Borders, Barriers and Identities

Acts 11: 1-18 & John 13: 34-35

The Acts narratives of Peter breaking down barriers and crossing boundaries by eating, baptizing and teaching with and amongst the Gentiles have always interested me, The disapproval and suspicion of the leaders of the Jesus movement back in Jerusalem was not surprising. Crossing borders and breaking down barriers between groups of people will always be contentious. The Christian church seems to have ignored these narratives or created such a narrow understanding of what it means to follow Christ, or what the kingdom of God means that the gospel action of dissolving that which divides is lost as more barriers are set up.

I’ll start with an apology – I’m going to mention Game of Thrones again. Fear not – the absolute forever last episode is Monday night so not a word will pass my lips about it from up here from this day forth.

Game of Thrones fandom has coded phrases – phrases that enter our speech without perhaps even realizing it. It helps fans find each other. Not unlike the early Christians in the Roman Empire who used symbols and signs to identify themselves. During the week I was out for my early morning walk and coffee routine when my barista used one of these phrases – which lead to a mutual recognition and an enthusiastic exchange about what we thought would happen on Monday night.

I narrate my fandom with ‘lashings of laughing at myself’ but it is congruent with the ‘storytelling into meaning’ that earns my bread and butter, that leads to me standing up here on a Sunday morning. Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘to change the world, change the story.’ We’ve seen this in action in Jacinda Ardern’s narratives post the Mosque shootings here in Christchurch. Generations of people are influenced by popular narratives that link into mythic storytelling. Stories and films like The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, Harry Potter – these are narratives of meaning making, of philosophical thought, of theology that I have plumbed for years especially when working at Rangi. Those popular narratives were the currency by which I could link the ‘storytelling into meaning’ of the biblical narratives.

Game of Thrones is a contemporary Shakespearean style narrative search for meaning – for redemption from the violence that inevitably has its roots in human relationships, misunderstandings, sides chosen, love rejected, miscommunication, false news that morphs into power and greed.

For a moment early in this final season it seemed all the borders and barriers that divided the land had been overcome as disparate and desperate people joined together to fight the common enemy – death – the annihilation of the living – of all that gives life. It was successful only to dissolve into factions and divisions again.  One of the key ‘observers of life’ in the show, Tyrion Lannister, had a line at the celebration feast – “well we won, we defeated annihilation, now all we have to contend with is us”. By us, he meant the human species.

Again and again in our Christian tradition we are pointed towards Love as the answer to division. As an answer to all that is not life-giving. Not as a solution but as a connecting action to enable us to move forward. The author of John’s gospel narrates Jesus’ great commandment – Love – not just a precept but a hard reality that plays out in the midst of emotion, fears and joy, heart break, misunderstandings, the ebb and flow of relationships, change, separation and annihilation.

There’s nothing lite about this kind of love. Any other kind merely skims the surface of Gospel love, of God’s love. It will be satisfied with the love of the world, a love that demands and decrees, a love that stipulates and insists on certain standards. A love unwilling to take risks. A scared love. A safe love. (Karoline Lewis: workingpreacher.org)

What stories of boundaries, barriers and identities have challenged our ability to love this week? Have challenged our safe categories and boundaries we’ve drawn around ourselves. You will have had your own personal ones but there were also quite a few in media headlines. I’ve chosen two.

 The Homicide Report – 2004-2019

While New Zealand’s homicide rate is relatively low, the country has some of the highest reported rates of family violence in the developed world

Half of female homicide victims 18 or older are killed by a partner or ex-partner and there is a clear indication that the majority of those are preplanned. One in eight victims of homicide in New Zealand is under the age of 15. More than half of child victims are killed by a parent or caregiver. Alcohol is a factor in 31 per cent of homicides in New Zealand.

At least one-third of Kiwi women experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and that jumps to more than half of all women when the definition of violence is widened to include psychological or emotional abuse. Police are called to an incident every four minutes. Studies show it’s still under-reported. This is just the tip of the iceberg – it is estimated that 80% of domestic violence goes unreported.

Underlying this violence are barriers to equality in relationships, a lack of recognition of personal boundaries, struggles with identity that undermine and destroy trust and responsibility.

Caster Semenya and the decision of the Court of Arbitration in Sport ruled that women with high natural testosterone levels cannot compete against other women in distances ranging from 400m to the mile, unless they take drugs to suppress the production of the hormone. Whether naturally-produced testosterone does indeed build stronger and faster athletes is a complex and contested issue. While science has long recognised that there is no single physiological or biological marker that allows for the simple categorisation of people as male or female, the institution of sport continues to reinscribe and police that boundary – insisting that there is a clear division between male and female. However, as many commentators have pointed out, exceptional male athletes whose bodies do not comply with biological norms are celebrated rather than called-out, scrutinised and punished. Michael Phelps, for instance, has a range of extraordinary physiological characteristics including unusually long arms, flipper-like feet, and double-jointed limbs. His body is said to produce less than half the lactic acid of many of his competitors. Yet, the Olympic Committee have praised how ‘lucky he is to have such an insane genetic advantage’. Male athletes are not subjected to testing despite visible differences in biology. (www.stuff.co.nz/sport/112693906/making-sense-of-the-caster-semenya-ruling.)

We are in a new era of understanding about gender.  As more and more scientific information becomes available the boundaries that once defined male and female have moved and in many cases been removed.

The challenge before us is whether as Christians formed by such narratives as the Book of Acts we follow Peter’s example and break down the barriers and remove the borders in order to embody the Spirit’s desire for gospel love – to fight the common enemy of division, of ‘them and us’ to build the relationships we need in order to create the respectful, equal family relationships that in turn form people capable of heeding perhaps  the biggest challenge of them all – the potential annihilation of not only human but multiple species through climate change? Do we have the courage to do this in order to build relationships across divides – to heed what the spirit is doing?

The Christian church has these texts – has this precedent – has this value – that it has struggled and failed to embody through the centuries. It goes against the grain of the human species and yet it is possible – it has been done – and whether it’s unrealistic or not it is the Christian vision.  I am much more of an Augustinian than a humanist. I believe the human species is deeply flawed yet I believe it is deeply gifted as well and most of all I believe in the Spirit’s power to break through our own barriers in order to empower and enable us, the Church, to live Christ’s vision.

Step by step, centimeter by centimeter, opportunity by opportunity – we can listen to one another, hear the stories, break down the them and us, integrate the incongruent elements of our human nature, look at one another as sisters and brothers within the faith who together have a vision to embody where borders, barriers and identities are porous and how we can be intentional in living with difference together in harmony.

Call it pie in the sky if you like – but for me – that is what the kingdom of God looks like. For me that is where the narratives of Acts and Gospel love direct us. We can do no other.