Sunday, 6 November 2016

'I Want My Country Back!'

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th November 2016 11.00am

Biblical Buildings Series: The second temple
Ezra 1.1-7; 4.1-5; 6.14-16
Ezra 9.1-3, 12; 10.1-4, 9-12, 44; Revelation 11.15-17
‘I want my country back’
          has become something of a rallying cry in recent years.

From Scotland to Brexit to Trump,
          the desire for land,
                   to have and to hold, till death us do part,
          is firmly back in vogue,
                   although I suspect it has never really gone away.

From Islamic State to the Englishman whose home is his castle,
          from Palestine to the Ukraine,
the idea that this particular patch on the surface of God’s green earth
          should belong to me and mine
is a compelling narrative that drives everything from war and terrorism,
          to oppressive dictatorships, to the capitalist system.

The idea that land ownership can be defined
          within a hierarchical system of tenure
          which ascends from the individual, via the family and tribe, to the homeland,
is fundamental to our understanding of the post-feudal nation state,
          and you only have to look at the hell that breaks loose
                   wherever people are required to live across borders
                   that are not of their choosing
          to see how wedded our human societies are
                   to the land that we live on,
                   the land which gives us life.

And the thing about land ownership
          is that it is always a multi-generational issue.
You don’t change these things overnight,
          because there is always an ideology at play
          behind whichever individual or family or corporation
          has actually got their name on the title deed.

So, for example,
          whilst it may be perfectly acceptable
                   for a member of the English landed gentry,
                             say, the duke of Westminster,
                   to own most of the land on which the better parts of London are built,
          it is deemed less acceptable
                   for foreign investors to buy up large tracts of prime real estate
                             with a view to long term profit
                             from what is often referred to as ‘our land’.

And so we come to slogans such as,
          ‘I want my country back’.
And the question of whether such a sentiment, however heartfelt,
          can ever be enacted in any meaningful way.

The thing is, many of today's most divisive political issues
                    revolve around land ownership,
          and have their roots firmly in the past.
So if you want to understand Brexit, or Trump,
          or Scottish Nationalism, or ISIS,
                   or the Palestinian problem,
then you have to go back a very long way
          into the history of why we are where we are,
          and why certain people feel so entitled to their territorial assertions.

People may forget the details, but the grudges remain,
          and the sense of prerogative for ‘my nation’,
coupled with the sense of fear and frustration
          when it feels as if someone is taking ‘my country’ away from me,
lies behind much of our experience of the world.

It's not all about skin colour, of course,
          although that can be one of the most enduring
          and vicious forms of segregation.

It's more usually about land (who owns it),
          money (who has it), and power (who wields it),
and these are multigenerational issues
          which echo down through civilisations,
creating the context within which each rising generation
          stakes their own claim on the world.

In all of this, who your parents are
          continues to matter very much indeed.
If they were blue-collar steel or textile workers in the Deep South,
          who saw their jobs disappear during the twentieth century
          because of overseas manufacturing, and immigrant labour markets,
                   then you will probably be voting for Donald Trump
                   in the hope that he will make your country great again.

The irony here, of course, is that Trump is hardly the personification
          of the defender of the working man.
If anything, he's the exact opposite,
          he’s the landowner who represents
          the vested interests and entrenched power of inherited wealth.
But he is, at least, an American landowner.
          And like the Grosvenor Estates here in London,
                   British born and bred,
Trump represents an embodiment of the all-American dream,
          which is compelling to those who desire an opportunity for a better life,
                    and are frustrated because they feel
                   as if someone else is taking it from them.

What we call neoliberalism,
          the free market economic model that has prevailed in the Western world
                   primarily since the second world war,
          has, it seems to me, largely failed in its aim of reducing social inequality
                   and controlling the monopolisation of production
                   through competition and reduced regulation.

And I want to suggest that this is because
          it was just the latest manifestation
                   of an ancient story of control
          based on land, money, and power.

The rhetoric of the free market simply created a situation
          within which the rich have remained rich,
                   and where land has remained centralised into the ownership
                   of those who inherited the power to assert their rights over it.

And this is where I want us to turn, for a few minutes,
          to the story of Ezra, and the rebuilding of the temple.
Because I think this ancient story, from a land far away,
          helps us to unmask the deep systems of domination in human society
          that continue to make their presence felt in our own world.

So, firstly, a bit of the back story.

You may remember that last week,
          I was speaking about the building of the temple by Solomon,
as a religious symbol of the political unification of the land of Israel,
          that had occurred during the reign of his father David.

That story tells us that King David had succeeded
          where all other Jewish rulers before him had failed,
by uniting the disparate tribes of the Jewish people
          into one nation, with one King, and one border.

In many ways, David was for the Jews,
          what King Arthur is for the English,
a mythical figure of old who sets the ideology of the nation,
          and defines for future generation what it means to be part of this people.

Well, Solomon’s temple was part of that narrative,
          and it cemented the relationship between the house of David,
          and the so-called God of Israel.

However, David’s political union of the land didn’t last,
          and it was already starting to fragment by the time of Solomon,
          hence his grand building project to unite the people.

However, after about 250 years,
          the Assyrians conquered the northern part of the land of Israel (740BCE),
and then a century and a bit after that, the Babylonians conquered the south,
          destroyed Solomon’s temple,
          and carried the king and the ruling elite off to exile in Babylon. (587BCE)

The Babylonian exile lasted for about fifty years
          before the political situation shifted in Babylon,
with the great city itself falling to the Persian king Cyrus,
          who, it turned out, had a different policy
          with regard to exiled and displaced peoples.

Whereas the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar
          had believed that the way to control a conquered nation
                    was to take the elite into captivity,
          and to put his own rulers in place
                   to extract tribute and taxes from the local population,
Cyrus pursued a policy of letting people be ruled by their own leaders,
          worshipping their own gods,
and as long as they paid their taxes to him,
          he was happy enough to live and let live.

And so Cyrus decreed that the Israelites in exile in Babylon
          should be allowed to return back to the land of Israel,
and he encouraged them to rebuild their temple,
          and resume the worship of their God in Jerusalem.

And this is where our reading today from the book of Ezra
          picks up the story.

It’s a book that is written firmly from the perspective of Judah,
          the southern kingdom of the Jews which had Jerusalem as its capital city,
and it is clearly written to justify their ownership of the land.

This is history being written by the victors,
          who are telling the story of how they got here
          to in such a way as to legitimate their situation.

So the returning Jews rebuilt their temple,
          and assumed power in the land,
and Ezra is their story of how they did it.

But there are enough glimpses in this story of the darkness of that time
          for us to recover from it what a terrible price had to be paid
          for this ideology of land ownership to reassert itself.

The thing is, those returning to the land
          were not the same people as those who had left it.
We’re talking two generations later, here.
          And in the same way that the New York Irish are more Irish than the Irish,
                   so the Jews returning from Babylon were more Jewish,
                             by a certain definition of Jewishness,
                    than those who had remained behind in the land.

You see, the Jews in exile had been busy
          constructing a national and religious identity for themselves.
Many of the books of the Bible that make up
          what we might call the Jewish history
          were actually written by the Jews in exile in Babylon.

From the creation stories of Genesis
          being clearly re-written versions of the Babylonian creation myths,
to the stories of the rise of the nation of Israel under the judges
          and the political unity achieved by King David and his successors;
these are stories written to create and sustain
          a specific vision of national belonging
                    in a time when the land itself wass under occupation
                    and the people were in exile.

We may never know what historical echoes lie behind these stories,
          but it was these narratives of identity that came to be true
          for the Jews who returned from exile.

Did King David ever actually exist? Who knows?
          Quite possibly he didn’t.
But that doesn’t matter, because the stories about him
          defined a nation and a culture,
in much the same way that the stories about Arthur
          came to define what it meant to be English
          in our own time of imperial dominance.

So those returning to the land did so
                   with a vision before them of national purity,
          a vision of what it would mean to worship their God in their temple,
                   with their king on the throne.

They were getting their country back!

And it was Ezra’s job to make that happen,
          he was the leader tasked with delivering on the decision
                   to return the exiles to the land they believed was theirs,
          and I can almost hear him assuring the returners,
                   that ‘return means return’.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the implications of the decision to return
          had been fully thought through in advance.
Some of this was going to have to be worked out on the hoof, so to speak;
          such as the thorny issue of those already living in the land
          who might also have thought that they too had a claim to the land they lived in,
                   and indeed, a claim on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The land that Ezra and the returnees came back to was not empty,
          it was inhabited by the descendants of those
          who had been left on the land by the Babylonians.

But when these locals asked if they could join in the fun,
          saying that they had been faithfully worshipping God,
                   through all the years of Babylonian invasion,
          and that they would like to help with the rebuilding of temple,
they are dismissed as ‘adversaries’,
          and made into enemies.

And so the ethnic segregation begins,
          and two groups of people, with two different cultures,
          both felt they had a claim to the same piece of land.
Let’s call them Palestinians and Israelis, for the sake of argument.

But Ezra’s vision of radical ethnic purity doesn’t end there,
          and we meet in the book that bears his name
          the heartbreaking story of the fate of those among the returners
                   who had married local women and had children.

Clearly, during the exile, the pressure to not marry out of the Jewish clan,
          had been crucial to their ability to remain distinctive.

Much as some immigrant groups in our own country
          might frown upon those who might marry out of their own ethnic group.

But once they had returned to the land at the end of their exile,
          clearly some of the men had decided
                   that their cousins who had remained in the land
                   were more relative than stranger,
          and had married and had children.

This would be like, fifty year from now,
          the Syrian refugees to Europe finally being able to return to a rebuilt Aleppo.
Or diaspora Jews in the 1950s being encouraged
          to return to their newly recreated homeland.

It’s the same story, told over and over again,
          as people are displaced, and people return.

It’s the story of ethnic segregation,
          of the dream of racial purity,
          of the challenges of multiculturalism.

And Ezra’s answer is clear:
          the women and children must be sent away.

It’s horrific, it’s barbaric, it’s xenophobic,
          and it’s where this story ends.

The vision of God that we see here,
          is a God who dwells in the temple in Jerusalem
          desiring to be worshipped by an ethnically purified people.

It’s a problematic story,
          and we might wonder why it’s there in our scriptures at all?

From the point of view of the author of the book,
          the sending away of the women and children is a good thing,
          it’s a sign of the piety of Ezra
                   that he prioritised the purity of God’s people
                   even at the cost of great suffering.

But this is not the God that I recognise as revealed in Jesus Christ.
          And I refuse to worship a racist, vindictive God.

But I think the value of this story,
          as with so many of the deeply troubling stories
          that we meet elsewhere in the Old Testament,
is that it bears terrifying testimony to where unflinching adherence
          to the fusion of that nationalism with religion,
          can take human beings.

This is the ideology of the terrorist,
          it is the ideology of the crusader,
          it is the ideology of Christendom.

And, thank God, there is another story in scripture
          which offers an alternative vision of what it means to be human,
a vision which allows us to step away from

Our call to worship began with a quote from Psalm 24,
          ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it’

It is not mine, it is not yours, it belongs to God.

I was standing outside the Royal Exchange recently,
          here in London,
and my eyes were directed to the sculpture which stands
          at the centre of the front façade facing Bank Station

Here it is in a little more detail:

And in our reading from the book of Revelation,
          we catch a glimpse of heaven’s perspective
          on the kingdoms and nations of the world,
as the loud voices in heaven cry:
          ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
          of our Lord and of his Messiah’.

Not in some future tense – but very much in the present tense:

          The earth IS the Lord’s, and all that is in it

          ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
          of our Lord and of his Messiah’.

So, what do we say to the ideology
          which leads people to cry, ‘I want my country back’?

I think we say this:
          It was never yours in the first place.

The book of Genesis,
          one of the texts written by the exiled Jews in Babylon,
          and brought back with the returners to the land,
offers a perspective on the earth
          where humans dwell there as stewards of creation.

The significance of the Genesis creation stories
          is not that they offer a competing narrative
          which contradicts the insights of contemporary science,

but that they offer a competing narrative
          which contradicts the localised, nationalistic view of God
                   that drove Ezra and his contemporaries
          to rebuild the temple and drive away the foreigners.

We need to decide which God we will worship here,
          and it is a decision with significant consequences.

Ezra made his choice,
          and the people of that region
          have been living with the consequences ever since.

Just this morning, I read a news report from the occupied West Bank
          near Bethlehem in the land of Judah.[1]

The rocky terraces of the Cremisan Valley are mostly overgrown and wild these days, as local landowners say they have lost all hope of keeping control over the more than 300 hectares of olive trees and orchards along the sloping mount, confiscated by the Israeli government earlier this year.

"I haven't been here at all this year. Look how the weeds have grown over, and trash from the street has piled up," Ricardo Jaweejat said, motioning towards the vast olive grove that has belonged to his family for generations.

"What's the point? When we learned the Israelis were taking the land, I avoided doing anything with it. It's a little bit dangerous to be here now."

Beit Jala olives are known by Palestinians around the world for producing the finest olive oil, and the oil from the city's Cremisan Valley is considered to be the best of Beit Jala, a district of the Bethlehem municipality in the southern occupied West Bank. This year is expected to be the last chance to harvest olives from the valley, which will soon be blocked off by an extension of Israel's separation wall.

While the Israeli government alleges that the separation wall's route was planned with security in mind, Palestinian residents in the area are convinced that the route was designed to allow for the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo to be connected via the Cremisan Valley.

In July, the Israeli government approved planning initiatives for 770 new settler units to be built across from the valley, on land from the nearby Palestinian village of al-Walaja, in order to expand the Gilo settlement.

"That settlement will keep expanding until it takes up all the land from Gilo to Har Gilo. This wall has nothing to do with security - it's simply a land grab," Jaweejat said, pointing out that the Cremisan Valley is one of the few places left where residents of the bustling city can be around nature.

The terrible irony of Ezra’s situation
          was that the very people who had just been released
                   from their own displacement
          so quickly themselves became the agents
                   of the displacement of others.

And that too is a story that echoes down the centuries,
          and speaks directly to our own global situation.

So what God will we choose to worship?
          And what difference will it make to the way we live on this earth?

What if we live out the conviction that all that we hold, we hold in trust for God?
          Not for our children, or for our nation, but for God?

What if we live in such a way as to be accountable to a different authority,
          and resist the free market forces
          which constrain us to act for prudence and profit?

What if we discover in our midst ways of living generously,
          exercising hospitality, with our homes and our land and our decisions?

What if we live to subvert the notion that we are a Christian nation,
          because the God we worship is the God of the whole earth,
          not just our patch of it?

What if we live out the calling to advocate
          for those who have lost their homes?

What if we speak out in welcome
          for those who are displaced from their land?

What if we seek to understand and live out before God,
          the implications of asserting that this is not ‘our country’,
                   and this is not ‘our land’?

I do not want my country back.


"The earth is the Lord’s
          and all the fullness thereof."


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