COVID Musings

The following is the Conclusions of the book I finished during COVID-19 quarantine here in the Philippines. The book is Missions in Samaria.

Conclusions

I am writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic.Samaria Front Cover On one side the disease drives us apart. It places us in our own homes, physically distanced and masked. We may live in voluntary quarantine, or in enhanced quarantine, or in lock-down. And yet it can also tear down barriers. When faced with a common curse, if you would prefer such language, we begin to identify the commonality that we have as human beings. Before, we may focus on our differences, but the common enemy can lead us to recognizing our commonality. It can drive reconciliation.

Yet it doesn’t have to happen. The Roman threat did not really bring the Jews and Samaritans together. Today, we still find many people trying hard to make barriers higher— blaming political, national, or ethnic groups for the virus and the suffering we are undergoing during this disease event. Self-labeled Christians appear to be as prone to this as anyone else. Nations are being blamed for the problem, right or wrong. But clearly wrong is the temptation of some to blame people of certain ethnicities tied, no matter how loosely to those nations. If a common experience, a common enemy, cannot bring us to break down our prejudices, what will? And as Christians, if the example of Christ of building bridges (to Samaritans, Gentiles, publicans and sinners, to religious elite) cannot inspire us as Christians to do likewise, than what would inspire us?

Perhaps this is a good time— many of us have some time right now— to think about what are our Samarias? Who are the Samaritans in our lives? How can we be different in the future to reach out to them, tear down barriers, and create beautiful moments of reconciliation, regardless of the fear and anger that appears to dominate our society. There was a study that came out a few years ago that looked at various forms of written media, in the English language for approximately a century. The researchers identified different feeling words and their prevalence. The researchers discovered that most feeling words declined over the decades, except one. That one is FEAR. It grew throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Fear is a God-given emotion. We are called upon to have courage through fear, rather than called to not feel fear. One of the great fears is “Fear of the Other.” <Endnote 13>

However, when Jesus spoke to His disciples, now described as Apostles (“sent out ones,” ambassadors/missionaries of Christ) Jesus said that they will receive power from the Spirit of God. From there they would be able to serve in their apostolic role as missionaries, witnesses of the good news of Christ, starting at home (Jerusalem), and Judea (moving out into the broader neighborhood), and Samaria (those people you once wanted fire from heaven rained down upon) and even to the ends of the world (the most terrifying and alien places). In all of those places, God will already be there waiting for them, and providing power for them.

I don’t believe God has changed in this. Do you?

Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

“Missions in Samaria” Published

I decided to publish my short book “Missions in Samaria.” It

Samaria Front Cover
seeks to address a simple question. Why does Jesus specifically mention Samaria in the Acts 1:8 version of the Great Commandment. The book looks at Samaria as both a historical place and a metaphor for places we may face today. At this time, I have only made available a Kindle version online. If you want to check that out, you can click here: Kindle Version. This book is about 10 pages longer, and modestly edited from an original version that I put online. That version is free on this website. You can click on the following post to access that free PDF: Post for Free PDF.

Backpedalling in Samaria

One of the chapters in my book, “Missions in Samaria.”

Samaritans gather atop Mount Gerizim in Israel to hold end of ...

In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace, over a million residents, with a vibrant (Samaritan) faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might wonder what happened to the Samaritan faith. Did it lose the war in the battle of ideas/ideologies? Or perhaps they were lost to assimilation in conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion. And yes, over 2000 years there were many Samaritans who converted, often willingly and sometimes unwillingly, to Christianity or Islam.

The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not simply die so much as it was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed. This part is a bit sad, but we learn from both the good and the bad.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christian writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, both to non-Christians and to Christians who were not of the same form of Christianity as the emperor. This was so true that Coptic Christians in Egypt welcomed Islamic invaders in the 7th century to free themselves from the tyranny of the Christian rulers of Byzantium. The oppression often showed itself in violence. Samaritans experienced this oppression in terms of taxes, laws, and violence.

Despite the centrality of Christianity to Byzantium, there seems always to have been a certain savagery in the empire. The belief of the early church that Christianity and killing were fundamentally incompatible had long since been abandoned in Byzantium past as it had in Western Europe. The conversion of Rome to Christianity in the fourth century had led to a rapid reinterpretation of warfare as potentially undertaken in service to God; the Christian soldier could fight for his emperor safe in the belief that the emperor’s cause was that of God. <Endnote 7>

During the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491AD) tensions grew. According to one account, the emperor had required Samaritans to convert to Christianity. When they refused, they revolted and this led to a violent response killing tens of thousands of Samaritans. Some argue that the story is backward and that the revolts preceded the demand to convert. Either way, conversion was less connected with embracing the good news of Christ voluntarily, and more connected to risk of the sword and death.

During the time of Emperor Justinian during the next century an edict was established that virtually made being a Samaritan by faith, illegal. There were a series of revolts by the Samaritans that led to violent reprisals by the government. This resulted in the Samaritan population reducing from the hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. <Endnote 8>

The Islamic invasion gave some reprieve, but special taxes and periodic forced conversions and killings, especially during the Abbasid Caliphate and Ottoman Empire, took their toll. By the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Samaritanism reached its lowest point with just over 100 adherents. Since then, under the British mandate, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian Authority, Samaritanism has grown such that it has in 2020 over 800 adherents.

Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities, both of approximately equal size. One of these is on Mount Gerizim, while the other is in a suburb of Tel Aviv. There seems more of a tendency today to see Samaritanism as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor to that faith. In fact, their similarities to Judaism greatly outweigh their differences. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith in the God of Abraham.

Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to Samaritans with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.

This should serve as a warning to us. There is often a tendency in religion to focus on power. When the Samaritans appeared to have power, in the 4th to 2nd centuries BC and the 5th and 6th centuries AD, this was when they were attacked most viciously, by the Jews in the first case and by Christians in the second case. Their perseverance was not only a testament to the strength of their faith but also their relative weakness around larger and more aggressive faith groups. Their weakness made them less threatening to those around them.

Christians were called to love friend and enemy, not fear and attack. Why would Christians often choose violence over love? There are obvious answers— sin, selfishness, and tribalism. But these terms are abstract. Sometimes we must personalize it, and try seeing a situation from an uncomfortable position.

Consider some situations from Biblical lands. It is easy to cheer with the Israelites as they marched around the walls of Jericho as the walls begin to give way. It, however, takes a special effort to picture oneself as a father (or mother) in Jericho standing on the walls of the city looking out, fearful for himself and his family and friends, as his world (literally) crumbles around him. The same can be said today as many Christians seem to find it easy to side with the Israelis in the West Bank, while being shockingly unsympathetic of the plight of Muslim and Christian (and Samaritan) Palestinians.

The answer, is not to pick a side. When Joshua was alone (in Joshua chapter 5. read it now if you don’t remember), he saw a soldier dressed for battle. Joshua asked if this soldier was on his side or the enemy. The answer was neither. He was of the army of God. Joshua immediately responded bowing down and taking direction. The question is not whether God was on the side of Israel or the side of the Canaanites. Neither was it whether God was on the side of the Jews or the Samaritans, nor the Israelis or the Palestinians, nor the Christians or the Muslims. The question is are we on God’s side— or not. Jesus has told us that if we truly love Him, we keep His commandments. If we don’t keep His commandments, we are not on His side. Pretty simple, but it is hard to let go of the temptation to try to bargain with God to follow us rather than we follow Him.

This chapter is a bit sad because it looks like what Jesus and the early church did was destroyed. There is some truth to that, but not entirely. Many Samaritans chose to follow Jesus. Gradually they assimilated into the broader Body of Christ, losing their cultural identity. (This is not the book to decide if this lose of cultural distinctives is a good thing or not.) Additionally, there are examples that we can look back on for positive inspiration.

For example, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius forbade special taxes upon the impoverished Samaritans; the Christian Germanus helped the Samaritans continue their rite of circumcision after the authorities had forbidden it; the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem declared to the Ottoman Turks that the Samaritans, like Jews and Christians, were people of the Book and ought not be persecuted; and the American E.K. Warren built medical and educational facilities for the fragile community at the beginning of the twentieth century. <Endnote 9>

These first chapters described a complex history with a wide range of relations between Jew and Samaritan, and between Christian and Samaritan. But what does this mean to us today? Even though Samaritanism has grown almost 700% in the last 100 years, it is still unlikely that many of us will interact with a Samaritan in our lifetime. But since few of us are likely to live in a completely monocultural society, we have the blessing of the story of the many groups, including the Samaritans, that shared Palestine over the centuries. For the Samaritans, there were have painful times (2nd century BC and 5th and 6th centuries AD to name just a couple), there has been (relatively few) highpoints such as the 1st century. We can learn from the 1st century church. Still, our role is not to recreate the 1st century church, but create, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the 21st century church. So the following chapters will suggest some patterns and lessons.

This chapter is more historical. However, the book looks at Samaria as both a historical location where missions was effectively and ineffectively done, and a metaphor for a certain type of missions that we are able to do well or poorly every day.

I have not published the book yet… and maybe never will (we shall see). But if you want to read it, you can access it rhrough my previous post.   https://munsonmissions.org/2020/04/04/missions-in-samaria-book/

“Missions in Samaria” Book

One positive side of enhanced quarantine is the opportunity to make progress on something that one had definitely had on the ‘back burner.’ I decided to try to finish my book “Missions in Samaria” a few months early. When I say it is done, I mean that the first draft is done. It is only about 70 pages, but I am happy where it is— at least for now. My next book will be a collaboration with my wife on a pastoral counseling case workbook. It should be valuable, especially in the Asian context.

If you want to read the first draft of my book, “Missions in Samaria,” click on the link below.

Missions in Samaria rev 0

Of course, if you are bored, you can also look at other books that I wrote or my wife and I wrote, they are listed in:   My Books