Monday, October 10, 2016

The Acculturation of Naaman

Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about the year 2040.  Does anyone know why that’s such an important year? [answers]. Right.  According to U.S. census projections, 2040 is the year when the percentage of non-Hispanic Whites will make up less than 50% of the U.S. population.  We will be a country made up of different racial-ethnic minorities.  And most of this population changeover is due to immigration.  As of 2010, one in four U.S. children had at least one “foreign-born” parent.  In 2040, the United States will be a lot less White, and a lot less Western.  These trends have fueled a lot of anxiety in America, and not just among Trump supporters.  Businesses, schools, community organizations, and churches are trying to figure out how to adapt to a society that encompasses many different languages, traditions, and worldviews. Some of these efforts are effective, some are not. 

The way we talk about the year 2040, and our suggests that we are in an unprecedented moment, that we are dealing with opportunities and challenges that humankind has never had to navigate before.  But when we turn to 2 Kings, we find a story, thousands of years old, about a Syrian general, an Israelite slave girl, and YHWH’s prophet.  A story about a culture clash, and how it lead to restoration and salvation. 

Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through hi YHWH had given victory to Aram.  This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease.  Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel.  She served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria.  He would cure him of his skin disease.”

When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his cloths.  He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You all must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes?  Let the man come to me.  Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots.  He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.  Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River.  Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”

But Naaman went away in anger.  He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand, and call on the name of YHWH his God, waive his hand over the bad spot, and cure this skin disease.  Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Ababa and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters?  Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.

Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet has told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?   All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’”  So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said.  His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean. 

He returned to the man of God with all his attendants.  He came and stood before Elisha, saying, 
“Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.  Please accept a gift from your servant.”

Before I delve in, let’s get situated by exploring our main character a bit.  Naaman is the commander of the Aramean –the Syrian—army, the man responsible for the defeat of the Israelites.  A “great man,” a “mighty warrior,” the consummate macho man.  He represents the Center.  Let’s remember that the Bible has always been written from the margins, and for the margins.  My—and most of our—power and privilege as native-born United-States-of-Americans connect us to Naaman.  That’s who we are in this story.  That’s where I’m going to challenge us to stay.

Now, Naaman also has a skin disease that is unsightly, one that is supposedly incurable.  Now we know that Naaman is a man of means, so we can assume that he’s consulted dermatologists far and wide to find a cure for his skin affliction.  He’s tried the local magicians, the court priests, poultices, salves, juice cleanses, hot yoga, everything.  He’s exhausted his own society’s knowledge and resources and has come up short.  Now this is important, and a point that I want us to pay close attention to. Naaman may be powerful and privileged, but he is still suffering from a skin affliction.  Aramea may have great riches and reach, but that society is still limited.

Naaman learns that an Israelite prophet may have the cure for his affliction.  And who delivers this information? An Israelite slave girl.  This girl is often overlooked in the retelling of Naaman’s healing, but let’s pay some special attention to her.  Her entrance into the story comes right after Naaman’s introduction, and these two characters couldn’t be more different.  General:Slave.  Male:Female.  Adult:Child.  Native:Foreigner. It is her situation as an outsider—as other—that uniquely qualifies her to give the Good News.

She is an Israelite.  She knows about Elisha.  She knows that the God Elisha serves – YHWH – not only has the power to cure afflictions, but the desire to do so.  She knows all of this because she was born in a particular part of the world, to a particular people and culture, and thus sees through a very particular cultural lens.  Her other-ness, her difference from Naaman’s dominant culture, gives her a unique understanding.

So here is lesson number one from the story of Naaman’s healing: that cultural differences are not a burden, but a blessing.  Traditions and beliefs that are different from our own are not only valid and true, but equally valid and true.  Naaman has to take this foreign-born girl’s witness seriously in order to find healing.  And this is where we often fall short in our attempts to meaningfully engage with diversity. 

There is a prevailing notion in our culture—Western, predominately White, culture—that there is some universal “truth” that transcends culturally-specific worldviews.  If we all check our cultural baggage at the door, we can peacefully coexist.  This view pervades most of our approaches to engaging diversity, to cross-cultural interactions.  The problem is that this belief is culturally specific—to Western, predominantly White, Enlightenment-revering societies.  We demand that people from different countries and cultures disengage from their traditions, so that we might meet on “neutral ground,” – our ground.  Only then can we come together in harmony.  Our idolatry of “objectivity” blinds us to the Divine presence in difference.  It is often this view that undermines our attempts at cross-cultural dialogue, that often results in pressure on our immigrant brothers and sisters to assimilate to our culture.  The witness of the slave girl suggests that the dominant culture would do better to acculturate ourselves to the riches of diversity that immigration brings.

Other-ness gives a unique perspective, one that is equally true

Now let’s get back to Naaman, to the moment right after he takes the slave girl’s advice.  What does Naaman do with this information?  He puts on a display of repeated cultural ignorance and arrogance that seems to only hinder his healing.  He first sends a message to the Israelite king because of course the Prophet works at the will of the monarch.  Not in Israel.  He then goes to the prophet’s house and expects to be greeted by Elisha in person because of his own great stature.  I mean, obviously, a prophet would welcome the general that conquered the prophet’s people.  Not in Israel.  Finally, Naaman expects the cure to be immediate, for Elisha to wave his hands, say “abracadabra: affliction be gone!”  That’s how miracles are performed.  Not in Israel.  Again and again, Naaman is obstructed by his own discomfort to step outside his particular worldview.  He arrogantly holds onto the notion that the Syrian way – his way – is the right way.  This all comes to a head when Naaman flat-out refuses to follow Elisha’s instructions.  How in the world could a foreign river be better than his nation’s own?

We laugh at this part of the story: poor, ignorant, Naaman.  And we’re supposed to laugh, the Hebrew Bible loves irony.  But, let’s not skip over the second lesson of this cross-cultural encounter: they’re often messy, and intimidating; they’re difficult.  That doesn’t mean we should avoid them, or soften the experience by tiptoeing around our differences. Even us progressives step back from fully engaging with cultural difference because it gets tricky.  There is a fine line to walk between appreciation and appropriation; between orientalism and respect.  The “safe” thing to do is to limit cross-cultural interactions to sociological study and sterile encounters that do not demand our vulnerability.  We segregate ourselves into native and immigrant communities.

Naaman’s frustrated outburst at Elisha’s prescription reveals that underlying anxiety we all have about changing demographics in the United States: our own vulnerability. To take other cultures seriously, is to change our society. It’s hard, we have a lot invested in our own myths and traditions. We stubbornly cling to our culture’s dominance.

Are not Abana and Pharar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters in Israel?  Could I not wash in them and be clean?

Is not our academic system the best measure of knowledge and wisdom? Is not our version of Democracy the most fair?  Is not the scientific method the most objective way to understand the universe? Is not the academic study of Scripture the purest way to discern God’s will?  Is not the Mighty Mississippi better than the Rio Grande?

At the moment of extreme frustration, when Naaman bumps up against the limits of his own worldview,his servants, probably fed up with his ranting, chime in. 

If the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, “wash and become clean.”

Dude, chill out.  All he’s asking you to do is to wash in the Jordan River.  It’s right down the road.  It’s here that Naaman realizes that he’s misinterpreted the entire encounter.  Elisha wasn’t insulting the Syrian nation or Naaman himself.  All Elisha did was tell Naaman what to do to be healed.  Naaman bathes in the Jordan, and in that action humbles himself to an understanding of God and nature that is foreign to him.  And as soon as Naaman gives the Israelite Prophet the same respect he would for Syrian priests—as soon as he opens himself up to an Israelite truth—he is healed. 

And here is the third lesson of culture clashes: we are better for them.  For all their messiness, for all the discomfort we feel, for all the revelations – good and bad -- it is through these engagements that we find salvation.  Naaman’s engagement with the Israelite religion and culture – his acculturation to a different truth – will make him a stronger and wiser leader.

Like Naaman, I have had my share of culture clashes, and I am better for them.  There is one particular experience that has been at the forefront of my mind all week as I was reading this Scripture and doing my sermon prep.  Three years ago, I spent the summer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia doing research for a social service organization.  While I was there, I made friends with a young Ethiopian man – Nahom.  One day, Nahom and I went to the National Museum in Addis, where we saw Lucy – the skeleton that provides “conclusive” proof of evolution.  Ethiopians are very proud of Lucy.  While at the exhibit, I asked Nahom (who grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) about that church’s views on evolution.  I told him that there was a big argument about it in the United States and wanted to know what he thought. 

“Oh, the Ethiopian church doesn’t believe in that.” 

“Really? Huh.  Do you believe in evolution?”


Mind you, there are three people in the conversation: me, Nahom, and Lucy who is lying between us.  Lucy, who is one of the national treasures of Ethiopia.

“But, what about Lucy?”

Nahom looked at Lucy, and then looked at me, and shrugged. “It’s just science.” 

Lucy has her own café outside the National Museum --
really good coffee
It was like I had been hit with a Cosmic Baseball Bat. I had never thought that Science could be as easily dismissed as the Supernatural often is; that it could be just as limited as any other worldview. I still do believe in evolution and I still put a lot of stock in a scientific framework for the universe—that’s my culture—but ever since that day I have not regarded it as this Absolute Truth.  It’s just science.  That’s a revelation that could only have come from a culture clash, and it’s a lesson that has had profound effect on my own faith and relationships.  That memory has – more than once – kept me from displaying an ignorance and arrogance worthy of an ancient Syrian general.  I have been able to accept unexplainable experiences.  I have been able to take seriously others’ encounters with the supernatural.  I have become more open to different truths that have enriched my own faith.

The story of Naaman’s healing reveals that cultural differences do not impede salvation, but are the vehicle for it.  The slave girl draws on her particular traditions and beliefs to provide a path of relief to Naaman.  It is the waters of the Jordan River – which Naaman accepts as sacred although he may not fully understand why– that cure Naaman of his affliction.  The whole encounter may have been awkward and messy, and Naaman may have come across as a fool, but he also leaves transformed—a better person.

As Sergio has mentioned, this October, University Church is celebrating Latin@ Heritage month.  This is our opportunity to honor and engage with some of the cultures that enrich this congregation, the relationships that have blessed us with revelation.  This is one of the ways that we are affirming our identity as an immigrant-welcoming congregation. 

This is important, because we are getting closer to the year 2040. Now, and over the next few decades, our society will become even more diverse than it already is, and so will our church. Those of us who live comfortably in the Center – who make up the dominant culture – have a great challenge ahead of us.  Like Naaman, God is calling us to open ourselves up to different truths, different worldviews. We should not expect our immigrant brothers and sisters to assimilate to our particular ways of thinking and being; we have to be open to the witness that they bring from their own particular traditions and experiences.  The change it will bring will transform us for the better.  We’re in for a lot of culture clashes; let’s welcome them