While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.” 5 Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore. (Ezra 10:1-5, NRSV)
One year ago this week, the nation observes the 1st anniversary of the most infamous revenge killing in the history of the country, the death of Al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was widely considered the mastermind behind the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington D C and the crash of flight 93 in Pennsylvania. The nation launched two wars with 11 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
I recall most vividly watching the news on May 1st evening to see many young college folks at local colleges and universities headed to the White House and national monuments to shout and ‘celebrate’ bin Laden’s death. All the social media sites were lit up like Christmas trees and a Presidential statement was delivered to the nation late that evening. Most striking to me, was my own feelings. I had (and still have) mixed emotions about the events of that night and even the death of bin Laden.
I am dazed at my oscillation from relief to disgust to fascination at the society’s relationship to this news. Like most Americans, I am relieved that a singular threat of known terrorist leadership can no longer be a threat in the same way. But I am also saddened at the disease of denigration that so often characterizes our perception of the enemy. In the days, weeks and months after the carnage of September 11th, Americans rallied together for support and communal strength and that is wonderful. Americans also begin to foment real and seething anger at the enemy (which initially was Al Qaeda and bin Laden, but quickly morphed to include all of Islam). Communal bonding was gave way to fear and xenophobia, and justice quickly transformed into revenge. As those feelings came to the surface, an ugly tradition in human experience began to rear its head.
We as Americans, (and more broadly humanity in general), have a dual mindset of national bonding while at the same time, fomenting deep fear and exclusionary beliefs. Throughout human history, strong and positive nationalist movements very quickly have turned into dangerous and destabilizing xenophobia. It leads to the syndrome: The belief ‘in us’ degenerates into a denial of the God ‘in them’. Let me say it this way: Whenever we as human beings characterize the adversaries in life, we have a strong tendency to denigrate their person-hood. We deny their humanity and vilify them. This is and always should be a disconcerting approach to our enemies.
The text above is deeply problematic because it exposes the ethno-nationalism that existed in the post-exilic nation of Israel. After having gone through exile and the confusing and disorienting chaos of the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple, the people gather to rebuild and be restored under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. The text portrays the people who returned as looking to assign blame for the state of the ‘fallen’ experience with God. Nationalism always needs a scapegoat; a ‘other’ to be upset with and cast blame for the present state of things. In the text, the leaders and elders decide that it is the foreign women in their midst. Had the men not married these “foreign women” then they would “not have sinned”. The chauvinism and arrogance of the passage is disturbing by itself. Add to that the xenophobic way in which they deal with the remedy for the problem is even more worrisome.
The text reveals our human instinct to assign blame and concern always for the “stranger” or “foreigner” who has found their way into our midst. Never mind that we often invite them and want to celebrate diversity in our communities. The moment that we feel threatened or outraged is the moment that the ‘other’ gets dehumanized and vilified to our elevation and celebration. It means that immigrants that have been the backbone of our societal fabric for more than two centuries now are ONLY portrayed as job-stealing, baby-having, crime-spreading “leaches” on the American way of life. (See how easy it is to deny humanity to another? The language gives it away, every time!)
After September 11, 2001, we as a nation fell victim to the same instinct to dehumanization and undignified behavior. It started with an exploration of terrorism and Al Qaeda. It moved to language about Muslims, Mosque, and Arabs. It spread to anyone profiled to not be “American”. Eventually it became an all-encompassing and pervasive use of nondescript pronouns (them, they, those) appear and lead to a rejection of any portrayals of normalcy in the life of those communities. (See TLC All-American Muslim controversy). The result is a total denial of the humanity of “them” and a limiting of what it means to “be human” or be American or be anything in order to place blame, cast judgment or to use toward an intended end.
The “foreigners” become all those who we don’t want to be US. They are the people who “reject the nation” and “undermine ITS values”. Our problems and our concerns are rooted in the “foreign” problem and if we could just get rid of them, then we can and will prosper. The text implies this in a cursory reading and we have seen many national policies throughout history portray this as truth. The fact is that the Bible itself argues multiple perspectives with regards to the reasons for exile. Some say it was because of unfaithfulness to Torah (to include violating the prohibition on intermarriage), while most prophets argue the larger violation of justice, obedience and faithfulness to the ritualistic worship traditions. The point is that an “us and them” theology/ideology is never the cure-all. It always leads to a narrowing US and a more expansive THEM.
Our differences don’t make us enemies, our policies and perspectives and ideologies do. We further our own objectives and they further theirs; that’s life on the playground just as much as life on the world stage. Those differences do not in any way diminish the humanity of the one(s) who we stand at odds with. Difference does not equate to diminishment. Any other attempt and distinguishing values and virtues without context is an attempt at finding an excuse to make them less than we.
Celebrating the death of any human being is in itself inhumane. Those who participate in that celebration call into question their own humanity and not that of the deceased. Its time for us to do better in the scope of human history. Seeking the humanity even in your enemy is the God principle in all of humanity. It is what makes us a reflection of God’s wonderful creation: To agree to be human if disagreeing with everything else. If all humanity would pursue this goal, then perhaps we move one step closer to a vision of truth.