Me & Mine, God & Country

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, March 26, 2017, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Text: Exodus 2:11-25

 

 

“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”  This sickening phrase was written by Representative Steve King on Twitter in support of “Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who wants to end Muslim immigration and ban the Quran” and who has hurled derogatory epithets at Moroccan immigrants.  King has a history of making racist remarks and this latest one has been critiqued as advocating “white nationalism, the belief that national identity is linked to the white race and its superiority to other races.”[i] 

 

My own critique has so many angles it’s hard to know where to begin. Do I start with the fact that “our civilization” has been consistently fueled by the bodies of somebody else’s black and brown babies?  Or do I begin with the story of that first generation Italian-American immigrant baby who happens to be my spouse?  Or do I simply share the baby pictures of my niece and nephew who have the beautiful, brown skin of their country of origin, Korea?  Or perhaps the place to begin is with the story of an ancient Egyptian king who, in his fear and lust for power, passed an executive order that all the boy babies of the enslaved, Hebrew people should be killed (Exodus 1).  That story is a good reminder that the words and actions of Steve King and others like him are nothing new.  The desire to exclude, deny, and in extreme cases even kill “somebody else’s babies” is as old as our oldest human narratives.  And that story of the murderous Egyptian king and slave master is the precursor to the story we heard today from Exodus chapter 2.  Moses himself was “somebody else’s baby,” a Hebrew infant, plucked from among the river reeds by Pharoah’s daughter and raised as her son in the palace.

 

Moses is an early example of what we now call “intersectionality,” the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities.  Moses is a Hebrew, adopted by and raised as an Egyptian; he was born into poverty and slavery, but raised in wealth and privilege.  We read in today’s story that Moses kills an Egyptian slave driver and then becomes a refugee (an “alien residing in a foreign land”) to escape retaliatory violence.  Those who know the rest of the story know that Moses worked as a shepherd and was not a great public speaker, but became the one whose prophetic leadership led the enslaved Hebrews out of bondage toward a new life.  Moses wasn’t just one thing; there were many intersecting identities that made him who he was.  In some ways he was the oppressor and in others, the oppressed.  And, of course, this is not unusual.   Human beings are complicated.  Our identities and realities intersect in unique ways.

 

But human beings are also evolutionally, neurologically “wired” to identify with a particular group.  We are “pack animals,” tribal by design.  Even a quick search online yields a variety of examples, studies, and theories on this subject. The bottom line is that our social instincts turn “Me” into “Us.”  That has all sorts of positive possibilities for mutual support and neighborliness.  The problem is that, while our instincts turn “Me” into “Us,” they also turn “Us” against “Them.”[ii] 

 

America has an interesting history with all these dynamics.  At times, that history has been inspiring.  “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”[iii] captures a beautiful, complicated part of who we are and dream to be as a nation:  to be a people of many “tribes”—of many cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities.  At other times our history is tragic, a reality captured powerfully in the words of poet, Langston Hughes:

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)…

 

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.[iv]

 

Sadly, Hughes’ words written in 1935 sound like they were written yesterday, a sad commentary on the ways that America continues to be divided into the privileged, power tribe and all other tribes. 

 

During this Lenten season, we at Foundry have been looking at the ways that the realities of American life and culture make it difficult to live our Christian faith with integrity.  Our goal is to more fully align our hearts and lives with the ways of God’s Kin-dom.  This week, we are confronted with a cluster of American tendencies: the tendency toward a nationalism that can result in xenophobia, isolationism, and exceptionalism (the version that believes we are superior to other nations); the tendency to whitewash history so that only part of the story is told—the parts that paint the wealthy, white power tribe in the best light; and the tendency to put people in value-marked “boxes” instead of recognizing the complex intersections that make each person both unique and “like us.”  That’s a lot—but there is so much more we could name; and it’s all of a piece when we think about the ways that tribal, “Us vs. Them” thinking plays out in American culture.  Right now, our nation’s intersections—the places where tribe meets tribe—are places of deep and wide conflict.

How can we as people of faith respond faithfully?  First remember that, as people of Judeo-Christian faith, our primary citizenship is not in America or in any country.  As soon as we make our allegiance to country above God, our country becomes our God.  And, as I’ve said before, “God & Country” is not one word.  Our citizenship is found in God’s Kin-dom.  The law of Moses, the teachings of the prophets, the example of the sages, the revelation through Jesus, the witness of the faithful through the ages, provide us with the vision of how to live together.  Our call is to go into all the world (Mt 28:19), crossing human, tribal boundaries (e.g. Acts 10) not to destroy, but to share God’s love and God’s vision of how to live together in peace; our call is to do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8) and, thereby, to be a light to all the nations (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 51:4, 60:3). 

 

Over the centuries, allegiance to God, expressed through our various religious traditions has been the driving force behind all manner of violence, exclusion, and hatred.  But that is simply evidence of our human vulnerability to fear, and our tendency to separate into “Us” and “Them.”  To live as a citizen of God’s Kin-dom is not to claim superiority over others, to require others to worship as you do or to ascribe to the same way of understanding God.  To share the love of God and the good news of Jesus does not mean that you strip others of their cultures, their deep traditions, or their own spiritual practices.  Rather, to live as a citizen of God’s Kin-dom is, by God’s grace, to live and share God’s goodness and mercy with everyone, to proclaim the hope we have found in Christ, and to let your light so shine that others will see your good works and give glory to God.

 

As residents of this country, but citizens of God’s Kin-dom, we are led to engage in sacred resistance of anything in our national and political life that might lead us to turn inward, to be more focused on “me and mine” than on love of our neighbors.  This past week, Foundry hosted the press conference for the launch of an interfaith network of Sanctuary congregations in the DC/MD/VA region.  Journalists kept asking me the same question:  Why is it that the faith communities are the ones rising up in such protest around immigration and the refugee crisis to offer sanctuary?  I shared that our story is a story with holy hospitality—sanctuary—at the core.  I shared the teachings of our faith that every person is created in God’s own image and a beloved child of God.  I shared that Jesus taught us to love our neighbor.  All of that is true.  But the most profound response might be that, as people of faith, we at least should have some dim awareness that we ourselves have received sanctuary from God, that our own lives have been taken up like a baby and held by a loving God, that our restless wandering has found shelter and sustenance in God’s grace.  God has heard our cries from our many places of suffering and brokenness and bondage and guides us to freedom.  The heart of the good news and the guiding ethic of the Kin-dom is: We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).  God loves us. God loves everyone’s babies and so, by God, will we.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Matthew Haag, “Steve King Says Civilization Can’t Be Restored With ‘Somebody Else’s Babies’,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/steve-king-white-nationalism-racism.html?_r=0

[ii] Joshua Greene, “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them,” http://www.joshua-greene.net/moral-tribes

[iii] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” (excerpt)

[iv] Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” (excerpt), https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/let-america-be-america-again/