Discomfort and Dignity
I think the number one reason White Christians give for rejecting anti-racism talk in church is that such discussions will create “divisions.” This is the argument offered in general for keeping “politics” out of the pulpit. But it is made with great conviction when the topic is issues of racial justice and history.
This is the ecclesial version of the argument now driving legislation in a number of states that would outlaw the possibility of making (White) children “uncomfortable.” Let’s not talk about our historic horrors or our current crisis of racial realities. Our children are fine with video games that splatter blood across the screen and active shooter drills that envision the deaths of dozens. But any discussion of our history of White power and the violence associated with it is too much for tender White ears.
Therefore, people who assert that they have no responsibility for past atrocities and are superior in every way cannot deal with the guilt they (we) feel for those atrocities or manage the modest discomfort that such conversations would produce. Come on, folks! You can’t have it both ways. If we’re not responsible, why would it bother us? If we’re so great, why can’t we take it?
The anti-racism book group of which I’m a member is currently reading and discussing Austin Channing Brown’s excellent book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. In that book she writes, “Ultimately, the reason we have not yet told the truth about this history of Black and white America is that telling an ordered history of this nation would mean finally naming America’s commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seeks the absolute control of Black bodies. It would mean,” she continues, “doing something about it” (page 116).
Therefore, in the White church as in other White spaces, we avoid the conversation. We minimize the history. We talk around the issue with pious euphemisms. So, we continue our complicity. “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice,” Brown concludes, “is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort” (page 117).
Jesus distinguishes between the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted, and the rich, full, laughing, and praised. I can imagine some well-intentioned church folks listening to that Sermon on the Plain and becoming increasingly concerned. Why is Jesus drawing these distinctions between people? That will just increase the divisions that already exist. Let’s focus on the positive, the things that bring us together, the things that we can celebrate and upon which we can build.
Why can’t we all just get along?
Those who know this conversation understand that the White Church claims to want “reconciliation.” But that reconciliation is imagined as coming without either repentance or repair. That reconciliation is imagined as a sort of moral and social “reboot,” as if we could all just go to some zero point, pretend that all is in the past with no present consequences, and then to go on with our (White) privileged lives, just as before.
In fact, repentance and repair are the works that make genuine reconciliation even possible. “Denial, it would seem,” writes Jennifer Harvey in Dear White Christians, “makes genuine connection more difficult and actual division thus more likely” (page 237).
The Lukan account of the Sermon on the Plain does not shy away from naming the divisions that mattered in the first-century setting. More than that, the Sermon flips the script on both the plagued and the privileged. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are declared “blessed.” The rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised are warned that their privileged positions are temporary at best. We spent some time on the meaning of the “woes” in a previous post. What do we do with the label, “blessed”?
It should be clear that Jesus is not using a definition most contemporary people would recognize. “Blessed” is most often used these days to describe benefits we have received. Those benefits might be material. They might also be relational and/or spiritual. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that we have received “blessings” from God, who is by nature, The Giver. It’s just that this doesn’t seem to be the meaning used in the Sermon on the Plain.
We who have more than enough benefits might read the text as valorizing poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution. We might be tempted to make the oppressed into “heroes of the faith,” as if in the long run these kinds of privation are good things. I know that I have learned a great deal about being a faithful disciple from people who have very little in the way of “material blessings.” But I don’t get the sense that they are glad to be poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted because of the fringe benefits. Their faith comes in spite of the privation, not because of it.
So, Jesus is not talking about material blessings. Nor is Jesus valorizing privation. Instead, I think, he is offering a counter-narrative of resistance. In the Kin(g)dom of God, the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are blessed in spite of their privation, not as a result of it.
In any situation of oppression, we who are privileged have some options for describing how things got the way they are. One option is to blame the victim(s). That can be done in two ways. We may argue that the victims of oppression are constitutionally inferior to the privileged in some way. The poor and hungry are genetically shiftless and lazy. The weeping should have known enough to dodge their dangers. The persecuted are probably troublemakers who simply get what they deserve.
Aristotle applied this line of thinking to enslavement when he described some people as “natural slaves.” This genetic and biological argument has a long and terrible history in American racism, where the assumption has often been that Black people (and folks of other “colors” as well) are constitutionally inferior to White people and therefore deserve what they get. The logical outcome of this line of thinking is Hitler and Auschwitz, enslavement and lynching.
As we have come to understand the utter lack of a scientific, factual basis for such assertions of biological inferiority, we White people have fallen back to arguments of social inferiority. Poor people have not developed the values of hard work, the skills for organization, the intelligence for management necessary to accumulate and manage wealth. Black people have troubled families, fractured communities, criminal tendencies, and historic social disabilities. That’s why they have so much trouble.
It’s a more sympathetic description, perhaps, but it has the same outcome. If you are poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted, it’s your own damn fault. It’s not up to us privileged folks to fix your problems and to inconvenience ourselves in the process.
In first-century terms, the oppressed are the “dis-honored.” Honor and shame are the chief social currencies in the first-century Mediterranean world. If you are poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted, you are not an honorable person. If you are not an honorable person, then you deserve to be poor, hungry, weeping, or persecuted. It is an elegant exercise in circular logic that makes perfect sense to the rich, full, laughing and praised people who get to be “honorable.”
I want to take a clue from Austin Channing Brown’s work to understand what’s going on here. What if we substitute the word “Dignified” for the word “Blessed” in the Lukan beatitudes? You who are poor are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for yours is the Kin(g)dom of God. You who are hungry now are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for you will be filled. You who weep now are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for you will laugh. You who are persecuted now are dignified (no matter what anyone says), for you are on the side of the prophets.
How can this be? The poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted are not in their situations because they are constitutionally inferior. They are not oppressed because they had the bad judgment to be born into inferior social settings. No – the fault is not with the people. The fault is with the system.
If neither the genetic nor the sociological argument suffices to explain oppression, then the only remaining option is the System. It is the System that keeps the rich, the full, the laughing, and the praised in their positions of privilege, power, and property. It is the System which keeps White Americans safe and comfortable at the expense of everyone else. And it is the System which Jesus subverts and inverts.
Thus, we can be part of the System or part of its subversion. If we are part of the system, then we have been warned. If we are part of its subversion, then we can embrace the dignity we share with all of God’s children and make that shared dignity the basis upon which we connect to one another.
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.