Friday, November 27, 2009

Strangers Welcoming Strangers: reflections on Matthew 25:31-46

I spent this Thanksgiving with my uncle; we are the closest family he has (a four hour drive away), my aunt (his wife) having died a couple years ago and his son (my cousin) spending the holidays in jail. It's a long story, the details of which don't need to be divulged. For my uncle, what mattered was that he was still able to share the Thanksgiving meal with family. It also helps that he loves food and Skyler (my wife) is an amazing cook.

The holidays bring with them an increased awareness of family. However, for me, this focus on family began a couple months ago, in relation to my work with refugees. Familial relationships matter in working with refugees. Some refugees have left their families to flee; some have family members who are in "no contact," meaning, for instance, that a brother left the Bhutanese refugee work to find work in India and has not been heard from since he left, three years ago. The government regulates how we house families (how old children can be before they must be in "same gender" bedrooms...I'll withhold comments on this governmental investment in constructing "proper" familial structures).

A few months ago, I met with a refugee who has been in the U.S. for many years now and is working on an masters degree in refugee public health issues. He told me about how, when he came, he had a family member here to welcome him and help him navigate the complexities of adjusting to life in the U.S. We talked about how much harder it is for refugees who have no family, no one to welcome them, and how we both wished the church would become family to these refugees and welcome them.

I've started using this discussion, coupled with a few verses from Matthew 25 ("I was a stranger and you welcomed me"), to begin my orientation with new churches and volunteers. Every time I do it, though, I feel dishonest. I know the scripture is more complicated than I make it seem.

For instance, Jesus never tells us to seek him in the stranger (or sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, or imprisoned). Nor does Jesus ever promise that we will see him in these people. In fact, the story of judgment presupposes that those who served these people did not know they served Jesus, nor were they expecting to find Jesus there at all. Those who ignored these people likewise did not know who they were ignoring.

What bothers me the most, however, is that the story is not about generic individuals but about two peoples, "the nations" (v. 32) and the king's "family" (lit. "my brothers," v. 40), Gentiles and Jews.

The image of the shepherd separating the people comes from Ezekiel 34, where the prophet rages against the "shepherds" of Israel, who not only neglected the sheep (failing to strengthen, feed, heal, search, find, and guide the sheep) but actually fed on the sheep (v. 4-8). God will reject these shepherds (v. 10) and will come and be the shepherd (v. 11) of these scattered and abused people (Israel). In this process, Israel will "no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people" (29-30).

Given this background, the strangers, hungry, sick, and imprisoned should be seen as specifically the scattered and abused people of Israel, Jesus' "brothers," or, as Paul puts it in Romans 9 (an important text to keep in the back of our minds here), "my brothers according to the flesh."

Matthew 25, then, retells a story about Israel's failed leaders, God's assumption of that leadership, and the people of Israel being rescued from these poor leaders and the abusive nations into which they were sent. If this is the case, then Jesus' retelling of Ezekiel's story of judgment implies that the most important thing we do is not taking care of our own people, or of all generic people, but of this particular people, the people of God, Israel. Our service to, or neglect of, the least of Israel determines our status before God. To neglect Israel is to neglect Israel's King, and hence to neglect God. Likewise, to serve Israel (the lowliest among them) is to serve Israel's King, and hence to serve God.

If this were all Jesus meant, then it would be surprising that, upon finishing this story, Jesus is compelled to talk about his crucifixion (26:2) and the leaders begin conspiring to kill him (26:3). What is so scandalous is Jesus' assertion that he is this Son of Man (a term he uses for himself throughout Matthew), and thus that Jesus is the embodiment of God's rule, the replacement of the false shepherds ("chief priests and elders" 26:3), and the one through whom Israel and the nations will be blessed. Those who serve him by serving the lost sheep of Israel will "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (25:34). Jesus has the audacity to declare not just what will happen at the end of time but that he is the one who determines what will happen. Jesus does not just see what will happen; he is what will happen. He is the kingdom, the true ruler, the one who has authority to declare the truth of the end times.

Scripture often plays with the tension between the hidden and revealed, the present age and the age to come. This passage pushes that tension further: for it reveals the basis of judgment that was hidden until the time of judgment. Neither the sheep nor the goats thought that their salvation hinged on what they did with the least of Jesus' family. Both are surprised--the basis of judgment was hidden from them until the time of judgment. But in the story, in which the basis of judgment is only revealed at the time of judgement, the basis of judgment becomes unveiled before the time of judgment. Unlike the sheep or the goats in the story, we are explicitly told that our judgment depends on serving Jesus through the service to lowly Israel. Through Jesus, we now know what he teaches nobody knew until the time of judgment.

In the story, we are never told why the "righteous" served the lowly of Israel. By telling us--Gentiles!--the basis of judgment, Jesus provides us with a new way of seeing our action. We, the nations, are not left in the dark but are allowed to see the truth of our actions. In Jesus, we outsiders are welcomed into the family of God; in Jesus, we are given access to what has been promised to Israel, the blessings of God's kingdom. In Jesus, we see that we are in fact bound to Israel, and hence welcomed into the eternal life prepared by Jesus' Father.

We have no right to hear what Jesus says. We have no right to know about eternal life, or judgment. We have nothing of our own that would make us legitimate heirs. We are reminded at the beginning that we are the nations, those into whom Israel was scattered and by whom Israel was trampled. As these people, the sinful nations, we are now reordered and called into service. We are told to do what we did not know we ought to do--serve God's people, Israel. We are told to believe what was beyond our knowledge--that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, and hence the ruler of the whole world. We are welcomed, now, to do what was beyond our ability to do--to love (and not seek to destroy) the elect people of God. No longer are the scattered and rebuked people of Israel a sign of our rejection (even their judgment testifies to the fact that they are, and we are not, the people of God). In Jesus, we see that these people are a sign of our hope. In Jesus, we see that they are not a sign of our rejection but a sign of God's gracious presence to us. In Jesus, we who were "far off" see that we are no longer "foreigners to the covenants of the promise" (Eph 2). Jesus tells us what we had no right or ability to know--that we are bound to Israel, to Israel's King, and hence to the true God of all creation.

It is through our call to welcome scattered Israel that we are also called to welcome the strangers among us, for me specifically, refugees. We approach the refugees, however, not as those on the inside who are gracious enough to welcome them in. We approach them through the knowledge that we ourselves are strangers bound to a people who are not our own, Israel. Our lives are not just open and receptive, capable of accommodating (and assimilating) the "aliens" in our midst. Our lives exceed our control, overflowing our own boundaries. In being bound to Israel, our existence is ecstatic, standing outside of itself. We do not need to guard our own identity; it is already mixed. By being bound to Israel, we are free to be all things to all people: we have nothing at stake in being a pure people, in having a distinct identity, in being peculiar or noteworthy. We have no ability to control or shape our identity; we are bound to another people and told that this binding is an act of grace. We believe, and thus we serve the lowly in Israel, and through this service, we find our lives flowing out into the lives of those around us, to those who are strangers among us, including refugees.

Serving refugees reminds us that our lives are not just supposed to be open but ecstatic, not just receptive but transgressive ("stepping across"). We are called to live in an uncomfortable exchange, a series of flows and leakages. Our lives are to be marked by seepage, by moments that escape our own confines, and we find our own lives strangely intermixed with those beyond our normal boundaries. We do not need to distinguish ourselves from anyone else, for we have already been marked as strangers welcomed into the household of God and therefore we know that nothing is alien to us. The most ungrateful and belligerent refugee is not our project but our brother or sister, another Gentile, a fellow foreigner, called by Jesus into the blessings of God's people, Israel. We welcome them as family, as one who like us has been called and bound to another people, the Israel of God. We welcome the stranger not just because we were strangers but because Jesus continually calls to become strange again, to recognize and rejoice in our status as foreigners blessed in Israel through Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the creator of heaven and earth.

with thanks to Micah D., for his friendly critiques.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mexican and Arabic Bread

I keep looking up syllabuses online, using google to search for things like "race and u.s. immigration syllabus" or "refugees and american cultural studies syllabus." I want to find the right books, ones that will help me theorize the connections between imperialism, racism, immigration, assimilation, gender, etc. I work with refugees; in fact, I often work with white churches, trying to help them work with refugees. I should also say I work in the South.

A week ago, I woke up at 7 am in a panic. I had a day off and I wasn't stressed by the amount of work I still had to do. I was stressed by the kind of work I was doing. I thought to myself, "my job is to help white southern churches establish paternalistic relationships with refugees." I had been listening to Timothy Tyson's __Blood Done Sign My Name__, a memoir set within a larger portrait of the history of racism in North Carolina. At one point in the book, he describes white middle class Christians who felt good about themselves and their charity as long as the African-Americans displayed the appropriate gratitude. They gave, out of their abundance ("blessed to be a blessing," some might say). They gave in a way that made them feel better about themselves while simultaneously masking the violence that structured white-black relations (and also produced the wealth, the blessing, out of which they gave). The white benefactors could feel good about being on top because they were generous and were "well liked" by their black servants. The charity actually served as an attempt to restore the fact of mastery ("they" depend on my kindness) while hiding its violence. It was a violent charity, so to speak, and I woke up fearing I was producing a new form of it, no longer with African-Americans but with newly arriving, dark skinned refugees.

My response was not surprising: initial shock, and then, research. I could see that race, immigration, assimilation, American culture, Christianity, gender, and imperialism were all somehow tied together. I knew that one could not talk about refugees without talking about the history of American immigration (which cannot be understood apart from race, gender, and imperialism). But I wanted help in seeing how it all worked together. I wasn't seeking knowledge to gain simple mastery; I wanted to know because I wanted to help others--and myself--to move beyond it. I didn't want my work with churches to become another form of violent charity. But perhaps I'm still a bit too much of the academic, thinking that books are the solution to everything.

On this past Friday, a little over a week after my terrifying realization, I was driving an Iraqi refugee home. He often helps me move heavy furniture (though he refuses, as do I, to move any more of those $10 dressers we found). We've become friends--he's now been to my apartment and met "my family" (he laughed, likening our dog and our cat to "tom and jerry"). On Friday, as I was driving him home, he asked if we could stop by a Mexican bakery. Apparently, Mexican bread is pretty similar to Arabic bread and he wanted to pick up a few roles. We pulled into the parking lot; I advised him before he stepped out to make sure he didn't walk into any potholes filled with water. I sat in the car while he ran into the store, obviously hurrying, either to make sure he made it in before the store closed or so as to minimize the inconvenience for me.

He came out of the store with a couple of bags of bread; I thought it was a bit excessive (he doesn't live too far from the bakery, he could certainly come back in a few days). He got into the car, tied one of the bags closed, and then pushed it by my backpack in the backseat: "This is for you, Tim." I have worked with him enough to know not to argue. He is on food stamps and cash assistance, still waiting for us to help him find work. Yet every time I come to pick him to help me move furniture, he insists that I first sit down and drink juice. If I refuse, he will insist.

I wanted to offer him money but I knew that would only insult him. I thanked him for it. And I thought to myself, I am so stingy, I am so dominated by fears of scarcity that I would never think of doing that. Both my wife and I work, and I would probably debate whether to spend a couple of bucks to buy someone bread just to see if they like it. I have to force myself to offer my favorite teas to guests instead of being thrilled to share with them something that I love. It's not just a deficiency in the "spiritual gift" of hospitality. My imagination has been thoroughly shaped by ideas of scarcity and self-preservation.

Though it is enormously frustrating, I don't know how much time I will have to read all the good books I found. However, that one interaction with my refugee friend taught me a lot about immigration and assimilation. Though I don't know how race, gender, and imperialism shape the way we think about immigration and assimilation, I pray that my friend will resist all our efforts to make him a "self-sufficient" individualist. I pray that he will continue to disrupt the ways in which we--at least I--so often live in the mode of fearful self-preservation (a fear which is, I think, connected to forms of mastery, for fearful self-preservation only makes sense if I am still under the illusion that my life, and the world around me, are in some way under my control). I needed that witness; I needed to be given a few Mexican rolls that apparently taste like Arabic bread (and tasted to me a lot like standard dinner rolls). It was an act of charity that had no trace of violence; and for that, and for the rolls, I am grateful.