John Bennison Words and Ways

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Stranger As Neighbor in a Promised Land

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The Good Samaritan, artist: HeQi

Don’t Fence Me In

Contrary to the old adage, fences do not necessarily make good neighbors. In our election campaign season this last year, the winning candidate promised to build a wall and have our neighbor pay for it. We’ll see. Now by presidential executive order, an indefinite ban on all refugees from certain predominantly Muslim countries entering our country has also been put in place.

Meanwhile, not long ago the daily headlines recently focused on the latest dust-up over the U.S. position with regards to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; when our country declined to once again veto a UN Security Council resolution, condemning the continued construction of Israeli settlements in walled-off Palestinian occupied territories that some critics are now labeling a virtual apartheid state. Even with a wall, it’s abundantly clear the physical barrier does not seem to have resolved the ongoing feud.

More than just politics, or a turf war between two different groups trying to occupy the same patch of earth in that part of the world, there are also religiously-infused traditions that are as powerfully determinant as are the political ideologies and national identities. But in the face of such an ancient fight, infused with violence, those who claim to follow in the Judeo-Christian tradition might consider again the scriptural injunction that lies at the core of this shared tradition.

The stories of liberation from oppression and deliverance as aliens to a place of promised blessing, or from exile and return, from outcast to inclusion by sheer grace, or from one as good as dead being raised to new life, are all central to the biblical vision of a shared common humanity.

From Jewish scripture is a repeated reminder: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9.] Among numerous other similar citations from Torah: Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 15:16, Deuteronomy 1: 16, Deuteronomy 10: 18-19, Deuteronomy 24: 20-21, Deuteronomy 27:19.

And from the Jewish prophetic tradition: Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 7:5-6, Zechariah 7:10, and from Ezikiel:

“So shall you divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel. And it shall come to pass, that you shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you and to the strangers that sojourn among you, who shall beget children among you; and they shall be unto you as the home-born among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.” [Ezekiel 21-22]

And within more than millennia of recorded history there have been the rise and fall, conquest and defeat of a succession of nation states; including the modern State of Israel in 1948, when nearly two-thirds of the population in Palestine was Muslim. To put it mildly, neighborliness has been an ongoing challenge.

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

In the first century CE, the Christian gospel tradition emerged in the midst of controversy and conflict that, in many ways, don’t seem all that different nowadays. There were domination systems and gross economic disparities between nations and groups; with entrenched religious and political structures crumbling and competing for power and influence amidst rival ethnicities and violent strife.

And then along comes a charismatic wisdom sage from a backwater town in Galilee who cites Torah and tells stories:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal [or, “abundant”] life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, 

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ [Luke 10:25-37]

The parable dissolves the conventional distinction between “us” and “them;” where proximity is such that they are unavoidably inseparable as neighbors. And with nothing more than an abundance of mercy – the divine imperative to an abundant life — the walls come tumbling down.

 

The Key to the Door

Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
Oh, Rock-a my soul.

 So high you can’t get over it.
So low you can’t get under it
So wide you can’t get around it
You gotta come in through the door.

Traditional African-American spiritual

Michael Cooper is a neighbor of mine. He’s an American, a Jew, a pediatric cardiologist by profession, and a novelist by avocation. Many years ago, when he was a young medical student in Tel Aviv, he fully supported the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the “historic” Land of Israel: “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien,” he’d recite. “All the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” (Gen. 17:8)

But once, when he cited such a promise as a divine right to some of his Arab classmates, they simply replied – and to Michael’s astonishment — “But, we too are Abraham’s seed!”

For years afterwards now, Michael has made mission trips to Israel twice each year, contributing his medical assistance as best he can to Palestinian children in need through the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. In a word, he does not “pass by on the other side.”

As a Jew, the State of Israel does not allow him to pass though the gate in the wall, and into the squalor of the Palestinian camps. Yet the key that could ever open that door in the wall remains such an act of mercy.

In a word, he does not pass by on the other side. … And the key that could ever open that door in the wall remains such an act of mercy.

Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,” goes an old African-American spiritual. It refers to the “bosom of Abraham,” as a place of comfort and security. Resting in the arms of the metaphorical “father of all” conveyed the notion of resting in a place where harm could not reach, and where the just rested securely. It makes one ask if a “security wall” isn’t ultimately a contradiction in terms?

Construction of the Great Wall of China began in the 7th century BCE, and continued for 1,400 years; up until the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 CE.

By contrast, the Berlin Wall only lasted 28 years, from 1961–1989 CE. The remnants of both walls are now major tourist attractions, but their original purposes have both been relegated to the dustbin of history. 

Then there’s that 25’ high concrete wall sometimes referred to by different parties enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as either a “separation barrier” or “anti-terror fence.“ It wends its way in a jagged line across the West Bank territories.

It occurs to me, before someone spends billions to build a “huge” wall on our own southern border, perhaps someone like the TV-talk show shrink, Dr. Phil, should ask the Israeli’s, so how’s that working out for you?

So now a proposal has actually been initiated to build a “great wall” along the 2,000-mile frontier between Mexico and the United States. As one elderly American woman who lives along our own southern border recently told a news reporter, “If you build a 20’ wall, they’ll just get a 22’ ladder.” So instead, this good Samaritan puts plastic jugs of water out at night for any stranger passing by that might otherwise die of thirst.

It has been argued by some that if you don’t have a wall on your borders, then you don’t have a country. On the other hand, if we don’t treat the alien in our midst as one of “us,” then what kind of a country do we have?

And who is our neighbor?

 

What do you think? Join the dialogue here.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

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