Friday, February 21, 2014

Epiphany 7 - Loving your neighbour

I think it’s safe to say the balaclava has an image problem. It’s become the dress-code of baddies, of robbers and terrorists – if you see someone in a TV movie wearing a balaclava you know they are on their way to a bank heist, if someone comes towards you on the street wearing a balaclava you instinctively get out of the way. What you may not realise is that the ambiguous reputation of the balaclava goes back a long long way.
Yes, the balaclava is named after a town in Ukraine, and the original balaclavas were knitted by British women in the 19th century who sent them to the menfolk to keep them warm fighting in the bitter Russian winters during the Crimean War. What is less well known is that the balaclava changed roles as the returning soldiers did, broken veterans who resorted to theft in order to survive at home, after the war.
The enemy has always worn a mask. During the Gallic Wars of the first century the hard-bitten Roman troops were terrified by the blue-painted faces of Celtic warriors. But the mask is ambiguous – it not only terrifies but it hides the humanity of its wearer. Even recent war movies often show fighters putting on elaborate masks of camouflage paint before they go into action – masked, the fighter becomes other than human, a figment of our imagination and our fears. The masked enemy allows our fears to run rampant because we no longer recognise that we share a common humanity. This is why propaganda during wartime depicts the enemy using stereotyped images, identikit straw-hatted and black pyjama’d Viet Cong are easier to hate than actual men and women who breathe and love and dream just like us. The false image of the asylum seeker as a queue-jumper, or as an economic opportunist, as a chucker of babies into the water or a lip-sewing fanatic – these are masks, they dehumanise and they allow us to avoid the truth of men and women and children fleeing the violence that has destroyed their homes and lives in their country of origin, only to be caught up in a nightmare of equivalent proportions in Australian concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru.
Except Jesus takes the masks off. Our readings this morning show Jesus, the radical interpreter of Torah, which is to say the rabbi who gets to the root of what the Torah actually means. Jesus the teacher who comes not to do away with the Law but to confront us with it.
I’ve heard it said that the Old Testament is loveless and rule-based, showing us a God to be feared, while the New Testament replaces fear with love and rules with freedom. And of course there is much in the Hebrew Scriptures that offends our modern sensibilities. But when we read carefully we see what Jesus is talking about and what in his life and ministry he is demonstrating for us – the law of love that threads right back into the pre-history of God’s people and today is powerfully on display for us in the book with perhaps the very worst reputation of the lot of them: Leviticus.
We call it the Golden Rule, don’t we, the rule of loving our neighbour as ourselves, and we rightly see that this is the very key to understanding what Jesus is on about. Jesus, of course, puts it right up there in his famous summary of the Law, the two great commandments that we recite every week in church. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength – and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus didn’t make it up – the first of the great commandments is a quote from Deuteronomy and the second is a quote from Leviticus chapter 19. This is built into the DNA of Israel and it continues to link us as Christians with our Jewish sisters and brothers.
Recently – very recently – we have heard from our Government that we need to reassert our Judeo-Christian heritage. This is a sort of code for getting back to educational basics, but also for winding back what conservative politicians see as the relativism of teaching different points of view in history and cultural studies. Well, the horse of multiculturalism bolted several decades ago, Australia is now a modern vibrant country of many faiths and cultures and ethnic backgrounds. We are actually a wonderful example of a modern country that celebrates its multiple traditions and in which people of all backgrounds live together with tolerant good humour. I find this sort of talk from government about getting back to our Judeo-Christian heritage vaguely troubling, with its implicit rejection of other valuable strands of our Australian identity. But here’s the thing. The kernel of that great and multifaceted history that is called the Judeo-Christian heritage is to love your neighbour as yourself. Simple as that. So I agree, let’s get back to basics.
Funnily enough, other great world religions say exactly the same thing. Take Islam, for example. In the Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi (no. 13) we read, ‘Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself’. Hinduism teaches: ‘One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.’ Confucius taught: ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’.
Israel remembers that it is a nation of nomads and homeless wanderers, of refugees and outcasts. After the generations of wandering in the wilderness Israel enters the land that has been promised them where – according to the account in Joshua, they take it by force and put everybody to the sword. According to the account in Judges it happens rather differently, and the returning exiles settle – relatively – peaceably amongst their Canaanite neighbours. Israel becomes a nation surrounded by quarrelsome neighbours with whom it both fights and trades. A Moabite woman becomes the great great great … grandmother of the great Israelite king, David. David’s own enemies, the Philistines, are a vibrant and technologically advanced people with whom Israel eventually learns to live in peace – according to archaeologists the Philistines were eventually fully absorbed into Israel four or five centuries before Christ. Israel endures the shame of exile in Babylon and returns home – again as refugees – with a new fashion for Persian names and a smattering of Persian cultural and religious influences. Israel is next invaded by the armies of the Seleucids, descendants of Alexander the Great, and learns to speak Greek. During the time of Christ Israel is occupied by the Romans who – in 123 AD – disperse the Jewish population to the corners of the Empire.
The United Nations charter on the rights of refugees was signed by Australia amongst most other nations in the aftermath of World War 2. Uppermost in the minds of those who framed this convention was the experience of the most recent round of Jewish asylum seekers immediately prior to and during the War who were denied a safe haven. The so-called Ship of Shame, the MS St Louis, set sail in 1939 to try to find homes for 937 German Jewish refugees. Captain Gustav Schroder was in today’s terminology a people smuggler. The passengers were denied entry in Canada, the United States and Cuba, eventually being returned to their port of origin in Europe where over 200 of them died in German concentration camps. This one event summed up the shame and complicity of the Allied powers in the attempted genocide of Europe’s Jewish population.
Leviticus grounds our treatment of others in a simple observation: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself - for I am the LORD.’ ‘You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God’. The standard with which we treat others is to be the standard of the holiness of God. It goes deeper, in fact I think the love theology of Leviticus goes back to the act of creation itself. God creates the world – light and dark, water and earth, vegetation and animal life, and says that it is good – the Hebrew word is tov. God creates human creatures as the bearers of God’s own image and sets them to live in the centre of creation and God looks at everything that God has made and says, in Hebrew: tov tov. It is very good. Leviticus commands us to love what God has made and loves.
Jesus takes our understanding further. It’s another one of his antitheses. ‘You have heard it said’, he tells us, ‘that you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. (v. 44) Notice that he isn’t quoting Leviticus, there is nothing in Leviticus or in the Torah about hating your enemy, in fact. It would perhaps have been simply ‘common sense’, the common wisdom of the day. But then Jesus does paraphrase Leviticus, and takes it even further: ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’. (v.44) See how Jesus follows Leviticus in making the standard of our treatment of others the holiness of God? And he also links it with the creative goodness of God, who: ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’. God’s creation is indiscriminate goodness, profligate, even wasteful blessing. God doesn’t wait for us to be deserving before showering us with goodness. That is the standard by which we should treat others.
Needless perhaps to say, our treatment of the alien and the refugee has been unloving. In fact it has been characterised by moral panic, by wilful incitement of prejudice, and by the deliberate imposition of suffering. We are no longer a people of justice and generosity. We have become a fearful and insecure people who have forgotten what it means to be hospitable. This is not the work of one side of Australian politics, but of both sides, who have fed back to us our own darkest instincts and have sought to draw life for themselves from our fears. To put it more plainly, both sides of Australian politics have tried to buy your vote by being cruel to vulnerable people. The one – possibly humanitarian – justification that has been offered, has been to save lives at sea. But with the imposition of a new policy – that of turning back boats – there is no longer any pretence of protecting lives at sea. And with last week’s incident on Manus Island – as yet unclear, but we know one man has lost his life and many others have sustained fearful head injuries, apparently as a result of an attack on the camp from outside – it is now clear that the policy of placing asylum seekers in offshore concentration camps has abandoned any pretence of saving lives. It must be ended.
And Leviticus and Jesus tell us that it can only be ended by love, grounded in the creative love of God. Why? Because it is in loving the alien, the enemy, that the false masks that stereotype and dehumanise are removed. Face to face we meet with our enemy and realise that he – she – is us.


Reverend Evan Pederick
Rector, Anglican Parish of Canning
mob 0433 174 112