Many years ago, two young, educated Syrians in Paris were discussing the plight of their country, and the spate of vandalism that was making headlines in France, perpetrated mostly by young men whose roots were not unlike theirs. Why does this happen, one of them, an artist, asked. The other quoted back this line: “I cannot live on the bank of the river and wash my hands with spittle.”
This line followed me all the past week, after reading this story in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. It stayed with the artist as well. One can imagine how it spoke to him – a newcomer to a different shore, feeling poverty and war at home. Trying to understand some of the behaviour that was feeding anti-immigrant sentiment in his new home. But as the artist explained in his essay, his friend was not sure of where the quote came from. The answer lay among the books and art his family had buried in their backyard, hoping to keep these treasures safe from the bombs. He was reluctant to risk safety to find it, until one day, he phoned the artist. The quote, he explained, came from a book called “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe, which told the story of a Nigerian warrior named Okonkwo, who had been banished from his home. He was planning a feast to thank those who had given him refuge, and overloading the table with food. When asked why, he said, “I cannot live on the bank of the river and wash my hands with spittle.”
There are several meanings to this line, depending on one’s perspective. But ultimately it is about where we stand, and how we live – either on that rich river bank, or washing our hands with spit while staring at the bounty just out of our reach, and how this effects us. Do we turn away from those who need the help we can easily offer? Do we become consumers with bitterness about what we don’t have, or strive to improve our lot? Can we do the first without being condescending or controlling? Do we wait until those in need have begged just the right amount at our door? Can we do the second without trampling over others in our race to the river. We live, as Okonkwo lived, in both places at once. We are haves and we are have nots, and what we do in those places, defines our character. It decides our contribution to the larger world. Okonkwo’s response was one of generosity, and thankfulness. Having returned to the river bank, he would not offer his guests only spittle.
We are hearing a lot about character today, much of it thanks to our neighbors across the border. But we don’t really need a lesson in what character looks like: we all know it when we see it, and we know when it is sorely lacking. But character, as we should teach our children, is not just about what we do, but when we do it. Do we wait, until bigotry has piled upon racism, and sexism upon bigotry, before we say, enough is enough? Do we wait until a faraway city is completed devastated, and a generation of children have died, before we go to their aid? Are we like the judge of our gospel, the river bank dweller, who ignores the pleas of a poor widow, over and over again. And who finally helps her, only to shut her up.
God, the gospel tells us, does not delay mercy, does not withhold grace. God responds quickly, and we are to do the same.
We must consider what that means, because it requires work on our part. We must educate ourselves about what is fact and what is fiction. We must consider how to best provide help. We must look to our faith, the ministry of Jesus, to tell us what is required of us. St. John has done this year after year: sponsoring refugees, sending school supplies to Africa, building a well and a school in Liberia, supporting refugees from Syria. Good, practical work, by people living on the river bank, relative to the rest of the world. As your pastor, I am extremely proud of the work you have done. I know it has been frustrating at times, and exhausting. But we know it has made a difference.
But, looking ahead we cannot let complacency set in – we cannot rest on our laurels, or hoard our talent and treasure because we don’t have as much as others. We cannot become the judge who helps only because he has been given no other choice. We must always be looking forward, to where our character will take us next? What is true of our own lives, is true for our church community, and true for our country. It is not because we worry, that the day will come, when we need some water from the river, and no one is left to deliver it. It is because there is no value in living on the river bank, if we do not share it. That is an empty and purposeless existence, absent of the gospel. It is like having access to the river, but still washing your hands with spittle anyway. A waste.
These are the questions we all need to ask: Where are we going? Where are we needed, or where do we want to be? What are we doing? What is required, or what is generously given? Are we still, or are we moving forward? And, most importantly, is God the one who is leading us there? We cannot live on the bank of the river and wash our hands with spittle.