Preparing for a Sunday School lesson this morning (continuing on in the lives of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob), I was struck by an expression of a “caste” system at play, when the tribe of Israel headed down to Egypt during a terrible famine in the land.
Joseph had paved the way for his family to come and settle in Egypt, where he had wisely prepared for the famine by storing up huge stocks of grain during years of plenty. The plan was to settle the livestock-keeping Israelites in the land of Goshen, which apparently would isolate them somewhat from the native population, because “shepherds were loathsome to the Egyptians.”
In the sociological/religious milieu of Egypt, there was apparently a disdain for certain occupations. A caste system. And those that kept lifestock were on a lower rung. Ironically, this served to keep the Israelites from inter-mingling and inter-marrying with the Egyptians, which in the greater scheme of things at this time in redemptive history, was a good thing.
These caste systems still exist all over the world, in official (India) or unofficial forms. We tend to stratify by external similarities or differences, be they skin color, nationality, occupation, religious affiliation, dress, wealth, or the like. Some of that is natural and unavoidable, but the unsavory accompaniment is the sense of superiority that almost inevitably joins the occasion. The hierarchy. Even well-intentioned “diversity” programs, as valuable as the intentions may be, cannot defuse the pride that reigns in the human heart. Some even pride themselves on their commitment to diversity, putting themselves a strata above those perceived as less-enlightened beings – and the cycle continues on in its ever-morphing forms.
Last week, when in Austin, TX for the SxSW Interactive conference, I did some research on-line and decided to go to a church that I’d never heard of before, but which intrigued me. Why? Because of its professed adherence to beliefs I hold dear, yes. But also, because it was a community formed by the merger of 2 churches, with a very rich diversity of nationalities and races. I saw a microcosm of the global population that morning. And I had a delightful talk with a member there who freely shared his struggles getting to the place of accepting the goodness of that diversity.
And this underscores one of the original “scandals” of the Christian church at its launch 2,000 years ago. It was birthed out of a Jewish nation that had been taught – incessantly and out of necessity – to keep separate from the “outside world”, full of pagan beliefs and practices that could corrupt the nation. The history of that nation, outlined from the ancient books of Genesis->Malachi, show exactly why – it was an endless struggle for survival with nations and tribes that viewed them as on the lower rungs of humanity, while their spiritual identity was to retain a position on the highest rung of belief and holiness.
Then the training wheels came off. It was time to leave the caste system of separation by nationality and physical descendancy, and embrace a radical new foundation of unity. Spiritual oneness that stemmed from faith alone, utterly irrespective of gender, race, position, geography, background…even moral track record. Utter, radical, scandalous flattening of all castes and strata. Jews, Gentiles, black, white, men, women, formerly moral and formerly immoral – all “one in Christ.” All with the same inherent value as creatures formed in the image of God. All with the same open door of faith to enter into God’s presence. Spiritual lepers brought into the community. Outcasts welcome.
The nascent church struggled with this. Some factions couldn’t reconcile to it, insisting that new converts embrace all the external social and religious practices that had set apart the Jewish nation for centuries. But that train had left the station. The time for “separation training” was over. Now it was time for a unity of all peoples, based not on externals, but on faith in a common Messiah. The scope, the simplicity, the utter de-stratification of a redemption that radically embraced all people – was scandalous.
Churches – Christians – I – have often failed to fully live out this profound reality. We all very easily fall back into stratification and superiority based on pathetic externals. But just as we would never put child locks on our cabinets when our kids are teenagers (well, actually…OK, never mind), so we are to put away the childish perspectives of pride and self-righteousness based on our external image in a mirror. If God looks upon the heart irrespective of appearance and track record, without regard to biology and background, then I must also. Religion can be yet another wall that separates. But, in fact, the Christian gospel, rightly embraced and practiced, is a radical unifier, not out of external compulsion, but due to a transcendent spiritual dynamic that de-fangs petty external differences, and the pride that exalts them.
Church scandals and sad and unwelcome news. Except for the ongoing and original scandal, this dismantling of the caste system accomplished 2,000 years ago that needs to steadily occur in our hearts today.