Who is your ‘ethnos’?

I have just returned from observing a funeral where we remembered, mourned and celebrated the life of remarkably steadfast, loyal and committed person. But while waiting for the hearse to arrive at the cemetery just outside Birmingham we were chatting to one of the staff members there who was telling us about the plans for its development.

He pointed out to us the area for Muslim graves, the areas for Coptic Christians, Greek Orthodox, people who want ‘traditional’ gravestones and those who want some kind of woodland burial. I somehow felt I was in some kind of cemetery supermarket and I was saddened by the fact that even in death we felt the need to separate out our tribe, ethnicity or our ethnos.

At a recent morning of theological discussion I was struck by a phrase of Ivan Illich quoted by one of the participants – it went something like this. For many people their ethos (standards of behaviour) apply mainly to their ethnos (ethnic group, tribe etc) but Jesus turned that around by declaring the whole human family to be our ethnos. As followers of Jesus Christ we cannot be untouched by the suffering of any part or member of the human race.

I know this is not a new idea nor it is exclusively Christian. I have just arrived home to find a friend has posted this today on her Facebook page – it is apparently the poem that is displayed the entrance of the Hall of Nations of the United Nations building in New York City.

“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.

— A poem by the Persian poet Sa’adi (1210 – 1290)”

This understanding of the link between ethos and ethnos has also helped me articulate what we are trying to do through the work of Near Neighbours. What we are hoping for is that through our practical action together, our dialogue meetings and our neighbourhood conversations people will begin to discover they are part of a new ethnos that is not based on religious identity, ethnicity or culture but is based on neighbourhood or geography. The place we live becomes a focus for where we feel we belong and where we might contribute.

People will of course have many different focuses and identities and we are not expecting people to abandon the friends they have at their place of worship or ignore the needs of family members who may be living nearby or in other continents but we do hope that by building local relationships and friendships that cross perceived barriers we can flourish together and form welcoming communities of peace and wellbeing.

I have long wondered why Jesus appeared to dismiss his mother and his brothers in a story told in several Gospels. They seemed to have travelled some distance to see him but Jesus is not bothered even to go and have a word with them.

Here is the story from Matthew 12:46-50

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’[a] 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus[b] replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother

It’s clear Jesus knew who his ethnos was and it included all those who did the will of God. But nevertheless I can’t help hoping that he did break the meeting up fairly quickly and pop outside to say hello to his mother and brothers, who I am sure he loved deeply.

Many of the most wonderful  and inspiring people I know here, who are doing the will of God by building community and enabling people to connect with each other also find time to care deeply for their families. Its almost as if the love of family, household or close friends spills out into a love of community and neighbourhood and then spill out further to embrace the needs of the whole human race.  When I see glimpses of this kind of thriving and flourishing  it seems immeasurably rich and valuable and I am grateful to know such people as sisters and brothers. I hope one day I will be buried alongside some of them even if we do not share a faith or culture!

One thought on “Who is your ‘ethnos’?

  1. Very timely reflection, Jess. I’m sure there are many people of goodwill who, while wanting to hold on to their own ethnos, also want to see their neighbourhoods become more neighbourly. Thank you for giving them a voice and practical ways forward.

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