This is the fourth and last of a Bible study series by different authors on the key Scripture texts for Mennonite Church USA’s next biennial convention, to be held July 1–6, 2013, in Phoenix. The convention theme is “Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope,” and the Scripture texts are Psalm 24:1, Philippians 3:20-21, Romans 5:1-5 and Ephesians 2:14-22. See www.mennoniteusa.org/convention.
By Laura Glass-Hess
I live in Phoenix, Ariz., where the daily reminders of group divisions are plainly evident. The everyday realities of life in a border region represent the fears of the majority. The day laborers in the Home Depot parking lot—young and not-so-young men dressed in jeans and boots—represent a fear of a flood of uneducated, desperate workers driving down wages. The storefront signs written in Spanish represent a fear that our country will be divided by people who refuse to assimilate. The young mother arrested for driving a vehicle with a hidden compartment full of methamphetamine represents the fear that people fleeing poverty will bring violence and crime with them. Angry voices on both sides of the immigration debate exacerbate perceived differences into emotionally charged and intractable positions.
Paul wrote Ephesians to a church that was often deeply divided between Jews and Gentiles. Jews saw themselves as the chosen people and lived by strict purity laws and a cultural tradition shaped by oppression and separation from the dominant society. Gentiles—called “outsiders” and “heathens” by the Jews (verse 11)—did not follow ritual purity laws and did not share the Jews’ cultural background. Jews feared that Gentiles would corrupt their way of life, taint their religious purity and destroy their culture—just as some Arizonans fear that those from the south will overwhelm their schools, endanger their way of life and harm the economy. The Ephesians passage speaks of a “dividing wall of hostility” between groups—a hostility based on differences. Christ came to break down that barrier—to create something new that both groups could belong to, free of the baggage that makes the “majority” suspicious and resentful of the “other.”
On a trip to Mexico a few years ago, I met a couple who lived in Mexico City. He was from Germany, and she was from Spain. They had decided to live in Mexico because it was something new for both of them. They wanted to start something new in a place where neither of them had a history, where neither was completely comfortable or had a cultural advantage. I was struck by the wisdom and courage of that decision. It required them to leave places where they fit and were comfortable and sure of themselves—with only the faith that together they could create something new.
The new life we are called to in Christ is like that. Christ calls us to leave the cultural norms we are comfortable with and to go to a new place—a place where we will meet others who challenge our ideas of what everyday life and faith should look like. This is the holy temple, occupied by the Spirit of God, filled with the members of God’s household and built on Christ as the cornerstone (verses 19–22).
It may be natural—even comfortable—to separate ourselves from another group by viewing its members through the filter of our own fears. Exhaustive amounts of research have been done on the concept of “confirmation bias,” the idea that we are more likely to pay attention to events and characteristics that align with our current beliefs. This bias can lead us to notice favorable attributes in our own group and negative ones in groups we distrust or dislike. It can lead us to build the “dividing wall of hostility” higher and higher.
But God’s kingdom is different. God’s kingdom is a place where foreigners and strangers are transformed into citizens and members of God’s household. In God’s kingdom, a boy (Joseph) sold by his own brothers into slavery and thrown into prison in a foreign land becomes the one who saves a nation from starvation. In God’s kingdom, an impoverished widow (Ruth) goes to a country that is not her own and becomes an ancestor of the Messiah. In God’s kingdom, a tax collector (Matthew) despised as scum by the religious officials becomes a disciple of Jesus. As members of God’s family, we must be able to see past our fears—to see the “other” as a fellow citizen in the kingdom of God.
This concept of citizenship is worth exploring. In the United States, there are two ways to become a citizen: by birth or by an application process. The first requires no work on our part, no choice, no effort. I am a U.S. citizen, with all its privileges, rights and complexities, merely by the arbitrary fact that my mother was physically present in this country when I was born. The students to whom I teach English in my community have a different route to citizenship. They must struggle to learn a language not their own—a process that often takes years. They must be here legally for three to five years before they can even apply to be a citizen. They must submit an application and pay a fee of $680. They are fingerprinted, and their background is checked, since they have to be of “good moral character.” They spend months studying and memorizing 100 questions on U.S. history and government—questions many natural-born citizens cannot answer. They must pass tests that measure their ability to read, write and speak English. If they pass the tests, they take an oath of loyalty to the United States. And after this whole process, they now have the same citizenship that cost me nothing.
It seems to me that citizenship in God’s kingdom is of the unearned variety. The Gentiles, who didn’t follow the laws and regulations of the Jews, were still receiving the same spiritual citizenship as the Jews—citizenship in this new place, where we all go to be transformed. The differences that divided us before we were citizens of this new kingdom are still there, but we are now given the peace to overcome them. That transformation may be painful, and the process difficult, but the right to struggle through that process as children of God, together in God’s family, is freely given.
And when the task of reconciliation seems hopeless—when our fears and differences and the “dividing wall of hostility” seem insurmountable—we return to the cross. There on the cross, Jesus showed us what is important. He showed us that closeness to God is not achieved by conforming to cultural norms or religious rituals, but by inward peace and openness to God’s leading, as together we are built into a temple filled by God’s Spirit.
—Laura Glass-Hess grew up all over the place and currently lives in Phoenix, Ariz., where she is a member of Trinity Mennonite Church. She works as a criminal defense attorney representing indigent clients and spends her free time working on her urban farm and exploring Arizona’s wild places.
Laura Glass-Hess (Photo provided)