I’ve been thinking in recent weeks over what it means to belong. How we belong? Why we need to belong? Who doesn’t belong? and of how belonging and not belonging is so often a source of conflict.
I’ve wondered about Syria. 207,000 civilian casualties since the beginning of the conflict, 25,000 of whom have been children. Nearly 6.5m internally displaced people. And I wonder, when this ends and in the face of all the hurt and trauma, how would you begin to rebuild that nation in such a way as to ensure there is no more conflict?
In two weeks sixteen of our congregation will be in Rwanda, including my wife, and they’ll visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Over just 3 months in 1994 about 1m people were killed, injured or tortured in a violent civil conflict. Since then the government has been attempting to rebuild the country and reshape the nature of belonging.
One initiative, reintroduced four years or so after the genocide is Umuganda, roughly translated as “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.” On the last Saturday of every month everyone from 18-65, even visitors to the country, engages in three hours of voluntary work to improve their community. The task of restoring a sense of kinship takes a lot of hard work.
Sadly, in recent days we have had on display round these parts our own struggles with belonging. Despite our peace process we persist in our old binaries of orange and green, of Catholic and Protestant, of British or Irish, and after twenty years we still haven’t solved the complex riddle of belonging.
I’m reminded of this as I read the genealogies in the bible.
One list to consider opens the book of 1 Chronicles and reaches to twelve pages. It is an exhaustive list of the tribes of Israel, beginning right at the beginning with their ancestor Adam. Every son of every father is mentioned in an exhaustively detailed record of the family tree of each of the tribes.
The historical context is important. This book was written for those who were returning from exile in Babylon. Invasion, war and colonisation had resulted in the destruction of family records, and the attempted erasure of historical connections. In the aftermath of the chaos of war and the destruction caused by violent empires it proved a challenge, as it always is, to redraw membership and belonging and identity. Like in Syria or Rwanda. In particular it is a challenge to redraw identity in ways which do not contribute to ongoing conflict, or lay the roots for future division.
The painstaking work of a genealogist here in Chronicles is an attempt to raise the spirits of a demoralised people, to reassure them of their connection to the people of God and to God. “You are still part of the people of God,” this list says. “Despite all that has happened to us, despite our apparent abandonment by God, there is still a thread, stretching back through history, which connects us.”
This list tells these people “You Belong!”
I have a list too which hangs on a wall in my home. It is the family line of my paternal grandmother which was prepared for her eightieth birthday. Some of the names appear dated these days, but these people are all related to me. Part of my blood comes from the Carton family.
There are also Redmonds and Reillys and Jordans. And with predominant Southern Irish Catholic roots I can also claim Orange roots through my maternal grandmother who was born a Walsh in County Tyrone. And through my Aunt Margaret and her husband Attallah I have cousins called Nadia, Tariq, Nabila and Omar. Family is an amazing and complex thing.
And along with the name I have also received hereditary hair lines and big ears that characterise the Jordan/Reilly family. In my brothers and my nephews and nieces you can see these physical Jordan/Reilly traits. I can see them in my own children. And not just physical but character traits as well. And now all mixed up with Kee blood too. There’s lots of good things in this mix, but also, there are some things I have passed to my kids which I wish I hadn’t. But it’s hard to avoid.
And this is the problem with belonging based on blood and ethnicity. Good things are communicated along with the bad. The positive traits as well as the negative. At a community or national level belonging based on blood can very quickly can become toxic and this toxic belonging very often leads to violence.
And this was the one of the besetting weakness of Israel in the bible, and indeed some would say it continues up to this day. It is a challenge to build connection without violence. For once you define who is in, you also define who is out. And then you must keep them out to preserve the purity of your belonging.
This violence is on display in the book of Nehemiah in chapters 11 and 12. In chapter 11 there is another list of names, and also the villages each person comes from. Then, having identified this belonging, the people organise a big worship service to celebrate their belonging. They process around the walls of the newly rebuilt city of Jerusalem, led by choirs singing praises of God.
And on the same day that they do this wonderful thing, they also remembered negative stories of foreigners and they began the forced and violent exclusion of those who didn’t belong. All in the context of worship. It makes for astonishing reading for out of praise and worship begins a pogrom against those who were different, some of whom had actually become family. The nativists get concerned about those speaking foreign languages in their midst, they worry that people don’t know “their own culture.” and violence happens, people are beaten and abused and imprisoned. And foreigners are sent away. And Hebrew men are forced to divorce their foreign wives.
In the face of this toxic belonging the prophets knew that they had to find a new way to describe belonging. One that was not based on ethnicity, or blood. They looked forward to a time when they would find new ways of defining the nation that included people who had previously been excluded.
Is. 56:1-8 is one example of this future new belonging.
Third Isaiah seems to be arguing that we must find a way to include those previously excluded – the foreigner and the eunuch for example. They were previously excluded because of ethnicity and because of purity laws. But Isaiah was urging the newly restored nation to redefine its basis for belonging to find ways to open it up rather than close it down. For, Isaiah says, there are still others to be gathered.
I think what the prophet may be pointing to here is that there will be a constant wrestling with this issue of belonging, but our stance must be towards including those excluded, rather than limiting belonging.
And then we get to the Gospels and the New Testament where the same wrestling continues. And in two of our Gospels we have these lists of names, almost as if to say, on the surface at least, that the old ways still hold.
But there are subtle differences in Matthew’s list for instance. On the surface it looks like a traditional genealogy, but Matthew adds some new touches. (I wonder is he channelling the old prophet Isaiah who talked of the ‘still others’ to be gathered.)
Unusually for these lists, which are more commonly composed of male lines, this list has FIVE women included. And strangely all five of these women have very dubious sexual and/or ethnic histories.
Tamar (1:3) who resorted to desperate measures in deceiving her father in law into sex which led to her pregnancy. Rahab (1:5) the foreign madam who ran a brothel in Jericho, Ruth (1:5) the foreign widow and refugee who on the threshing room floor in Bethlehem had to do what she had to do to survive and get a reluctant man to live up to his responsibilities. Bathsheba is not named directly in 1:6, which is another issue, but she was the one David callously forced himself upon and then arranged the murder of her husband Uriah when he found she was pregnant.
Then finally, in 1:15-16 one more woman and one more man, folded in among these outsider women with questionable rights to belong and with questionable status, and carrying around them more than a whiff of scandal. Mary and Jesus. But Jesus is not described as the son of Joseph, instead the text says “Mary was the mother of Jesus.” Because there was scandal here too. Alleged sexual misconduct and the birth of a boy in embarrassing circumstances. No doubt some, if not many in their community, wanted to make sure that no-one of this ilk could belong. Their sort weren’t welcome round here among those who are ethnically and ritually pure.
But this Jesus is the one called the Messiah.
Matthew, by redrawing the list, and including people with uncertain legal status and suspect morals is opening up the nature of belonging, much as Isaiah said. Here are some of the “still others to be added.”
The boundaries of belonging are being redrawn and those who were previously on the outside are being brought inside. And they are being redrawn around One who is already on the outside. And this is the glory of the Gospel we proclaim. We don’t find ourselves on the inside because our family were here before. We don’t belong because we have passed some test or reached some standard. We belong because we identify with the Risen Jesus. We belong because he called us and we responded and chose to stand alongside the one who is excluded. However hesitatingly we make that stand.
And even as we have found belonging among a group of people who are so identified with the outsider, we are called to be constantly alert for those who are being left outside. For like the father in the story of the prodigal, we have a Parent God who is constantly scanning the horizon for those who are outside the circle of kinship, and who, when they turn up at the door, find an overwhelming welcome to a party.
That is one reason why the Gospel is Good News. Because it redraws the boundaries, because it is oriented to inclusion not exclusion. Because it does away with those old lists of those who qualify and those who don’t by thinking again about who belongs.
When we considered these genealogies at a recent church service, I produced our Baptismal Register. Another list of names of belonging, but unlike the Chronicles list which is so alien and strange, this one delights us with its familiarity. It runs to many, many pages of the names of those who have pitched up at our door over the four decades of our existence and have been welcomed in. Through it we can trace the changing fashions in names; we can remember those who have passed on; those who have moved on and have carried the spirit of our church family with them. It’s a record of how we have passed on the family traits of our place. Some of us on this list are of questionable character, but we’re still on the list. Still part of the family. We’re not ready to deny one another just yet.
I’m reminded that Bruce Springsteen has a song called Land of Hope and Dreams and in it he sings,
Carries saints and sinners
Carries losers and winners
Carries whores and gamblers
Carries lost souls
I’m glad that God is driving our train, and that he’s also issuing the tickets!
And so as saints and sinners we prayed that the Spirit who celebrated the birth of our children, and welcomed them to kinship and belonging in this place, the Spirit who rejoiced in the joy of their parents and their willingness to identify with this place, the same Spirit would fill us, and our place, and continue to make us a place of welcome, and family and belonging for all who come here.