The Korean drama Squid Game was a hit in 2021, reaching over 140 million Netflix viewers worldwide. The series used games familiar to Korean children to describe the social pathology of adults amid the “fair competition” of the modern world. It satirizes a system in which people would do anything in order to survive at the expense of others.

In real life, the current war between Russia and Ukraine is the latest event to expose the ugliness of human conflicts. Each brings division, with supporters and opponents increasingly polarized.

However, do Christians have to choose only between the polarized options of full support or full opposition amid the conflicts of the 21st century? Two Old Testament books suggest not.

Different narratives

The Israelites in the Old Testament were repeatedly subjected to cruelty. They suffered from foreign aggression and were often at war. Gideon’s son, Abimelech, killed 70 brothers in one day in order to become king in Shechem (Judges 9:1–6). A Levite was returning home with his concubine, but she was raped to death by local hooligans. News of the incident spread to the other tribes and led to a war that nearly wiped out the entire tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19–21).

The writer of Judges sums up the situation of that time period with a repeated phrase: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (21:25). When members of society did what was right in their own eyes, everything was based on their own interests, which naturally led to a ruthless generation. The word mercy would not be found in their dictionary.

It was during this period that Ruth, a Moabite woman, arrived in Bethlehem of Judah to begin her life in a foreign land (Ruth 1:22). She was prompted by the prayer of her mother-in-law, Naomi: “May the Lord show you kindness …” (v. 8). Naomi’s prayer of kindness (ḥĕsĕd) for her two daughters-in-law can be understood as loyalty but can also be interpreted as loving-kindness. This prayer motivated Ruth’s journey of grace.

Before Ruth left Moab, she argued with her mother-in-law. Naomi advised her not to come to Judah because there was no mercy from God there, but only his judgment (1:12–13). She thought her daughters-in-law should remain in Moab to seek the Lord’s mercy (vv. 8, 15). Ruth’s answer was the opposite: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go” (v. 16).

This is a puzzling emigration decision. Given the choice, how could Ruth choose a cruel and unforgiving society (as described in Judges) when a normal person would choose a calm, safe, and economically prosperous country to migrate to? Could she have chosen the wrong place?

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The end of the first chapter of Ruth seems to suggest the answer. They arrived in Bethlehem “as the barley harvest was beginning” (v. 22). There was a law for people like Naomi and Ruth in Israelite society: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deut. 24:19).

This was the Lord’s way of showing mercy to disadvantaged people. But in a generation when “everyone did as they saw fit,” did anyone keep the law? Boaz’s later words to Ruth seem to suggest that the people of Bethlehem did not, and would even harass her (Ruth 2:8–9).

In fact, the question facing Ruth was not only whether the Israelites were willing to obey the law, but also whether they were willing to “break” the law. For while the Deuteronomic law protected the widows who lived in the land, it also prohibited Moabites like Ruth from entering the community of Israel (Deut. 23:3). Unless someone was gracious enough to set aside this prohibition, those who strived to keep the law would be deterred from lending a helping hand.

It seems that this harvest was not only a sign of the Lord’s renewed favor toward Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6), but also a test of the city’s graciousness. Ruth seemed to be aware of the difficulties she would face and the mercy she would need (2:2).

What followed was a series of providential events. Ruth went behind the harvesters to glean; “as it turned out,” she followed them to a certain field of wheat; and “just then,” Boaz, the field owner, arrived from Bethlehem (Ruth 2:3–4). Boaz not only allowed Ruth to gather wheat in his field but also protected her (vv. 8–9). He commanded his servants not to insult her even to let her glean more (vv. 15–16).

The kindness that Ruth had sought was found, and it was more than she thought she could expect (v. 10). When she couldn’t resist asking Boaz why he was so gracious to her, his answer indicated he believed that what had happened was no coincidence but instead a merciful act of the Lord in reward of her faith (v. 12). Naomi came to the same conclusion after hearing Ruth’s account of the events in the field (v. 20).

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Sharp social contrasts

In the narrative world of Judges, there are apostate Israelites, idolatrous and lustful judges (Gideon and Samson, respectively), Levite priests of idol shrines, the mob in Gibeah who raped the Levite’s concubine, and the peremptory Benjamites. The land of Israel was a place of foreign invasions and tribal wars arising from internal strife.

In the narrative of Ruth, however, the reader sees a society of kindness and warmth, a Bethlehem where the Lord demonstrated his mercy and grace through Israelites. There is not only Boaz, who is full of kindness to the Moabites, but also the ten elders who bless the marriage of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4:11–12).

We see some stark contrasts between the two books. Judges tells of a foreign woman who was abused and died in Gibeah, while Ruth tells of a foreign woman who was not only accepted in Bethlehem but also honored as one of the ancestors of Israel—the equal of Rachel and Leah.

The writer of Judges repeatedly attributes its chaos to the fact that “in those days Israel had no king.” Instead of criticizing this environment, the Book of Ruth deliberately concludes with the genealogy of King David (4:17–22), implying that the king expected during the time of judges was David, who foreshadowed Christ, the King of peace.

The narrative of Ruth offers what Charles Taylor described as an “alternative social reality,” similar to the “alternative consciousness” proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets as described by Walter Bruggemann in The Prophetic Imagination.

The polarized social consciousness

In recent years, there has been a spate of incidents of polarization among Christians, exemplified by debates over public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for these conflicts are not necessarily biblical, but rather polarized views on politics, race relations, gender theory, sexual ethics, Christian nationalism, and other issues.

Among evangelicals, each side defines evangelicalism by its own set of values. As Jim Cymbala, senior pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City, said in a January sermon, Christians in North America now no longer define an evangelical person by whether he or she believes in Jesus, but by whether he or she is Democrat or Republican, pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination, and mask-wearing or not.

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“These were my people, but now I don’t know who they are, or maybe I don’t know who I am,” Timothy Dalrymple, CEO and editor in chief of Christianity Today, described his friend as saying last year. In February, he told David Brooks for The New York Times, “One of the most surprising elements is that I’ve realized that the people who I used to stand shoulder to shoulder with on almost every issue, I now realize that we are separated by a yawning chasm of mutual incomprehension. I would never have thought that could have happened so quickly.”

One of the major factors that has brought evangelical relations to this point is the divisive information bubbles formed by polarized mass media and social media. Each side chooses to absorb or disseminate only the data of its own circle. The social reality behind each side’s values becomes the eyes of the beholder, leading to a clear distinction between enemies and friends. Few people believe the other side, and each side speaks its own language. For each circle, the social reality seen by peers is the real reality while the social reality of other circles is suspicious “fake news” or “misinformation.”

It is almost another phenomenon where “everyone did as they saw fit.”

This polarized social reality has no room for objective reality. If both sides are in danger, neither side will be able to detect it due to lack of objective vision. Even more regrettable is the fact that within our own Christian community, there are many rivalries and enemies. Those who seek the truth are at a loss. Many people have created a world of cold and cruel narratives without the mercy and grace of the Lord.

An alternative reality

The Book of Ruth sheds some light—and even offers a model—for Christians dealing with current conflicts of consciousness. Ruth shows that even amid the darkest chaos, there are positive narratives to report in the world that God created. Like the biblical writers, Christians can create a healthier social reality using the positive examples that exist amid conflicts. Such a social reality does not deny the dark side of the present but focuses on the positive stories within society.

For example, in the war between Russia and Ukraine, we can focus on the humanitarian relief efforts of many charities and Christian organizations. As Christians, we should be especially aware of the contributions of congregations and missionaries at this time. Many missionaries chose to stay behind even though they could have been evacuated from the war zone. (The parents of one of my theology students decided to stay in Ukraine to serve and accompany local Christians in distress.)

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Another example is CT’s recent report on Shanghai that even amid the difficulties and chaos of the city’s COVID-19 lockdown, local Christians are helping their neighbors and serving their community with charity.

Unfortunately, the daily focus of the polarized media today often ignores the ministry of these Christians, which is rarely heard even within the church. Their stories need to be made more public so that we can create an alternative sense of reality amid the predominantly antagonistic social reality. The Lord is still in power in the midst of chaos, and he is still exercising his mercy among the masses. This is the narrative that people who are confused by the opposing social realities need to hear. We want to show them that in this cold era, human beings can still enjoy the warmth of humanity because of God’s intervention.

In fact, what Jesus Christ brought out in his three and a half years of ministry was a different kind of social reality. He was often caught between pro-Roman and anti-Roman Jews, and his followers included those who took different sides. In the face of such polarization, Jesus chose to proclaim the alternative social reality of the kingdom of heaven: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17). A careful reading of the Gospel accounts reveals that both Jesus’ message and his healing ministry were beyond the imagination of the Old Testament prophets, who were not able to imagine an eternal kingdom of love for both enemies and friends like the one Jesus described.

Jesus said that before his return, wars would continue to rage in the world and humans would be divided: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matt. 24:7). No matter which side people were on, their political views on war all eventually became a thing of the past The focus of Christians should not be blurred in the face of the tidal wave of wars and struggles. Our narrative should be like that of Jesus—the narrative of an alternative heavenly reality. We should pray as Jesus did that the Father’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), and help people see an alternative social reality amid a world in turmoil and a generation divided.

Dr. Samuel Goh holds two master’s degrees in theology and a PhD degree. He pastored a church in Singapore for many years and is currently a lecturer of Old Testament at Brisbane Theological Seminary in Australia.

Translation by Sean Cheng

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