Donald Trump made a vile remark about people who are from Haiti and Africa. In a discussion about migration he said we do not want migrants from these “sh*thole countries.” In response to this racist remark, I looked at the lectionary readings for Sunday, January 14th, 2018. One of the assigned readings comes from John 1 in which Nathanael have an exchange about the identity of Jesus.
Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."
It is not clear why Nathanael doubted that “anything good” could “come out of Nazareth.” Some speculate that Nathanael spoke of Nazareth in this way because Nazareth was never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible or in early Rabbinic literature. The origins of the word Nazareth is unclear. But some think that it either comes from a word that means “to look;” yet others suggest that it is related to the word (ntsr) that means “root.” People who follow the latter suggestion connect the origins of Jesus being from Nazareth with the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of the “branch” (ntsr) of Jesse (Isa 11).
Like Nathanael who though that nothing good could come from Nazareth, President Trump in his vile comment thinks that nothing good comes out of countries he calls “sh*thole.” The gospel’s claim, however, is that out of what Nathanael thought of as a sh*thole, the Son of God has come to deliver the world from sin and evil. Such a claim, therefore, asserts that a place is only seen as insignificant or a “sh*thole” by those who are blind to the potential of God’s work in the world.
Now let me be clear, there are terrible things going on in many countries around the world and not only in African countries or in Haiti, including here in the US. But what usually happens is that we tend to idealize ourselves and demonize the other ignoring the beauty, complexity and resilience of these peoples.
And let me add, whenever we see terrible things going on around the world, we need to ask ourselves: how much have we participated in making it this way because of our economic and political interferences? And instead of demonizing the other and falsely idealizing ourselves, we need to ask: how could we work with others to clean up this mess that we all participated in creating?
This kind of hard work takes us closer to the reign of that “branch” who came from Nazareth to bring justice to the poor and the meek and to pronounce judgement on the wicked and haughty.
Like Nathanael we need to listen to Philip’s invitation “come and see.” Racism makes us build walls so that we would not encounter the other; and prejudice blinds us to the point that we become unable to see the other for who he/she is.
Come and see is an invitation to get out of your own bubble and stereotype and to open your eyes to see the other for who he or she is and not whom you want them to be. They are wonderfully made (Psalm 139; another reading for the lectionary this week).
Zizioulas writes: “The eschatological dimension of the presence and activity of the Spirit deeply affects the identity of the other: it is on the basis not of someone’s past or present that we should identify and accept him or her, but on the basis of their future. And since the future lies only in the hands of God, our approach to the other must be free from passing judgment on him or her. Every ‘other’ is in the Spirit a potential saint, even if he or she appears to have been or continues to be a sinner.” That even goes for those who are subjugated under the evil power of racism. We speak truth to power; we expose the lies; and we also hope, pray, work for the transformation of hearts, minds and politics that are full of fear and pride, trusting that God is at work.
Safwat Adel Marzouk is an associate professor of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart IN. Ordained pastor with the Synod of the Nile, Egypt.