Sermon: Who is Your Other?

I Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Just as there are fundamental physical laws of the universe — like “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” — there are fundamental political laws. Like: when a people feel threatened — whether that’s because they’re struggling economically or there’s lots of social change or because they feel unsafe, due to crime or acts of terrorism— they will often look for a scapegoat. When we get frightened, we start looking suspiciously at anyone who seems “other.” This is why it can be so scary to be an ethnic or racial or religious minority, or an lgbtq person, or a woman during bad times. Just ask anyone who was a Muslim living in this country after 9/11. Or ask any immigrant from Mexico right now.

We’re living in the middle of a particularly fearful time. I was listening to a podcast recently called “The Wilderness,” that looks at how we arrived at this time by taking a tour through the politics of the last few decades. Here’s Robert Reich, who had been Bill Clinton’s Labor Secretary, talking about how economic inequality began decades ago and about its consequences:

Here’s the problem — the typical American worker had not had a raise since the late 1970s. Wages had flattened out. Most of the economic gains were going to the very top. And by the 1990s, this was starting to become an issue. You began to see the stirrings of populism. And when I say the stirrings of populism, I’m talking about anti-establishment populism. Bill Clinton, by not addressing clearly and squarely the underlying structural problems of the American economy — flat wages, widening inequality, most of the income and wealth gains going to the top — set up the Democrats for a reckoning. I remember saying this in 1995, and people thought I should never say something like this publicly, but I said if we don’t do something about widening inequality and job insecurity and the concentration of wealth, there will be eventually a demagogue and that demagogue will channel the nation’s anger into very poisonous kind of resentment against immigrants, and blacks and anybody else who can be labelled as the “other.” (Wilderness episode 1, 37:41-39:00).

How did Reich predict Trump? Because he knew this fundamental law of politics — that when times are fearful, people will look for a scapegoat. They will regress to the scripts of racism and xenophobia that exist within that society and begin pointing fingers at the “other.” We see this happening throughout much of Europe right now. And history is sadly full of examples of this fundamental law of scapegoating: the witch hunts during the Middle Ages, Germany after World War I, etc. 

Our scripture reading from this week addresses this fundamental law of politics, although it’s not obvious at first reading that it’s doing that. Our reading forms part of a very long section of I Kings 8, most of which is King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the newly constructed temple in Jerusalem.  There’s a lot that was left out of his prayer, and we need to understand what’s missing to really understand what’s going on this passage and how it’s speaking to us today.

Solomon begins by reminding God — and, really, his own people — about the covenant God made with them: that if they remain faithful to God and keep God’s commandments, God will remain faithful to them and will protect them and make them prosper. We heard that part. Solomon then goes on to plead with God for nearly 20 verses that we didn’t hear to heed the prayers of his people and to forgive them when they sin. He, like most people of his time, believed that if the people sinned and were unfaithful to the covenant, God would allow bad times to happen. And we can infer from the part of  Solomon’s’ prayer that we didn’t hear that times must have been very bad indeed. Solomon refers to a terrible drought that is causing tremendous suffering for humans and animals. He beseeches God to deliver them from famine and all kinds of pestilences that destroy crops such as “plague, blight, mildew, locust or caterpillar.” He asks God to protect them from enemy attack and from plague and disease. It’s poignant to hear the full extent of his pleading. You get the sense of a people under siege from within and without. These are fearful times. (This Bible commentary is indebted to this article.)

It’s in this context that the last two verses of our reading really stand out. Here they are again: “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.”

Wow. What would it be like to have a leader who, in fearful times, prays on behalf of the foreigners in his land, who asks his God to answer their prayers — to listen to them and to grant the desires of their heart? What would it be like to have a leader who refuses to scapegoat the other, but who instead sees them as solidifying the identity and values of his people instead of threatening that identity and those values? (Actually, we know what that’s like because we used to have a leader like that.) What an example Solomon gives of a faithful person who resists the fundamental political law of scapegoating in the midst of bad times and instead chooses to abide by a fundamental spiritual law instead — that we re all created in the image of God.
This refusal to “otherize” the foreigners in Israel’s midst is even more remarkable given that foreigners are often not regarded so favorably in other parts of Scripture. Just like in our own day, the people of Israel had religious scripts by which they could justify their exclusion and expulsion of the other, rather than their embrace of them. One of our other lectionary texts for today, ironically, was from Joshua. The books of Joshua and Judges tell the story of the people of Israel coming into the Promised Land — a land taken from the indigenous inhabitants by force —and what happened after they settled there. These books often have a very dim and suspicious view of foreigners. Solomon, in his embrace of the foreigner, had to consciously choose a different religious script from within his tradition, one that said (to quote Deuteronomy 10:19): “Love the foreigner, the sojourner, in your land because you were once foreigners and sojourners in Egypt.”

It’s not hard to draw direct parallels between Solomon’s time and today. Like his time, fear is rife. People are suffering economically; pestilences like opioid addiction and gun violence plague us. And, like Solomon’s time, we have also religious scripts available to us that could cause us to fear the “other.” While on vacation, I read a memoir by Rob Schenck, called “Costly Grace.” No relation to Joanna. This Schenck used to be a bigwig in the evangelical movement and a mover and shaker in D.C. for many years, lobbying politicians and advising Supreme Court justices, all in service to his anti-lgbtq rights, anti-immigrant, super conservative view of the world. (This was before he got converted to a religion more recognizable as Christianity.) To raise money for his work, he hired a marketing company to come up with fundraising strategies. They advocated a technique called “Fear and Anger.” It was actually called that.  As the marketers explained to him: If you just told people about your programs and what you were doing, they might give you some money. But, if you instilled fear and anger in them—  fear of morally depraved lgbtq people and their supporters, fear of the global Islamic jihad, fear of the godless, militantly secularist, morally compromised Democratic party — then people would give his organization a lot of money. It worked, he said. The money poured in. 

In the face of such religiously-sanctioned fear and anger and scapegoating, our work is to loudly and publicly do what Solomon did so loudly and publicly:  embrace the “foreigner,” embrace the “other” and insist that we are all created in the image of God. We can not be the “quiet in the land.” We are doing it and we need to keep doing it. And… I also want us to go a layer deeper with this passage. Who is our “other”? If we say it’s not Muslims or people of color or trans folk, then who is it? Although we may not be embracing the dominant culture view of who is other, do we still have one? Toward whom do we direct our fear and anger? 

I can tell you who it is for me— it’s guys like Rob Schenck and his supporters. It’s those evangelical bigwigs peddling a Fox news version of Christianity designed to instill fear and anger in those listening to them. It’s those so-called ministers of the Gospel who are perverting it and using it to harm people that I love. It’s those crazy people out there who listen to them and who don’t believe in climate change who are jeopardizing my son’s future and the future of this planet. My anger is justified…. And you can tell, I can pretty quickly turn that anger into an“otherizing” Rob Schenck and his supporters. I can pretty quickly get to a place of projecting all my fear and anger onto them, scapegoating them.

The podcast I referred to at the start of this sermon had a segment where they were talking about the way forward for immigration reform. You know, we were so close to passing immigration reform a few years back. But then it fell apart and now, as the podcast said, we have a president who is “jailing toddlers and rejecting asylum seekers.” How do we get beyond this? I was touched and challenged by two longtime immigrant activists — Ali Noorani and Cecilia Munoz — both of whom refused to “otherize” or scapegoat those who might oppose immigration and, instead, suggested we try to listen to them. Here’s what they said: (The Wilderness, episode 7, 44:17-46:10)

I am humbled by these two people — one Muslim, one Latina — who have experienced anti-immigration, anti-Muslim scapegoating in their very bodies and spirits and in their communities. These two warriors who have been fighting for a sane immigration policy for so many years and losing for so many years. They are the ones who are the Solomons of our time, in my opinion. Because they say we need to listen to the prayers — that is, the deep desires and fears—  of the “foreigner” in this country and we also need to listen to the prayers — the deep desires and fears — of those who may oppose the foreigner being here. If they can refuse to make an other of these people, I suppose I can too. 

And even guys like Rob Schenk, whom I am most angry at and whom I fear the most — He began to be converted when he went to an Amish community in Lancaster right after the horrific Nickel Mines school shooting, where a gunman shot five girls. He was sitting in the house of the shooter, where his widow and parents had gathered, when five Amish elders came in, offered forgiveness to the family and the shooter, and asked them what they needed. Rob said he saw the father of the shooter dissolve into tears as an Amish elder held him. Later, Rob went on a study tour to Germany about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, led by two Canadian Mennonites. That also continued to convert him to the way of Jesus. These people from my own faith tradition met him where he was but didn’t leave him there. If they can do that, perhaps I can also.

Who is your other? To whom do direct your fear and anger? Who is to blame? And what do you do with that  awareness that you have an other? May we all be given the wisdom of Solomon in these times. Amen.