Dismantling xenophobia, reaching out to modern-day social outcasts

In many societies around the world, people have deep-rooted prejudices on the grounds of race or religion, even social class or gender.

Aug 01, 2020

By Anil Netto
In many societies around the world, people have deep-rooted prejudices on the grounds of race or religion, even social class or gender.

Think of the racial injustices, the religious strife and even the prejudices. Here in Malaysia, we are all too familiar with such prejudice and discrimination.

The world that Jesus lived was no different, and he was constantly breaking down barriers when his disciples least expected it.

Think of his encounters with sinners, people suffering from leprosy, the much-hated tax-collector, even a Roman centurion. These caused much consternation, and even outrage, among Jesus’ contemporaries.

Perhaps Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman by the well provides the most vivid illustration of his willingness to break social barriers.

Talking with a woman, a stranger in public was not the done thing – and more so, in the land of the Samaritans, who had a history of hostility with the Jews.

Why the hostility? There were political, ethnic and religious factors behind this animosity – though they probably shared a lot in common.

Samaria was once the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel after the break-up with Judah in the south. It fell in 722BC to invaders from Assyria who settled in the land and intermarried with locals. So the inhabitants of Samaria were considered ethnically mixed and were looked down upon by  those in neighbouring lands.

Religiously, the Samaritans were also somewhat different. They believed in only the first five books of the Old Testament. And instead of worshipping in Jerusalem, they built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, where they believed Abraham had wanted to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Now the land of Samaria was situated on the route from Jerusalem in Judaea in the south and Galilee in the north.

Because of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, many Jews travelling between Jerusalem and Galilee would bypass Samaria by taking a longer eastern route through Peraea across the Jordan River.

Not Jesus. On his way back to Galilee from Judaea, he took the direct route north, passing through Sychar, perhaps not far from Mount Gerizim. It is at Sychar that he meets the Samaritan woman at the well and, in the process, dismantles the xenophobia prevailing then.

After Jesus tells the woman about the living water, the woman points out the differences in their places of worship: the Samari tans worshipped at Mount Gerizim while the Jews worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem.

But Jesus explains: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). (In the event, both temples – Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim – were eventually destroyed.)

In our time too, many ethnic and religious groups harbour deep-rooted prejudices and even animosity, some of it going back decades, if not centuries. Often, animosity is targeted at foreigners, including migrants and refugees, especially during times when the economy is not doing well. The tendency then is to look for punching bags to let off our frustration and despair. Jesus, however, turns the tables once again. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the Samaritan ‘foreigner’ who is the hero while the waylaid victim is neglected by his own countrymen. “So who was the real neighbour to the victim?” Jesus asks.

Everyone has a place in the kingdom,  Jesus proclaimed. At first, the apostles and disciples could not fathom that the kingdom extended beyond the Jews. But bit by bit, the Spirit opened their eyes.

First it was Philip who preached the good news to the Samaritans. The Samaritans were the midway point in the disciples’ understanding that the Gospel was meant for all.

Paul and the other disciples reached out to the Gentiles, many of them perhaps foreigners who were familiar with synagogues in their own lands. So it was a gradual process of awakening to the promptings of the Spirit.

Meanwhile, the conversion of Cornelius, another Roman centurion, provided another turning point for the spread of the Good News.

What all this means is that we should do our best to rid ourselves of any hostility or even prejudice against anyone on account of their ethnic or religious orientation, social class, nationality or gender.

We need to be reaching out to the marginalised and the modern-day social ‘outcasts’ who are often forced to remain hidden from public view for fear of rejection, discrimination or even, verbal or physical abuse.

Jesus dismantled oppression and hatred and replaced them with justice, love and compassion, especially for the social outcasts of his time. Let us work towards that and befriend the strangers in our midst while uprooting the prejudices within us.

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