The annihilating power of global capitalism not only rules the ecomomies of our world but wipes out all traditional identities of nation, religion, family and even personal character, leaving human beings with only the ghost identity of consumers: that’s what we are told we are: people who purchase commodities. And even that is still a step away from the horrifying truth that we are actually commodities who purchase commodities, for people too are packaged, sold, and bought.
There are many consequences of this bonfire of identities but the one on which I want to focus is resentment. Because many people have neither the inner strength not the social cohesion to resist the depersonalising power of capitalism, they are left feeling that they don’t matter, that their lives have no meaning, that they are replaceable by others, and that they cannot alter the societies which have made them insignificant. This is particularly true of poor people, who feel these things more keenly than the rich, who can be seduced enough by their possessions and apparent power into disregarding their loss of identity.
The resentment of people who no longer know who they are can lead to them adopting false identities created either by themselves or by other non-people, such as fundamentalist believers, holy killers, white, black, brown or yellow supremacists, football fanatics, Jedi warriors, drug-lovers, sex-addicts, or Mr and Mrs Ordinaries who just want a quiet life with no foreigners please. Smart operatives can make huge sums of money or gain great power by helping create and sustain these false identities. Think of the Porn Barons or the Press Barons who both provide a daily supply of doctored reality for the poor junkies who have come to need it.
I think that the rage against foreigners evident in the British Brexit campaign, arises from the fundamental powerlessness of people in the face of global capitalism, with the consequent loss of their identities, rather thanas has been suggested, their relative economic deprivation compared with other parts of the U.K. It is a rage that says to immigrants, “Whatever I am, I am not you; and I do not want you on my territory.”
I have just begun a reading of the Bible book of Ruth, (the first instalment of which can be found as bible blog 1968 at my other site, emmock.com) and I realise that the society in which it was written exhibited a resentment against foreigners similar to what we have seen in the UK, and perhaps for similar reasons. The small kingdom of ancient Judah, had been established, or as they would have said, re-established by Jews who had returned from communal exile in Babylon to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem as part of constructing a new identity as “the people of God”. They felt the need to do so, because they had become the playthings of great powers, like Babylon, Persia and Egypt, the global powers of the time, in comparison with whom small nations and their populations did not count.
Helped by prophets who could speak out of the old religious traditions of the people, and law- givers like Nehemiah and Ezra, they edited their ancestral documents of faith to present an exclusive vision of what it meant to be God’s people, involving meticulous obedience to the Torah commandments and rigorous separation from other races of people and even from those Jews who worshiped differently. The defeats which had brought about exile were laid at the door of assimilation to the customs and beliefs of foreigners. That unfaithfulness had provoked their God, who himself clearly had identity problems, to punish them with near extinction. The drive by Ezra to force Jews who married foreign women to divorce them was one of the expressions of this divinely justified racism.
The Book of Ruth, a masterpiece of world literature, which tells the story of a foreign woman who shows loving faithfulness to her widowed Jewish mother-in-law after the death of her husband, who binds her life to the sorrowful life of another woman and journeys with her back to her homeland in Judah, is a subtle and utterly devastating riposte to both the racism and its cause, the loss of national and personal identity. The story begins with a narrative of lost identity, regarding a couple who flee from Judah to a neighbouring country, Moab, to avoid famine, settle and have sons who both marry foreign women. The father and then two sons die, leaving three women no identity other than that of their original families and nations. The expectation is that the widowed mother will go back to Judah and her daughters-in-law to their families in Moab, where they can live out of the established identities of others.
But then the story narrates a miracle. One of the daughters-in-law, Ruth refuses this racial identity and in passionate words creates a new and unforeseen identity built from human loyalty and love. She brings into being a new nation of two people, whose constitution is expressed in her declaration:
“Entreat me not to leave thee nor to return from from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people will be my people, and thy God, my God; where thou diest I will die and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me and more also, if anything but death part me and thee.”
This is the miracle: in a place of deprivation and no identity, a woman discovers her own irreducible humanity, pledges herself to the humanity of another woman, and defines forever a belonging before which all other identities are as nothing. All religious, national and racial exclusiveness have to bow before Ruth’s declaration of human rightness.
As the story proceeds the author shows how this seed of a new identity bears fruit in the community of Judah, whose agricultural economy and ancestral customs are drawn to express their true generosity; of which the final symbol is the sexual partnership of man and woman, Ruth and her new husband Boaz, in a fruitful land. Out of their marriage , the author tells us, will come the great King, David, who represents the flowering of Judah/ Israel as a people of God.
Of course the author of this remarkable story was a Jew who shared Jewish faith in God. There are many references throughout the story to God, the Lord, but the voice of the One who is beyond all worlds is only heard in one place in the book, namely in Ruth’s declaration quoted above. Yes, it is a human declaration, mentioning lodging, people, gods and death; it is an authentic expression of our passionate dust. And yet it also expresses for its author, the passionate and faithful love of God, promising a loyalty to the beloved that goes all the way to death. In its humanity, this is the word of God, the Beyond in the Midst.
The story confronts our modern lack of identity with the encouragement to resist all the resentments that diminish us, and to rediscover ourselves as people of flesh and blood and spirit who can define the only identity that matters, by our human loyalty , regardless of labels, to others who are made of same dust.