Or, if you’d rather, here’s the audio.
A long time ago, when judges still ruled over Israel and the land was dried up with famine, a man from Bethlehem, which ironically means “place of bread,” left his home to live as a foreigner in the land of Moab. He traveled with his wife and their two sons. His name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi; their two sons were called Mahlon and Chilion. They had settled and made lives for themselves in Moab, but soon after, Elimelech died leaving Naomi in the care of her sons. Each son married a woman from Moab—one was named Orpah, the other Ruth—and they lived together for 10 years before Mahlon and Chilion died also. Naomi was left alone, without her husband and two sons.
Word had reached Moab that the Eternal One had once again brought life back to the land of Israel and blessed people with food. Naomi prepared to return with her daughters-in-law. With Orpah and Ruth at her side, she began her journey back to Judah, leaving the place where she had lived.
Then she said, to her daughters-in-law: “You have accompanied me far enough; you must both return to Moab. Go home to your mothers’ care and your people. May the Eternal show loyal love to you just as you demonstrated it to my dead sons and me. I hope God will bring you new husbands and that you will find the rest you deserve in their homes.”
She drew close, kissed them, and turned to go on her way, alone. But Orpah and Ruth wailed and sobbed, crying out to her.
They said, “Do not leave us! We insist you take us with you to live with you and your people.”
But Naomi said, “Go back to your homes, my daughters. What possible reason would you have for returning with me? Do you think there are more sons inside of me? Will you marry these unborn sons? Listen to me, daughters, and go back. I am too old; I will not marry again because I cannot conceive. But even if I could—if I still believed there was hope for me, or if I had a husband and conceived sons tonight— would you waste a lifetime waiting for them to grow up? Would you let this hope for the future keep you from remarrying now? Of course not, my dear daughters. It is obvious that the Eternal has acted against me. My life is much too bitter for you to share with me.”
At this Orpah and Ruth wailed and wept again. Then Orpah kissed Naomi, said goodbye, and returned the way she had come. Yet Ruth refused to let go of Naomi.
And Naomi said to Ruth: “Look at your sister-in-law. She has returned to live with her people and to worship her gods; go and follow her.”
And Ruth said:
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go I will go – Where you lodge I will lodge –
Your people will be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die I will die, there will I be buried.
May the Lord punish me, punish me and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”
When Naomi heard this and saw Ruth’s resolve, she stopped trying to talk her out of returning. The two women went on together to Bethlehem.
If we’re not careful, there’s a hint of unhealthy teenage melodrama in that declaration, right, that famous vow Ruth speaks? Think back to your first real crush. Wasn’t there some part of you that said some variation of those promises? “Where you go, I will go. Your friends will be my friends, and your music will be my music, and your favorite pizza topping, that’s…exactly what I was…going to order anyway sojustgoahead.”
These verses – Ruth’s intense speech here – they’re often read as the height of romantic confession. But that’s not what’s happening here at all. The story begins with romantic couplings – women are bound together by their connections to the same men – but in just a few short verses the romance is literally dead. This is a promise Ruth makes to her mother-in-law.
Where you go, I will go. Your people, my people. Your God, my God.
In the time and place of this scripture, there is no such thing as religious conversion. People did not study the sacred words of various traditions and choose one that resonated with their own personal philosophy; they did not grow disillusioned with the religion of their ancestors and set out on their own quest to find a doctrine or a practice that struck them as more inspired. Religion and ethnicity are so deeply tied together in Ruth and Naomi’s world that there is no separation of one from the other. Ruth’s identity as a Moabite also pegs her as a pagan; just like Naomi’s Jewish blood reveals who she will worship. So when Ruth promises to come alongside Naomi, the words she speaks mean even more than we might initially hear in them.
The midrash – that is, the stories the rabbis developed, over the centuries about the Biblical texts – the midrash suggests that Ruth’s famous speech here isn’t a monologue, but half of a conversation. They say as the women walked, Naomi told Ruth what would be expected of her.
The rabbis say, here’s what’s missing:
The mother-in-law said, “You understand, it is not the way of Israel to go to theaters or to spectacles, but only to synagogues and study halls. Nor is it our way to go a great distance on the Sabbath.”
And in response, Ruth said, “Where you go, I will go.”
And as they walked on toward Bethlehem, Naomi told her, “We have rules, you know – a man cannot be alone with a woman, and especially with a married woman. That’s a really important one to my people.”
And Ruth promised, “Your people will be my people.”
And finally, Naomi told her the commandment — one she would have known, we would think, from being married for ten years to a Jewish man — but Naomi told her anyway, “Idolatry is forbidden to us.”
And Ruth said, “Your God will be my God.”
It really is an extraordinary declaration.
Phyllis Trible, a Hebrew Bible scholar, says this story is passed on to us because in it, “One woman has chosen another woman in a world whose life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.”
It’s a decision to stay with loss. A decision to move forward into a future that seems only tied to the past. Naomi can’t understand why Ruth would go with her; it’s not even clear that she wants the company.
If we read the text together with the midrash, we see that Ruth has all the trappings of privilege. She’s young. There seems no doubt that she could marry again. She comes from a land of plenty; she may even come from its most powerful family – the midrash suggests that she’s the daughter of a king in Moab. To go with Naomi, Ruth must give up a future shaped by all of that good fortune. And she does.
Ruth chooses the uncertainty of entering a foreign land, over the security of going home. She chooses vulnerability over strength, because she chooses relationship. She chooses not to let go of Naomi, but to walk with her – and to do that, she has to say, “I will not be who I have been.”
All around her, people notice Ruth’s difference – the book of Ruth is only four chapters long and she’s called a Moabite eight times – which is to say, she does not totally shed her original identity. She can’t. She is recognizably not the same as the people in the context she’s chosen to enter. But she does – to the extent that she can – she does shed the privileges that accompany her identity. She chooses to let go of those so that she might really be on a journey with this woman whose life and struggle and sadness is bound up with her own. She could let it go – that’s what privilege is. That’s what it allows. But she chooses not to.
And now, in the wake of Ferguson – which is to say, in the wake of yet another loss that highlights how deep the legacy of racism runs in this country and how far we have to go to reach anything approximating a just society – in the aftermath of that reality, this might be just the choice we’re asked to make, too.
Not to shed our identities. We are who we are; we come from where we do. That’s not the same story for all of us, but many of us occupy places of privilege. The choice we’re being asked to make, now, is how far we will carry that. How tightly we’ll cling to it. Whether or not we can summon the courage of Ruth, to just walk alongside those who suffer. And not turn back. Naomi is not only mourning – she is bitter. She is angry. She believes that God has been unfair to her. She tells Ruth to go away. And Ruth does not argue and she does not give answers and she does not defend God. Ruth says, “Your world will be my world.”
What we have seen so much of these past few weeks is the reality that people can live in the same city and occupy different worlds. Different, and unequal. And we have for so long denied the difference, or we have ignored it, because to acknowledge it would mean to make ourselves vulnerable, and to give up privilege, and we are scared of what that might mean. At least, I am.
A man who did antiracist organizing for two decades describes stepping out onto his porch one morning, holding his small child in his arms, and seeing five young African-American men. He didn’t recognize them. And he was afraid. And as soon as he registered that feeling of fear, he was ashamed. He says, “It’s not something people committed to anti-racist work like to admit feeling.”
It’s not something any one of us would want to say out loud. But he admits the fear, he goes on to say, “because this isn’t a time for false pretenses to protect our egos. This is a time for white people to recognize that our irrational fears of Blackness are the result of the logics of white supremacy… When I experience these irrational fears, I remind myself that this is the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow apartheid, of anti-Black racism used to justify economic exploitation and social violence, that these fears are one of the ways that white supremacy lives in my body and subconsciously works to organize my life by dividing me from Black people, supporting their subjugation, actively or through indifference, and uniting me to ruling class agendas of concentrating wealth and power through structural violence and inequality.”
What would it even mean to step away from that? What privilege might we lose if we just acknowledged it, and we decided it’s not worth the cost it comes with: broken individual bodies, and a broken community, and a broken body of Christ?
Because there are other legacies that run through us, as people of faith – other impulses in our bodies – that run counter to the fear we’ve been fed. Living in us also are the words of the prophets, ready to spill off our tongues, calling out injustice and reminding the world that it was created beautiful. And living in us also is the story of reconciliation – the central story of our tradition – that acknowledges deep division but says that just the act of being together can be redemptive. It’s true that dangerous ideologies can run deep in us, even ones we would deny, or spend our lives working against. But it is also true that we are made of more than that.
Imagine a mother, who has lost a son – to famine, or to fighting, or to God-knows-what – and she is walking back to her community. Or maybe to a vigil. Or a protest. And you try to accompany her. And she tells you to go home.
Maybe you say, “Where you go, I will go.”
And she says, “You understand, where I am going, a mother loses her black son to police or vigilante violence every 28 hours. Where I am going, I go to console other mothers, who worry every time our boys step outside the house.”
She says, “Because where I am going – anything – a wallet, a cell phone, even a colostomy bag – can be mistaken for a weapon, and get a man beaten or worse. Where I am going, an unarmed teenager can be shot and killed, and end up looking like the criminal instead of the victim.”
Maybe you can’t quite say back to that, “Your people will be my people.” Something about that sounds disingenuous. Maybe you can’t say anything at all.
And maybe that’s fine.
Because maybe this is where people of privilege listen, and learn, and lift up other voices. Maybe this is where we confess, and pray, and light candles; where we bring bread, and break it, and share it.
Then the privileges we’ve lost are those of ignorance and indifference. And, let’s be honest, those are necessary losses if we hope for a future.