Realities are Greater than Ideas? Reflecting on the Common Good in Divided Communities

An extract from my contribution to the Irish Inter-Church Meeting 18 October 2018 at the Dromantine Centre

Introduction to Ruth Project
At Corrymeela we are engaged in a year long programme supporting faith communities to talk about the complex and divisive issues of borders, belonging and Brexit. Since April of this year more than 3k people in these islands have met to talk about these things and our conversation partner has been the Book of Ruth.

It is the ideas in the book of Ruth which have enabled the conversations to happen without reference to how anyone voted in the referendum, or how they feel about our own borders here. Rather we have sought to shape the conversations around the kind of society we aspire to be on the far side of Brexit, on the far side of the forthcoming centenaries around our own border and the disputed prospect of a border poll.

You are perhaps familiar with the story of Ruth.

It begins with a family forced to become refugees as a result of famine, and they move across a border into the country of their traditional enemy with whom they have a long history of animosity. This should be familiar here since we have our own history here of neighbours and famine and lasting spite.

Tragedy is heaped upon tragedy in this family, and death upon death, until two of the remaining widows move back home to the land of the matriarch. The challenge facing the host community then is how to welcome these people. What are the limits of social care for both domestic and migrant poor? How do they support vulnerable people to navigate the complexities of cultural difference? At what point, if ever, does a stranger transcend their status as other? Whose responsibility is it to reach across the divisions of cultural and historical animosity to bring outsiders inside, and when, if ever should this happen?

The book of Ruth posits a compelling idea to address the realities of social division and the common good. And the core of that idea is a word that occurs frequently throughout the text….kindness. In part the conversations we’ve been having are seeking to establish this idea and the practice of kindness as a critical element of our Gospel and of how we live together with an eye to the common good..

Liturgical Background
First a little liturgical background on the use of this book in Jewish tradition. There are five small books in the Hebrew scriptures, known as the Megilloth—Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Each of these books is associated with a particular feast in the Jewish calendar and read alongside a selected passage of the Torah. Ruth is particularly associated with the Feast of Pentecost and the Torah reading is Exodus 19 and 20.

The chapters in Exodus tell of the giving of the Law. The pyrotechnics of Sinai and the proclamations of the God who could make a mountain shake. It is an awesome account.

And then there is Ruth, the comparatively small human story of survival in poverty and the overcoming of sectarian division and historical grievance.

What the liturgical use of the book may be trying to tell us is that Ruth is the proper interpretative lens through which to view the Law. That rather than being a legal faith based on the keeping of rules, the foundations of our faith are in the recognition that loving-kindness always trumps law. And where Law results in an unintended UN-kindness…..change the Law.

Kindness in the Story
How that IDEA works out in the REALITIES of life is the stuff of the story. The wealthy male character Boaz is compelled to action eventually by the overwhelming and simple kindnesses of Ruth, the foreigner in the story. He, along with the whole neighbourhood has seen the enduring kindness of Ruth towards the poor widow Naomi, her elderly mother-in-law and one of their own. On this basis then Boaz urges the population to accept Ruth as one of their own for the purposes of social protection and for inclusion as a full member of the community.

By the final chapter Boaz challenges the townspeople to recognise that though the Law has no final protection for a foreigner like Ruth, surely this is an unintended oversight. And so he persuades the residents of Bethlehem to extend the full protections of the Law to this outsider. In effect Ruth becomes a Jew on the basis of her kindnesses rather than her ethnicity.

It raises the prospect for us therefore that our call as Christians is towards kindness as the fullest possible completion of the Law and tradition. This is a deceptively simple calling. Deceptive because it seems too easy and too naive in the face of the complexities of the hard divisions of this island and these islands. How can kindness navigate a way through our traditional divides here? How can kindness plot a course through Brexit?

In his most recent book, the American sociologist and contemplative Parker Palmer wrote,
“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

This has made me think over the last few days. Is the violence of our division here, the killing and maiming violence; the spoken violence; the violence of how we care and don’t care; the violence of who we’re allowed to care for and who not; is it all the attempt to make some meaning and purpose out of the meaningless of our suffering?

Christianity responds to the dilemma of what to do with our suffering, of what to do with our violence and division, with acts of loving-kindness. This is our big idea. Love. Love overcomes violence. Love can transcend division, sometimes by taking into itself the suffering.

This is our big idea.

Not sure that I agree then with the proposition….without a compelling and encompassing idea we risk ‘doing more harm than good’ in our eagerness to do something.

Kindness is more than just do-goodery, which has some value.  Simply doing good can help relieve suffering. But it can also be about the salving of our own conscience.

Kindness is never naive about how the world is. It is a choice to love in the face of division. 

Kindness is courage lived out. Maya Angelou said “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”

Kindness subverts traditional divisions by bringing in those who everyone else seeks to keep out and reaches out to those who the rest of our people keep at arms length.

Kindness is never constrained by the rules. Kindness changes the rules.

Kindness acts for the benefit of others and never for ourselves or our institutions and organisations.

Kindness sees beyond divisions of ethnicity or politics or religion and finds the common good through service.

The Borders and Belonging resources are a series of nine bible studies on the book of Ruth which are being used currently to help faith groups talk through the Brexit issue and also reflect on the nature of borders and belonging on this island, particularly in the face of the coming centenaries surrounding the creation of the border in Ireland. The studies are available to download for free on the Corrymeela website HERE.

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