When I was a child it was a popular act among boys to become “blood brothers”. I’m not sure where we got the idea (probably from some B grade western movie), but to symbolize our strong friendship we would cut or prick our fingers to draw blood, then press the two wounds together and swear to be friends forever. The idea was that each person’s blood now flowed in the other. We shared the same blood and were therefore “brothers”. It doesn’t happen much these days. Fear of blood borne diseases has made such acts unthinkable except perhaps among some (criminal) gangs. Indeed on the sporting field the “blood rule” requires a player who has a bleeding injury to immediately leave the playing field.
There is a saying that “blood is thicker than water”. It is usually said to indicate that family loyalties will always win over the loyalties of friendship. Some would argue that the modern usage of this saying is the exact opposite of the original usage, which was that “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This means that the loyalties between the friends we choose are stronger than those of the family we happen by chance to have been born into. Bonds formed though common experience and struggle are stronger than those formed by the accident of birth. Regardless of which is the original saying, this interpretation seems to make more sense to me and indeed be vital to building a cohesive community.
Since the early days of white settlement in Australia, survival and success depended upon one’s ability to form friendships with those not from one’s own family. Early settlers (both convict and free) did not have an extended family network to fall back on. The shared experience of hardship and isolation created an ethos of “mateship”. The idea of mateship grows from the necessity of giving and receiving loyalty from people we encounter in work, in war and in the community. The success of a modern society depends on us being able to extend those loyalties across culture, racial and religious barriers. We rightly condemn nepotism in the workplace. A “fair go” means that we are treated on our merits and that others will not be favoured just because they are relatives.
This was important for the early church where becoming a Christian often meant being cut off from one’s family of birth. The bonds of common faith and mission needed to replace those of birth. The Christian community became the new family, where people were born of the spirit not of water (the womb). This can be traced back to Jesus himself, who when he in the midst of teaching and healing was informed that his mother and brothers were outside and presumably he should drop everything and attend to his family obligations, replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Mark 6:33-35)
If Australia is to remain a cohesive society it will be because we continue to find ways of reaching out to the newcomer, the stranger and the outsider. If the church is to have a future it will not be because we all have lots of children. It will be because we too find ways of reaching out and communicating the story of grace and hope to all those seeking meaning and purpose in life.