Well, it seemed like an apposite time to address something that has lately been on my mind, but now writ large with the recent EU referendum result. Most of you reading this will know I voted for the UK to remain in the EU and am naturally disappointed with the outcome of June 23rd. There can be no doubt that fear connected to continue immigration, and amongst extremists, the rise of nationalism and xenophobia was behind some of the vote for leaving the EU. Whilst there seem to be many who had valid reasons for wanting to leave the European project, the resultant vote has clearly given validation to racism and extreme expressions of patriotism, even if this was never the intent.
Reading the accounts of Jesus and his attitude towards other races or religious creeds has always led me to follow an inclusive and non-nationalistic approach to my own accident of birth and upbringing. I have never advocated the relinquishing of my unique birth heritage and the quirky uniqueness that comes with being British, but it has always seemed to me that more extreme patriotism coupled with any sense of superiority leads to division and conflict. Sadly, this has meant substantial loss of human life over the centuries. It is all the more remarkable that over 2,000 years ago, Jesus demonstrated an inclusiveness and acceptance towards those of other nationalities or religious persuasions. What is even more remarkable is that this inclusiveness went well beyond tolerance and demonstrated an active engagement.
Probably the most detailed account of the attitude of Jesus can be found in John’s record of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It is important to recognize the cultural significance of this story, given the social mores of the time. Not only was it unheard of for a man to spend time treating a woman as an equal, but the Samaritans were a much despised tribe. It was common practice for contemporary Jews traveling between Judea and Galilee to make a huge detour across the Jordan river in order to avoid being contaminated by traversing Samaria. They considered themselves superior and pure compared with their Samaritan neighbors. Jesus, however, used a Samaritan as an example of a good neighbor and his care for the downtrodden in his parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’. In his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, he demonstrated real engagement through intimate knowledge of her life. He offered her nothing less than what he brought to his own people despite her heritage and revealed that worship being based either in Samaria or in Jerusalem would become irrelevant in this new era of life he was offering.
The other notable and revolutionary attitude towards those outside his own national or religious background was displayed towards the Romans. History tells us that the Romans were violently oppressive towards the Jews in Israel, coupled with a political stranglehold they exerted through the corrupt Jewish rulers, Herod the Great and Herod Antipas being the best known. Surprisingly, Jesus demonstrated love and concern for those representing the oppressor. One story has Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion. There was also a law in place that allowed a Roman soldier to force local inhabitants to carry their equipment. Jesus encouraged his followers to ‘go the second mile’ and carry it twice as far. Jesus was also attributed with strong words regarding loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, something that seems a far cry from the use of force to impose our will either locally or internationally.
Don’t get me wrong, there is something wonderful in the cultural diversity represented across the globe and I am not advocating homogeneity. In these fractious days of mistrust and fear, I believe we need to exercise the embracing and engaging attitude of Jesus towards our fellow citizens of the world. As we offer love, life and acceptance instead of judgement, rejection and exclusion, we remove prejudice and allow enjoyment of our differences and the possibility of being heard for the good we have to offer. I’ll leave you with an interesting conundrum. Given that most of the Christian world hold fast to what the Catholic church term ‘The Immaculate Conception’, is it possible that Jesus was, in fact, of no biological national lineage. He certainly did not have a Jewish biological father, and we have no clear indication of how much, if any, his mother’s genes played a part. However, it is just possible that Jesus was himself free of any earthly barriers but instead began the lineage that we might call ‘The Kingdom of God’. If so, no wonder those national and racial barriers did not figure in the way he behaved. The good news he offered was indeed totally unencumbered by any earthly barrier!