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The politics of friendship…

June 20, 2008

As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other.  He said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh.  Whereever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once the waters reach there.  It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.

On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food.  Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary.  Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.             Ezekiel 47:7-9, 12

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.                                     Revelation 22:2b

We had a picnic to celebrate Pashali’s graduation from McCaskey high school.  Pashali came to America with his Meskhetian family two years ago this coming September.  A group from SMC helped sponsor them in their transition to a new life in Lancaster.

Their story, as that of most refugees, is one of amazing resiliency.  Most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to pick up everything and begin a new life in a strange land.  Zhabir and Rakhima have walked that road with their three children–Pashali, Zulal, and Ibrahim.  This has involved learning a new language, new ways of life in a new home.  They have adjusted marvelously to the world of work, paying bills, keeping house, shopping and relating to the outside world.  So much change, and yet they are full of joy and hope.

We gathered in a pavilion at a local park.  I am greeted as a brother.  It is like a family reunion.  Each time together is one of discovering new fruit on the trees of our friendship.  English has come with hard work and dedication.  Zhabir points to his wife–several steps ahead in language development–as his teacher.  It is another point of wonder.  To think that in mid-life, they are programming their brains with another language to go along with the Turkish, Russian, and Khazak in which they are already proficient.   

They throw themselves into communication with the simple trust of children who must form phrases with basic building blocks.  And most of the time the words come together to express what they want to say.  The eyes always fill in the gaps.  The words come together in simple sentences to share news of a new job for Rakhima, of Pashali’s next venture at Millersville University this summer.  They are full of pride.  Gratitude. Joy.

So we celebrate another milestone in their resilient journey with a picnic (see photos).  We eat hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni salad and watermelon alongside Turkish bread, rice and tomato-onion salad.  After table fellowship, we throw frisbee.  We play volleyball.  Dusk calls us back to the pavilion for cake and a few group pictures before we must leave the park.  We exchange embraces and new email information as we clean up and return to our homes.

As we were playing volleyball I was struck by the beauty of the scene.  Friends from very different backgrounds playing a simple game together.  In our play, laughter becomes a common language, a shared experience.  The sand under our feet, the ball passed to each other provides a common sanctuary in which we celebrate the joy of being.  It feels like we are brushing up against the tree that is for the healing of the nations.  I am happy to be a part of this moment…this story.

I’m not sure what the healing of the nations looks like, but I wonder if this story is in small way of how the river flows to stagnant places.  The stagnant waters of pogroms and persecution are made fresh in a new place of freedom, opportunity and friendship. 

I have been contemplating the simple imperative seen on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and Bono’s bandana worn at U2 concerts.  COEXIST.  Each letter formed with a central symbol of various world religions–various framing stories.  This cultural artifact is a postmodern plea for peace.  It represents a deep-seated weariness with violent absolutism, the way the great framing narratives have been coopted by the powers of violence and oppression.

I can hear the voices decrying this bumper sticker as relativistic pluralism.  Syncretism.  An erosion of ultimate truth narratives.  Perhaps these are legitimate questions from those who seek to see the world through a story that frames all reality.  But is not coexistence better than the alternative?  Killing in the name of our Truth narratives.  Violent absolutism.

I hear Karissa sharing about the seemingly intractible cycle of violence in the Middle East.  Christian, Jew, Muslim.  Israeli, Palestinian, Samaritan.  The links to America, the Arab world.  This complex tangled web of violence is fed by the intensity of competing religious narratives vying for the same piece of land.  Those religious framing stories mixed together with the imperialist and counterimperialist narratives.  A dangerous cocktail of violence justified by the great framing narratives.

I love the vision found in Ezekiel reprised in the last chapter of the Bible.  It is a vision of healing and hope for the nations.  I hear the words of this vision alongside the writings of Walsh and Keesmaat in Colossians Remixed:  Subverting The Empire.  I know they are looking deep into the pathos of our time and speaking words of truth when the describe the postmodern culture with its hermeneutic of suspicion, when they cite the postmodern incredulity toward all metanarratives (Lyotard). 

We live inside the future of a shattered past because that past told grand stories that have proved to be destructive lies.  The grand story of Marxist utopia collapsed along with the Berlin Wall.  The heroic tale of technological progress blew up with the Challenger explosion.  The progress myth of democratic capitalism that promised economic prosperity and social harmony strains under the weight of economic contraction, ecological threat, and an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, both domestically and internationally.  The postmodernist ethos insists that stories such as these–stories that have so shaped our lives–are not stories of emancipation and progress after all but stories of enslavement, oppression and violence.  And on such a view, any story, any worldview, that makes grand claims about the real course and destiny of history–including the grand narrative of God’s redemption of all of creation in Christ found in a text like Colossians–will make common cause with such violence and oppression.

Walsh & Keesmaat (23)

In the gathered worship of our Christian community we sometimes sing the song O Healing River.  Perhaps that is the song that best captures the pulse of the visions in Ezekiel and Revelation.  It is a song that we sing even as we are a people who live under the shadow of empire and its salvific theocapitalist narrative. 

O healing river, send down your waters
Send down your waters upon this land
O healing river, send down your waters
And wash the blood from off the sand
This land is parching, this land is burning
No seed is growing in the barren grounds                                                                                       
O healing river, send down your waters
O healing river, send  your waters down


I am grateful for picnics which provide a glimpse of the healing river flowing.  I am trying to learn what it means to be a person seeking to live within a story which makes grand claims about the real course and destiny of history.  I am seeking to do this in a way that does not lead to violence and oppression.  I do desire that the nations and the competing framing stories of the world would be able to coexist. 

And yet, I hope for more than mere coexistance.  I hope for kindness and friendship among peoples who embrace alternative framing stories.  I pray for Christians to take a stance in the world that looks and sounds like Jesus.  Perhaps it begins with sharing food and playing volleyball at picnics.  Perhaps it begins with friendship. 

O healing river, send down your waters…

One Comment leave one →
  1. cath permalink
    June 26, 2008 8:13 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this on June 20, World Refugee Day. I am a refugee worker, and I sometimes feel discouraged that I don’t see many people saying positive, welcoming things about refugees–most of whom have spent years outside their home countries, afraid to go back for fear of death and torture, in conditions we could barely endure until finally getting a chance to resettle in a new country and begin a new life.


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