Aug. 11, 2010

The daily lectionary texts are here.

Identity Politics: no new ideasU.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill, America’s ambassador to Iraq whose term is nearly complete, was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition today.   He was asked about the future of the country after the American troops leave, given the sectarian divisions.  His answer was that he had reasons for optimism (I think we pay our ambassadors to say that when they are “on the record”) but that the issues were far more complex than is usually understood.

He described Iraq as the meeting point of Sunni and Shia Islam, and between Arabs and Turkmen (of course, Kurds as well).  The way to describe the politics in places like that is “identity politics”.  People self-identify according to ethnicity or religion (sometimes the two go inseparably together, sometimes not) which determines their political allegiances.  (In psychological experiments, people will unconsciously support people and believe their claims on the basis of nothing more profound than that they are wearing the same color wrist-band – this article is amazing).  I found the same thing is true among Serbs and Croats, between Hungarians and Romanians; I think it is deeply human.

The same identity-politics showed its ugly head immediately in the early days of the church as our lectionary reading from Acts 6 describes:

1Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.

The same identity-politics was assumed when Jesus met the woman at the well in our gospel text for today:

7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Identity-politics is only a hair’s breadth away from ethnic conflict (see the Jews vs. Philistines in the Samson story which the OT lectionary today is following, Judges 13), which is  not far from ethnic-cleansing – which brings us back to Iraq – and all the other ethnically based conflicts we have witnessed: Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, etc.  There are no new ideas.

Except that Jesus sat down at that well in Samaria where Jews don’t have any dealings with Samaritans, and had dealings with that woman of Samaria.  That was a new idea.  And the early church, following that new idea put exclusively Greek men in charge of the distribution that the Greek widows had felt cut out of by the Jewish widows, making discrimination against Greeks impossible, in effect saying: “you don’t think we are fair: fine – you distribute it yourself.”  That deal is even better than “I cut, you choose.”

One new humanity, no dividing wall of hostility, no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female: that is the Kingdom of God.  The alternative is an earth swollen with mass graves.

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