Embracing the Sojourner

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. …  You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”  (Exodus 23:21, Exodus 23:9)                           “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.”  (Deuteronomy 27:19)

In the Old Testament, the “sojourner” – a resident alien, or an alien sojourner, the non-Jew who chose to live with the Jews and accept their fate and honor their God – belonged to a special class of people whom the Jews were not only to tolerate but to protect.  The people of God were to love the sojourner because God Himself loved that alien.  They were to have empathy for the alien sojourner because they themselves had once been aliens in the land of Egypt and they knew what it was like to be in that position.  The resident alien, the stranger on earth, the outsider, holds a spiritual status in the eyes of God.  All of God’s people are sojourners – exiled from paradise, from Egypt, from heaven, from Israel.  Biblical scholar Frances Young inbrokenness1 her book BROKENNESS AND BLESSING describes how her own mentally and physically handicapped son taught her the sense in which every human being is an alien, a stranger, sometimes to his or her own family! 

Christians themselves have embraced the theme of being sojourners on earth – in exile not only from the heavenly homeland (1 Peter 1:17), but also in exile from the secular, post-modern society in which we find ourselves. 

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)

The notion that Christians should always see themselves as sojourning aliens on earth is sometimes forgotten by American Christians who see themselves first as Americans and who prefer to feel at home in America rather than to see themselves as sojourners on earth.   In some ways they want America to be not only a Christian haven, but more so the Christian heaven – they no longer feel themselves as aliens on earth.  This results in some embracing nationalism in a way unbecoming of Christians.   For in so doing they not only forget the spiritual value of being sojourners, but they abandon the love for other sojourners who come into their churches.  They want to embrace only people like themselves and to treat not as aliens but as enemies those who are differ in race, politics, life style, ethnic background, language or wealth. 

In the 2nd Century EPISTLE TO DIOGNETUS, the author claims of Christians that, “Every foreign land is their fatherland, yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” 

“Christians are not different because of their country or the language they speak or the way they dress. They do not isolate themselves in their cities nor use a private language; even the life they lead has nothing strange.  …  They live in Greek or in barbarian (foreign) cities, as the case may be, and adapt themselves to local traditions in dress, food and all usage. Yet they testify to a way which, in the opinion of the many, has something extraordinary about it.  They live in their own countries and are strangers. They loyally fulfill their duties as citizens, but are treated as foreigners. … They dwell on earth, but are citizens of heaven.”

mercytochristGod expects us to embrace the role of sojourner for ourselves in our life on earth and also to embrace the sojourner – the other, the alien, the stranger – who joins us as we journey through time towards the Kingdom of Heaven.   Embracing the alien sojourner, the stranger who comes to our parish community is our spiritual task. As Young writes, “we care for them (the stranger, the sojourner) because they reveal to us who we really are-that is how ‘the Other’ matters.”  The stranger/sojourner reveals to us that we are also sojourners on earth and should embrace that status.   And who then is that stranger that we should embrace?  Anyone who comes into our parish community, no matter how strange they may seem to us.  (remember how Jesus answered the question “who is my neighbor” in Luke 10:25-36?  The answer is found in who proves himself to be a neighbor).  If the stranger desires to walk with us and to experience our life in Christ, even while still remaining a stranger, then we are to embrace them as a sojourner blessed by God, as a neighbor, and perhaps one day as a brother or sister in Christ.   Even God does not wait for our conversion before loving us – for while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

woollymammoth2As an Orthodox priest, I am always interested in the question, “what does it mean to be human?”  Science has a particular take on that question, which I find useful for understanding both humans and the universe. 

For example, scientists can with a high degree of accuracy determine the amount of each chemical element that is found the human body.   We learn from these studies that humans are largely composed of the four elements oxygen, carbon hydrogen, and nitrogen (by mass these 4 elements make up almost 97% of a human).   Oxygen by far composes the greatest mass in a human – slightly more than 61% of a human by mass is oxygen.  By contrast the air we breathe is 23% oxygen by mass.   Air is 75% nitrogen, while a human is only 2.6% nitrogen by mass.  A chemical analysis of humans will give us truth about what it means to be human, but it doesn’t give us the full truth for we know that a human is far more than simply chemicals.  The same is true of DNA – we now can describe the human genome and have a very accurate picture of what it means to be human in terms of DNA – or the ACGT bases which are the code defining the various characteristics of every living thing.  From the point of view of genetics it is precisely DNA which makes us human and is what distinguishes us from other animals.  This is all true and tell us something about what it is to be human, yet again, we would not agree that being human can be reduced to studying proteins, for we believe humans are more than simply protein alignments.  No matter how much chemistry and genetics can accurately and truthfully describe a human, we would say to limit our understanding of humanity to elements and proteins would not give a full and complete understanding of what it means to be human.

From my point of view science, biology, genetics or evolution are no threats to my understanding of what it means to be human.  They cannot prove or disprove any of the claims of the Bible, for the Bible is not science but rather offers an understanding of humanity that goes far beyond the reductionist definitions which chemistry or genetics offer about what a human is.  Indeed a merely scientific worldview can devalue humans, reducing them to chemicals, proteins and inert matter, and this can lead to denying that human embryos or fetuses are really human and to other errors in thought.   The understanding of what it means to be human, for Christians is shaped by faith in the revelation of God that humans are in His image and that we are animated material – animated by the Holy Spirit of God.   Humans can be described in terms of materialism, but such a description is neither complete or sufficient for understanding humans.

I write all of this really as an introduction to two thoughts and observations I want to make on comments offered by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson in the NY TIMES:

  • 1) Judson in ALL HAIL THE APPLE MAGGOT! offers an explanation for why we can more readily observe the extinction of species than the evolution of new species. Basically her argument is that extinction is fairly observable – a last known animal of a species dies – and this has happened in our lifetimes. The emergence of a new species takes place over an extended period of time, and what we can observe is the process but the real emergence of a new species will take much longer than any generation of humans will be on earth. She offers the apple maggot fly as an example of an emerging species. This fly is still part of the hawthorn fly species but according to Judson began in the mid 19th Century to evolve into a separate species with the introduction of apples to North America. You can read her explanation of why she believes the apple maggot fly is a species in formation. The limit to her argument is that while the divergence of the hawthorn fly into an apple fly is in process, speciation still hasn’t occurred. And though given enough time and the right conditions, one can imagine the apple fly evolving into a separate species, it cannot yet be scientifically proven – we will always be able to observe that speciation of the apple fly has not occurred but there will be no time limit in which we would be able to declare that it will not occur. So speciation possibly could occur at some time in the infinite and indefinite future, but there is no point at which it can definitely be declared that it cannot or will not happen. So it is a hypothesis which cannot be disproven, which is very similar to claims of logical fallacy that some atheists make against arguments for the existence of God.
  • 2) In RESURRECTION SCIENCE Judson describes the excitement created in mapping the genome of the Woolly Mammoth from genetic material extracted from frozen bits of mammoths which died 10,000 years ago. What stood out for me in her article is the description of how fraught with failure is the science of cloning. It turns out that it is not as easy as science to create life. Even cloning life turns out to need a tremendous amount of human intelligent design to make it happen. There are implications for why it is reasonable to believe that it would have needed the intentional meddling of a Creator to cause life to exist in the first place. And while Judson can imaginatively be excited about a resurrection of the woolly mammoth, she acknowledges it would take a whole lot more knowledge than we currently have to pull it off. And even at that science would not be thinking about the resurrection as we Christians understand it – bringing a deceased being back to life, but only of reviving the genetic line of an extinct species. That would be a scientific miracle of sorts, but will do little to help us understand what it means to be human.