I have such high expectations. But I often forget that we humans are evolutionary beings, kin to all the other forms of mammalian lifeforms on the planet. Our comparatively large brains are the organs through which all things human flow, and our brains manage many critical systems at once.
While keeping vital body functions humming, orienting us to time and space and scanning for safety in our environments, our brains can think, feel, problem-solve, create art, parent children and mourn our dead. We have an enormous capacity for learning from experience while other behaviors and impulses govern our behavior automatically. What a study in complexity and contrast.
All human beings are neurologically tuned to feel safer among human faces and bodies that look like our own. Thousands of generations of human development in vulnerable, small communities around the globe assured this trait, and even as we have rapidly created a world where human diversity is now the norm, our brains have not caught up. We still seek our own familiars. We still initially distrust difference.
The wisest among us know this to be true and notice when we judge other human beings before we even get close. The rest of us just react, justify our pre-judgements and stereotypes and maintain our distance. We’re realists, we say, responding rationally to what is right in front of us.
This human impulse to define our familiars, defend our territory and distrust the stranger is a core theme of Christian scriptures. The Old Testament contains a history of a small tribe of people called Jews struggling to form an identity around their God while encountering the different tribes of people around them.
Issues of land, law and leadership shape the generations mentioned in those pages. Sometimes conquerors, more often enslaved and displaced, by the time their tiny nation is sent back to Israel from captivity in Babylon in 539 B.C.E., there was precious little left to defend and protect.
By the time of Jesus, Israel had repopulated their historic land and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, but the entire region was again under occupation, this time by the massive Roman Empire. Jesus was a young rabbi, a teacher and healer preaching around the villages on the shores of Galilee. His message was unusual because while he wanted to call his own people to repentance, he was remembered for his constant, day-to-day loving embrace of those outside the tribe.
His disciples were constantly disturbed by Jesus’ encounters with lepers, Roman soldiers, children, single and widowed women, tax collectors and various men and women who are identified primarily by their origin. Maybe it was clear from their different dress or skin tone or accent, but the Gospels mention his encounters with people from Tyre, Sidon, Gerasa, Phonecia, Samaria, Canaan and Rome. Strangers.
The disciples and those near Jesus were confused. Wasn’t he the Messiah to Israel? I have sheep not of this fold, said Jesus. The children are causing a fuss, they told him. Let them come to me, Jesus said. Who will be greatest in the kingdom, they wondered? The first shall be last, the last first, Jesus said. There are too many here, and they are hungry, they worried. Feed them, Jesus said. Heal me Jesus, said the leper. I will, Jesus said, and he did.
Step by dusty step, season to season, Jesus breaks through the mental barriers of tribe and nation and border within his disciples to heal and to bless human beings of all kinds. This is what God’s kingdom looks like, Jesus said. It looks like health; it looks like relief and food and love. It’s not like the kingdoms humans build on earth, and it can’t be stopped by them, either, try as they might to destroy it.
And try as you might to confuse the two. To call any nation on earth a Christian nation is to speak an oxymoron. The kingdom of God and human nations are self-opposing ideas. Jesus called his disciples toward a sacred authority, one that has no international borders, requires no passports or constitutions and leaves not a single child refugee abandoned in cages. While Jesus-followers are national citizens, we hold dual citizenship, with God’s kingdom informing our hopes for the other. It is a kingdom of light, and darkness cannot overcome it.