Posted: February 13, 2023
Ruth is the only book in the biblical canon named after a foreign woman. The book centres on Ruth, a Moabite, and her mother-in-law, Naomi, who return to the land of Judah. Calamity, displacement, barrenness, death and survival can be found in the first five verses of this book. It opens with a famine in Bethlehem, a crisis which forced Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and their sons to migrate to Moab. Then, Naomi’s sons took Moabite wives. As the story goes, the three men of the family died in this foreign land. Three women survived: one Israelite mother and two Moabite daughters-in-laws.
Our global Anabaptist family also faces these predicaments today. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to postpone MWC’s Indonesia Assembly. These past two years, we have witnessed the horror of death because of the raging virus, a horror which we cannot see its end to this day. We heard deaths every day during the heights of the pandemic. Indeed, we have good vaccines, but the problem is not over. New outbreaks still take place in different countries, and these brought about shortages of food and daily needs. The virus separated us from our loved ones and isolated us from each other.
In the book of Ruth, the three vulnerable, disenfranchised women are at the frontier of strange lands, standing on the borderland between Moab and Israel. Moab is a still a strange land to Naomi and so she decides to go home to Bethlehem. But the land of Judah is a strange land to Orpah and Ruth. These childless widows cannot know if they will find a place of security or a home in a new land.
Naomi admonishes her daughters-in-law not to follow her to Bethlehem. They must return to their homeland to find husbands. Orpah yields to Naomi and kisses her mother-in-law goodbye. Ruth, however, persists to follow Naomi wherever she goes.
Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth are us. Today, many people live like these vulnerable widows. This book is rich in depicting problems shared by our Anabaptist family: women and children who live under the trauma of domestic violence, the dire effects of climate change, hostilities toward immigrants, injustice toward people with disabilities or who are gender minorities and consequences of colonialism. As we conclude the Indonesia Assembly 2022, we are ready to depart from the island of Java. But where shall we return?
Naomi’s return with her daughter-in-law Ruth is not only a story about the survival of two worthless women. Indeed, this story can be seen as one of the greatest stories of reconciliation in human history. In the Bible, the story of Moab and the Moabites is full of scandal and malice. For the Israelites, the Moabites were hostile pagans and thus forbidden from entering Israel’s religious gatherings, even to the tenth generation. Foreign wives could be expelled among the Israelites in Ezra and Nehemiah.
The book of Ruth presents a different story, however. Biblical scholar Eunny P. Lee opines that Ruth offers “an alternative vision of a caring community.” Moab is thus “a theologically evocative space, the boundary to the promised land,” a liminal space at which “cultural negotiations and identity (re)construction take place.” For Naomi, returning to her place of origin is a negotiation of identity and destiny. Together with her daughter-in-law Ruth, a barren widow from Moab, the challenge could be more intense. Ruth’s commitment to follow Naomi shows a profound courage to break the boundaries of ethnicity and race, nationality, religion, and age. Reconciliation cannot be achieved when there is no commitment to cross boundaries.
Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law is depicted in an astonishing way: Ruth clings to Naomi (1:15). The Hebrew verb (dâvaq) expresses Ruth’s deepest commitment. The same word can be found in Genesis 2:24 to describe a man’s union with a woman in marriage. In leaving his father and mother, the husband clings to his wife and the two become one flesh. Ruth thus chooses to be “one flesh” with her mother-in-law over her family of origin. By venturing to a strange land and to an unknown people, Ruth refuses the status of a worthless woman based on heterosexist patriarchal definition of family and childbearing.
But there is more in this story. This unconventional bond between two women is between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, a relationship which often filled with tension and rivalry in many cultures. In some Asian cultures, this relationship can be downright oppressive. Ruth’s first words demonstrate her independent character: a marginalized woman who shows fidelity and solidarity with another woman. If fidelity and solidarity can be found among us, the seed of reconciliation has been planted in our midst.
As we conclude the Indonesia Assembly 2022, where shall our global Anabaptist family go?
Yes, we must follow Jesus across barriers, ones created by human structures which separate us from our neighbours. I recall one event in my teenage years through which I was called into the ministry of the Word. In 1993, David W. Shenk of Eastern Mennonite Mission visited my home church GKMI Kudus and gave a message. In the past, Christianity was spread from West to East. Today, mission has changed its direction. The West, said Shenk, also needs missionaries from the East, thus breaking barriers between West and East.
The old paradigm of Christian mission, one centred on evangelism and church planting, cannot be sufficient. Spreading the gospel must not simply mean offering the good news for non-believers. The goal of Christian mission must be living fully in a new family, a kinship in which the loving presence of God can be experienced within, among and between all. In the gospels, this is called the kingdom of God. Indeed, in Christ we find new siblings from around the world. We are all loved by the Lord and, as Pastor Saptojo Adi of GITJ puts it in a hymn, we come together “whether from West or East.” As such, living in a new family must encourage us to revisit our ministry. Ministry must mean a commitment to living out the good news with those on the margins of power.
Today, we are not only called to celebrate our faith together, but to dismantle the long repercussions of Western colonialism, resulting from the doctrine of discovery in the Americas, the imposition of chattel slavery on people from Africa and genocides of indigenous peoples. Today, migration to foreign lands because of climate change, war and poverty can be found in many parts of the world. Those immigrants are vulnerable to new surroundings. They often face intolerance and appalling hostility from the host country as they try to assimilate to new contexts and cultures. Today, we are challenged by young people who join hands, raising global awareness to the climate crisis. In Kenya, says MWC vice president Rebecca Osiro, young people of her local congregations know that creation care must begin with them.
Today, women are still living in a highly patriarchal and sexist society. As valiant survivors of sexual abuse are calling out the duplicity of religious leaders, entertainment stars, sport heroes and politicians, we are challenged to raise our voice together with these survivors. We must revisit our discipleship through the “wisdom of women” in their everyday struggle – “en la lucha” as Elizabeth Soto Albrecht says. “Through the eyes of women,” theologian Darryl W. Stephens writes, “we are reminded that the personal is political, that peacemaking pertains to the home as well as to the war and that the good news of Jesus Christ proclaims not suffering and docility but liberation and justice.”
Siblings in Christ, as we look forward to the next General Assembly in Ethiopia 2027, let us continue to follow Jesus together. Let us proclaim the gospel of liberating peace, breaking barriers and crossing boundaries set up by the unjust powers to isolate us from each other. May we find a home wherever Christ’s light will lead us, a home shared with those deemed worthless by the world. Amen.
— Nindyo Sasongko is a teaching fellow at Fordham University, theologian in residence at Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship and a member of MWC’s Creation Care Task Force. Originally from Indonesia, he served as a minister in Gereja Muria Kristen Indonesia (GKMI).