with economists, there has been disagreement, although mostly about how bad it will be. It seems that few are seeing this as a good thing.
The motivation of those voting to leave is not hard to understand. There has been a clearly expressed objection to the sense that a European Elite is running things. They are understood to be a privileged few, maybe a corrupt few, who manage things so that the rich get richer and the poor can’t even get jobs.
It’s actually more complex than that. Part of the complaint against the EU seems to be the free flow of people from country to country. This policy has made it possible for those from the poorest countries to come to richer countries, like England, and get jobs at low wages, probably lower wages than would be tolerated by the people who live there.
We should recognize this problem, since we face similar challenges in Canada. When Canadian farmers hire workers from Mexico or the Caribbean to work their fields people object to jobs being given to foreigners. Then the farmers point out that they post their jobs locally and not enough people from Canada seem to want to pick strawberries bent over in the sun all day for minimum wage.
We should also recognize the flip side of the same thing: like when a call centre is closed here and re-opened overseas because the people there will work for much lower wages and our technology allows for free-flowing phone calls across borders.
I am not trying to make an economic point. I’m not really qualified to do that. Rather, I am trying to say that I get it. When people are out of work, or have seen their standard of living slide over the years, or have seen enough change that they fear for their pension or the jobs of their children or grandchildren, there is a natural impulse to protect. We naturally want to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Sadly, this can take some really ugly forms. Racist and xenophobic criminal acts in England have gone up 57% since the Brexit vote. That’s according to official records. It’s even scarier when you remember how much never gets reported.
According to the CBC, white supremacist groups in the USA are delighted with the result, and are using it as an example of the way that a country can be re-claimed for its “original white citizens.” (The logic of that always appalls me, considering the fact that the original citizens of North America are all indigenous people who would never be allowed into a white supremacist group.)
THIS is where I would like to stop for some reflections.
The ugliness of this sort of behaviour offends us. We reject it as appalling.
Part of the reason it offends us so deeply is that we recognize it as familiar. The potential for being selfish, or self-protective; the potential for being fearful enough to attack anyone who is different, is inside each one of us. We know it’s there. That’s why we reject it so firmly.
Our faith has also recognized that for thousands of years.
It is fascinating: in the laws of early Israel there were many laws about staying separate from others. The clear intent of those laws was to prevent the Hebrews from worshipping local gods, from turning from monotheism to the ever popular gods of fertility, of seasons, of death, of war.
That kind of separation turned into a religiously sanctioned genocide with the invasion of the promised land. In a particular instance, the order was given that everyone had to be killed: men, women, children, even the farm animals. That order went way beyond the regional tradition in which the men on the losing side were all killed and the women taken as wives or slaves or both. It was a purging in the name of religious purity.
In the midst of this extreme protectionism, this extreme isolation from anyone different, is a very firm law about treating strangers, “resident aliens,” with justice. The law directs people to treat non-believers with the same concern and care that you would your own relatives (which, as descendants of Abraham, is the whole rest of the nation). This law is repeated in several places in the Law of Moses.
In our particular lesson from Exodus 22:21 it is couched in terms like: “remember where you came from. You were aliens in the land of Egypt, so remember what it’s like to be treated as inferior and never treat anyone else that way. Ever!”
By the time of Jesus this lesson was in danger. Actually, it probably was in every generation to some degree, as it still is today. But in Jesus’ day, Israel had been conquered by empire after empire. They had a brief period of independence, but it was always under threat from places like Rome. By the time Jesus was a child, the independent Jewish state had been carved up, and a Roman governor installed in Jerusalem. The laws about how to behave when you run the government would have been remembered, but would not have been supported by many.
There was a lot of resentment towards anyone who was not Jewish. That included not only the ruling Romans, but also Egyptians, Greeks, anyone who traded and who had economic power. These were the people who could take jobs or take markets, who could threaten religious institutions or traditions or beliefs.
The non-Jewish people in Israel had not been invited in. Treating the alien in your midst like an equal would have been a bitter pill to swallow. It would have felt like treason. There would have been lots of excuses to do otherwise, and even more excuses to keep separate and remain distinct. People would have done this to cling to whatever shreds of national, cultural or religious identity possible.
And then in our Acts lesson (above) comes this sign from God to Peter and the other Jewish Christians. Actually, they didn’t even call themselves Christians yet. They were known as followers of the Way of Jesus, and were were a sect within the Jewish faith. Yet in this lesson we see God bestowing the Holy Spirit on non-Jews, on people not descended from Abraham: not circumcised, not educated in the law.
It was a shock. Most shocking would have been that it was a clear call from God to accept these strangers, not just as equals, but as sisters and brothers. It was a sign that these strangers were people as loved and as welcomed by God as Peter himself, despite their many differences.
This is a central element in our faith: this message of welcome to the stranger.
It is a hard teaching, considering how much we all naturally resist change, how much we want to go for what is familiar and avoid what challenges us.
That’s the lesson I would like to take from this whole Brexit thing:
There’s nothing wrong with challenging elites. Questioning the status quo, particularly when it might be corrupt, is important. Trying to provide for our families and loved ones is a basic responsibility.
But having any of that slide into hatred, into xenophobia, into an intolerance of difference, is fundamentally against what we believe in.
Our calling is clear: to welcome, to be open, to be ready to share, even when we don’t feel like it; even when we are fearful.
Scripture reminds us that perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love can be hard to achieve, can’t it? But it is still our calling. Regardless of our political leanings or economic preferences, as Christians we must not allow ourselves to buy into hatred, division, or isolation.
Our calling is to bring people together, not to tear them apart.