There has been a lot of talk lately about monuments. Leroy Seat from Rainbow has written a piece called Monumental Decisions, and Sojourners published a great piece here: Where are the Monuments to Peacemakers?
This national discussion has led me to pay more attention to the monuments around KC. In particular, I am interested in the Biblical Ruth sculpture that sits in the median on the west side of the intersection of Nichols and Wyandotte, what is known as the KC Plaza.
I love this description: “She [Ruth] is kneeling on her right knee and holding sheaves of wheat while she gazes off to her right. The center panel of the base, which is sometimes obscured by the surrounding landscaping, is a bas relief depicting the story of Ruth from the Bible. “
The story of Biblical Ruth is indeed obscured, not just sometimes, but most of the time I’m afraid. Too often we turn the book of Ruth into a romantic fairy tale, with a man swooping into rescue the vulnerable, passive, submissive women. Too often we forget that the story of Ruth begins by describing the humanitarian crisis that is famine. An Israelite family must flee Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “House of Bread,” to a foreign land called Moab in order to survive. Ruth of course was a Moabite woman who eventually marries into this Hebrew family. Crisis after crisis piles up and eventually Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi have to flee once again, this time back to Bethlehem. Desperation and perhaps literal hunger drives the widow Ruth to glean in the fields, as widows, which means “the leftover piece,” were allowed to do by Mosaic Law.
As Joan Chittister reminds us, Ruth was written thousands of years ago—anywhere from 500 to 1000 B.C.E.—composed, faith tells us, under the inspiration of the Divine, it [Ruth] is a universal story of the poor, the marginalized and the refugee. It is a story, she argues, of hope emerging out of loss and tragedy, a story about risk, vulnerability, marginalization, barrenness, hostility, change, transformation, relationship, survival, resiliency. “We are all,” she writes, “Naomi on the way from the grave, all Orpah on the way to security, all Ruth on the way to a strange tomorrow.”
Sure, the story ends (spoiler alert!) on a more pleasant note. Naomi, a name that means “pleasant,” is restored and her bitter (Mara) tears are replaced by tears of joy at the birth of her grandson, Obed. (Obed would then father Jesse, who would father David. All of this means that Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner.)
What I take away from Ruth is a radical story of foreigners despised and then welcomed, of enemies becoming friends and kin, a story that explores the realities of scarcity, famine, emptiness, barrenness as well as friendship, abundance, and hesed, that wonderfully rich Hebrew word, which often is translated as loving kindness, but really sums up the way God intends for human beings to live together. It is, as Carolyn Custis James writes that “bone deep commitment that motivates a person to love voluntarily with nothing expected in return.” The story of Ruth is soaked in hesed, she writes. With Ruth’s blood running in Jesus’ veins, no wonder his followers still to this day believe he fully embodied hesed. No wonder Jesus often talked about welcoming the foreigner, the widow, the hungry and sorrowful.
I understand that the Plaza includes many statues and murals depicting many of the world’s great leaders and historical figures. When Plaza developer Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols traveled through Europe in the 1920’s, he wanted to bring some of Spain back with him. It’s wonderful to see the Biblical Ruth be given prominence. But what kind of great leader and historical figure do we see when we look at Ruth? How have we obscured the more radical vision of hesed that Ruth gives us? We will explore this question and more on Saturday, September 30 from 9-11 am. Join us for coffee and, while this might further obscure our study, maybe I’ll bring some Baby Ruth bars for us to enjoy.