Friday, January 11, 2019

“Ethiopia: The Gift of Broken Borders” - January 13, 2018

Acts 8:26-40

            With all the talk and debate about immigration and borders that goes on in this country recently, it might make sense to look at an odd situation that Israel faced in the late 1970’s, one that had nothing to do with the Palestinians or anything like that.  It was about Ethiopians.

             The Israelis have a law that any Jew who sets foot on Israeli soil has the right to claim citizenship.  They call this “the right of return”.  Its origin in offering a country that could serve as a safe haven in the wake of the Nazi atrocities is clear.  Anyone of Jewish ancestry or faith could have at least one place in the world where they would be protected.  It drew survivors of the holocaust from Europe and from the Soviet Union, and others from Muslim countries like Morocco and Algeria.

            But then, in the late 1970’s, war broke out in Ethiopia that would eventually lead to famine as well, and suddenly the world became aware of something like 500 villages in northwestern Ethiopia that were occupied by a group that called itself “Beta Israel”, meaning “the House of Israel”.  It isn’t that they had come from nowhere; their existence is well documented back into the mists of time.  There are all sorts of traditions about where they come from.  Some say that they descended from the tribe of Dan and migrated there when Israel and Judah split apart a generation after Solomon.  Some say they originated with refugees from Judah following invasions by the Assyrians or Babylonians.  An Israeli historian wrote in 1987:

“Although we don't have a single fine ethnographic research on Beta Israel, and the recent history of this tribe has received almost no attention by researchers, everyone who writes about the Jews of Ethiopia feels obliged to contribute his share to the ongoing debate about their origin. Politicians and journalists, Rabbis and political activists, not a single one of them withstood the temptation to play the role of the historian and invent a solution for this riddle.”[1]

What is certain is that they were in trouble in the 1970’s and 1980’s and so the Israelis, with American help, began an airlift to get them out.  Today there are about 121,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, including some who have been born there.

            Despite the group having official recognition as Jews, however, they continue to face unofficial exclusion on a lot of fronts.  I’m quoting here from Wikipedia, which can be a little iffy sometimes, but the citations look pretty sound, so take it for what it’s worth, but it says:

A 2011 study showed that only 13% of high school students of Ethiopian origin felt ‘fully Israeli’’ and that “In 1996 an event called the “blood bank affair” took place that demonstrated the discrimination and racism against Ethiopians in Israeli society. Blood banks would not use Ethiopian blood out of the fear of HIV being generated from their blood.  Discrimination and racism against Israeli Ethiopians is still perpetuated. In May 2015 Israeli Ethiopians demonstrated in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem against racism, after a video was released, showing an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent that was brutally beaten up by the Israeli police. Interviewed students of Ethiopian origin affirm that they do not feel accepted in Israeli society, due to a very strong discrimination towards them.”[2]

All of that sounds very familiar to Americans, doesn’t it?  But let’s get back to the Bible, to the book of Acts, and think about our own faith as it began to spread out from Jerusalem.

            We read:

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”  [Acts 8:26-31]

Given these ancient settlements of the Beta Israel, maybe it should not be so surprising that an Ethiopian had gone to Jerusalem to worship.  Maybe what should surprise us is that a high government official would invite a stranger on the road to teach him about the scriptures.

            And yet, I assume, and so do many other people, that there is some sort of automatic cultural blockade that has to be overcome in order to share the faith.  A lot of the Acts of the Apostles is about breaking through to the Gentiles, or convincing the Jews that the Spirit has already broken through and they need to get with the program.  So here the conversion of the Ethiopian serves as a case study, saying that it can happen when someone is on that odd borderline between being an insider and being an outsider and that, as one commentator says,

“the presence of the gospel out here in the desert of Gaza with this Ethiopian of somewhat murky physical, religious, and ethnic status can only be attributed to the constant prodding of the Spirit.  If the good news is being preached out there, it is the work of God, not the people.”[3]

The borders, the boundaries, the blockades are not as much out there as they are in here, within our minds and hearts.  We set up and foolishly accept the notion that the gospel can be contained.

            It cannot.

            I, in my own, contemporary way, put the idea back onto the Bible that – of course – there would be a disconnection between the Jews and the Ethiopians.  History suggests I may be wrong.  On the other hand, looking at what has gone on between Israelis of European cultural background and Israelis (now) of Ethiopian background, tells me that other people have made the same mistake and when it happens, there is trouble.

            Faith is not about our differences, but about our common humanity.  There are some things that are utterly basic to all human life, wherever and whenever and however we live, and those are what matter above all else.  There are our physical and emotional and social characteristics, to be sure.  We all need food and shelter, love and companionship.  But there are also spiritual commonalities.

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  [Romans 3:22-24]
That in and of itself has the power, not so much to break through the walls of nationality and language and class and all of that, as to make those things irrelevant.  When the angel told Joseph,

“you are to name him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins,” [Matthew 1:21]
it did not mean that he would save first-century, Aramaic-speaking, Palestinian Jews from Nazareth from their sins.  His people are all of us.  We all need that salvation, and that offer is open to all.

            So some of the people who take him up on that offer are, by the standards of one place or another, outlandish – or at least partly so.  Yet the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip,

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [Acts 8:36]
What was there to come between this man and the joyful response of faith to the good news that Jesus has brought the kingdom of God near to us?  Philip couldn’t come up with anything, not one thing.  So they stopped right where they were, and the kingdom grew wider.

“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” [Acts 8:39]
Philip found himself back on familiar territory right away, but he kept doing what he had done,

“and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”  [Acts 8:40]
Go, thou, and do likewise.

[1]  Steven Kaplan"The Origins of the Beta Israel: Five Methodological Cautions" Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine., Pe'amim 33 (1987), pp. 33–49.  Cited at
[3] Will Willimon, Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 72.

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