“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” -Genesis 9:11
On Monday, July 7th, I heard a very dramatic story on NPR from Jerusalem. I recommend listening to it before you read on (click the blue text to link to the page). For a basic overview, the reporter, Ari Shapiro, was interviewing a young arabic woman, when the woman and the translator that was with the reporter were hit by stones. As the report winds towards its conclusion, the grandfather of the young woman hit by a stone is told by the police officers not to stir up trouble. He responds that his granddaughter has been hit by a stone, and he will stir up as much as need be.
We can identify with the grandfather in this story, this is how conflict starts, it starts small, with stone throwing, a result of the tension that currently exists following the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish students by Hamas last week and apparent response with the murder and torture of a palestinian teen. Tensions are unquestionably high, maybe the grandfather shouldn’t stir up trouble, but again, given the heightened emotions, can we really blame him for being upset. It starts small, but as the last week has unfolded, it is amazing as to how it can escalate so quickly, we have heard of the the hundreds of people that are now dead as a result of this back and forth escalation of violence.
I have been trying to stay on top of this story the best that i can, to try and make sense of what is happening. In the process i have been doing something i almost never do, i have been reading the comment sections of the articles. Its been amazing to me. No matter how evenly reported a story may seem, comments proclaim that the article is too far to one side, even the comments listed at the bottom of the story I provided a link for, they are somewhat inflammatory, (although nothing compared to a great deal of the comments i have seen following stories from outlets like the BBC and the New York Times), proclaiming the Ari Shapiro didn’t present enough of the facts, or that he betrayed one side or the other’s narrative.
This conflict, it is an emotional conflict. Maybe Ari Shapiro didn’t fully capture all the nuances of an ancient conflict in a 5 minute piece, but he managed to catch some very real emotion, there is a brilliance in the reporting there.
It reminded me of something I experienced personally, not that I know what its like to live under the threat of rocket fire, but it still resonated, even if only slightly, with my living in Ireland about 10 years ago.
Now as the pastor of Adelphi Presbyterian Church it is pretty, I am obviously a Presbyterian. But I found out that in Ireland, I am a Catholic. I didn’t need to tell anyone, it was my last name, and it is true, the McNamaras, until my generation really, were Catholic through and through.
Now, if i am completely honest, there was a subtle difference between the Catholics and the Protestants were i grew up, but very subtle, the catholics kids tended to have last names that ended in vowels, but there was little more after that.
So i was surprised when fairly early on in my stay while living in the Irish Country side, i was told not to spread it around that I was a Presbyterian. I was told, exactly how i forget, that I had a Catholic last name, and to just kind of accept it. Being in a foreign country, I thought it best to just go with the flow, so i quieted down. Eventually, as I made more and more headway into the local culture, when folks started to forget that I was an American, when i was just kind of accepted as a McNamara coming from County Clare (even though I had only ever spent 3 days in County Clare), I started to hear from a few folks Protestant jokes, and stories of the “Proddy” towns in the area. The jokes, although off color, were mostly benign, simply making Protestants out to be incredibly dumb in a rather infantile way, I could shrug those off pretty easily. But the stories of scattered Proddy towns in the area as places where you would be met with a shot gun, places populated with “them”. Those stories started to nag at me a little bit.
I was aware of the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, often referred to as the Troubles. As a kid who was proud to be Irish in the 80s, I noticed when the news reported Car Bombs in London or shoot outs in Belfast. But I wasn’t prepared to encounter this in the more southern parts of the country.
I guess when its a distant conflict, something that only wanders into the edge of your existence, its just there. At a young age I was unable to internalize this Protestant/Catholic conflict, particularly considering that even though i grew up presbyterian, i spent a far amount of time in Catholic churches growing up. It would have been impossible for me to understand the two in conflict. Yet as I tended bar in the overnight hours, as I became backdrop to typical Irish life, blending into the background to overhear the conversations that had been happening before i got there, and continued after i left, the divide that was just woven in a way into the fabric of the culture, an emotionally rooted belief that was just kind of passed on from generation to generation, even if it wasn’t at all intentional, the divide became very real.
I don’t want to make the Republic of Ireland seem like a place locked in this division, there were plenty of people who saw past it, who didn’t get wrapped up in it, who were quite frankly a bit ashamed of the divided conflictual past. But the divide was present, whether i liked or not, whether the country as a whole really wanted to admit it or not, the divide existed.
Towards the end of my 4 months in Ireland, I was chatting with someone maybe only a year or two older than me, and I boldly asked him what the big deal was, why the conflict, i pointed out that Catholics and Protestants both read the same bible, both followed jesus, something that seemed so obvious to me, and his response was clear and straight forward; “No, they are not!”. The emotion in his response made me realize there was no way i would change his mind, at least not in that moment, in that conversation.
It can be hard to get Irish folks to talk meaningfully about the Troubles, as i mentioned, some see it as a blemish on their history, simply fortifying the older English Narrative (the Irish Question as it was called) that they were an island of backwater ignorant culture less place. As Ireland has stepped triumphantly into the world economic scene, its often a history they want to forget. But on a few evenings, under the dimly lit lights of the bar, an old timer would tell me a little bit more about the Troubles, and where they were rooted.
For a little more in depth accounting of the Troubles, although far from prefect, check out the wikipedia page: click here
The bottom line is that in these late night conversations, it became pretty clear that the conflict was really about Ireland’s relationship with England. In Northern Ireland, the loyalists to England were almost all Protestant, and the Nationalists, those that wanted to become a part of the Republic of Ireland, were Catholics. This religious divide is historically linked to when King Henry VIII left Catholicism to start the church of England. For the colonized Irish, being Catholic was a way of differentiating ones self from your colonizers. This is a very simplistic account, but it gets at the heart of the matter.
So there was a reason I was Catholic in Ireland. They didn’t care that I recited the Lord
Prayer differently, or that i thought clergy could get married, or that i didn’t buy into the idea of the Pope, or that i didn’t affirm transubstantiation, or that practices only two sacraments instead of seven. None of those things offended the folks making the protestant jokes. What mattered to them was that my family history aligned me with Ireland, not loyalists. In other words my being Catholic had nothing at all to do with theology, it has all to do with history. I wasn’t one of “them”.
So much conflict in the history of humanity has been fought in the name of religion, many of them also probably were ignited with the same sort of early back and forth we saw in the NPR report, with passions on each side growing. We can look to the comment sections of news articles about the conflict in Gaza and Israel as proof that the conflict gets blamed on religion.
In fact we don’t have to do much digging to find a pretty long list of the last 50 years or so of conflict that gets aligned with religion. We can look to whats going on in Syria and Iraq and see conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites. We can look at Nigeria, Sudan and other places in Africa where there is violence between Muslims and Christians. We can look at India and Pakistan where conflict emerges between muslims and Hindus, we can look even look at the recent history of Vietnam and find conflicts between Buddhists and Christians. Go just a little farther back to World War II and we can identify Christians persecuting Jewish people as the Majority of Protestants in Germany OK’d Hitlers actions (although the good number of Roman Catholics and a number of German Protestants were dissenters).
If what was happening today was anything like what was happening in the time of Noah, no wonder God got angry enough to destroy the world with a flood, all this violence doesn’t give us a very rosy world view. In fact, pursing the comment sections on many of the articles regarding the current Hamas/Israel conflict, many people proclaim that getting rid of religion would make this world a better place.
So what does Noah have to tell us about this.
First off, Noah, like much of Genesis, is a story that is important in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Obviously Christians and Jewish People share the Genesis account of Noah, but in the New Testament Noah is referenced by Paul and in Jewish traditions, Noah is an important inspiration for Midrash. In fact Jewish Midrash factored into much of the plot of the recent “Noah” movie with Russell Crowe. Noah is also an important part of the Qur’an, being one of the major prophets of Islam along with the likes of Adam and Abraham and Jesus.
As I have mentioned over the last few sermons, the book of Genesis is redacted from a number of different sources. There is maybe nowhere where it is more glaring that as it is in Noah. If you go and read through Noah, you will see details of the story are repeated, and some details, particularly the number of pairs of animals brought on board, actually in conflict with one another.
The story of the flood is even older than genesis, by a long shot. The first flood narratives appear about 4500 years ago in Mesopotamia: included in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Gilgamesh story is nearly identical to the story of Noah, and was obviously brought into the hebrew canon early on. For a more detailed account of this, click this link.
Even more remarkable than the links between Gilgamesh and Noah is the fact that flood narratives are incredibly common across cultures, even in Native American Cultures that would have had no contact with the story of Gilgamesh.
There is something universal about the story of the flood, something about the reality of a flood’s devastation that speaks to an elemental aspect of our humanity.
We can even take this even a bit farther, there is something universal about religion. The fact that nearly every culture ever has had weaved into a concept of the divine can not be overlooked. And yet violence so often gets put under the banner of religion.
Using the Troubles as an indicator, what gets termed as religious conflicts are really, at some level, about how we create dividing lines, about how we separate us from them. Since religion and emotion and culture as so often tightly interwoven, religion is a common dividing line, but the lines certainly also get drawn based on ethnicity, politics or even something as impermanent and arbitrary as national boundaries.
We ignore the unity we often can find among ourselves, even our religions, our similarities, because it is easier for us to divide than it is for us to unite.
Yet, let us not forget, in the aftermath of the flood, God still forges a covenant with us. In the story of Noah, tucked in a covenant that includes requirements to not eat animal flesh with blood still in it, (Genesis 8:20-9:7) we hear God make a bold statement about human violence:
We are maybe more familiar with the second version of the covenant that is offered to Noah (Genesis 9:8-17), that of the rainbow, but the first version includes a little more specificity as to what our side of the covenant entails.
But God’s side of the covenant is pretty clear in both versions: God will never flood the earth again on account of our misdoings. Even though if we are really honest with ourselves, as humans, worldwide, we haven’t done a great job of holding up our end of the covenant, there is violence around the globe occurring today, and it must be breaking God’s heart, yet God made a promise to us, and God preserves that promise.
God is also trying to set an example for all of us, God is willing to seek reconciliation with us, God is willing to make the promise to never flood the earth again, even though we are imperfect, even though we continue to fall into the same mistakes we make over and over again. If God can recognize the error of God’s way, and God keeps God’s promise, God is offering us some pretty powerful inspiration to strive to be reconciling in the same way.
If we go back to Genesis one, and that God has instilled order into the chaos that was in the beginning, and that the bible informs the sort of Order God seeks, this narrative, one of reconciliation between us and God, it implies the Order that God wishes for us in the world, and the order that we are to bring along with God’s love, embodied in Jesus Christ.
Paul picked up on this, and for those of you that we at my installation service and heard the sermon by Dave Dyson speak about a ministry of reconciliation, you have some understanding of how important this is.
Now it is easy for me to stand up here and talk about how all the nations and groups that are in conflict with one another, about how they need to reconile with each other, how they need to find their similarities instead of their differences, but to a certain extent that does nothing to help bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.
We can look at warring nations and groups all day, but the only change we can really effect in the world is the change we bring. We are called to be ministers of reconiliation, to help bring this order of love, this covenant of the rainbow along with us wherever we go.
Now for most of us, the way we divide tends to be much subtler, it might be as seemingly innocent as saying something like: “well, they did such and such or they act like this, or why do they keep on doing that”. Listen for when you “other” someone, when you refer to a group of as “them” or “they”. I catch myself doing it, none of us our immune.
But we have to switch from a them to an us, even if it means acknowledging that we made a mistake, or that we don’t do enough, even if you didn’t feel like you had anything to do with what happened. This ministry of reconliation, it starts with us, with finding our commonalities instead of our differences, of acknowledging the covenant we received from God because Noah offered up sacrifices to God, a covenant that WE have not lived up to, that I might go on to venture we maybe don’t deserve, but God’s love has provided it anyways. We can strive to live up to that covenant, we can strive to embrace those we so often define as “other”, we can strive to be a radically inclusive community that is willing to love and embrace anyone who walks through our doors, not even just the folks that walk through our doors, really all the people we interact with.
This is not an easy task, but when we acknowledge that we are because of God, and because of God’s love, not our own actions, certainly not by the perfection of humanity over the last 4500 years, when we acknowledge that it is God that loves us into existence, that offered us life through breath, and has promised never to destroy us again, to keep the seasons on track, then it becomes a light yoke, the yoke is certainly there, but it becomes lighter the more we give ourselves fully to God.
This is truly great news!