The first thing that happens in our text is that Mary is seen. She steps forward and becomes visible. This is a primary threat to any domination system. Domination systems thrive on the invisibility of the oppressed. “I am invisible, understand,” Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “simply because people refuse to see me” (quoted in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations, page 29).
Invisibility is the product of social segregation and control of public space. Patriarchal systems tend to keep men and women separate, especially in public communal settings. And patriarchal systems give the power of public speech to men while limiting women, for the most part, to private communication behind the scenes. The result is that men do all the talking and acting in public. And men only see and hear men talking and acting in public. Thus, men only have to deal with the talking and acting of other men.
Mary steps forward and makes herself visible and important. I imagine that’s one of the things that pisses off Judas (at least in the report of the Johannine author). Notice that he doesn’t even acknowledge Mary’s presence as a person. He addresses the perfume rather than the person. It is Jesus who refers to Mary as a person – with three pronouns in two sentences. Jesus sees Mary. He does not collude in the continuing system to render her invisible.
“The inhabitants of White Christian America don’t understand why African Americans were so angrily protesting in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore,” Robert P. Jones writes in The End of White Christian America, “because their communities and experiences are insulated from many of the problems facing black Americans.” We White Americans have small sympathy for our Black neighbors primarily because they are not our Black neighbors. I am a personal case study in the point Jones makes – at least in terms of my personal and social core networks.
“White Americans’ notions of race and fairness are shaped by their everyday experiences (already very different from those of African Americans),” Jones continues, “which are then reinforced by interactions with neighbors and friends. And these core social networks,” Jones observes, “the space where meaning is welded on to experience – tend to be extremely segregated” (page 160).
How does this social segregation function? It serves to keep the lives of Black people invisible to White people. It serves to sustain the White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort that are essential to the White experience of social reality. As long as we cannot see the lives of Black people, we White people can go about our daily business with not a thought about those lives or the system in place that privileges us with power, position, and property — at the expense of those we choose not to see.
Where are the primary places that invisibility can be dismantled, and White core social networks can be made part of the real world where color is the majority? One of those places is the public schools. “One of the important purposes of public schools, beyond their educational mission,” Jones writes, “is to bring together American children – and, more indirectly, their parents – across race and class lines” (page 161).
If the function of separation is to sustain the invisibility of the oppressed, it is no wonder that public schools have been and continue to be some of the frontlines in the battles regarding race. The history of public education before and after Brown v. Board of Education is clear and well-documented. With the advent of court-ordered desegregation, a boom began in the founding and support of private schools.
These schools were and are primarily for White, relatively affluent, children. And these schools were, and are, primarily owned and managed in the United States by Christian congregations and institutions. Battles are fought over school “choice” these days, regarding funding and vouchers. The real function of these battles is to sustain the Black and Brown and Indigenous invisibility necessary to sustain White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort.
It’s clear in our text that Judas would have been more comfortable had Mary remained silent and in the shadows. The cocoon of male privilege would have remained intact. And thoughts about his own pilfering the common purse might not have been so much at the front of the Johannine author’s mind. Mary may have soothed Jesus’ feet with the expensive ointment, but she made Judas twitchy and irritable, to say the least.
One of the functions of the invisibility of the oppressed is to sustain the blissful ignorance and blithe comfort of the privileged. This is, of course, the social function of state laws that would prohibit the teaching of history that risks making White people uncomfortable. As Robin DiAngelo reminds us, White discomfort is not trauma. It is discomfort. Bringing the truth to light – whether it is Judas’ thievery or White oppression – should be uncomfortable. The discomfort means that the truth is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
As I’ve noted before, this anointing story appears in various forms in all four canonical gospels. Scholars debate the relationships between those four accounts, and we may get to some of that debate before the end of the week. Regardless of how these texts are related, seeing the woman is a feature in each and all of them. In the Lukan version (Luke 7:36-50), the meal takes place in the home of Simon, the Pharisee. I am always arrested by one sentence from Jesus – “Are you seeing this woman?” (Luke 7:44b, my translation).
It’s clear that Simon is not seeing that woman. Judas is not seeing Mary. The function of the not seeing is to sustain the existing power structure. The function of the not seeing is to keep the theft and oppression hidden along with the woman. Jesus is not having it.
Perhaps, the community of Jesus is the place to be seen and to see. Just as Jesus sees Mary – her gratitude and gift, her hurt and her heart – so we proclaim that Jesus sees us. Not only does Jesus see us as we are and love us nonetheless, but Jesus also sees us as the fully flourishing human beings God has created and imaged us to be. What a joy and privilege it is to see ourselves as Jesus sees us! I wonder if that is the real gift he gives Mary at that dinner table?
The community of Jesus is also the place to see – to see others as Jesus sees others. We cannot do that, however, if we insist that others remain invisible. “From the very beginning,” Kwon and Thompson write, “American culture was rooted in and dependent on an inviolable form of racial distance between White Europeans and the Africans they enslaved. Over time,” they continue, “as Americans chose to become more dependent on slave labor, this division was formalized into highly choreographed rituals of intimacy and distance that characterized the system of slavery that persisted in American from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century” (pages 35-36).
That system of intimacy and distance was reformatted into Jim Crow segregation. That legal and institutional separation continues to persist in the de facto segregation of American life even as the de jure segregation no longer exists. My life is White. My core social network is White. My neighborhood is (mostly) White. My social media feed is White. My church is White – locally, regionally, and denominationally. I continue to collude in the system of invisibility designed for my supremacy, innocence, and comfort.
The most direct action I can take is to seek out settings where White is not the definition of right or might. I know that is the action required of me. It goes against all of the comfort I treasure and hoard to myself. Putting myself in places where I will be uncomfortable, where I will rightly be regarded with initial suspicion, where I will make mistakes and be foolish – that’s not the whole answer to the problems of racism in the world around me. But it’s one thing I can do.
And I wonder to what degree I can help and be helped by the congregation of which I am a member. I’m part of a denomination that has lots of good anti-racism statements and policies. And those statements and policies are clearly breaking down repeatedly in application and practice. Just as voting rights and fair housing legislation have not changed the behavior of millions of White Americans, so denominational pronouncements have not changed the behavior of thousands of Lutherans
But I’m part of a congregation where we do work to make the hidden visible in many ways. I’m hopeful that my church can be a resource in opening doors to new relationships and networks. But I dare not wait for that to happen and then just go along for the ride.
Perhaps the hardest part of this conversation is that I must admit and grapple with the fact that I am seen by others every day – just as I am. No matter how I deceive and delude myself about my own awareness of oppression, I have to come to terms with the reality that others will see me as I am, in my failings and brokenness, my privilege and posturing, my unwillingness to take risks and get it all wrong. Lord, I hate to be seen for who I am under the best of circumstances. But that’s nothing compared to what needs to happen for me to grow further.
I don’t know if any of this will preach on Sunday. But it certainly reaches out of our text and grabs me by the throat today.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2012): 281-297.
Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.
Coakley, J. F. “The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 2 (1988): 241–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267698.
Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. Kindle Edition.
Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
Kwon, Duke L., and Thompson, Gregory. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2021.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
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