I grew up at the Canadian border a few miles from Niagara Falls. It was an era when parents would send their kids out to play on a summer day and hope they wouldn’t be seen again until supper. One summer day, I grabbed my bicycle and peddled across the Rainbow Bridge from New York to Ontario. I approached the Canadian customs booth where today I would be expected to show a passport and answer many questions about my place of birth and the purpose of my visit and what I was bringing with me and how I know or am related to anyone I am traveling with. On that day, though, I just handed the official a handwritten note from my mother that said, “Rick has my permission to go to Canada.” I was waved through customs with a smile and instructions to be home before dark. Times have changed!
Our borders, especially the one to our south, are a flashpoint in our current political debates. Is it too easy for people to cross into our country? Should we limit access to those who wish to share the freedom we celebrate this Fourth of July? Should we build a wall, and who can we get to pay for it?!
The miraculous healing of a man named Naaman in Second Kings hangs on a successful border crossing. It wasn’t a simple matter for the man with leprosy to get from a nation called Aram, which was in the center of present-day Syria, to Israel. Hostility and suspicion between the nations of the Middle East were not much different than they are today. The biggest barrier to Namaan’s healing, though, was not a border or a wall or a river, but it was something very evident in two main characters in the text: pride.
Here’s the story again in nutshell: Naaman is commander of the army in Aram. He’s wealthy and powerful, but his money cannot buy what he needs most and an unnamed slave girl lets him know about the prophet Elisha in Israel who can heal leprosy. A letter is sent to Israel’s king who interprets Naaman’s request for healing as an act of aggression and nearly starts a war. Elisha somehow gets word of this and invites Naaman to cross the border to Aram and receive healing. When Naaman shows up in all his glory with horses and chariots, Elisha doesn’t actually appear but sends a messenger to tell Naaman to dip himself in the muddy Jordan River – not just once, but seven times. Naaman is not pleased and suggests better methods and better rivers. His servants remind him of the reality of his grim situation and suggest he do as instructed if he wants to go home healed. So Naaman goes under the water seven times and emerges with skin as smooth and clean as a child.
Did you see notice how some enormous egos almost kept this story of healing from appearing in the Bible? To be fair to the king of Israel, it should be noted that he got a letter from Aram’s king that was far from clear. It just said that Naaman would be traveling to Israel to be healed of leprosy. Maybe the king of Aram didn’t quite understand what he was supposed to ask for on behalf of Naaman since he heard about the prophet Elisha third hand. Or maybe his own communication skills were lacking. Regardless, Israel’s king took a huge personal offense and made it all about himself. He was touchy and paranoid. He got a nice, well-intentioned letter from another world leader and complained, “Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” That is the mix of misunderstanding and hubris that can launch wars. Thankfully, the imagined slight and the king’s self-protective anger were observed by Elisha and the situation was diffused before it got worse.
The king was furious that his own limitations, in this case the inability to heal a sick man, were revealed, and he projected his anxiety by making wrong assumptions about someone else. And Naaman, who was in a desperate situation, thought he deserved better than the mercy he was offered. He wanted to be healed of his leprosy, but only on his own terms.
Pride is a confusing concept. It’s one of the seven deadly sins identified by the desert fathers in the fourth century, yet we are proud of our children and our homes and walk in Pride parades and encourage others to be proud of their achievements. What’s wrong with that? Is that what Dante meant when he described pride as “love of self, perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor”? It can’t be. Maybe that’s why some of the lists of the Seven Deadly Sins use the phrase “hubristic pride” to explain what is considered a fatal character flaw. The Greeks came up with the word “hubris” which means an excess of pride, outside of the bounds meant for humans. In other words, hubris is imagining you are a god.
I wonder if hubristic pride is the same as what we call narcissism? Narcissism is an exaggerated sense of one’s importance that results in a lack of empathy for others and a near-total focus on what serves one’s own interests. It’s impossible to draw detailed conclusions about Bible characters like Naaman and the king of Isral in this story, but the king’s nearly comical defensiveness and Naaman’s insistence on healing on his own terms certainly lead in that direction of narcissim. When you fall in love with your own reflection, as Narcissus did, everyone else is just an appendage of yourself to be used for your own purpose.
Speaking of pride, I wonder what is the difference between national pride and what we might call national narcissism? I love my country, and I will attend a small town parade in central Colorado tomorrow and I know my heart will swell with patriotism and gratitude for living in a country that values and protects freedom. Despite the flaws of our nation, there is plenty to be proud of. That’s why I keep believing that our ideals are achievable and keep believing that our political process can help even more people to benefit from what is just and good.
National pride becomes narcissism, I think, when we believe that our nation is always right or has a God-given mandate to dominate the world. It is seen in individuals in the certainty that freedoms and protections are for own benefit but do not extend to those who are not like ourselves. Those who are “different” include the poor who need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and the immigrants who need to learn our ways of doing things and the people of color who need to get over past injustices that have long ago been made right. Or at least how truth looks through the lens of narcissism.
Naaman had leprosy. It’s a pretty awful disease, and if you think it’s just a Bible-time disorder, here’s some information you might be interested in: Leprosy, also known as HD, or Hansen’s Disease, is currently endemic in fifteen countries, with the largest numbers of people affected in India, Brazil, and Indonesia. The progressive disease that affects nerves, skin, and membranes is highly contagious but can be successfully treated with a combination of three potent medications. Unfortunately, in many parts of the word, fear, ignorance, and the persistence of social stigma prevents many from seeking treatment. During Jesus’ ministry, that stigma caused lepers to be shunned and required them to shout their presence so others could be warned and run away. All of Naaman’s horses and chariots and influence couldn’t prevent him from catching leprosy, and all of his wealth couldn’t buy a cure. His disease would only get worse, and it’s no wonder he sought out a miracle-worker.
Naaman’s healing was not a simple affair. It required the involvement of a whole string of people including Naaman’s wife, a slave girl, the king of Amar, the king of Israel, the king’s messenger, Naaman’s servants, and of course Elisha. An international border was crossed in order to bring together this multi-cultural effort that resulted in the healing that saved Naaman’s life. It almost didn’t happen, though. The outsized egos of Israel’s king and Naaman came perilously close to shutting down the whole miracle. It’s a pretty amazing story, and the drama of human personality is what makes it so. It is also symbolic of what any nation can experience when narcissist priorities take precedence over the common good.
2 Chronicles 7:14 says this: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Humility and healing go hand in hand.
Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel died yesterday. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, it was said of him that he was a "messenger to humankind" and that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps", as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace", Wiesel had delivered a message "of peace, atonement and human dignity" to humanity. Weisel’s life was almost ended under the reign of a narcissist, but he emerged from suffering to become both a humble and powerful leader working for the healing of our world.
How does your life bring healing to others? How have you learned to reject hubristic pride and embrace humility in a world that does not always value it? And how will you work to make sure that the nation we love will exemplify the values of freedom and justice for all? May we be agents of healing today and always. Amen.