One of the things my husband John does in retirement is literacy tutoring at the Abington Library. He has done this with a number of people in different situations over the years, but several years ago he was working with a young woman from India in the English as a Second Language program. Much to our surprise, she invited us to lunch one day with her husband and her in-laws who were living with them at the time. One of the things John did in response to the invitation was ask that she send us the names of everyone who would be present when we came. One of the things I did to prepare was be in touch with our friend Priya Eddy, my go-to person for all things Indian, about how to pronounce the names properly as well as some cultural tutoring for us about how to interact, especially with the parents who spoke no English. We did this because we know names are important, and because we wanted to be sensitive to their expectations. I think we did okay.
In the reading from Genesis this morning Jacob, the younger son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, is given a new name. After many years he’s finally come back from the place he was sent to find a wife from among his mother’s kinsmen after tricking his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. He isn’t sure whether Esau will receive him in peace or try to retaliate for the long ago treachery, so Jacob sends everything he loves, his wives and children and his belongings, across the river to relative safety. He then spends a strange night alone wrestling with a mysterious man until dawn. After going at it all night, it seems neither of them was winning so the mysterious man struck Jacob on the hip and put it out of joint. In spite of this Jacob still wouldn’t let the man go until he gave him a blessing. And that’s when he was given a new name: Israel because he had striven with God and with human beings and had endured. Jacob’s new name bore witness to this reality in his life.
All of us have at least two names: the one we were given at birth, usually by our parents, and the one we inherited from our family. Some of us pick up another name when we marry, but all of us begin to collect names as we grow up. We’re the funny one or the one who’s always getting into trouble. We’re the one who’s smart as a whip or dumb as a post. We’re the one who can do no wrong or we’re the black sheep of the family. Sometimes these informal names are temporary, but sometimes they stick like glue. Some are harmless…even fun, but some are hurtful and distort our lives by stunting how we understand who and how we are. Some are painfully true and some are painfully false.
I think there’s another name that all of us bestow all too frequently, often without even realizing it. That name is “other.” It’s a name we can and do give to people who are different and whose difference makes us uncomfortable. The difference can be social or cultural, political or theological. It can be given to whole groups of people or to an individual. People of color, gay and lesbian people, Muslims, immigrants, women in some situations, men in other situations know what that label feels like. All of us sometimes bestow the name “other,” and all of us have probably chafed from time to time under the burden of being perceived as “other” ourselves. “Other” is always a harmful name.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of all that’s been happening around the world right now. It’s not that the murder of so many innocent people is all that unusual. In fact, it seems to happen all the time in different ways and locations. What makes it so notable is simply the magnitude of the violence and the sheer number of locations where it’s happening these days. What’s happening in so many places is not just the explosion of ancient enmities that have come to seem almost inevitable. It’s that all this historically rooted stuff is exacerbated and fed by the massive availability of fear and hate-mongering floating around out there in the ether, accessible with just a few taps at a computer keyboard. Fear and disdain of the “other,” whether it’s Jews and Arabs for each other, or Sunnis and Shiites for each other and anyone who does not adhere to their “orthodoxy,” or mentally unstable individuals who descend on public places and rain mayhem and death in the mall or the movie theater… it’s that this fear and disdain of the “other” so easily becomes the only permission needed to murder and destroy.
Because the harm caused around the globe in places that are so far away and deadlier than what you and I could ever imagine being capable of ourselves, it’s tempting to cast our often unaware invoking of the name “other” as relatively innocuous and harmless. But it’s not. In God’s sight there is no “other.” All human beings are uniquely and equally precious.
The irony in all this is that God has blessed us with the singular ability to be aware of difference. We call it discernment. It is a gift that helps us not only to live lives of prudence and safety but also to live lives that are enriched and fulfilling and pleasurable precisely because of people who are, in fact, “other” than we are. The texture of our lives becomes obvious as we recognize and celebrate these differences. It’s wrong to reject this gift of discerning difference in the name of political correctness as we may be tempted to do in the aftermath of horror like we read about daily in the newspaper. It’s good to be grateful for the gift of discernment and to be attentive to when and how we allow the gift of recognizing difference to be perverted in our lives and to the detriment of those around us.
As you and I often struggle to be faithful, it’s also good to pause and remember Jacob, the trickster who cheated his brother out of their father’s blessing. He was a scoundrel to be sure, and yet it was Jacob whom God chose and used despite all his failings to bring the promise made to Abraham to fruition. If God could use Jacob, then surely you and I are intended to be instruments of the divine as well, birthing the new creation in our lives and in the world around us.