Intimate Caring

Intimate caring: Ruth as a story of peacebuilding

Kevin Shorner-Johnson

If you know me, you know I am a nerd. I study music, ethics, and time orientations through the lens of educational policy, 17th century Puritan theology, and multicultural peacebuilding practice. That’s a whole lot of nerd. And from my Episcopalian background with a side of Catholic and Baptist bible study, I am also a nerd for studying lectionary and coming to know scripture more deeply. Please humor me as I take you on my passion for philosophy, theology, and peacebuilding.

I love Ruth, because Ruth is a beautiful story of moving toward each other in sacred moments of humble but audacious love. It is also a remarkable book because it is the only story that explores feminine relationship with great depth, and along with Esther, it is one of the few stories that is told from the point of view of a woman.1 Ruth is not a story of the powerful and famous, but is the story of two, ordinary people on a threshing floor doing extraordinary work of love. Because I am passionate about research in peacebuilding, I want to look at this story from a peacebuilding lens and the language of closeness, argument, and grace.

# Closeness

I wonder if Ruth is a story of what happens when we move closer to each other. While Ruth was a widowed woman in a distant land, she was an object of despair. Refugees and migrants today generate sympathy because they are distant objects of despair. Hearing their story might cause me to feel sympathy for their distant, “third world” plight – maybe generating a donation? But then, Ruth and Naomi begin their migrant journey toward economic security and acceptance - Something that was very difficult to achieve in the violent masculine-powered society at the end of Judges. Ruth arrives, and as she moves closer to Boaz, Boaz is convicted of his need to offer a little more. He leaves larger amounts of grain in the fields and commands field hands to leave her unmolested and unharmed.

Moving closer still, Boaz joins her for dinner.

Boaz clearly has done great acts of kindness and compassion for a destitute woman. But . . . this is not enough, because Ruth moves closer yet, creating new ethical dilemmas as she moves closer and closer. Ruth is not content to be an object of sympathy - she wants more, she wants the security of food, shelter, and safety.

{Carol Meyers, "‘Women of the Neighborhood’ (Ruth 4.17): Informal Female Networks in

Ancient Israel," in Ruth and Esther: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, (Sheffield, England:

Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 110-127. }

So she shares an intimate relational space with Boaz on the threshing floor. When Boaz awakes, he sees the intimate humanness of Ruth. Suddenly, leaving leftover grain doesn't feel like enough. Boaz leans into the shared love of marriage, pledging in a public covenant to care for Ruth.

As we move closer to each other, we realize that what we thought was enough care, enough donations, enough love, was not enough -- and we uncover our unending capacity to love more deeply.

My godparents had a cozy dining table. They say it is the table where the late Reverend Billy Graham spent many hours in food and conversation. When we sat there with my godparents, that table is just a little bit sacred – not just for Billy Graham but also for the loving presence of my godparents. Having sat at many cozy dining tables with friends and family, I understand the sacredness of a good, cozy table. Tables are where we draw closer to each other, binding our souls and spirits through food and conversation. We probably all remember moments where we draw closer, with deep friends at the sacred site of a good dining table.

As someone who is passionate about ethics and peacebuilding, I am deeply interested in how we come to care for each other and the natural world. In our capacity for empathy and loving intentions, we practice our choreography of love – responding to each other and living closer. As Ruth and Boaz choreograph a closer dance, we, like Naomi, know that good things are bound to happen.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God might be the in-between space of sacred relationship. Deep relationship is the opposite of disconnection.2 Disconnection is the fundamental fuel of destructive addictions that lead us to violence toward self, the environment, and others. Our work as peacebuilders is to follow footsteps of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, building sacred moments where we are fully present to one another.

# Argument

On its surface the book of Ruth doesn't look like much of an argument. Everyone gets along, individuals increasingly care for one another, and the story, unlike so many, actually has a happy ending. However, I want to play with the idea that when this book is set against passages from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Nehemiah, and Ezra, Ruth is a radical argument for love and care over unfeeling interpretation of law and principle. Prior to Ruth, Jewish cultural norms seem to be pretty clear about what to do with a Moabite woman. The writers of Genesis describe Moabites as coming from the sinful union of Lot and his first-born daughter. Ezra tears his garments at hearing that Moabite women have joined with Jewish men. Nehemiah 13 calls for separation with foreigners, particularly those Moabites.

{2 Martin Buber, I and thou. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1970)}.

This story in Ruth seems to repeat at every possible paragraph that Ruth is a Moabite, making the argument more and more pointed.

Why would a story about a Moabite woman, who seemingly breaks every prohibition be placed alongside texts that are explicitly clear about Moabite women? Ruth and Naomi seem to be persistent troublemakers, walking across borders and breaking rules of contact.

Whether it be Job or Jacob, so many characters within the Jewish tradition wrestle and argue with God. The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasizes the Jewish notion of "Mahloket l'shem shamayim" – translated “argument for the sake of heaven” or that the process of arguing leads us into deeper relationship with God.

3 What if Ruth is an argument of love and care against rules about Moabites in Ezra, Nehemiah, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? In many ways, Jesus lived out similar arguments as his care for children, widows, the sick, the lame, the tax collector, and the prostitute challenged the rules of the powerful. Jesus breathes life into hardened laws through love and care.

My educational hero, Nel Noddings advocates that a teacher’s most important job is to enter into caring relationships with students. Care is often at odds with unchanging principle and distanced, objective rule.4 We know that our deep love and care for children, spouses, parents, friends, and neighbors forever changes who we are. Our ability to change enlarges our care.

Maybe our work as Christians is moving closer to love, pain and joy, because when we know and are known through intimate love, we are all changed. Ruth’s close presence is an argument for her humanity. Naomi accurately predicts that once Ruth has moved that close to Baoz, he will be forever changed.

I wonder if the Widow at the offering plate in Mark 12 is a similar argument. The rich people are following principles of rational giving. They are also part of an economic system that leaves a widow with 1/64 of a typical day’s wages.5 But as the widow moves close to the collection plate, she gives all that she has. This feminine act of whole-hearted giving is an argument against rule and unjust difference. What a risk and a challenge to our well-ordered lives.

Can I accept the risk that I might be changed within arguments for love?

{3 Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, “Jewish women in peacebuilding: Embracing disagreement in the pursuit of ‘Shalom’,” in Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen, ed.

Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press,2015), 113-126.

4 Nel Noddings, Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education. (Berkeley, CA:

University of California Press, 2013).


4# Sin and grace}

The Hebrew word of ḥesed lies at the heart of understanding the book of Ruth. ḥesed is steadfast “lovingkindness” that goes beyond the expected. It is a form of kindness that sets off a chain of good deeds. ḥesed is explicitly used three times in Ruth and is the implicit glue that holds the story together.

6 Ruth’s ḥesed is a “cumulative force” of kindness that brings restoration to two women who have lost a secure future. My favorite Irish poet, John O’Donohue personifies radical kindness as having “gracious eyes” and transforming vulnerability into “occasion[s] for dignity and empathy.” “Kindness,” he says “casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”7 The rich difference of Moabite and Israelite may be a prism of color fed by the evening light of shared love.

I believe that when I toss pebbles of ḥesed into our reflecting pool, these intentions set ripples of lovingkindness across space and time. When this is done in community, like the community of Ruth-Boaz-Naomi, ripples become waves, collectively transforming scarcity to abundance …. fear to love.

When I was at the Alliance for Peacebuilding conference two weeks ago, I entered the deep hope and grace within the amazing women and men who courageously build out love and care in Colombia, Syria, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US, and Mexico. While we lament stories of hate, violence and fear, we believe there is always a larger community of ripplemakers than we realize.

Maybe Grace is moving closer. Maybe Grace is being embraced in the close and steadfast lovingkindness of ḥesed. And just like Ruth and Boaz, each move closer demands even more of us. Leaving out leftover grain becomes not enough, until we can do nothing less than give our whole selves.

If Sin is missing the mark, notice how the mark moves higher as we move closer. Sin needs intimate grace to set the bar higher.8 Sometimes I move closer, becoming intentional and vulnerable. Sometimes I move farther away through distraction or avoidance. How is our loving presence an “argument” against forces of hate, violence and exclusion? If Ruth, a destitute, widowed woman in a masculine world could transform the world this much and teach us this much about love, what can we do with the power of our intentions?

{6 Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth. (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 7 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2008). 8 Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher J. Doucot, No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming An Ally in the Struggle for Justice. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).}

Ruth and the widow at the treasury are stories of loving acts in a sea of strangers and unfeeling rules. These stories illuminate Grace and love like a beacon in the night. On this 100th anniversary of armistice day, when we acknowledge the essential possibility of peace, acts of intimate caring illumine the best parts of ourselves, casting out fear of the stranger and turning every Moabite into a neighbor. Intimate ḥesed gives me hope. And because of faith, I choose to live in that hope. This is a beacon of light, the gathering strength of waves, the life-giving embrace of covenant, and the clink of an ordinary coin becoming a whole-hearted gesture.



Hear the blessing within Irish verse of John O’Donohue:9

Awaken to the mystery of being

Enter the quiet immensity of your own presence

May intimacy journey you to that place where love, warmth, and feeling change us;

Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path;

Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention;

May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within;

May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight are one;

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

9 O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.