Sacred Places, Sacred People
The Fall 2021 edition of the ACLU Magazine shares an article by Anita Little entitled “Buried Truths.” Little begins by telling the story of Darrell “Soul” Semien, a black man who served fifteen years as a law enforcement officer in Oberlin, Louisiana. At age 55, Semien died from cancer. His widow and family wanted him to be buried in the nearby Oaklin Springs Cemetery. When they inquired to make arrangements, they were in for a shock.
A representative of the cemetery told them that a clause in the burial contract specified that use of the cemetery was restricted to “the right of burial of the remains of white human beings.” The ACLU became involved in the matter and sent a letter to the cemetery board, demanding removal of that contract clause and a revision of the cemetery by-laws, which had been in place for all of the more than seventy years of the cemetery’s existence.
The board acted quickly to remove all race-based restrictions from its contracts, to destroy all previous copies that included the “whites only” covenant and to remove the employee from working with families in such matters. The board president offered the family one of his own plots in the cemetery as part of the reparations. Understandably, the family refused and went elsewhere.
It would be one thing to hear this story as an artifact of some previous generation. This series of events, however, took place in 2021. ACLU officials believe that such hidden covenants and other restrictions still lie buried in documents across the South and across the country. Alanah Odoms, director of the ACLU of Louisiana said, “We suspect this is the tip of the iceberg.”
Supreme Court decisions have rendered race-based covenants unconstitutional over the last seventy years. But that does not mean they are irrelevant. “That this language exists in so many places, even if it’s not enforced,” Little writes, “also acts as a signal, a reminder that this country and its promises were meant for only a select few. Removing these covenants from documents,” she observes, “would be simple, and the lack of organized effort to do so communicates the racism that vigorously thrives beneath the veneer of changed laws.”
Little reviews the history and impact of restrictive covenants on the racial wealth gap in this country. She quotes a 2019 Federal Reserve Board survey that shows median household income for Whites at $188,200, for Latinx families at $36,100, and for Black families at $24,100. This disparity is the result of decades of intentional policies – especially the downstream results of redlining. In Minneapolis, for example, White families are three times as likely to own their homes as Black families.
The actions of the Oaklin Springs cemetery board were not the end of the matter either. Little reports that a white person who has a plot in the cemetery “threated to file a legal complaint stating that with its actions, the ACLU was violating his right to be interred in a whites-only cemetery as per the burial contract he signed.” Of course, the plaintiff claims to be “not-racist.” Instead, he argues “that he has ‘preferences’ that include being ‘laid to rest in a white cemetery.’”
“And again, calling the crowd to himself, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Listen up and get this straight! There is nothing outside of a person which entering into that person is able to defile that person; rather what defiles a person is that which comes out of that person” (Mark 7:14-15, my translation).
The racism of White supremacy uses the external marker of skin tone to identify a group of people as “impure.” That deep, visceral belief in the mythology of Black impurity teaches, justifies, and mandates the desire to have separate cemeteries. This belief is handed from generation to generation and makes White people insane when it comes to something like sharing public swimming pools. Better to close the pools, the mythology says, than to risk being “contaminated.”
The racism of White supremacy is handed on, taught, deepened, expanded, and enforced from generation to generation. It is, in the most literal of terms, a “Tradition of the Elders” which is passed on to our children and grandchildren. It is not in Hebrew or Christian scriptures, no matter what some exegetes might manufacture as evidence. We know when the mythology was invented and why. We can trace its transmission history. We can demonstrate that it is not written into the fabric of biology, sociology, history, or politics.
According to Jesus’ declaration to the crowds, we can render a judgment on who would “defile” the “holy ground” of the Oaklin Springs cemetery by being laid to rest there. It would certainly not be the remains of Darrell Semien. Mr. Semien’s remains would honor that space in light of his of public service.
The remains of the plaintiff coming after the ACLU would be another story. What defiles is what comes out of us – the products of our hearts. The overt racism, the threats of legal violence, the self-deception, the casual deceit, the avarice, and hatred spill out of the report Little offers to us in the plaintiff’s own words. When he is buried in that cemetery, he will certainly defile that holy ground.
I hope this report illustrates just how careful we must be with this “purity” text in our preaching. I think we must take into account and discuss our position of power lest we get into any sort of cultural, political, ethical, or physical redlining.
It’s one thing to be a subject people who are just barely holding on to their identity in the face of a massive, assimilationist empire. To put it in the best light, the Pharisees are trying to keep Israel in one piece and relatively faithful under the domination of just such an imperial system. They may have gotten it backwards, as Jesus points out. They may have used the system to their own advantage (clearly, they did). But they occupy a position as subjects under subjugation.
We dare not put ourselves into the same social position unless we really are in such a position. But White, mainline Christians are not in that position. We are representatives of the exploitive, extractive, imperial system called White Male Supremacy. Unless we come to terms with that difference, our reading of this text will make us dangerous to any and all who are subjugated under that system.
“Purity” in the hands of the oppressor is a highly useful tool to sustain the oppression. That’s one of the downstream effects of the racialized purity system in this country. That’s why it’s worth remembering those restrictive covenants which led to the redlining that produces the current disparities in household wealth, educational opportunities, employment, health outcomes, and home ownership. When we draw lines, we create outsiders who can be exploited.
We rely on external features to determine how the lines are drawn. But, Jesus says, you can’t do that! Those external features don’t defile. Instead, our policies and practices that keep people oppressed based on external features – those things do defile. They come from our avaricious, deceitful, hate-filled, fear-soaked hearts. The system of White Male Supremacy, therefore, defiles everything and everyone it touches.
You might think I’m taking the text too far in this regard, but I don’t think so. “And when they went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable” (Mark 7:17, my translation and emphasis). Jesus’ declaration is a parable, so it’s meant to be interpreted, applied, and expanded. After all, the audience for Mark’s gospel were mostly Gentile Christians. They, too, needed to figure out what this meant for them.
Perhaps the good news here is in the accurate diagnosis Jesus offers. There are no crimes such as “driving while Black,” or “shopping while Black,” or “walking in the park and bird-watching while Black.” Those are made-up things – the traditions of our Elders that we need to abandon. Knowing this can help us to repent and make repairs, the first steps toward real growth.
“We cannot repair the harms that we have not fully diagnosed,” Little quotes Rakim Brooks, senior campaign strategist at the ACLU as saying. “Our history has shown us that it’s not enough to take racist policies off the books,” Brooks asserts, “if we are going to achieve true justice. We need,” he concludes, “systemic solutions.”
Little suggests that we also need the imagination to begin to see what that repentance and repair can look like. Jesus offers a different vision of purity and defilement, one rooted in the human heart. That’s where our imagination is rooted. We can stop looking at the outsides of people and embrace our common humanity as fellow bearers of the Divine Image. And as Little concludes, our imagination needs to encompass the same quality of life for all people, with all sorts of “outsides.”
As I noted in the previous post, the preacher needs to keep this conversation in the context of the upcoming reading. It’s almost as if the writer of Mark’s gospel wants to remind Jesus that talk is cheap. He will immediately have the opportunity to put his principle into action as he encounters the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. I mention that because it’s probably important not to over-promise yet on Jesus’ commitment to inclusion.
We’ve got some work to do next week.
References and Resources
“Cutting Off the Ends of the Ham.” https://www.executiveforum.com/cutting-off-the-ends-of-the-ham/.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
FURSTENBERG, Y. A. I. R. (2008). Defilement Penetrating the Body: A New Understanding of Contamination in Mark 7.15. New Testament Studies, 54(02). https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688508000106.
Jennings, Willie James. The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010.
Kenny, Andrew. “Surprise, Colorado: The guy who sold all those ‘NATIVE’ stickers is a transplant.” https://denverite.com/2018/05/25/surprise-colorado-natives-inventor-beloved-bumper-sticker-utah/.
Little, Anita. “Buried Truths.” ACLU Magazine (Fall, 2021), pages 16-21.
Malbon, E. (1989). The Jewish Leaders in the Gospel of Mark: A Literary Study of Marcan Characterization. Journal of Biblical Literature,108(2), 259-281. doi:10.2307/3267297.
Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd Edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh. Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Oswald, Roy M., and Friedrich, Robert E. Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.