Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Four)

“Who, then, is my neighbor?” It is such a deceptively simple question. But let’s think about it together. I can read that question from a demographic perspective. Who are the people with which I live in proximity? I live in what was originally a first-ring suburb, a White-flight destination. But that reality is two generations past.

Now, I live in a neighborhood with a small amount of racial and ethnic diversity in the single-family homes. I live next to an apartment complex with a much higher amount of racial, economic, linguistic, ethnic, and age diversity. Our property is one of only a few in the neighborhood that actually touches both the single-family properties and the multi-unit property. Most of my single-family neighbors do not regard the apartment people as their neighbors, although we do.

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I’m wondering how even that geographic proximity affects our perceptions. Most of my single-family neighbors regard the children of the apartment dwellers as interlopers and potential threats. They monitor those children (mostly BIPOC folks) with suspicion and tend to ascribe anything negative in the neighborhood as their fault. We don’t see those kids the same way and have come to know some of them a bit. They are our neighbors.

Who, then, is my neighbor? Is that a question of definition? Perhaps the lawyer remembers that “neighbors” in the Leviticus 19:18 text are Israelites, not “foreigners.” I think at least some of my physical neighbors believe that their neighbors are supposed to be white, middle-class, native-born Americans who own their houses, pay their taxes, and have nice lawns. Those who fall outside such parameters don’t qualify for the “neighbor” label.

This takes us to a third way of hearing and reading the question. Who should be my neighbor? Arland Hultgren argues that this is the real nub of the conversation in our text. He writes that “the thrust of the story and the follow-up question of Jesus expose the initial question for what it is, namely an attempt to classify people into two groups: those who are the neighbors whom I am to love, thereby keeping the love commandment, and those who are beyond my circle of concern” (page 75).

Hultgren argues that “making that distinction is wrong.” The issue is not about defining “neighbor” in order to determine who’s in and who’s out. “One’s concern should be,” he concludes, “How can I be a neighbor to anyone in need?” (page 75). As you know from my previous post, I’m not sure that’s how the rhetoric of the text actually works out. But the outcome is virtually the same.

Jesus followers shall not allow the boundaries of human enmity to determine the scope of neighbor love. God does not allow the boundaries of enmity between God and sin to determine the scope of God’s love. In fact, God’s love renders those boundaries null and void. For God, the boundaries of enmity are not removed in order for neighbor love to cross. Instead, neighbor love crosses those boundaries, and in the crossing dismantles them.

Here’s how I would put it in theological terms. Grace is the source of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the precondition for grace. The Samaritan comes as neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers. The Samaritan continues that neighborliness to the end. Will the man be changed by that encounter and see the Samaritan now as neighbor?

Like most interpreters and preachers, Hultgren reads the text as a story about the call to help others in need. “How far am I obligated as a Christian,” Hultgren asks, “to help another who is in need” (page 75). The story and our reflections will get us to that question, I agree. But that’s not the first stop on the rhetorical journey. Will I risk accepting help from, being vulnerable to, being naked and alone with one who is by historical definition and social convention, the Enemy? Can I endure the danger of allowing grace to come ahead of guarantees?

The Samaritan is the “hero” of the story – if a hero is to be found. We who are part of the dominant culture in America always want to identify with the hero. Entertainment media has complied with that desire by making our historical heroes White like us. I’d refer you to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s work in Jesus and John Wayne for the straight scoop in that regard. We press the Samaritan into that mold and assume that somehow, he is just like us.

But the Samaritan is not like a White, privileged, powerful, and propertied American. And I can’t make him to be so. This Samaritan is the Enemy, the Outsider, the Half-Breed, the Traitor, the Heretic, and so much more – at least to first-century Jews. The character we can identify with is the man in the ditch – likely a Jew heading home after faithfully practicing his faith in the Jerusalem temple. This is a man of at least some privilege, power, property, and position.

Hultgren proposes a sort of “color-blind” sensibility for the Samaritan in the story. “The Samaritan crosses over religious and ethnic boundaries, and the fact that Jesus includes that feature within the parable makes it a crucial point,” Hultgren argues. “The Samaritan provides an example of one who does good to another person in need with any regard for religion or ethnicity. Authentic love,” he concludes, “pays no attention to religious, ethnic, or culture differences when need is present” (pages 76-77).

The Samaritan crosses those boundaries in the story. But there is no reason within the story to think that the Samaritan is anything but painfully aware of those boundaries. Only those with privilege and power can be oblivious to such boundaries. The Samaritan saves the man in the ditch in spite of those boundaries, not because they have now become somehow invisible or irrelevant. Love in action is always specific and incarnate. The Samaritan didn’t stop being a Samaritan. The Jew didn’t stop being a Jew.

I note this because Hultgren’s reasoning leads him to minimize the realities of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries in the works of neighbor love. Such boundaries “are simply there,” he writes. “But there is a perennial tendency, faced by each generation,” he concludes, “to make the distinctions more important than they are” (page 77). The real result of this way of thinking will not be more vocal neighbor love. The result is the continuing culture of oppressive silence when it comes to dealing with such boundaries.

Expanding the boundaries of our own neighborhoods of active care is a critical part of following Jesus in contemporary America. I agree wholeheartedly with Hultgren in that regard. But that focus leaves the powerful in positions of power. We are the ones who do the healing and helping, the soothing and saving. We are still the heroes, and control of the system still belongs to us (White people). Opening ourselves to the care of the Other – that’s even harder to do.

In my anti-racism book study, we’ve launched into a discussion of the twentieth anniversary edition of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Our conversation led us to reflect on the sources and causes of the generalized White fear of Black people. While the sources and causes are, to coin a phrase, legion, one of our members spoke with candor about a particular cause for the fear.

A significant expression of White fear, our friend noted, is the expectation that Black people will, given sufficient power and resources, at some point retaliate for the violence, oppression, injustice, hatred, and theft they have experienced at the hands of White people over the last four hundred years. After all, that is probably how White people would generally respond if the roles were reversed, right? The historical data is all too clear in that regard.

In this understanding, supported by studies, journalism, and other documentation, Whites and Blacks regard one another as enemies rather than as neighbors. At least some White people do not trust Black people to act with civility and restraint, given half a chance to act otherwise. Our mythology is that Black men are beasts who want our women and our money. Therefore, White fear leads to continued structures and systems of restraint and oppression directed toward Black people.

At the very least, White people continue to resist having Black people as actual neighbors in actual neighborhoods in actual villages, towns, and cities in the United States. That’s an interesting lens through which to read our text. We can ask it first of all, not as a theological question, but perhaps as a demographic and sociological question. In fact, where I live, who is my neighbor? And how does that impact how I live as a daily disciple?

More than that, will I as a White person risk being vulnerable enough to engage in relationships with those “unlike” me? Will I risk the possibility that I might say or do something hurtful to a BIPOC friend, colleague or associate and then have to ask forgiveness and receive correction? Or will I remain, as Robin D’Angelo puts it, a “nice racist”? Am I willing to lay naked and alone, hurting and vulnerable along the road and trust that a potential “enemy” could be my neighbor? I think that’s what we’re called to “go and do likewise.”

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Two)

I referred in the previous post to Dr. King’s use of the parable in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech of April 3, 1968. The speech was delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before Dr. King was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In that speech, he makes a brief but pointed reference to the parable. He draws a simple distinction between the first two travelers in the parable and the third, the Samaritan. The first two, Dr. King notes, asked (and I paraphrase), “If I stop, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asks, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to him?”

Dr. King connects that question to his presence with and for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. “That’s the question before you tonight,” King said, “Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question,” Dr. King concluded.

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That’s an important and compelling framing of the central question in the text. However, I’m not sure it is quite the focus of the parable as presented in the Lukan account. As Matt Skinner notes in the current SermonBrainwave podcast, perhaps the question is different. Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who, then, was neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The question is more about what it means to be neighbor than it is about what happened to the man. Perhaps, as Skinner suggests, the question is, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to me?”

In practical terms, if I don’t stop, nothing is going to happen to me. I’ll just go on my merry way. But if I have any compassion at all, I will take that beaten and bloodied man with me. And I will find myself to be less of a human being than I was before. That, I think, is what will happen to me.

As we travel to Sunday worship, we pass the same man on a street corner each week. He appears to be unhoused and with few resources. He has a hand-lettered sign and a few belongings in a pile along the street. He creates a new sign each week. It is always some variation of “Need help. All gifts appreciated.” When the stoplight at the corner is red, or there is no traffic behind us when it is green, we hand the man five or ten dollars. He always responds with a loud and clear “Thank you!”

I am blessed to share my life with a generous, compassionate, and loving spouse. She plans ahead to make sure we have some cash to share with the man alongside the street. We often don’t carry much cash these days, so it takes just a bit of foresight and effort to be prepared to respond. But that’s the smallest of efforts. And it is her effort, not mine, usually.

If the interaction happens to come up in a conversation, someone is certain to suggest that the money will go for alcohol, drugs, or both. Perhaps, some would argue, we are “wasting our money.” Worse yet, we may even be enabling bad or self-destructive behavior on the part of the man. Worst of all, in the eyes of some, we are naïve simpletons, conned by another scam artist happy to separate us fools from our folding money.

Any or all of those things may be true. I don’t wish to minimize or dismiss those concerns. I wonder and worry about those things as well. In addition, I grew up in a home where cash was scarce, and bills were omnipresent threats. I often feel anxious when I hand money over to someone else. What will happen to me if and when I don’t have enough? Perhaps I will compete with the Sunday man for that prime bit of panhandling property.

Of course, that’s not going to happen (at least it is highly unlikely). Yet, the anxiety is often there. If I give him some money, what will happen to me? But if I don’t, what sort of person will I become?

If that’s the question (and I think it’s one of them, anyway), then, for example, we don’t have to worry about the motivations and rationales that caused the priest and the Levite to “pass by on the other side.” In the story, we can assume that they each had rationales that made good sense to them at the moment. We can charitably believe that they made the best decisions they could at the time. But what did they think of themselves later?

If and when I pass by on the other side, I become a little more selfish and a little less compassionate. The Sunday man in my life isn’t beaten and bloodied, half-dead by the side of the road. For all I know, he lives as well as I do (but I don’t think so). But if I pass him by, I leave behind a bit of my humanity there with him. If I do that often enough, I’m not sure how much humanity I will have left at some point. If I pass by on the other side, I fear that’s what will happen to me.

You might think this sounds self-interested in the extreme. I don’t mean it to be that way. I don’t think I respond to the Sunday man simply to get a boost to my ego or additional raw material for my delusions of grandeur. Instead, I’m trying to reflect on the outcome of my actions, not the reason for them. Turning down the chance to act with compassion ends up making me less authentically human than I was before. Do that enough times, and I may cease to inhabit this existence as anything resembling the creature God has made me to be.

Who turned out to be neighbor to the man by the side of the road? The one who showed him mercy. The man who fell among robbers was raised up to live again. The man who turned aside in compassion and care was raised up to live more fully. Jesus tells the lawyer to get out there and do the same thing—to live as the compassionate caregiver God created him to be.

This perspective on the text makes me think about what it means to be an ally and an accomplice in the ongoing struggles against racist behavior in myself, in our Church, and in our American society. I can become clear about the results of our racist system for BIPOC folks. The life-draining disparities in educational, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment, wealth, and political resources between White people and BIPOC folks is well-documented, even when vociferously denied or studiously ignored.

Our racist system has left people literally and figuratively lying by the side of the road – beaten, bloodied and half-dead – for four hundred years.

Some people have been left fully dead. The differential treatment by law enforcement of Jayland Walker and Robert Crimo screams out the realities of what we do to BIPOC folks through our law enforcement systems. The airwaves are filled with White voices that seek to vociferously deny or studiously ignore that deadly disparity as well. If we “pass by on the other side,” we can be clear about what that means for BIPOC folks in America.

But what does it mean for us, who are White and privileged and powerful? It means that we must make ourselves less than fully human beings. At the very least, we must segregate all reminders of such suffering and lock away those reminders behind massive doors of denial. If we are to pass by on the other side, we must spend large amounts of energy and effort pretending not to see anything or anyone at all. That’s one of the reasons we White people continue to live in racially isolated and heterogeneous neighborhoods. The only neighbors we can stand to see are those who, like us, benefit daily from the systemic carnage that racism perpetrates.

We are left anxious and afraid. We are left outraged and offended. We are left vicious and violent. We become liars about our own history and looters of the histories and cultures of others. And when someone challenges our White goodness and innocence, we become all the more enraged that someone would dare to name the reality we spend so much of ourselves to suppress.

If I pass by on the other side of the road in this oppressive, racist system, what will I become? A hollow man. An amoral shell. A performance of whiteness because I have no authentic self out of which to live. That’s what will happen to me. I become incapable of loving God and loving neighbor. And I become incapable even of loving myself.

We don’t know how the lawyer responds in the end. How will we?

References and Resources

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Four)

Researchers call it the “Last Place Aversion.” Why do people those near the bottom of any social status pyramid treat those beneath them badly? Why do people in low-income groups vote against their self-interest and support systems of inequality? Philosophers and historians have known about this human tendency for centuries. But the explanations offered have not been very convincing.

Until recently. In 2014 researchers[i] suggested that we humans really hate being in “last place.” We will even act against our self-interest if that keeps us out of the bottom of the heap. Nothing makes us happier than having a group or class to look down on. As we move up in status, last place anxiety decreases. As we move down in status, it increases.

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In one set of experiments, people were given random dollar amounts. Then the experimenters showed them where they landed on the dollar hierarchy. Each subject then chose one of two strategies. One strategy gives the player more money as almost a sure thing. The other strategy is higher risk but gives the player the chance to move up in the hierarchy.

All the players chose the almost sure thing except for the bottom two. The last-place player wants to move up. The second-to-the-last place player wants to keep from moving down. Both players are willing to tolerate higher risk than average. The one hates being in last place. The other hates the thought of being in last place.

Last place aversion.

Another experiment is a money-transfer game. The players get random amounts of money. Each player has one dollar less than the next highest and one dollar more than the next lowest. Everyone knows their place on the money ladder. Players receive two dollars more. Each player has to give their extra two dollars either to the person directly above them or directly below them on the money ladder.

If I give the two dollars to the person above me, that person will move higher on the ladder (except for the top person). If I give two dollars to the person below me, I fall one place on the ladder. On average, players offer up or down at about the same rate regardless of position.

That’s true except for one person on the ladder. Can you guess which one? That’s right. The second-to-the-last person almost never gives two dollars to the last place person.

Last place aversion.

Of course, you might say, those are games played by undergraduates in psychology programs. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? Think about people in favor of or against raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center did surveys to see which lower income group was more likely to oppose increasing the minimum wage. Which group do you imagine was more likely to oppose that increase? You guessed it. Those people being paid just above minimum wage.

Last place aversion.

Well, Pastor, you may say, that’s mildly interesting. But what’s it got to do with anything here today? I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus turns decisively toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. On the way, Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria. Samaria was the territory between Jesus’ homeland of Galilee in the north and Judea, the location of Jerusalem in the south. Jews regarded the Samaritans as half-breed heretics and traitors. They intermarried with conquerors over the centuries. And they worshiped at a temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were regarded by many Jews as the lowest of the low. The urgency of Jesus’ mission is underscored by the fact that he passes through Samaria.

It was ancient tradition that local folks, regardless of their background, would offer hospitality to travelers. In the first village they come across, Jesus’ followers are rejected and refused.

James and John regard the rebuff as the highest possible insult. I can imagine something like this going through their minds. “We may be hicks from the Galilean boonies and backwaters. But at least we’re not those damned Samaritans!” I’m not swearing here. At least some Jews were sure that Samaritans were cursed by God.

Now we get to one of the awful parts of the text. “Lord,” James and John ask, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” We don’t have to put up with such treatment from those low-lifes. If we do, those bottom feeders will be one up on us. And we can’t let that happen.

Last place aversion.

That psychological reality is written into the fabric of the New Testament. You may not know it, but it is written into the fabric of American history as well.

In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against wealthy landowners in the colony of Virginia. Late in the rebellion, as things weren’t going well, Bacon offered the promise of freedom to white and black indentured servants and Native Americans if they would fight on his side. More than seventy men of all colors took him up on the promise.

In the end, Bacon’s forces lost, and Bacon died from typhus fever. But the wealthy white men learned a powerful lesson. If all the folks at the bottom ever joined forces, they could overthrow the ladder of privilege that kept them all in their place.

The wealthy folks separated out the poor whites from the Blacks and Native Americans. They offered the poor whites legal, economic, and social privileges. The price of those privileges was cooperation in enslaving the Blacks and the Native Americans.

The historian, James Rice, described the situation like this. The alliance of rich and poor Whites “forced Indians and Africans to shoulder the burden of resolving the tensions and divisions within white colonial society.”[ii] Clyde Ford says that “liberty and equality are possible for the privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation,” Ford concludes, “is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.”[iii]

Last place aversion.

This is very odd for us who follow Jesus. Just a few verses before our text, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest. They may all have felt superior to the accursed Samaritans, but there was still the matter of their internal pecking order.

Jesus puts a child on the seat beside him. “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells the disputing disciples in Luke 9:48, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

For the least among you is the greatest. We’re Last Place Lovers. That’s the discipleship standard. And it’s one of the things that makes us Jesus followers so weird. But how in the world can it be true?

If there’s anything we can say about the God we meet in Jesus, it’s this. You are first in God’s heart. So am I. So is every bit of this beloved Creation. There’s no point in trying to protect my place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus already has that covered.

That’s the good news for today. Last Place Aversion is a waste of time. We’re Last Place Lovers, because we’re all first place with God. So, James and John, the only heavenly fire you’ll get is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That fire calls people of every time and place into God’s beloved family. And in that family, everyone is in first place.

What does this mean for us? I’ll make a few brief suggestions. When I’m worried about my spot on the ladder, I’m getting this Jesus-following thing wrong. The Spirit helps me let go of that worry every day.

Whenever we get the chance to dismantle and demolish human hierarchies, we Jesus followers should be part of that work. These are the things that Paul calls the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I’m thinking about racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism for starters. We live in a time when some folks want to put all the old hierarchies back in place. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Whenever I get the chance to lift up anyone in a last place, I need to jump at the chance. That’s what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. I pray that you and I can be bear that fruit fully and daily. Amen.


[i] “LAST-PLACE AVERSION”: EVIDENCE AND REDISTRIBUTIVE IMPLICATIONS. Ilyana Kuziemko Ryan W. Buell Taly Reich Michael I. Norton. Working Paper 17234. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17234. NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 July 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Clyde W. Ford, Of Blood and Sweat, page 117.

[iii] Ibid.

Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022

If there is any historical moment that demands some homiletical work on the ethnic diversity in Acts 2, this is the time. The “Great Replacement Theory” of White Supremacy is in the headlines. States continue to pass laws banning the discussion of racism as a central feature of American history under the façade of opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory. White Christian Nationalism is no longer a construction of the lunatic fringe, hiding in the intellectual and informational shadows. It is now a talking point for a number of local, state, and federal candidates for elected office.

These ideas are embodied in individual and institutional lives, and on the basis of these ideas, people are being murdered.

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We all know that we prefer to gather with people “like us.” That’s been demonstrated in numerous psychological and sociological experiments and studies. The “us” that we are “like” is a socially constructed reality. Race, class, gender, generation, national origin, political affiliation, and other differences are things that at some point did not exist as they are now. Therefore, these realities were created, not discovered. What can be made can be unmade as well, even if that unmaking is difficult.

We prefer to gather with people “like us” especially when that gathering supports and enhances our self-interest. We tend to gather in ways that promote our power and privilege. Then we tell stories to account for the “like” and “unlike” we have constructed – stories that root our power and privilege either in our natural superiority, the natural inferiority of the “unlikes,” and/or some combination of both. The historic construction of Whiteness in the Enlightenment era West is a textbook example of the formation of such a story.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 is all about embracing and celebrating our God-created differences. It is a text that rejoices in all the “unlikes” who hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Temple that day. I would encourage you to read and reflect on Eric Barreto’s article at enterthebible.org as you prepare for this Sunday. I want to engage in a bit of that reflection here as well.

“Too often, Christians have hoped for a time when our differences would cease,” Barreto writes, “when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses,” he argues, “are earnest but fundamentally misguided.” I’m not so sure about the “earnest but misguided” piece.

I have served my entire adult life in a denomination which has expressed that hope for the disappearance of differences in a variety of ways. There was a time when my denomination aspired to have one in ten of its members to be BIPOC (although the term wasn’t current thirty-five years ago). What we should have known and only gradually admitted was that this was an assimilationist and colonialist strategy.

The ten percent solution, if it had come to pass, would have provided an ideological salve to the consciences of White Lutherans who knew that our segregationist history and practices were contrary to the inclusive nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This solution would have been just enough “diversity” to meet our institutional needs but not enough to bring about even a small bit of transformation.

An incarnation of this Whiteness protection strategy was the effort to launch and plant ethnic-focused ELCA congregations in communities of color. These projects were required to conform to the standards of the White power structure of the denomination and to operate according to the neoliberal economic model of financial self-sufficiency within three years (or else). Those congregations formed in economically oppressed communities that could not meet the financial independence standard were either shuttered or regarded as embarrassing liabilities.

I write this as one who has participated in efforts to achieve the ten percent solution personally and institutionally. As a denomination, we now know better – at least in theory. We would be well-served to make financial and institutional reparations to those communities which we sought to exploit for our own emotions and ends.

I could rehearse much more history regarding our failed and disingenuous efforts at racial “reconciliation,” diversity training, additional efforts at institutional representation, corporate repentance and apology, and shared leadership. These efforts have not all failed or been unconsciously cynical ploys to make our White selves feel better. There has been some good mixed in, but on balance we have failed as a denomination, judicatories, congregations, and individual White believers.

Barreto encourages us to allow Pentecost to “help us think differently about difference.” We humans prefer to gather with people “like us.” But the mania for monoculture is a mark of sin, not a sign of the coming Reign of God. “Simply, diversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world,” Barreto writes. “At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences,” he continues, “but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.”

Barreto disputes the reading of Acts 2 that regards the event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11. He argues that such a connection misreads what happened in Genesis. The “confusion” of languages was not a punishment for the arrogance of the Tower builders. “Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures?” Barreto asks. “That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so,” he continues, “and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.”

In fact, the gift of the multiple languages in Genesis 11 protects the Tower builders from themselves and their own hubris in seeking to become like God and to take heaven by storm. This is the conclusion of the Primeval history that began in Genesis 2, when the man and the woman, desiring to be like God, took the fruit and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the uniformity of language and the collective arrogance that uniformity facilitated which was the danger in this text.

Difference is not only good (indeed, it is). It is a way that God saves us from ourselves, from our sinful desire to create a god in our image rather than to live as those created in the image of God.

Barreto asks an important exegetical question. If, in fact, Pentecost reversed Babel by undoing the multiplicity of human languages, why then did the listeners in the Temple hear the gospel, each in their own languages? And, I would add, why is that diversity of ethno-linguistic groups so lovingly detailed in the text if the purpose is to wipe out that diversity? “Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language?” Barreto asks.

His answer is worth quoting. “Perhaps because the writer of Acts does not understand Babel to be a punishment God inflicted upon us. Perhaps because Acts understands Babel as an expression of God’s greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment. Perhaps because Acts understands God’s commitments to our differences” (my emphasis added).

I like that phrase, “God’s commitments to our differences.” If God preferred to gather with those “like God,” then God would spend eternity enjoying the diversity of the Triune community. God must like diversity, otherness, difference. Otherwise, there would not have been a Creation. No finite creature can be “like God” in any substantive way. We can and do reflect the image and likeness of God, as human beings. And, miracle of miracles, we each do it in a different way!

Therefore, we humans would most fully reflect the image and likeness of God by gathering with people who are not “like us.” I cannot reflect the image and likeness of God by myself. I can only do so in the company of others who are not me and not like me. Yet, we White Christians continue to gather in our segregated congregations and to act as if it’s all good.

“I think this is one of the most powerful messages of white supremacy,” Robin DiAngelo writes in Nice Racism, “there is no inherent loss in leading a segregated life.” I can live my entire White life with no significant interaction with BIPOC people. And I can live that way under the impression that nothing is missing or deficient. “Most white people will go from cradle to grave with few if any authentic sustained cross-racial relationships with Black people,” DiAngelo continues, “and not see that anything of value is missing” (page 83, my emphasis).

I can only plead guilty as charged and work now to do better because I know better. I’m not doing very well, and neither is my denomination.

“Lots of Christians hope to transcend ethnic division by erasing ethnicity,” Greg Cary writes in his online comments for The Christian Century. “’I don’t see color,’ some will say. But Acts sees in color and values ethnic difference,” Cary continues. “Acts imagines unity that embraces diversity rather than bleaching it out. The miracle of Pentecost is not that one language brings everyone together. It is not that everyone learns English Aramaic,” Cary concludes. “It is that all the people hear the gospel in their own languages.”

The texts for the Day of Pentecost and for the Sundays following will offer the opportunity for sustained reflection on God’s delight in difference and our calling to embody and enact that delight as followers of Jesus. I will seek to lift up those opportunities, and I hope you will partner in that effort.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin. Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2021.

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Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Six)

In the resurrection, what color will I be?

In a guest op-ed in the April 15th edition of The New York Times, Esau McCaulley reflected on “What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans Like Me.” McCaulley is the award-winning author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. I have recommended McCaulley’s book in previous posts and am happy to do so yet again. I encourage you to read the op-ed piece as well – in part because it has generated some surprising pushback.

McCaulley studied with N. T. Wright, and that salutary influence shows through his essay. “Christians believe that our bodies will be resurrected from the dead to live in this transformed earth,” he writes. “Like the earth itself, these bodies will be transfigured or perfected,” McCaulley continues, “but they will still be our bodies.” This means, of course, that McCaulley expects his resurrected body to be Black, just as Jesus’ resurrected body was scarred.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

“The body that God raised was the same body that was on the cross,” McCaulley writes. The disciples, with some difficulties, recognized Jesus as the Lord who had led them to Jerusalem. They talked with him and shared meals. “His body was transformed and healed,” McCaulley observes, “but it still had the wounds from his crucifixion. There was,” he suggests, “continuity and discontinuity with the person they knew.”

So far, so good. McCaulley draws out the implications that we Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus has for our resurrections. As Paul notes, Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection. We Christians believe that what God did for Jesus, he will do for us (and, I would add, for all of Creation). Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste, the preview, the down payment (again to use Pauline language) on the resurrection for all at the end of the age. But what will we look like in that resurrection?

“Will we all receive the six-packs of our dreams? Will we revert to the bodies we had in our 20s?” McCaulley teases. Then he gets serious again. “I do not find these questions that intriguing. What is compelling to me,” he declares, “is the clear teaching that our ethnicities are not wiped away at the resurrection. Jesus was raised with his brown, Middle Eastern, Jewish body. When my body is raised,” McCaulley concludes, “it will be a Black body. One that is honored alongside bodies of every hue and color.”

He argues that this continuity of color will be “the definitive rejection of all forms of racism.” Now we come to the punchline and payoff in McCaulley’s essay. “At the end of the Christian story,” he proclaims, “I am not saved from my Blackness. It is rendered everlasting. Our bodies, liberated and transfigured but still Black,” he asserts, “will be the eternal testimony to our worth.”

McCaulley has landed poignantly and powerfully on one of the reasons orthodox Christians have historically confessed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” In its fullness, the Christian faith is a body-delighting creed rather than a body-denying or body-disdaining creed. As McCaulley notes, this matters for Black believers who live with a history of Black bodies as locations of terror and torture, conquest and contempt, looting and lynching.

“The question,” McCaulley writes, “’What will God do about the disinherited and ripped apart bodies of the world?’ can be seen as a central question of religion. Either give me a bodily resurrection,” he demands, “or God must step aside. [Such a God] is of no use to us.” He argues that unless our God restores bodies that have been treated as though they don’t matter, then violent mobs and cruel diseases have taken something that even God cannot restore. McCaulley is not interested in such a God. Neither am I.

McCaulley knows that Christian hope is always Resurrection hope. We who follow the risen Lord Jesus have no other source or ground for our hope. He reports that he is often asked about what gives him the hope to go on in the face of the evil he sees in the world. “I find encouragement in a set of images more powerful than the photos, videos, and funerals chronicling Black death,” he writes, “the vision of all those Black bodies who trusted in God called back to life, free to laugh, dance, and sing. Not in a disembodied spiritual state in some heavenly afterlife,” McCaulley continues, “but in this world remade by the power of God.”

“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Touch my body, Thomas, and see what is really happening. In that touch, you can release your unbelief and come to trust what you hold in your hands. “If Christianity is mere method, a way of approaching reality, then it is inadequate,” McCaulley writes in Reading While Black, “but if Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, then the world is a different place even when I do not experience it as such” (page 134).

The Good News of the Resurrection is that God’s future fulfillment of Creation, God’s restoration of all things, has come to meet us in the present. If, for example, Black people will be raised to new life in their Black bodies, then our belief in the Resurrection requires us to treat them as full members of the body of Christ and full bearers of the image and likeness of God in the here and now. If setting things right is the reality of the Resurrection in the end, then the work of setting things right is the task of Resurrection faith in the here and now.

“Without the resurrection,” McCaulley writes in his book, “the forgiveness embedded in the cross is the wistful dream of a pious fool. But I am convinced,” he continues, “that the Messiah has defeated death. I can forgive my enemies because I believe the resurrection has happened.” In the Johannine account, that resurrection power, the power to bring life out of inanimate clay, is breathed into the disciples. “Belief in the resurrection,” McCaulley declares, “requires us to believe that nothing is impossible” (page 134).

There was a time when White Christian theologians and preachers believed that Black individuals were subhuman and therefore not subject to what was imagined as a humans-only resurrection. This, of course, is the only position that can affirm the rightness of Black chattel slavery and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Those White Christian theologians understood that if Black bodies could be resurrected at the end of the age, they could not be enslaved in the middle of time.

Most White people these days know, at least intellectually, that Black people cannot be regarded as less than fully human. Yet individual, institutional, social, and cultural behaviors and norms continue to regard Black people as less valuable than other human beings in the realities of daily life. We need only to look at differential health outcomes, educational outcomes, income disparities, real estate maps, law enforcement conduct and policies, and other concrete measures to see that our resurrection vision is not impacting our life together in the here and now.

The solution with which some Christians are left is a sort of “color blind” resurrection of the dead. In response to McCaulley’s essay, some commentators are appalled that color would be a consideration in the resurrection of the body. They complain that McCaulley has engaged in a politicization of the doctrine to score partisan points at the expense of theological and scriptural accuracy.

But if the Resurrection of Jesus is not specific, then what are we to make of the interactions in John 20? If the scars have come along into Jesus’ resurrection body, why would we think that his color does not? Of course, we could talk about all those paintings and stained-glass windows that depict the risen Jesus as White. Because that’s the point. For some critics, if they would tell the truth, the resurrection body is not colorless. For them, it is White.

Thus, the pushback to McCaulley’s writing encases the assumption of Whiteness as good, right, normal, and ultimately superior. But that expectation violates the very witness of scripture. “When God finally calls the dead to life,” McCaulley writes, “he calls them to life with their ethnic identity intact” (page 135).

He refers us to the words of Revelation 7:9 – “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (NRSV, my emphasis). Who could tell the differences in national origin, ethnicity, color, or language unless those differences had come along in the final resurrection?

In a single voice, the multitude cries out from their diversity, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Our text is an invitation to make that confession real and concrete in our Christian witness and service in a society, in a world, filled with nations, tribes, peoples, and languages.

References and Resources

Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Two)

This week’s gospel reading continues the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. Our reading begins with a strong adversative, the Greek word, “alla,” meaning “but rather.” As always, it’s the smallest words that offer the biggest interpretative challenges. “But rather” what? The conversation would be quite different if the connecting word were, for example, “therefore.” It is not. Our text steers us in a different direction.

Does the Lukan author want to continue leading us in the direction of a common life (and common humanity) rather than the binary interpretation that the blessings and woes seem to invite on their own? I think that’s the case. By themselves, the blessings and woes in the previous verses could easily be read as “either/or” propositions – either poor or rich, hungry or full, weeping or laughing, persecuted or praised. I am tempted by that possibility far too often.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Instead – but rather – the Lukan author seems to say, let’s get beneath these superficial binaries to something deeper. I think, as I noted last week, that the Lukan author is committed to a parallelism in discussing the social locations of the less privileged and the more privileged in the Lukan community. But I think this parallelism leads to different strategies of personal and structural resistance. And I think that resistance is directed to the larger system rather than towards one another.

Therefore, as I noted previously, I think the strategy commanded in Luke 6:27-31 is for those who do not have the power to resist in other, more subtle and covert ways. And the strategy commanded in Luke 6:32-36 is for those who have more power and privilege in the larger socioeconomic system.

The goal is the formation and sustaining of Christian community. We see a summary of that community in Acts 2:43-47. The first believers have all things in common, sell their goods and give the proceeds to the poor, worship and fellowship together. They eat with glad and generous hearts, honor God and benefit from the esteem of the larger culture. This strategy rooted in the Good News of Jesus causes the community to grow numerically and to extend the wholeness of the Gospel to more and more people.

Jesus finishes the blessings and woes. Then he shifts the discourse. “But rather,” he announces, “I am saying to you who continue to listen…” Sarah Henrich, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes a grammatical detail that matters at this point. “In 6:27 Jesus begins, ‘I declare to you who are listening,’” she notes. “One could emphasize the present participle and translate it as: ‘I declare to you who are still listening.’” What could that mean?

Perhaps Jesus is aware (at least in the Lukan author’s reconstruction) that his blessings may have distracted the marginalized among his listeners. And the woes may have alienated the more privileged among his listeners.

I can tell, as a preacher, when I have said something that leads many in the congregation into daydreaming. And I can tell when I have said something that hurts or irritates some of my listeners. I’m usually pretty clear in advance that this may happen. I might build in a strategy to recover their attention before either the distracted or the disgruntled check out completely. I have been known to say in a sermon, “If you’re still listening at this point…”

That’s often enough of a challenge to get roving or resistant listeners to check back in to the message until the next time I derail or offend them. If this is part of the sense of sentence from the Lukan author, then perhaps the intent of the “but rather” is an acknowledgment in particular that the “woes” were anticipated to put some people off – particularly those powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied people in the crowd on the plain and, by extension in the Lukan community. There was a danger that those folks would check out of the conversation permanently at that point unless they were wooed back in again.

This may seem to be a small point, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I am thinking about all the times when my own power, privilege, position, and property have been pointed out to me. I remember, in another lifetime, the first time my male privilege and misogyny were made clear to me. First, it was new information, so I simply didn’t understand. Of course, that defense last about three seconds, and then I knew what the issue was (at least a bit).

I know that I stopped listening at that point, and for quite a while after. I used the energy I should have devoted to listening and re-tasked that energy for self-defense and self-justification. My human brain has limited active processing capacity. If I’m spending it on making myself look good while under “attack,” then I won’t have anything left to hear what’s actually being said to me.

I know this is certainly the case for me when it comes to my white male privilege. But before I address that, there is for me the real matter that I hate to be told that I’m wrong. I intensely dislike being contradicted. I have a congenital lack of humility when it comes to my own views and opinions. Saying to someone, “You may be right,” does not come naturally to me. It only happens with practice, diligence, and calm.

The source of that resistance is not confidence or strength, at least not for me. It comes from the deep and clear sense that I have never been enough and will never be enough. Just because I know that’s not true doesn’t mean that sense has lost its power over me. In response to that constant threat to my ego, I build and maintain rigid realms of rightness that resist all contradictions. I’m often astounded that people put up with me.

Of course, then I remember many of us are like this and don’t even notice that it’s a flaw rather than a strength.

All that psychological confession aside, let’s get back to my lack of white listening. “The first duty of love,” wrote Paul Tillich, “is to listen.” We all know how quickly we can move in a conversation from deep listening to constructing our response to what we may or may not have heard. Often that response will be some form of self-defense rather than a request for further information. To love is first of all to listen.

The listening that matters is a deep and full and long listening, especially when we are asked to listen to testimonies that contradict our settled understanding and/or implicate us in a problem. Austin Channing Brown notes that such listening is not the same as “dialogue.” Dialogue, she argues, is the favored strategy of reasonable White churches to deal with racial tension.

But such dialogue is not helpful. “I am convinced,” she writes in I’m Still Here, that one of the reasons white churches favor dialogue is that the parameters of dialogue can be easily manipulated to benefit whiteness.” Such dialogues are often marked by tone policing which advises that people of color should nicer, kinder, more gracious, and less angry. “But we cannot negotiate our way to reconciliation,” Brown continues. “White people need to listen, to pause so that people of color can clearly articulate both the disappointment they’ve endured and what it would take for reparations to be made.”

“Too often,” Brown concludes, “dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come” (pages 169-170).

Listening requires that people with power, privilege, position, and property sit and pay attention long enough and fully enough to begin to understand the hearts, minds, and lives of those who live without the four P’s. People with power will have no trouble getting a voice and a platform for their positions. There’s no need to make sure that the “dialogue” is “mutual.” Jesus starts with the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted. Let us do the same.

I find great reluctance in many American Christian congregations to do such listening, even at the most basic level. I know a congregation that was considering placing a large cellphone tower on their property in the midst of a working-class neighborhood. This was a congregation that wondered why the neighbors didn’t respond to their invitations to participate in the congregation’s life. Yet, in the process of deciding about the cellphone tower (an income-producing opportunity for the congregation), the congregation had no interest in consulting with the neighbors.

I say to you who are still listening, love cannot be selective in its listening. The congregation was, I suspect, fearful that the neighbors would oppose the project and thus interfere with the financial windfall available to the struggling congregation. Thus, they did not even take the risk of listening. I am not surprised that the neighbors express no interest in the life of the congregation.

Could it be that the Lukan author is urging the better-off folks in the congregation to listen to the lives of the marginalized in their midst? I think that is one of the subtexts of this gospel account and certainly built into the fabric of the Sermon on the Plain.

References and Resources

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.

Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-627-38-2.

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Simon of Cyrene — Cross-bearing while Black

Read Mark 15:16-24 (A repost that fits this week from March 2021)

I want to step away from the intersection of Jesus’ crucifixion and the American lynching tree for a day — sort of. I don’t want to miss the mention of Simon of Cyrene as the first to bear Jesus’ cross for and with him. Simon is one of the characters in the gospel accounts who draws extended and deserved attention from interpreters. Most of those interpreters are Black preachers, theologians and scholars.

In his book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, Esau McCaulley writes:

“God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 108-109).

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on Pexels.com

Where, McCaulley asks, do Black and Brown people find themselves represented in the New Testament? He points to two early “cross-bearers” in the Christian accounts – Simon of Cyrene in Mark 15, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Simon’s identity as a black man is not unanimously supported. In his article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, E. P. Blair asserts, “It is unlikely that he [Simon] was a Negro. Many Jews lived in Cyrene, the capital city of the North African district of Cyrenaica” (IDB IV: 357).

Let’s reflect on those sentences for a moment. First, unless there was widespread belief that Simon was, in fact, “a Negro,” the first sentence would be gratuitous. So, Blair appears to be correcting what he finds to be an error. He does not, however, document the basis for his conclusion. The one thing we can say with relative certainty is that Simon was not White. The choices, given historical realities, would be some shade of Brown or Black. Blair’s statement appears to me more reflexive than informed and is, at the very least, an argument from silence.

Cyrene was originally a Greek foundation with democratic government and political independence until the campaigns of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. It was incorporated into the Roman Empire after 96 BCE. The population, according to Mellink in IDB I:754 was largely made up of “Greek speaking Jews who were sent as settlers by the Ptolemies and enjoyed equal rights.”

Simon was likely no stranger to Jerusalem and may have been a resident of the city. Jeremias includes a paragraph about Cyrene with several details. A burial spot belonging to a Jewish family from Cyrene has been unearthed in the Kidron valley. The Jews from Cyrene who lived in Jerusalem had their own synagogue, mentioned in Acts 6:9. Simon may have been part of this community. Or he may have come from the home country for the festival and stayed with family or in the guest house attached to the synagogue.

Jeremias notes that at least some of these Cyrenians converted to Christianity early on. Could this be some of the background for the Greeks asking to see Jesus in John 12 (a random thought)? They were found in Antioch, and perhaps met Paul there.

The sons of Simon are mentioned in Mark’s text. They were likely known to the Roman Christians to whom the gospel account was first addressed and may have been alive and present when Mark’s gospel was first presented in its entirety. Race as a function of skin-tone is a much later human invention in the West. The Cyrenians were identified as an ethnic or linguistic community and as a result established their own community structures. No conclusions can be drawn about what we would call “color.”

Hurtado makes a brief mention of Simon and notes that this part of the story is likely an early part of the tradition. “Jesus was clearly too weak, after a sleepless night and repeated beatings, to carry his own cross-beam,” N. T. Wright observes, “Simon happened to be there in the crowd, and the soldiers used their legal privilege to compel him to carry it instead” (Location 3721).

I have to wonder what made Simon stand out from the other members of the crowd. Perhaps he was dusty and disheveled since he was just coming into town “from the fields,” as the Greek text reads. It could be that his dress was that of a tourist rather than a local. Or, perhaps, his face stood out in the crowd because of its melanin content. Who knows? But there seems to be little reason to assert that this could not be the case.

Simon’s physical characteristics may be in doubt. The fact that he was an African was not. Nor was his role in the drama. “It remained Jesus’ cross, of course, not Simon’s,” Wright notes, “but anyone who had read Jesus’ words in Mark 8 about taking up one’s cross and following him would be likely to make the connection” (Location 3723). McCaulley asserts that “Simon’s cross carrying is a physical manifestation of the spiritual reality that Christian discipleship involves the embrace of suffering” (page 108).

“Black folk claim Simon with reference not to geography but to identity” reads the United Methodist Church Justice web page. “Simon’s blackness is truth-telling and empowering. It names the ongoing reality of social hostility and forced labor imposed upon blacks the world over. It also names the dignity, power, and humanity black people have had in the face of half a millennium of such oppression. Simon of Cyrene, the black man in society, helping God carry his burden.”

Simon has been the focus of sermons, studies, art, and song in the Black Church from the beginning. Simon’s is, in part, the power of representation. Where can I see myself in the text of the New Testament? For Black Christians, two of the answers are in the faces of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Simon of Cyrene. “Black Simon” treads the Via Dolorosa with Jesus and perhaps supports him on his tortured path to Golgotha.

We White Christians should remember that we will not find any particularly light-skinned faces in the crowd on that Good Friday. If we do, they are likely to belong to the oppressors and their collaborators. As noted in a previous post, Italian immigrants did not automatically “qualify for Whiteness” in American Anglo-Saxon culture. That status had to be earned through a gradual approximation by assimilation to Whiteness. So even the Roman soldiers would have carried a questionable skin-tone for race-conscious American Whites.

Nonetheless, we insist that White faces would be imposed on this colorful crowd. Just try removing Warner Sallman’s iconic white, Nordic image of Jesus from most White American church buildings. The only move that will cause a more violent pushback in those places is an effort to displace the American flag from proximity to or in front of the altar. Come to think of it, Sallman’s picture and the flag represent pretty much the same thing in those facilities – White male supremacy that will defend its property with whatever means necessary.

Of course, it’s worse than that. Reputed scholar and public intellectual, Eric Metaxas, recently tweeted a comment that began, “Since Jesus was white, did he have white privilege too?” The obtuseness of this failed attempt to be clever is hard to overstate. We certainly know that Jesus was not white. Nor was he privileged. Nor was he powerful. Nor did he triumph in any way that a system of domination would recognize. It’s not clear which Jesus Metaxas is hijacking to make his perverse point, but it’s not any Jesus actual scholars would recognize.

Why does this matter? It matters because the cultural supremacy that Metaxas assumes is both false and deadly. “A fundamental criticism of Black Christianity,” McCaulley writes, “is that it is an alien thing, an imposition of the white man through the persuasive power of the whip and chain” (page 96). White Christianity and its iconography have been tools of slaveholders, Jim Crow lynchers, real estate red-liners, and Christian nationalists throughout American history. This must be named, rejected, and repented.

Historical Christianity arises primarily outside of Europe. It is White people who are the latecomers to the drama. “Those who doubt the blackness of early Christianity are going to have to make a decision,” McCaulley argues. “Either some Westerners have whitewashed Egyptian history by turning many of its characters into Europeans, or they have not” (page 97). It’s clear that we have, and that we are wrong. “This means that the leading lights of early Christianity were Black and Brown folks or Egypt isn’t as African as we say it is” (page 97).

Geographic representation is one thing, and it is clear. Socioeconomic representation is another thing, and it is just as clear. If Jesus is like anyone in our American history, he is not like Massachusetts Puritans or Virginia planters. He is much more like Black slaves and Brown farm workers and Asian miners and Natives walking the Trail of Tears — another Way of Sorrows. Thus, James Cone is correct when he identifies Jesus as Black.

Of course, that sort of language is a good way to get yourself beaten half to death in some Christian Churches in America.

References and Resources

.https://www.umcjustice.org/news-and-stories/simon-of-cyrene-and-mary-mcleod-bethune-a-lenten-reflection-190

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 6); October 17, 2021

Another Friday with Phil

If you know some of my research interests, it will come as no surprise to you that the mention of “slaves” leads to me to think of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. One of the things I love about studying that little letter is that it allows me to imagine and get in touch with real people in real relationships in a real family, home, church, and community in the first century. It’s one thing to wax academic about what these texts mean. It’s another to conduct thought experiments with Phil and his household to see how it might all play out.

What if we sift Philemon and his household with the sieve of Mark 10? Before you think I’m letting the rest of us off the hook, I am not. This is going to be hard on Phil and his household. It is just as hard, in different dimensions, on me and my household. I’ll try to come back to that before we finish this post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Let’s begin with Phil’s marriage to Lady Apphia. I assume they were husband and wife, but that detail is not necessary to carry through this analysis. It just makes it a bit simpler for the sake of the experiment.

If we read the divorce text at the beginning of the chapter, we will see that Phil is called to see Apphia as a person in her own right and not a utility for his convenience. She is a partner in the enterprise of the household and not a piece of attractive furniture. Her sexual functioning is not his property, nor is their marriage a mere contract. Apphia is his sister in Christ as well as his spouse and is thus an equal in this newly (re)constituted family.

If Philemon was a traditional Roman, upper-class, man, this was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more.

Let’s move to Phil’s relationship to Archippus. If Archippus is the adult son of Apphia and Phil, some changes are in order in that relationship as well. He is now also a brother in Christ to Phil. He is not merely a receptacle for Phil’s bequeathed honor and estate. As with Apphia, Phil’s power “over” his son must now be replaced by power “with” and “for” his offspring.

In a culture that regarded infanticide as a legitimate means of birth control and children as subhuman until after puberty, this, too, was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more!

It is obvious that Philemon is “rich,” not poor. He has enough wealth to own a home where a group of Jesus followers can meet regularly for worship and community life. He is rich enough to hold at least one enslaved person, and it is likely that his household contained at least several more enslaved persons. Paul addresses him as an “honorable” man who commands respect because of his power, position, privilege, and property.

This takes us to the story of the rich man in Mark 10. I would think that such a story would not go down well with Phil and other rich people in the early Jesus movement. It doesn’t appear that Paul asked Philemon or other wealthy patrons to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to join Paul personally in the missionary enterprise. Paul clearly depended on the patronage of some well-off people and communities to do his work. The counsel of Mark 10:17-31 was not adopted wholesale.

This adaptation was not without its problems in some of the Pauline communities. The disparities in wealth and status in the Corinthian church caused no end of mischief. The rich arrived early for the love feast (because they didn’t have real jobs) and ate all the good food. The privileged claimed that their voices counted for more in the assembly – especially, it seems, the voices of some of the privileged women (but that’s another conversation). In Corinth, wealth was making it difficult for some members to enter the Kin(g)dom of God.

The concern for property was, I think, an issue for Philemon as well. It may be that Onesimus took some property or some cash when he escaped to find Paul in Ephesus. It would seem that this tension was a fairly big deal for Philemon, since Paul offers to pay the costs out of his own pocket (and then guilts Philemon into withdrawing his complaint about the “crime”).

At the least, Paul wants Philemon to see that mutuality in Christ trumps any concerns about personal property. Paul does not appear to require divestment of wealth as a condition for following Jesus (and Paul). But he does expect that wealth will be used for the well-being of the community and not for the benefit of the wealthy.

So, Phil, stop worrying about your money. If it bothers you so much, send another gift of cash along with Onesimus when you send him back to assist Paul in things that are far more important!

So, this “Good News” deconstructs Phil’s family relationships. It calls into question the importance of his power, position, privilege, and property. The Good News calls on Phil to put love for neighbor ahead of the demands of the honor and shame system of the culture. That would be more than enough work for a lifetime. But wait! There’s more!

Let’s take a little stroll back into Mark 9 for a moment. Phil, you know those wandering hands of yours (and anything else that might be wandering) that seem to find their way on to the bodies of several of your slaves? Cut it out or cut them off! You know those roving eyes of yours that linger a bit too long on your next-door neighbor’s wife as she rests in their courtyard? Give it up or gouge them out!

Given the norms of elite sexual behavior in Greco-Roman culture, these boundaries would have made Phil the laughingstock of the local bathhouse. But wait! There’s more!

Finally, we come to the enslaved persons. First of all, they cannot be regarded as sexual, physical, and commercial utilities at the disposal of the slaveholder. Jesus followers don’t get to treat anyone that way.

Second, there’s this “ransom for many” business. The language of “ransom” in the first century, as we noted in a previous post, is really the language of manumission for enslaved persons. Phil, how can Jesus release the enslaved from bondage, but you will not? I think that’s the question that stands behind Paul’s request to Phil that he would treat Onesimus as “more than a brother.”

Enslaved persons were a substantial part of the wealth in first-century households. The release of the enslaved persons would likely crash the household economy. And the rich people would have to start doing actual human work. The last would become first, and the first last, in very practical ways. Phil would have the chance to become “great” in Jesus’ terms because he would start serving whether he liked it or not.

Is it any wonder Jesus says all that stuff about camels and needles’ eyes?

I find this experiment of processing Philemon and his household with the Markan “moral sieve” instructive and terrifying. I don’t have actual enslaved people under my roof. But I find it very hard to give up Amazon purchases even though I view the wealth of Jeff Bezos detestable. It pisses me off to have to look at the labels on my clothes, investigate how they are sourced, and determine if the clothing is ethically produced (it hardly ever is).

We made a commitment at our house almost three years ago to maintain a whole-food, plant-based diet. I did that because one day I realized that I couldn’t treat animals as edible automata. I’m not evangelistic about this choice, but it works for us. At the same time, those choices have reduced our options for socializing, made us the ongoing topic of conversation among family and neighbors, and made grocery shopping an experience in mindfulness.

If being modestly vegan takes that much effort, what does it mean to be a Mark 10 disciple? Phil, I’m not judging. I’m empathizing.

It seems that at least some of Paul’s churches chose the route of moderate accommodation to the culture. I think that’s why we find the tables of household duties in Ephesians and Colossians – tables that ratify the larger culture and make no mention of Markan discipleship. That is certainly why Christian elites continued to hold and deal in enslaved persons, in and through the Church in many cases, for centuries.

In our own context, we know how much effort, theology, and violence have gone into maintaining White Male Supremacy in and through Christian churches in America. The resources for this discussion are now voluminous. But at the least, I hope you will read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Robert Jones’ White Too Long, and Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne. These works give depth and data to the White Christian Church’s complicity in the American project of White Male Supremacy.

So, Phil, what do we do about this? I’m reflecting on how best to make reparations for the rest of my life – to Indigenous people, Black people, Brown people, AAPI people. I don’t think I’m going to sell it all and give the proceeds to the people to whom that wealth is owed. But I also don’t think I can continue to do little or nothing that has a dollar sign attached to it.

References and Resources

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.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 5); October 17, 2021

Onside with Jesus

“But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be a slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, my translation).

Whenever enslavement comes up as a metaphor for sin, discipleship, or any other theological category, we White American Christians should get nervous. The Christians Scriptures have been used for too long and continue to be used as ideological props for White Male Supremacy in our culture. I think, at least in our reflections, we are required to interrogate this metaphor and get to the other side of it.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, my translation and emphasis). The words about becoming servants and slaves are conditioned on what the Son of Man does. That’s the logic of the text. The Son of Man ransoms the captives, releases the enslaved, frees those in bondage. That’s the Good News of the text and of the Kin(g)dom of God.

If the enslaved are freed, enslavement is ended. The only way the enslavement metaphor now makes sense is if freed people willingly take on serving. Power over others is, as we shall see below, ruled out of bounds for Jesus followers. Power “for” and power “with” are to be embraced, embodied, and enacted in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom.

This is possible because (thus, “for”) the Son of Man has given his life a ransom for many. The Cross is an event that is accomplished, not merely an example to be followed. There is certainly an exemplary character to the Cross for Jesus followers. Jesus does, after all, invite us to take up our “crosses” and follow him. But providing an example is an outcome of the Cross, not its purpose.

The purpose of the Cross and Resurrection is to release enslaved people, to ransom those in bondage, to rescue captives. David Seeley argues in his article that the model of “servant rulership” described in our text has roots in and resonances with such thought in Greco-Roman philosophy running from Plato through the first-century Cynics. I don’t find that argument compelling. There is plenty of material in the Hebrew scriptures to support the image of “servant rulership” for the Jewish Messiah. Just read the royal psalms.

Seeley has a final section, however, on the word “lutron” (ransom), which is instructive. Up until the appearance of that word in our text, Seeley argues, the imagery would support an exemplary, “paradigmatic” view of the Cross. But when the Markan composer quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man came as “a ransom for the sake of many,” the notion of a paradigmatic death is left behind. Something is actually happening in the Cross.

Seeley notes that (forty years ago) Markan scholars were at pains to separate Markan theology from Pauline theology. He gives four reasons why that is wrong-headed. Paul speaks about the death of Christ as liberating people from slavery (see Romans 6). It would be hard to be a Christian in the late first-century (especially if that Christian were in Rome) and not to have heard of or given a nod to Paul. The sacramental imagery in Mark 10:38-39 sounds so very much like Paul. And the Markan composer was a sharp enough tool to figure out how to dialogue with Paul without plagiarizing or endorsing everything Paul said.

A generation ago (sigh), I spent a week with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary on the conversation between this section of Mark and Philippians 2. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a contested topic in the New Testament guild, but apparently it was. Frederickson made a strong case that “having the mind of Christ” is precisely what the Markan composer also meant when, in chapter 8, the composer accuses Peter of not “thinking the things that are of God.”

Here at the climax of the discipleship discourse in the Markan composition, we have (I think) another marker from Philippians 2. If a Jesus follower is to become a “slave of all,” that is because the One I follow has gone there first. Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “who, though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be gripped with both hands, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7, my translation).

The Son of Man, the one in human likeness, embraces the form of an enslaved person in order to release all of Creation from bondage. It is that willing embrace, even of death on a cross, that results in his exaltation as the Name which is above every name. The Good News of the Kin(g)dom is that this is the very character of God! Jesus takes on the form of the slave in order that all the enslaved would be ransomed, redeemed, and released.

Our text “seems well on its way to presenting the Son of Man’s death in terms of paradigmatic suffering and martyrdom,” Seeley writes. “But then the term lutron is added. By using it,” Seeley continues, “Mark invites his audience to understand this death as liberation” (page 249).

Seeley argues that the Markan composer goes no further than this because the composer wants to give a nod to Pauline theology without affirming all of that theology. That strikes me as an argument from silence and a misunderstanding of the Markan composition as an oral text. The mentions of baptism and eucharist earlier in the paragraph would leave the door open for further comment by the performer if the audience setting called for it. Better to address what is in the text than what is not.

What can we draw from this part of the discussion? First, this text is an anti-slavery passage. It may have been used to undergird human enslavement by pro-slavery Christian preachers in the past. I’m not sure of that, but I suspect that was the case. In fact, the very purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is to ransom, redeem, and release the enslaved.

The Cross is not a metaphor, example, or paradigm. It is an effective event. Real people get real freedom. If nominal Jesus followers don’t do that, we aren’t following Jesus. The Son of Man has come to challenge the powers of domination that are the human norm and to change the status of those who are in captivity to those powers.

Second, therefore, disciples dismantle hierarchies. Disciples flatten power pyramids. And that happens at the systemic as well as the personal level. If we think this text is only about personal behavior, we’re wrong. If you want a place where Jesus talks about systemic evil and the need to dismantle a system, this is your text. He doesn’t point to specific Gentile rulers who are lording it over others. Instead, he describes a general system of domination that is typical of the world in which he lived. And he declares that such a system shall not be so among us.

Systems that create and sustain domination of some humans over others are not part of God’s intention or goals. Amassing power, position, privilege, and property is not a feature of following Jesus. Any system that is based on such behavior is contrary to the character of God. Like it or not, this is a political text. It is about how human communities are structured. The Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, when in fact, there is only one Lord and one God. It takes hard work and layers of self-delusion to miss this dimension of the text.

Third, Jesus followers enter “enslavement for all” (whatever that means in my situation) willingly and freely. The actually enslaved never get to choose to serve. Nor are the actually enslaved slaves of all. Only those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can choose to freely serve. And those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can only work for the freedom of others, if we are to be consistent in our Jesus following.

There may be no better expression of this text than Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Luther loved paradoxes almost as much as the Markan composer. One of his favorites comes from the great 1517 treatise. The Christian is both perfectly free, servant of none, and perfectly slave, servant of all. The freedom comes as God’s gift to all of Creation in Christ. The servitude is chosen as a grateful response for that gift and an enactment of that Good News.

Fourth, we can see why the Cross stands in the center of the Jesus way. He is clearly opposed to the normal structures of power in this world. These are the structures that make “lording it over” the order of the day. A few people gain a great deal from such systems and will fight to the death to maintain what they have. Opposing such systems of power always provokes a violent response.

We live in a time when people are doing much to dismantle hierarchies and flatten power pyramids. The systems of White Male Supremacy, European colonialism, unfettered Capitalism, and unregulated wealth are certainly receiving long overdue scrutiny, criticism, and resistance. Is it any wonder we are witnessing such violent and systematic responses? More to the point, are we American Jesus followers on the “Jesus side” of these conflicts?

Too often we are not. Perhaps a reminder of how the Good News actually works can move us a millimeter closer to that Jesus side.

References and Resources

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.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 3); October 10, 2021

The “I’s” Have It

I wonder if the rich man gets it wrong from the start. No, I don’t wonder. I’m sure he does. “What shall I do,” he asks the Good Teacher, “in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation and emphasis). The rich man’s focus is on his own situation as an individual. Perhaps it is that self-absorbed and self-interested perspective that elicits Jesus’ initial ire.

Jesus responds by quoting commandments focused on the covenant community. “Inheriting eternal life” has something important to do with our relationships with one another and how we treat one another – especially the vulnerable ones in that community. It is not, at least in this text, an individual reality. Here in Mark 10, salvation seems to be a community reality rather than an individual matter.

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The argument that “being saved” is more about a community than about an individual runs opposite the assumption of most American, especially evangelical, Christianity. The possibility that human sin could have a structural dimension primarily and an individual dimension in secondary terms is regarded as even more problematic from such a perspective. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Evangelical Christian tradition as it is now expressed in America, there is no such thing as structural sin.

Robert P. Jones wrote a recent article for Time magazine entitled “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” He was kind enough to put an excerpt from that article on his social media platforms.

Jones describes his growing up years in a Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, MS. He notes that his theological tradition was “a double inheritance.” On the one hand, he says, “I internalized a cycle of sin, confession and repentance as a daily part of my life.” This part of the inheritance was and is deeply individual.

On the other hand, the inheritance included assumed membership in a privileged community of faith. “Individually, I was a sinner,” he writes, “but collectively, I was part of a special tribe. Whatever our humble social stations might be,” he notes, “we white Christians were God’s chosen instruments of spreading salvation and civilization to the world.”

Jones argues that it has been “the power and sheer cultural dominance of white Christianity in America historically” that has allowed Evangelical Christians to hold these seemingly contradictory descriptions together. The real output of this perspective is that the intense focus on personal sin and salvation makes it possible to ignore and deny the collective and communal dimensions of sin altogether.

It’s no accident, therefore, that a rich man can ask salvation questions in the first person singular. What shall I do that I might be saved? Jesus’ response to him indicates, I think, that this is the wrong question right from the start. “How can we be the Kin(g)dom community together?” seems to be the question Jesus wants to answer. It is, however, the question that privilege refuses to ponder.

Jones expands on this theme in his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin,” Jones writes, “can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling about it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry” (page 96).

Jones reports the work of social scientists who have identified three elements in the “Evangelical Tool Kit” that make this perspective possible. Those three elements are “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (page 97).

Individualism means that individuals are sovereignly responsible for their own actions. Relationalism means that all problems are rooted in individual relationships, not in laws or institutions. Antistructuralism rejects explanations for social problems that would lie in realities beyond the individual. This suspicion believes that any explanation for bad things other than individual sinfulness is out of bounds.

What is gained by the use of this toolkit? Economic inequities are the result of laziness. Governments should stay out of our school rooms, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods. Bad things that happen to people are their own damned faults. Good things that happen to people are due to individual merit, hard work, and accomplishment. Anything “social” or “structural” is a cultural artifact that can and should be ignored.

This discourse of individualism confers specific benefits on White people. Robin DiAngelo outlines these benefits in her article. I summarize her findings.

Individual White people can deny that race matters and that being White confers any advantages based on race. Individualism hides the generational accumulation of wealth. It denies the reality of social and historical context. It prevents any analysis of institutions and structures. It denies any power to culture and the tools of culture to shape individuals. Individualism permits color blindness and supports the myth of meritocracy. Only the privileged get to “be individuals.” And individualism keeps oppressed groups from acting as groups.

Individualism supports the status quo of White Supremacy. And it hides the structural nature of inequality. Problems are all a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel. All lives matter, so nothing systemic needs to change. Sound familiar?

Jones notes that this toolkit is not limited to those who self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is the dominant worldview among White American Christians of a variety of theological stripes and traditions. In fact, for many of us, this toolkit simply defines what it means to be “American.” And it conveniently relieves us of any responsibility for our neighbors – especially those who happen not to be White or rich.

I am guilty, to a degree, of anachronism here. I don’t think the rich man was a prototype for White American Evangelical Christians of the twenty-first century. I do think, however, that power, privilege, position, and property operate much the same way in all human cultures and hierarchies. The more power, privilege, position, and property I have, the more likely I am to see myself exclusively as an individual with no real connections to or responsibilities for others.

“In the personal Jesus paradigm,” Jones writes, “Jesus did not die for a cause or for humankind writ large but for each individual person” (page 100). The question that makes sense in this paradigm is, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s it. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model,” Jones argues, “to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (page 100).

The rich man knows precisely how to interact with the “system” in his time. It is, for the most part, designed for him. He has kept all the commandments since he was a young man. He has had the time, the leisure, the status, and the financial resources to do whatever was required by the system. He also had the power and privilege to pretend that there wasn’t really a “system.” He was just doing the right thing, all on his own.

Jones notes that individualism allows for all sorts of moral and political sleight of hand. White evangelicals prior to the Civil War dismissed the brutality of slavery, he argues, “as acts of particular individuals rather than broad patterns; and the broad application of love and equality was denigrated as a move that illegitimately brought ‘politics’—by which they meant anything social or structural—into religion” (page 103).

Now we are, as they say, moving from preaching to meddling. That critique sounds painfully familiar to me. “Keeping politics out of the pulpit” is a way to maintain white power, privilege, position, and property – protected by the thin veneer of individual piety.

Jones writes that “the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well” (page 105).

His conclusion is inescapable and devastating. “To put it succinctly,” the White Evangelical theological worldview “has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion” (page 105). I wonder if this critique might have traction with the story of the rich man in our text.

Why does this matter to Jones – and, I hope, to us? “Confronting a theology built for white supremacy would be a critical first step,” Jones writes, “for white Christians who want to recover a connection not just to our fellow African American Christians but also to our own identity and, more importantly, our humanity” (page 106).

In fairness to the rich man, he is simply operating from assumptions shared in the broader culture. Rich people, perhaps, get to be individuals. If they can’t be saved in that condition, the disciples wonder, then who can?

Peter points out that they have done what Jesus ask of the rich man. Jesus responds by describing the gift of community they are beginning to receive as a result. When Jesus talks about the impossible things that God will do, he describes this new Kin(g)dom. Jesus doesn’t talk about individual forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t launch into a treatise on justification by grace through faith. Jesus situates us in community – in relationship with all, including the vulnerable.

The Christian image of salvation is not an individual reality. Focus on the individual will lead to a privilege competition that has no part in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. We will be “saved” together or not at all, I think.

Of course, those of us who most benefit from “individual salvation” may leave this conversation sad, for we have many possessions.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.

Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/the-unmaking-of-the-white-christian?r=m09x3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&fbclid=IwAR3x1ubbXwm1HMXPxmG76O4uCUErS_SYSex5RA5zFXHl_7YncBDr0QaJsVs.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L.  Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.