Comments Off on Ostracism

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have the power to vote someone out of your community?

Once, long ago, there was a city where that happened on a regular basis. 

About four centuries before Christ, the citizens of Athens annually scheduled four open-air Assembly meetings where they could debate, discuss, and vote on matters of interest to the city.  Every year, at one of these meetings, the citizens voted on whether to have an ostracism.

If the majority said yes, everyone present took an ostracon (a broken piece of pottery, which was the ancient world equivalent of a scrap of paper) and wrote down the name of the person that they thought the city could most do without.

The name written on the most potsherds was declared to be “ostracized” (almost literally, “You’ve been crack-potted”).  It was a bit like being voted off the island in the reality show Survivor – except in this case it was really reality.  The winner (that is, loser) was banished from Athens for ten years, after which he could return to his property.

Archeologists have found thousands of ostraca that were used in one vote or another, including those in the picture above.  It definitely appears that a fellow named Kallias had rubbed a few people the wrong way.  

Historian Thomas Cahill writes, “In this way, would-be tyrants – and not a few other nuisances – were eliminated.  If at first the primitiveness of this procedure shocks you, consider for a moment what benefits it could bring to your city.”

Ostracism as a civic practice is long gone.  But ostracism as a social dysfunction is alive and well.

Human beings seem to have a never-ending need to declare who’s “in” and who’s “out.”  Through a variety of tactics – shunning, ignoring, walking away, refusing to make eye contact, and the withholding of simple acts of kindness – we ostracize people whom we deem outsiders. 

No vote is actually taken.  But our behavior shouts, “I wish you were anywhere but here for the next 10 years.”

Ostracism was part of the Athenian vision for a healthy community.  But God’s vision for healthy relationships is fundamentally different.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:16, “Live in harmony with each other.  Don’t be proud, but be willing to associate with people ‘on the lower rung.’ Don’t be conceited.”  Then he adds in verse 21, “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In other words, don’t be a passive observer of ostracism that is happening right in front of you. 

Be proactive:  With your words and your behavior, choose to vote an ‘outsider’ back in.

It’s time to acknowledge that, by God’s grace, there’s room for everybody on the island.