Exodus 12:1-14 † Psalm 149:1-9 † Romans 13:8-14 † Matthew 18:15-20
Do you remember the Somali pirates? They made news about 5 years ago with a spate of ship hijackings off the horn of East Africa. The story gained some traction in the news and lots of mixed reaction, even inspiring the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” played by Tom Hanks. The movie tells of a 2009 Somali hijacking—the first of an American cargo ship in 200 years.
I remember because it was one of those stories that seemed to appear in the news out of nowhere, and then disappear almost as quickly. Piracy in the modern world? Where did this come from? And why? And why now?
It turns out political instability—essentially a decades-long civil war had resulted in a missing-in-action Somali government. In the vacuum of leadership and the dismantling of the local navy, foreign ships began to exploit the coast, invading local fishing grounds and poisoning the waters with illegal waste that further decimated the fishing population. It effectively ended the fishing trade that had provided a living for these Somalis and their families.
They turned to piracy out of desperation, holding crews hostage for ransom.
“He was a seaman just like most people in this town, he used to go out to sea and sell the catch,” 80-year old Hawa Mohamed Saeed says of her son Farhan, who is one of more than 200 men from their coastal town on the horn of Africa who have been convicted of piracy and hauled off for life to prison. “Our life was good. He not only provided for us, but also for his relatives who live in towns and villages far from here. He used to pay for their rent and school fees… Before they emptied our sea, my son never owned or carried a gun. A fishing net was his only possession.”[i]
I’ve been thinking about them because Somali pirates have once again made the news with a recent successful hijacking—the first in four years. It turns out a regional government has granted fishing permits to foreign ships, once again threatening the livelihood of Somali fishermen and their families.
And that got me thinking about how inconveniently complicated stories can be in our often overly simplistic either-or world.
It is understandable, of course, to want to know what to think—to know what is right and what is wrong. And, in truth, I was talking about this a bit last week, lamenting that sometimes my tendency to complicate things sometimes keeps me from recognizing when it is time to take a stand, when it is time to speak out, when it is time to speak for truth, or speak for one who suffers, or speak for the earth, or speak—or even act—for life against the very real power of death.
We want to be able to see the marks on the doorposts of the houses that tell us this family is a safe family, a good family, a chosen family. We want to know who to side with, who to make a bargain with, and who not to. And yet, just when we think we’ve got it figured out, just as we think we know who is on our side and who is against us, we watch alliances form that turn everything upside down. We see destructive power that blows on the just and the unjust, and we remember, of course, that we are connected, that we belong together. This week, we are all Texans. We are all Floridians. We are all Cubans. WE are all Barbadians. There is no vengeance that is ours to meet out. There is no punishment that is ours to give. There is only suffering that is ours to mitigate and comfort and embrace. There is only generosity. There is only love.
That is it, Paul suggests to us in Romans. For those of us who say we follow Jesus, that is our law. It is simple. It is straightforward. There is no debate about this. And it makes it very hard for us when we try to come down on one side or another, when we try to align with one group or another.
Yes, one biblical text after another sides God with whomever happens to be on the edges—the Israelites in Egypt under a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and could only see in the vast subculture of Israelites a threat, the Gentiles that the insider early-Christian Jewish community wanted to write out of God’s salvation. We might add the Africans who were forced from their homes and thrown into servitude and who, for 400 years have been systematically shut out of opportunities and blamed for it by fringe groups and by an even more vast complacent culture of privilege. We might think of women who are persistently paid less for equal work. We might add dreamers whose parents defied the laws to offer their families an opportunity for the life they knew they deserved.
But whenever we try to draw the lines too narrowly, God always seems to reach beyond—to enemies Jesus tells us to feed, to neighbors who it turns out, are our brothers and sisters, whether they live in Houston or Mara Lago or deep in the Catskills or on our streets and under our overpasses.
Daniel Kirk, who has written on Pauline Christianity and attends two churches on Sundays: a traditional Reformed Church in America and a house church, has shifted his definition of church from what we do to who we are together. “Church is the people I’m trying to follow Jesus with and people who are following Jesus with me. It’s the intentional community of people who walk in self-giving love for each other while trusting themselves to the care of God.”[ii]
I am especially struck and convicted by that last phrase--trusting themselves to the care of God. As Richard Rohr suggests, Jesus praised faith even more than love. It captures the heart of the gospel and that thing that ultimately frees us from the transactional relationships that trap us in either/or realities. To trust ourselves to the care of God is to give up the idea that vengeance belongs to us, that life must be fair in order to be full.
We are not a community of justice, we are a community of reconciliation. And we can give ourselves to reconciliation only because we trust ourselves and our world to the care of God. We trust there is enough to go around. Our law is the law of love, and it does not segregate. It does not separate. It does not prevaricate: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
This is the key to our well-being, it turns out. And it is the key to justice and righteousness on earth as it is in heaven.
[i] Hamza Mohamed. “The Other Side of Somalia’s Pirates.” February 26, 2015 in Aljazeera. Retrieved on September 8, 2017 from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/02/side-somalia-pirates-150225112818517.html.
[ii] Carol Howard Merritt. “To or Three at the Gym”. March 21, 2017 in The Christian Century. Retrieved September 9, 2017 at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-03/two-or-three-gym?reload=1505016989898.
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