Back in 1961 a book entitled Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein became a cult classic overnight. It was controversial because of its challenge to the standard mores of the day particularly regarding sexuality and gender. Today it hardly raises an eyebrow. But that wasn’t why it took hold of my generation and has never been out of publication since. Its popularity is due primarily to identification with being a stranger in a strange land. It wasn’t until much later when studying the Bible I learned that Heinlein had nicked the title from Abraham, although at the time I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t the other way around. Kiwis with their fondness for having an Overseas Experience are quite familiar with the feeling, but even those who have not had an OE know the experience of feeling out of place in their own land. I felt it in the US after 9/11 when most of my fellow Americans seemed to think Osama attacked our country when in truth he attacked all of humanity. It is often forgotten that people from around the world died that day and the world grieved with us. When Bush ignored this to justify a pre-emptive, immoral war and then was re-elected, I never felt more alone in an alien land.
We have numerous options at such moments in our lives. And we might not always choose the same one each time we face it. Sometimes our inclination is to separate ourselves from it; sometimes, to attack it; sometimes, to adapt to it; and sometimes, to embrace it.
For instance, in my own journey from strange land to stranger land, I began by fighting back against the administration politically. When that failed, my choice was to make a statement by leaving a country whose ideals I admired, but whose behaviour appalled me. In coming here I was once again a stranger in a strange land. I thought I spoke the language. I’m still amazed I got this job. I only understood every third word at the interview. But soon I adapted and could use such terms as “bloody” and “bugger” properly in a sentence and spell centre and programme correctly. In short order I knew “She’ll be right” in this strange land that had warmly welcomed me in spite of who my president is. I knew I had embraced her back last Sunday. While watching the first 30 minutes of the rugby World Cup game against France I realised I kind of knew what was going on and was actually getting excited. It was confirmed when I joined in the mourning after the final outcome, taking only small comfort in Australia’s loss.
My journey is not an unusual one, especially for people of any faith perspective. In one way or another every faith perspective calls its adherents to be in the world and not of it. Part of it, yet separate. But how to deal with the differences between our faith and our culture is not always clear.
Today’s reading is a letter Jeremiah writes to Jews in exile after the fall of Jerusalem. He tells them to resist those who tell them to be separate from the Babylonians. They argued for separation, for soon God will return them to their homeland. Jeremiah argues for adaptation. He says prepare for the long haul. Continue living. Marry, have children, enjoy your grandchildren. Trust that eventually Jerusalem will be rebuilt. But it won’t happen right away. It will not happen in your lifetime. In the meantime live.
He did not mean, of course, that Jews should embrace Babylonian beliefs and religious practices. They should remain faithful to their God. But they could do so even in a foreign land. As it turned out the Jews did establish in Babylon a community that remained for centuries a major centre of Jewish thought and life. After Babylon fell to Persia, a few in the Jewish community did return to Palestine and rebuilt Jerusalem. Most however stayed. Jeremiah turned out to be wrong about the Jews not embracing many aspects of their new land. That is revealed in Genesis, as most of it was written during the Babylonian captivity. Parts of it adapt Babylonian myths such as the story of the flood. But Jeremiah’s strategy turned out ultimately to be a good one. His call to be in the world but not of it has worked well for Judaism throughout its history of living in mostly hostile Christian lands.
The Christian story of how to be a stranger in a strange land has been a little different and not as positive. The first generation of Christians took the position of the false prophets Jeremiah rails against. Because they expected Jesus’ Second Coming to be imminent, they chose to live in opposition to the culture. This shows up in the role of women. Women had played an important role in Jesus’ ministry contrary to their role in the culture. In the early church they had a role in its leadership. However, it became clearer to second and third generation Christians that it might be awhile before Jesus established his reign on earth. They began to see it as necessary to accommodate themselves to the patriarchal culture and women soon heard that they should be silent in church.
By the fourth century Christians were quite good at adapting to and embracing the culture. The church structured itself along the lines of the Emperor’s court. Transforming the culture was no longer the church’s business. Power became its focus. Bishops developed a fondness for wearing Caesar’s purple. After Rome fell, this appeared to have been a good strategy. For the next 1000 years the church was the culture.
Post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-Darwin this is no longer the case. Power has slipped away and we are once again strangers in a strange land. We once again have to decide whether to attack or adapt, separate or embrace the culture. You may have noticed that Christians are not of one mind as to the appropriate strategy. As the turmoil in the Anglican Communion reveals, there are deep divisive differences.
Conservatives in the Communion, thanks to the large number of African Anglicans, are by far the majority. They long for the good old days when the church was the culture. They see the Enlightenment-shaped Western culture as a threat to be attacked and rejected. From my perspective it is a power trip wrapped in a cloak of being Scripturally faithful. Within this predominantly conservative Communion a minority of the faithful see benefits to adapting and even embracing the strange land we find ourselves in. They don’t see things quite so black and white. They reject that purity of belief is next to Godliness. They don’t see science as a threat to their faith, or the faith of others either. They consider diversity a good thing and that all aspects of creation are endued with the divine not just Scripture. While they are as tempted as any human to claim and use power, on their better days they are more interested in transformation – their own and the culture’s.
The Conservatives have made it clear that they must separate themselves from this minority group in the wake of the American bishops’ refusal to recant. The American position that gays and lesbians are called to be fully a part of the church as anyone else does not fit their culture-shaped biases. Most Conservatives will not be attending Lambeth, the most visible sign of our being in Communion. They are busy creating new governance structures in their own image. I will not rail at them like some 21st century Jeremiah. I reluctantly, yet with some relief, wish them God’s speed.
I can do this because I take comfort in today’s Gospel. Ten lepers approach Jesus. They are the very definition of strangers in a strange land. They must by law separate themselves from society calling out that they are lepers when anyone draws near. They are despised for bearing God’s judgment according to the powers that be. They are unclean and forbidden to embrace the righteous. Jesus responds to their cries for mercy, not by giving them a handout as they expect, but by curing them. Nine of them rush off to the Temple to be certified as once again acceptable to the power structure. They can be forgiven their eagerness after being in such a hopeless state. But one, the Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus. He could’ve returned to his house of worship in Samaria for the same purpose as the other nine, but something about Jesus reveals he doesn’t need society’s approval to be whole. He is transformed by the event and knows this is even better than not being a leper. He is healed, not just cured. He will never again be a stranger in a strange land. He has found his connection to the world in the God within him. He adapts to this new revelation and embraces himself and the world in his thanksgiving.
Yes, the Anglican Communion will be diminished by the Conservatives departure, both in numbers and influence, but transformation has never required numbers, only a willingness to go faithfully into a strange land. Abraham did it and established a great people. Only a few left the comforts of Babylon to return to a country they never knew to rebuild Jerusalem. In today’s story of Jesus curing the ten lepers, nine went off to resume life as accepted members of the power structure. Only one sought to be transformed. We who remain in the Anglican Communion may find the odds against us in our efforts to see a more inclusive and just church and world, but still nine to one odds aren’t bad. They were good enough for Jesus.