Review of On Critical Race Theory, by Victor Ray

The year is 2000. Extraterrestrials arrive on earth. They offer the United States gold, safe nuclear power, and several other technologies that will obliterate poverty and violence. In exchange for these commodities, the aliens want every Black citizen in the country. The United States government has five days to make its choice.

This is the beginning of Derrick Bell’s 1992 short story called “The Space Traders.” It’s a story that has lost neither its capacity to offend nor its potential to awaken White Americans to the realities of systemic racism in White American culture. In the story, both the White government and the general population lean toward accepting the terms of the trade.

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Some modest resistance springs up, especially in the American Jewish community. But that resistance is quickly suppressed by the FBI. The Supreme Court upholds the legality of a national referendum to decide the issue. The referendum will amend the United States constitution to induct Black citizens into a “special service” – a draft.

The referendum takes place by telephone vote. It passes with a seventy percent majority. Black citizens are captured by US military forces. They are herded into the alien ships. The extraterrestrials deliver the promised goods in exchange. The story ends with twenty million Black men, women and children leaving on the alien ships – bound by chains and each wearing a single undergarment.

Victor Ray rehearses Bell’s story in his 2022 book, Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Ray reminds us that Bell’s account is a testimony to the systemic, enduring, and deadly character of racism in the United States and the Western world. “Bell’s aliens have always been here,” Ray writes, “It is only a slight exaggeration (and a fair one at that) to say that the history of American public policy can be told as a series of trades on the value of Black life” (page 70).

Ray notes that he wrote the first draft of this work “in a three-month sprint, attempting to outrun the anti-critical race theory laws spreading across the United States” (page 125). While Ray didn’t win that race, he has produced a concise, readable, and contemporary summary of the axioms and conclusions of CRT. If you are someone who would like to know what CRT actually is (as opposed to what it is often portrayed to be), this book will be a helpful read.

I find Ray’s discussion especially timely in our current political moment. Public conversation is consumed these days with talk about the potential “death of democracy.” I don’t think these concerns are exaggerated or overblown. However, Ray’s work reminds me that this death of democracy, if it happens, will not affect all citizens equally. This disparate effect is a direct outcome of systemic racism and can be predicted based on the tenets of CRT.

Ray quotes Levitsky and Ziblatt, in their book, How Democracies Die. They remind us, as Ray notes, that “the periods of greatest bipartisan agreement in the United States happened during eras when Black rights were explicitly suppressed. America has been a functioning multiracial democracy,” Ray continues, “only since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Prior to that,” he observes, “the American political system was, at best, selectively democratic” (page 68, my emphasis).

“Selectively democratic” – this is the most likely outcome of any death of democracy in the United States in the near term. If history is a guide, then democracy is unlikely to die for white people. Instead, we are likely to witness some real-world application of “The Space Traders.” Will we privileged White people hand over Black, Brown, Asian, Jewish, and/or Queer citizens in order to keep our own privilege? That was the outcome of the three-fifths compromise in the United States constitution. It was the foundation of the Jim Crow regime. These data points predict that it could be the outcome once again.

I am sure this sounds stridently alarmist to many White readers. Yet, if CRT is an accurate analysis of American history and practice, this is what we White people have been doing in one way or another for five centuries. That analysis stands at the heart of CRT. And that is why it is treated with such panicked disgust by many White people.

“Critical race theory doesn’t want to destroy America,” Ray writes, “but it does want to squarely reckon with the way American racism has destroyed lives” (page xxvii). CRT is not Marxism smuggled into American classrooms. It is not a way to teach White students to hate themselves or their heritage or their country. It is not a way to engage in “reverse racism” and to “persecute” the innocent White minority. It is not ideology dressed up in historical fiction.

These are criticisms lodged against CRT in the popular press and in state legislatures. The goal of these criticisms, however, is not protection of “The Truth,” no matter what proponents might say. The goal of these criticisms and the initiatives they represent is the sustaining of white ignorance of racial history and reality.

“Racial ignorance is central to the current moral panic,” Ray writes, “but as a number of scholars have shown, some white Americans work hard to maintain their ignorance of racial reality…” (page xxv). That should not be a controversial or controvertible statement. I have lost count of the number of times, for example, that my pastoral colleagues and I have been told that we have no business mentioning race from the pulpit or in Bible studies.

Efforts to address White racial ignorance are met (by our White parishioners) with suspicious pushback and active resistance. This pushback is not a morally neutral action. Instead, Ray argues, “Ignorance of American’s racial history and the causes of present-day racial inequality is a primary weapon in the current attacks on critical race theory” (page xxv). As Ray demonstrates repeatedly, this militant White ignorance of racial history produces and supports the ongoing White ignorance of racial reality.

When White people are forced to acknowledge that racial reality, we tend to adopt the “perpetrator perspective.” This perspective “evaluates racism based on the individual culprit’s intent. Rather than seeing racism as purely individual,” Ray writes, “critical race theorists argue that racism is structural” (page 18). This violates the White ideological commitment to individualism, however, and is thus rejected.

The perpetrator perspective gives us, for example, the “one bad apple” theory of ongoing police violence. Despite the systemic patterns of that repeated violence, White people evaluate this behavior as the cruelty or mental illness or bad judgment of the individual in question. That analysis allows me as a White person to keep my distance from the actor and the behavior. CRT points out, however, that apples fall from trees, and that trees are systems with roots and branches.

“Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray argues. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). Ray reminds us that this is the goal of systemic racism – the unequal allocation of resources in a society, based on the constructed meanings of skin tone. Structural racism is a system of distribution that is based in constructed racial inequality and then reproduces that inequality in that resource distribution.

We are watching in real time as another policy tool used to dismantle systemic racism. The United States Supreme Court is likely during this term to outlaw the last vestiges of Affirmative Action college placement policy. Ray reminds us of the importance of the Bakke decision a generation ago in this discussion. That decision “recognized that universities had a compelling interest in using race to diversify their student bodies but outlawed the use of race to ameliorate the harms of slavery, Jim Crow, on ongoing discrimination” (page 46, my emphasis).

That decision made the use of race to repair harms just as “racist” as the used of race to inflict harms. Amelioration and reparation were, therefore, outlawed as reasons to use Affirmative Action in college placement schemas. The only permissible rationale was to increase “diversity.” Now we see that this rationale is under attack and is likely to be outlawed.

Under this legal theory, attacking racism through policy is “racist.” This is the legal outcome of what Ray calls “colorblind racism.” This is the “I don’t see color; I just see people” school of racism. “Colorblind appeals also allow their users to claim their opponents are bringing race into otherwise race-neutral situations,” Ray writes, Colorblind racism effectively denies that structural racism is a political system while using racist appeals to gain power” (page 38).

This is why I cannot take part any longer in conversations where the complaint is, “Why does everything always have to be about race?” Regardless of the questioner’s intent, the outcome of that question is continued support for systemic racism and White supremacy. As Ray argues, “Colorblind language is an ideological shield for structural racism, entrenching racial inequality through laws, politics, and practices that are race neutral in name only” (page 35). I would refer you to Clyde Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat, for the receipts on that assertion.

“Bell’s aliens have always been here.” Now we are facing real referenda on whether we will hand over Black, Brown, Native, Asian, Jewish, and Queer bodies to protect White supremacist “democracy.” I wish I could be more optimistic about how we will decide.

Note: I found a copy of Ray’s book at my local library. I’m grateful for such efforts to inform the public conversation. A dramatized version of Bell’s short story can be found here.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Four)

What is the status of marriage in the age to come? As we’ve noted previously, this question will occur to many of our listeners this week. And both the question and answers will bother and even upset some of our listeners. This isn’t the primary issue in our text. Nor does it appear to be a major concern for Jesus. Yet, this question motivates the text and can, perhaps, assist us in our interpretation.

Is marriage a divine creation or a human institution? Spoiler alert – I think the answer is “yes,” but leaning heavily toward “human institution.” While marriage may not be a central concern in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is certainly present in the texts. In the first creation account, the emphasis is on human beings made in the divine image. And human beings are to be fruitful and multiply on the face of the earth. No marriage there.

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In the second creation account, we learn that it is not good for human beings to be alone. God wondered if one from among the animals might remedy the situation. But a fit partner was not found there. Therefore, God made a fit partner for the man. The translation of “helper” for the Hebrew word “ezer” is not helpful – not unless we recall that the other one called “ezer” in the Hebrew scriptures is God.

There is no subordination of the woman to the man in either of the creation accounts. In fact, what subordination we do find in the text comes as a result of the Fall. Therefore, that sort of power relationship was not intended in God’s creation. It may be some sort of accommodation to human sin. Or it may simply be outside of God’s intention. In either case, however, the subordination of women to men is not a feature that will be carried into the age to come.

Some readers might point to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for a divine institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The word translated as “therefore” in this verse is actually two Hebrew words. The sense of the phrase is “because of” or “as a result of.”

Because the Lord made a fit partner for the man, and because the man recognized the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” human beings (at least those who held these texts as sacred) took a customary course of action. There is nothing in the text that suggests this course of action was designed or decreed by God. The outcome, that they become “one flesh,” is certainly consistent with the man’s experience. But the text does not describe marriage as specifically designed or directed by God.

I don’t wish to denigrate marriage between a man and a woman. Nor do I wish to deify it. Marriage can be an important way to organize one sort of human connection. But as marriage exists in human experience, it is a construction rather than a “natural” state. The sheer diversity of marriage customs, practices, laws, and rules in human societies gives testimony to this fact. Relationships between human beings can be organized in an astonishing variety of ways. That diversity means that the organizing structures have been built by human hands.

This gets more complicated when Jesus is challenged to interpret divorce regulations in the Torah and the first-century practices that come out of those regulations. In Matthew 19:7, some Pharisees point out to Jesus that the Torah allowed for men to divorce their wives. Jesus returns to the creation accounts. It’s always interesting to me that Jesus quotes from both of them.

In the light of God creating men and women and allowing them to join as “one flesh,” human practices should reflect those realities. It’s clear that the Torah constructs ways to manage those practices for Jews. And further teaching and practice continue to build additional stories on to that ground floor. The additional construction must reflect the nature of the foundation, or the structure will collapse under its own weight.

The Torah begins with sexual differentiation, the need for procreation, and the need for human community. We human beings have built all sorts of stories, practices, assumptions, and institutions on those few “facts” of creation.

What we have constructed will not be necessary in the age to come. Sexual differentiation will likely be a continuing reality because the new bodies we have will still be “our” bodies. But that differentiation will not be particularly important because we will be “like the angels.” There will be no need for procreation since life with God will not come to an end. And human community will be part of the gift of the community of all creation, the “new heaven and the new earth,” as it is described in the book of Revelation.

So, I think our text urges us to hold on to our constructions lightly, not tightly. We humans slip too easily into assuming that what we build is, in fact, “natural.” When we do that, we are usually creating a story that gives life to ourselves and takes life away from others. Whatever gives and sustains life will find its way into the age to come. Whatever takes and destroys life will not.

For some perspective, let’s think about “race.” In biological terms, there is the human race. All other senses of “race” are social constructions. They are not genetic realities. Human beings show up in this life with a variety of phenotypes (how we express our genetic endowment as individuals). We have small variations in our genotypes (the genetic information we carry with us). But there is very little relationship between the variations in genotype and phenotype.

In biological terms there are no “races.” Yet, the power of racialized constructions is the power or life and death. We White Europeans have spent five hundred years constructing stories about “racial” differences that advantage us in every way. We have built entire cultures, polities, and economies on the fiction of “natural” differences between the races. In those stories, the White people are always the best, the most deserving, the winners.

When we construct such stories, we typically reverse cause and effect. For example, Victor Ray gives this brief assessment of the eugenics movement in the United States. This movement, not coincidentally at its height during the Jim Crow era, sought to root the racist system in America in “natural” differences between people.

“Eugenicists who attributed differences in life expectancy and literacy rates to biology,” Ray writes, “were laundering social prejudice through scientific jargon, by providing a defense of and justification for racial inequality, not an explanation of underlying causes” (page 10). The constructed system, by intention, produced differential outcomes. Then that system used those outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between White and Black people.

The same critique can be made of the patriarchal system at work in our text and still in our own culture. We see differential outcomes for women when it comes to average earnings, healthcare outcomes, and opportunities for advancement. The patriarchal system is designed to precisely produce those differences. Then the system uses the different outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between men and women. Of course, those differences don’t really exist. But the system does.

Therefore, even though “race” as a biological reality is not real, “races” as social constructions are very real. Yet, what has been built can be unbuilt. What has been constructed can be deconstructed. I’m not suggesting that this is easy or simple. We White Europeans have invested five centuries or more in building and sustaining the system of White Supremacy around the globe. It may take that many centuries to dismantle this damnable system.

I think that our text reminds us to hold our human constructions lightly. The moment those constructions take life rather than give it, destroy life rather than sustain it, those constructions must be attacked and abandoned. If the Temple system, for example, becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If human government becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If our theological system becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If the way we organize the relationships between men and women becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go.

One could argue that we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing race and gender. However, that’s not the case. I’m not suggesting that phenotypical differences are an illusion. They are not. Nor am I suggesting that sexual differentiation is a mirage. It is not. What we do with those differences, however, makes all the difference. “Race” is a social construction. So is gender. What has been constructed, can be deconstructed.

And what is constructed are structures, not merely individual actions. “Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray writes. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). A similar description can be offered for patriarchal systems of power and privilege. And when such systems are combined, for example in the lives of Black women in the United States, the life-denying power in those individual lives is devastating.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can bring a particular analytical lens to life, if we’re willing to apply it first to ourselves. We humans tend to build things that benefit us. Then we worship those things and pretend that things have always been this way. That’s called idolatry. That’s what is really at stake in our text and in this section of the Lukan account. What things have we built and then turned into deities? Will we let the Holy Spirit challenge and change those realities in our systems and in ourselves?

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Random House, 2022.

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

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part Five)

This may be what I do for Sunday — not sure yet.

“You can pray until you faint,” Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, “but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Fannie Lou Hamer knew that truth from her own experience. I read her story in the book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, edited by Michelle DeRusha.[i]

The year was 1962. Fannie Lou Hamer was forty-four years old. She was married to a sharecropper. She was the mother of two adopted daughters. Fannie Lou was a black woman, the first person at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi to raise her hand. She was the first who volunteered to go the twenty-six miles to the county courthouse and register to vote. She was the first in line when the white clerk snapped, “What do you want?”

Fannie Lou knew the risks. Blacks in rural Mississippi in 1962 didn’t register to vote. If they did, they risked public abuse, job loss, physical beatings, and lynching. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared,” she said later. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she continued,” and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Mississippi had a literacy test for voter registration. The first time Fannie Lou tried to register, she failed that test. The clerk required her to read and explain section 16 of the Mississippi state constitution. That section described and defined “de facto” laws. Fannie later said that she knew “as much about [de] facto law as a horse knows about Christmas day.” Me, too.

Because Fannie Lou tried to register to vote, she lost her job. Local people threatened to kill her, and she was forced to flee. She dodged bullying and bullets. She also returned to the county courthouse thirty days later to take the voter registration test. This time she had studied. She passed the test.

However, her registration was rejected because she hadn’t paid the poll tax in the previous two years. Of course, she hadn’t paid the poll tax because she hadn’t been a registered voter! Fannie Lou joined the ranks of activists who worked to register other black people to vote. In that role, she was falsely arrested and jailed. she was beaten almost to death. She challenged both local and national power structures.

Fannie Lou Hamer never gave up. And she never gave in to hate. Because of her Christian faith, Fannie Lou Hamer loved even those who wanted her dead. “You have to love ’em,” she said.

“Whether confronting a belligerent voter registration official, lying bloody and beaten on the cold floor of a jail cell, or standing triumphant as a delegate before a national audience,” Michelle DeRusha writes, “Fannie Lou Hamer lived out that love day by day.”

Jesus tells his disciples a parable. This parable is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. Jesus describes a persistent widow to illustrate his point. The widow is a lot more like Fannie Lou Hamer than she is like me.

There’s this judge. He’s not afraid of God’s judgment. He doesn’t give a hoot what people in town think of him. This judge likes his position. He likes his peace and quiet. Beyond that, he just doesn’t care.

And there’s this widow in town. She’s getting a raw deal. The details don’t really matter. Jesus says she’s getting the dirty end of the stick. The judge can straighten things out if he wants to. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t care. If he ignores the widow long enough, maybe she’ll just go away.

But the widow won’t go away. She keeps confronting the judge. “Give me justice against my adversary!” she demands. After a while, the judge has a little meeting with himself. “It’s true,” he says, “I don’t fear God’s judgment. I don’t care about public opinion. But this widow! All up in my business wherever I go! At some point, she’s going to punch me in the face! Best if I do what she wants and get rid of the problem.”

So, the widow wins. She never gave up. She never backed down. She used dogged determination and physical intimidation. The widow got her justice.

Fine, Jesus. Cute story. A little slapstick humor. The underdog triumphs. What’s not to like? But how does this tell me about my need to keep on praying and not be discouraged? Jesus, I’m not quite following you on this one.

“Pay attention to what the unjust judge is saying,” Jesus tells us, “And won’t God bring about justice for his chosen ones – those who are shouting to him day and night? Will God delay in helping them?” The answer seems to be obvious. Of course, God delays in helping God’s chosen ones. Just look at our personal experience and our history. God hardly ever seems to be in a hurry to set things right!

Except, that’s not really what Jesus says. You know, even Bible translators have a bad day now and then. The wording in the King James Version is much better than the NRSV for this verse. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”

Jesus’ story isn’t about how fast God’s response time is compared to that miserable judge. The parable is about how God hangs in there with us no matter how long it takes. The judge doesn’t care about the widow’s case. But God does! The judge delays because he’s unjust. God bears with us until the world is redeemed. If that terrible judge finally gets to the right decision, then certainly our loving God will get us to the New Life where all things are put right.

The story really is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. But it’s not the kind of praying we usually think about. Jesus is talking about the kind of praying we find in our first reading. Sometimes praying means wrestling with God until we’re ready to be blessed and changed. Answers to those prayers don’t come easy. And sometimes we walk away limping.

Many of you don’t know this. But I’m a widower. My first wife died not quite twelve years ago. I took her to the emergency room on November 8, 2010. She died at home on November 20. She was fifty-one years old. It was awful.

My world collapsed. Most of my prayers were screams of anguish and anger. The one answer I wanted I couldn’t get. Sometimes I thought God had abandoned me. But that didn’t happen. As I raged and wrestled, as I shook and shouted, the Holy Spirit remained within me and around me. God bore with me. God waited until God could help me limp across the river of acute grief onto a new path of life.

That’s the personal angle on this parable. God does bring about justice for God’s chosen ones. God bears long with us – even in the moments of deepest darkness. I can’t scare God off with my anger and despair. That’s my experience and my testimony. I’m always glad to talk about that if you’re interested.

But there’s more to the story here. God’s justice is personal, but it’s much more than that. That’s why I started with the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. She testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when she was beaten and abused, when she thought she might give up all hope. And she testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when the unjust judges of this world refused to give her justice.

You may be crying out to God day and night for personal rescue and relief. In Jesus, God is standing with you in that struggle. And God will bring healing and hope in the end. As a community of faith, we are called to cry out to God day and night for social justice as well. The widow represents all who are abused and oppressed by systems of unjust power. She reminds us that God intends to transform victims into victors – no matter how long it takes.

Jesus ends the parable with a question. All the best parables end with questions. I think all the best sermons do too.  “And yet,” Jesus wonders, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus isn’t wondering about faith in general. Jesus wonders about finding the widow’s faith here. Jesus wonders if he will find the sort of faith that hangs in there, that won’t give up, that won’t take no for an answer. Jesus wonders if he will find the kind of faith that won’t settle for injustice.

Jesus asks you and me that question. How will we answer?

[i] Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2014), pages 327-333).

Text Study for Luke 14:25-35 (Part Three)

“In this way, therefore,” Jesus says to the large crowds who were going about with him, “each of you who does not renounce control over all of what belongs to them will not be able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:33, my translation). It’s easy enough for me as a privileged White American male to imagine what this means for Philemon. But how does this work for Onesimus?

I have read, studied, and taught this little letter frequently over the last decade. I could spend three months of Bible study on the letter and still have more to discuss. How, then, can I pretend to capture anything in twelve to fifteen minutes at a worship service? The preacher needs to pick a lens through which to focus such a message. In my time and space, the most appropriate lens for that focus is the voice, experience, and story of Onesimus.

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Onesimus does not have a voice in the letter. Of course, only Paul and his colleagues have an actual voice in the letter. But it is addressed to Philemon as a subject and tends to handle Onesimus as more of an object. That’s certainly a major drawback to the letter. That drawback should be acknowledged in any sermon or message based on the text. I am being presumptuous in even attempting to give Onesimus a voice through my preaching, but I believe that sin is less grievous than allowing Onesimus to remain mute.

Philemon has enslaved Onesimus in his Colossian household. Onesimus has escaped that enslavement and fled to Paul. Paul is imprisoned, likely in Ephesus, about a hundred miles away. As I read the letter, I believe Onesimus became a Jesus follower during his time with Paul. He had fled to Ephesus in order to appeal to Paul as a “friend of the enslaver.” Sometimes, such associates might intervene on behalf of the enslaved person and ask for lenient treatment if the enslaved person would return.

It seems that Onesimus got far more than he expected or desired. Paul became his father in the faith. The words in verse ten sound like birth language. Onesimus has been reborn as a Jesus follower and as a member of Paul’s family. Since Paul referred to Philemon as “my brother” in verse seven, this means that Onesimus and Philemon are now “beloved brothers” (see verse 16) in Christ.

We know all this because Paul sent a letter to Philemon in order to resolve the broken relationship between these new siblings. It seems clear from the letter that Onesimus came back to Colossae along with the letter. It may be that Onesimus was commissioned to perform the letter aloud for the Colossian church at a worship service. I don’t think that’s the case, but it is possible. In any event, he was present when it was read.

I want to linger on that last sentence. If Philemon responded to the letter and the situation as a typical Roman head of household, things would go badly for Onesimus. At the very least he would be whipped severely. He would certainly be put in chains, at least for a while. He would probably be physically branded as a “runaway,” with that brand applied to one of his cheeks. Depending on Philemon’s mood and ownership philosophy, there was a fair chance that Onesimus would be publicly executed, most likely by crucifixion.

These would not be extreme responses. Bloody beatings, physical mutilation, and public execution were the standard responses to enslaved persons who were captured and brought back to their enslavers. Any other response would not be merely unusual. Any other response would be nothing short of a miracle.

So, why did Onesimus risk that response? Why did Onesimus return? That question still drives me to study and pray over this little letter.

Perhaps Paul, as Onesimus’ “father in faith” ordered him to return and work things out with his new sibling in Christ. Paul acknowledges that he has such authority over Philemon (verse 8). Paul certainly believed he had such authority over Onesimus as well, his child and co-worker in Christ. Paul, however, wanted Philemon to respond “on the basis of love,” not coercion. I believe Paul would apply the same standard to Onesimus.

I assume that Onesimus chose to return to Colossae. Paul likely suggested this course of action but left it up to Onesimus to decide “on the basis of love.” For Onesimus, Jesus’ words in Luke 14 were neither metaphor nor hyperbole. He was “hating” even life itself. He was likely going to Colossae to bear a cross. He was renouncing control over all that belonged to him in order to be a Jesus follower – in order to call a beloved sibling to the realities of life together in Christ.

Reading this little letter is a dangerous spiritual and moral adventure. Onesimus, the enslaved person, had no obligation to do anything to benefit Onesimus, his enslaver. The oppressed in principle are never obliged to help or save their oppressors. In fact, a correct reading of 1 Corinthians 7:21 indicates that enslaved Christians should gain their freedom if the opportunity presents itself. (The NRSV puts this option in a footnote rather than in the main text. I will post some information that makes the case for the alternative).

White Christian preachers have used Paul’s Letter to Philemon for centuries to undergird White Christian biblical arguments in favor of Black chattel slavery. That interpretation is clearly wrong and even heretical. But I don’t want to inadvertently allow it to sneak into this post or my thinking. And yet, Onesimus returns to Colossae. He returns to offer Philemon a chance at real life as a Jesus follower. And he does so at the risk of his own life.

Onesimus is the character in this drama who lives as a Jesus follower. He has willingly surrendered control of all that belongs to him – including the life he has gained through his escape. He faces the cross as a concrete reality and not just as the hardship of giving up chocolate for Lent. He has counted the costs of following and set out on the journey anyway. I have followed this arc of the story a dozen times over. And I am stunned by Onesimus’ courageous love every time.

There is so much wrong with Paul’s approach in this letter – at least from my contemporary point of view. Paul wheedles and cajoles. He flatters and fauns. He manipulates and shames. But he never directly asks Philemon to renounce enslavement – either of Onesimus in particular or of people in general. This letter is no treatise on the rights of humanity. And Paul is no proto-abolitionist. I wish Paul had done much better in this letter. Centuries of human suffering might have turned out differently if he had.

Yet, it would seem that the drama had some sort of happy ending. If not, I doubt we would have this letter in front of us. If Philemon had rejected Paul’s request, I doubt that either Onesimus or the letter would have survived. I’m not sure if Onesimus was freed, but I think he was. I’m not so sure about other enslaved persons in Philemon’s household.

We can be certain that this letter had little positive effect on Christian slaveholding from the first to the nineteenth centuries. In fact, it seems that the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians as well as First Timothy walk back any Christian progress that might have been made regarding human enslavement. I fear that the second and third generations of Christians were unwilling to risk persecution by the Roman Empire in response to any efforts to upend or reform the Roman system of enslavement. The rhetoric of the Lukan account reflects this cautious retrenchment. An exception can be found in the Book of Revelation, but its setting as a response to persecution simply makes my point.

What belongs to me that I must renounce in order to be a faithful Jesus follower? I probably won’t have to imitate Onesimus, but the question remains. Perhaps we can flip the question on its head for a moment. What has such a hold on me that I am not free to follow Jesus? That’s the real issue for Philemon, the one that Onesimus feels called to address. As long as Philemon was enslaved by his role as enslaver, he was not free to follow Jesus, no matter what he might say or do.

Do my possessions possess me? Does my anxiety about my own life keep me in bondage to sin, death, and evil? Do systems that privilege me actually keep me less than human in the process? Yes and yes and yes.

“The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life,” Bonhoeffer writes in the Call to Discipleship. “the call of Christ, [one’s] baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day [the Christian] encounters new temptations,” Bonhoeffer continues, “and every day [the Christian] must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars [the Christian] receives in the fray,” Bonhoeffer concludes, “are living tokens of this participation in the cross of [our] Lord” (page 99).

The whole thing scares me to death…

References and Resources

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, (1937) 1979.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Luke, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 1992.

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

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 2006.

Tiroyabone, Obusitswe. “Reading Philemon with Onesimus in the postcolony: exploring a postcolonial runaway slave hypothesis.” Acta Theologica 2016, no. supp24 (2016): 225-236.

Text Study for Luke 14 25 to 35 (Part One)

13 Pentecost C 2022

Most of us preachers will have to deal early on with Jesus’ demand that we “hate” any and all who would claim our loyalty and care in competition with our commitments as disciples.

My mom taught me that it was wrong to say I hated anyone. Perhaps you received similar formation. That instruction hasn’t kept me from hating people, but it certainly has kept me from saying it out loud or demonstrating my hatred too plainly. When I was growing up, saying I hated someone (or even hated some thing, like spinach) was regarded as just below uttering a profanity.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

If our listeners have received similar training from little on (and if some of them are forming their children in the same way), then they may not hear anything else in the text. With that in mind, it’s probably important to address Jesus’ command to hate before going on with further reflections. I’m not sure that’s how it will work out in my message this week, but I suspect that it’s a generally good policy with this and similar texts.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate their father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and furthermore, their own self,” Jesus declares to the crowd, “then they will not be able to be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, my translation and emphasis).

Richard Swanson urges us to resist the temptation to cushion the hammer blows of that demand. “It will not do to soften these words by appealing…to notions of ‘oriental hyperbole,’” he writes. Many interpreters tone down the violence of the verb, “and the whole offensive mess becomes a tame suggestion that one ought to value one’s religious faith relatively more even than one values family obligations,” Swanson continues.

But that won’t do, he concludes, “The word translated as ‘hate’ means ‘hate,” he argues. “That’s all there is to it” (page 189). Swanson reminds us that this demand is in the same context as the demand that disciples bear their own crosses. That demand can also be softened into a moralistic metaphor which turns nosy neighbors and morning halitosis into “crosses” to be born. Swanson reminds us that Jesus’ first listeners would have made no such connections. Jesus words about cross bearing “would have been heard as obscene and offensive” (page 189).

Levine and Witherington do not set the interpretive bar quite so high regarding verse 26. “Claims that the apparently hyperbolic statement is typical of Jewish wisdom literature or that that they represent a Semitism indicating not ‘hate’ but ‘love less’ are plausible,” they write.

They note that the Matthean version of the demand offers precisely this reading. “Yet for Luke,” they continue, “discipleship does not appear to be a both/and; it is rather an either/or. Everything that is not directly related to discipleship is to be rejected,” they continue, “to hang on to earthly life will be giving up the heavenly one, just as piling up treasures on earth depletes the heavenly treasury” (page 401).

Levine and Witherington note that our text is paired in some lectionaries with Philippians 3:7-9. While that’s not the case in the current Revised Common Lectionary, that’s a connection worth examining. They note that as Paul writes to the Philippian Christians, he is imprisoned and facing the prospect of Imperial execution because he will not put allegiance to the Empire above his allegiance to Jesus as Lord. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Philippi. “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7-8a, NRSV).

Paul’s words take this “love/hate” discussion out of the realm of abstractions and put it into a concrete and real-life situation. It would take just a pinch of incense on the altar and a few insincere words to satisfy the Imperial authorities. With those small concessions, Paul could maintain all the “gains” of his previous life. But, in comparison to “gaining Christ,” he regards all the other goods of his life as “rubbish.” The Greek word, of course, is something much more akin to “shit.”

Levine and Witherington offer a necessary caveat in this discussion of “hating” and “cross-bearing.” This “hatred” is not enacted on another. Nor is cross-bearing exercised in violence against another. “Such a total dedication therefore is not compatible,” they remind us, “with the dedication shown by those who would, in the name of God, blow up federal buildings or shopping malls, buses and trade centers. To take up the cross,” they conclude, “means to give up one’s own life rather than to take the lives of others” (page 402).

Malina and Rohrbaugh offer some extended remarks on “love” and “hate” in the first century world of our texts. While we post-industrial post-moderns would regard love and hate as purely internal states, that would not be the case in the first-century Mediterranean world. Malina and Rohrbaugh would understand “love” in that world as “group attachment” or “attachment to some person” (page 376). Love is, therefore, about loyalty and allegiance rather than warm feelings of affection.

“Hate” would, by contrast in this worldview, mean “disattachment, nonattachment, indifference.” These external states do not necessarily reflect internal feelings. “But it is the inward feeling of nonattachment along with the outward behavior bound up with not being attached to a group and the persons that are part of that group,” they write, “that hate entails” (page 376).

The social networks of the first-century Mediterranean world were exclusive in nature. They focused on “love” for in-group members and “hate” for out-group members. Those social networks included family and kin connections, village (which often was about the same network), ethnic groups, class and honor status connections, and perhaps national or tribal connections.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that Jesus calls for inclusive table fellowship. This is the import of the previous parables in chapter fourteen. “The break with biological families and social networks implied in Jesus’ call for inclusive table fellowship,” they write, “is here made explicit, and the price to be paid for it is spelled out” (page 369). That will also be the connection, I would observe, with the following chapter, where some grumble because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2).

Malina and Rohrbaugh speak the language of sociology when they describe groups in the early Christian movement as “fictive kin groups.” I have only to think of all the Christian congregations that describe themselves as church “families.” That metaphor wraps the “insiders” in a warm and comforting quilt of familiarity and belonging. That quilt feels like “love” to the insider. But it can present “outsiders” with an impenetrable wall of norms and expectations, assumptions and connections that are simply opaque to the newcomer. That wall feels like “hate” to the outsider.

I mention this as a way to accomplish two things. First, we can use this common experience of church communities to make familiar something that seems quite foreign in the text. The “love” that insiders experience may be an internal state, but it is primarily an external reality. People can belong to the same congregation, despise one another, and still consider themselves part of the same church “family.” Congregations may express great love for “outsiders” (notice the many signs that announce “all are welcome”) and yet act with “hate” through exclusionary habits and structures.

Second, we can remind folks that what we insiders experience as church is not what outsiders experience. If our communities are to be inclusive table fellowships on the model of Jesus’ preferred community, then we are called to see ourselves from the perspective of the outsiders. That’s difficult, because we will then see the “hate” we have demonstrated in our community boundaries, structures, habits, and values. We insiders won’t enjoy that experience (at least I hope we won’t).

The fall (in the United States context, anyway) used to be a time when people “returned” to churches in one way or another. While that’s not nearly so common as it was a generation ago, it still happens. This text can offer a helpful prod for Christian communities to examine our practices of hospitality and to discern whether they and we are, well, hospitable. Do we speak words of “love” in our publicity and practice works of “hate” in our behaviors?

This discussion moves us toward a more systemic and less psychological understanding of “love” and “hate” in the framework of our text. One of the marks of Whiteness, for example, is the assertion that racism is only about individual intentions and actions that consciously proceed from such intentions. Anything that does not flow from individual intentions is therefore not culpable since “that’s not what I intended.”

But if “love” and “hate” are descriptions first of external realities and secondarily of internal responses to those realities, then we can be and should be culpable first for the outcomes of those external realities. I may feel welcoming to all. I may not have a racist bone in my body. But if my behavior excludes others from the goods of community and society due to race-based policies, practices, and structures, then my behavior is racist regardless of my intentions.

We have moved beyond the discomfort Jesus causes because my mommy told me it was wrong to say I hated anyone. We have now moved into the discomfort of Whiteness that chooses to render invisible any systemic advantage we White people may have. If that advantage becomes visible, then we (those of good conscience, anyway) must grapple with the “hate” that is built into the systems that benefit us.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Luke, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 1992.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 14:1-14 (Part Four)

A tweet today from @BerniceKing displayed a photo of a sign.  Bernice King is daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sign reads, “Blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine brighter. Remember that.” That’s an appropriate comment on our text for this week. But it takes some context to see how the comment fits with the text.

Malina and Rohrbaugh help us to remember and understand that the culture in ancient Palestine (and in the Roman Empire as a whole) was a “limited good” society. Such a society is based on the certainty of scarcity. They describe this certainty as the conviction that “all goods existed in finite, limited supply and all goods were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger,” they continue, “a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else” (page 324).

Seating at a banquet or feast in this society was a marker of honor status. Honor was one of those limited goods in short supply. Therefore, the seating chart was a contested space that produced winners and losers in the honor/shame game. In a limited good society, solutions to conflicts are always win/lose propositions, zero sum games. In situations of scarcity, there are very few win/win scenarios.

In a limited good society, then, “blowing out someone else’s candle” might not make my candle any brighter. But it would mean that my candle was more noticeable and more noticed. Reducing and removing other candles was the way to make my light the most powerful. If the metaphor is stretching a bit too thin for you, in the limited good setting, putting others down was the way to raise myself up.

This means that if I elevate myself, then I must put someone else down. If I go higher, someone else is forced to go lower. If I have more, then you have less. There is, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note, an intimate relationship between power and wealth. While in modern societies, wealth leads to power, in ancient societies it was power that lead to wealth (page 324).

Therefore, competition for honor and status was also competition for wealth. Blowing out the candles of others wasn’t just a way to get status. Success in that game would produce the privilege, power, and property that marked “the good life” in ancient Roman society.

While there are differences between the ancient, pre-industrial societies of the Bible and modern, post-industrial societies in the West, there are at least as many similarities. In both theory and propaganda, we believe we live in an abundance society rather than a scarcity society. In practice, however, capitalism depends on scarcity to drive markets. And scarcity always leads to abuses of power and concentrations of wealth. One only has to reflect on the recent ups and downs of both gas prices and oil company profits to see the connection.

Scarcity-driven fear fuels the continued racism in the United States. It has formed this country’s immigration policy ever since the end of the Civil War. The concern is that Black people will get the vote and the power that comes with it. Then White people will have a smaller slice of the pie. The concern is that “hordes” of immigrants will flood our Southern borders and “take away our jobs.” Therefore, we build walls and empower border officials to use violence at will.

The White Evangelical Protestant Christians who have had disproportionate political power and cultural influence over the last forty years in the United States know that this imbalance is changing. Therefore, we experience White Christian Nationalism in the full light of day as the response. “We” will keep “our power and position” in the face of changing political, demographic, and economic realities. “We will not be replaced!” the signs say. Such power and position are experienced as diminished when shared. That’s zero-sum thinking in a limited good society.

Scarcity thinking is a tool to maintain the power, position, privilege, and property of elites (and their foolish and unwitting clients and lackeys) who benefit from the status quo. Abundance thinking destabilizes that system and is rejected by the status quo. If there’s enough at the banquet for everyone, then there’s no way to control and coerce people with scarcity. In abundance thinking, we light all the candles and illuminate the world.

Abundance thinking is basic to the Kin(g)dom of God. God has enough places at the table and to spare. There’s no point competing for seats because every spot is the place of honor. Every table is the head table. When you have everything, having “more” won’t improve your position. The call of the Church is to be the place where the world can see what God’s abundance looks like and how it works. We don’t do a very good job of that, but it remains our vocation.

That being said, what can it mean in the parable when the host (God) comes to me and says, “Friend, go up higher”? I hear an echo from the Gospel of John in this command. In John 12, Jesus tells the crowd, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, NRSV). Jesus uses the same verb for “lifted up” as we find in Luke 14:11 (translated there by the NRSV as “exalt”). Going up higher means going toward Jesus.

In John 12, Jesus is giving a preview of his crucifixion. The “lifting up” he means there is being elevated on the cross. In the Johannine account, Jesus’ crucifixion is his glorification. But that “lifting up” is not limited to the crucifixion. Instead, in the Johannine account, “lifting up” is the whole complex of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. We can see that in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:11-15.

When the Host commands me to go up higher, that is a command to embrace the cross, resurrection, and ascension as this saving reality unfolds in my life. It should come as no surprise that later in this chapter Jesus engages in a discourse on the cost of following him. When Jesus lifts us up, there will be a cross as part of the process. There will be some pain involved as we leave behind all the stuff we thought would save us from the scarcity of sin and death.

When the Host commands me to go up higher, the Host invites me to become ever more the image-bearing creature God made me to be from the beginning. In the Christian worldview, being saved is not only escape from what binds us. It is entrance into all that God has intended for us from the beginning. Any language about “going up” always reminds me of the idea of “theosis” – that we are made to grow ever more into the image and likeness of God, as we see that image and likeness displayed for us in Jesus Christ.

When I hear the language of “going up,” I want to make a connection to the words in Ephesians 1:17-23. The writer prays that we will have the eyes of our hearts enlightened in order to see the hope to which we’ve been called. That hope is the wealth of glory through Christ. Christ has been raised up to God’s right hand, and God raises us up and seats us with him in the heavenly places (see Ephesians 2:6). When we are called to “go up higher,” not even the sky’s the limit.

Going up higher, in this image, doesn’t mean that someone else must go lower. Otherwise, the text is just a lesson in first-century table manners. Instead, we are called to relinquish our need to get ahead by leaving others behind. That’s not how the values of the Kin(g)dom work. Our call as Jesus followers is to begin to live in that abundance here and now. That call means we resist and resign from systems that create only winners and losers. That will cost us in this life, but we our place at the table is not for this life only.

“Friend, go up higher.” Answer the call to live into a better you. That “you” is singular when directed to us as individual Christians. It is plural when directed to the Church, the body of Christ. I could hear a sermon this week from my ELCA colleagues about the need for our congregations, synods, and denominations to go up higher – to move beyond petty anxieties about survival and solvency, and to live into the abundance that we claim God gives to us in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It’s hard for institutions to live in abundance, but with God all things are possible.

Resources and References

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

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Text Study for Luke 14:1-14

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” The quote is attributed originally to Benjamin Franklin. I adhere to this principle in a general sort of way. My stuff is usually in the neighborhood of where it ought to be. Every so often (when I need to feel better about life in general) I go on an organizing campaign in my office or my shop. I get most things in their place, at least for a while.

I’m not one of those people who draws the shapes of the tools on a peg board and labels the spot with a stencil. But I envy the people who do that.

Photo by cottonbro on

We humans like to have things in their proper places. We are mapmakers. Of course, we make physical maps of our surroundings in order to know where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. But more than that, we make mental maps of our lives and experiences.

Not only do we have spots on our mental maps for our stuff. We also have spots on our mental maps for people. Some of those people spots are personal and reflect our relationships to others. Some of those people spots are more general and reflect our perceptions of and prejudices toward others. We can call those generalized people spots stereotypes. We hang on to them not so much because they’re accurate but more so because they’re handy.

Because we’re also hierarchical critters, we tend to create those people maps in rank orders. Some spots on the map are better, and some are worse. We may rank people based on our own interests, needs, and preferences. We may rank people based on some pecking order and our relative place in that order. Unless we subject our maps to a critical evaluation, we will probably rank people in ways that always benefit us.

One way to think about racism is to see it as a way of mapping people places, both psychologically and politically. We put people into places based on their “types” without considering them as individuals. Beverly Daniel Tatum notes that this type-mapping (stereotyping) is strongly influenced by our cultural surroundings. She points to a study of children at age three who had already developed such type-mapping. “Though I would not describe three-year-olds as prejudiced,” she writes, “the stereotypes to which they have been exposed become the foundation for the adult prejudices so many of us have” (page 84).

When we take our people-maps as objective descriptions of reality rather than personal perceptions, omissions, distortions, and stereotypes, we have developed a prejudice. “Prejudice,” Tatum writes, “is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information” (page 85). Since we humans all make mental maps, and since we rely on those maps to guide us through our worlds, we all have prejudices of various types.

One of the type-markers that is most salient in American culture is race. Tatum reminds us of David Wellman’s definition of racism – “a system of advantage based on race” (page 87). We White people take our inherited people maps, treat them as objective truth, and then enact them as laws, social practices, economic systems, and assessments of relative human worth. The White racism in America declares that White supremacy is the natural order of things – that our flawed and twisted White-centered maps are objective descriptions of Reality and therefore must be embodied and enacted.

I think of the infamous “Mudsill Speech” delivered by James Henry Hammond on the floor of the United States Senate in 1858. “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” Hammond declared. “That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have,” Hammond argued, “or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government,” he continued, “and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.”

Hammond asserted that the class in question was Black people. “We use them for our purpose,” he said, “and call them slaves.” He argued that this way of organizing human society conformed to the law of nature. He was sure that such a system was “everywhere” and “eternal.” This is the very definition of taking our human people maps and imposing them on the world around us by law, by custom, by habit, and by violence.

We create our maps naturally and constantly. We tend not to even think about how we expect to have a place for everything and everything in its place. Then we come up with reasons why our particular map is the way it is, and why our map is the right and best map. That’s how ideologies tend to work. We humans engage in a practice, and then we create stories to justify that practice and to serve our interests and the interests of our in-group.

Sabbath is a fine way to organize time – until it is used to oppress some and exalt others. A seating chart at a banquet can reduce the chaos and facilitate the feeding. But it can also tell a story about which people are “better” and which people are “worse.” Our human hierarchies are rarely rooted in any objective measures of actual difference between people. Instead, they are stories we tell to make sure that we are at the top (or at least not at the very bottom).

Perhaps this is part of what we read in this week’s text. It’s not so much that we should always debase ourselves rather than risk being debased. That’s a fine piece of social wisdom, encapsulated in the first reading from Proverbs 25. If all we’re getting in our text, however, is some advice on first-century table manners, it’s not a very interesting text. I think we get much more.

I want to suggest that Jesus is calling us to challenge our own stories about proper place. Don’t take your stories and maps at face value, especially when they conveniently serve your interests and agendas. Yes, my natural tendency is to seek out the highest place on the organizational chart. And I can come up with a very good story about why that is good and right and true. But that very good story may be very good to me only because it serves my needs – not because it reflects any sort of reality.

Of course, I may have learned a story that always puts me at the bottom of the chart. And I may have come to believe, or at least to acquiesce, to that story. But what if that story is wrong? What if it determines the seating chart on the basis of systemic violence rather than on the basis of any facts? When the truth comes out, I may be called up higher.

The story that determines our worth, that gives us our place at the table, is the story of God’s grace, mercy, and love in Christ. That’s the story we hear and tell as Jesus followers. In our story, our friends and siblings and relatives and rich neighbors have better seats because they are worth more to us. In God’s story, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind have seats at the table because they are worth more to God.

This is certainly part of the Good News of the text – and not just for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. If my place on the map and at the table depends on what I can produce or manipulate or coerce, then my place is always at risk. Life is then nothing more than a bloody competition for dominance. I will always be looking over my shoulder lest someone pass me up. And I will always be looking up the ladder for the next chance to advance. The finish line is a moving target, and life is an unending round of anxious acquisition.

Some people like that story – especially those at the top currently and those who would like to displace them. But that’s not God’s story. In God’s story we begin with our place at the table and live in the joy of the feast. In God’s story, life is gift rather than accomplishment, grace rather than gain. I know it’s not the “American way.” It’s not late-stage capitalism. The Kin(g)dom is not a meritocracy. I don’t write it; I just report it.

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” That is God’s organizing principle as well – if we understand that the place of everything, and everyone, is in God’s loving care. Our stories of dominance and hierarchy are not God’s stories. Those stories lead to systemic violence, abuse, oppression, and death. Those stories leave us scratching our way to the top of the heap while we debase ourselves as less and less human. God’s story lifts us up to be the image-bearing people God made us to be.

Can we organize our life together as disciples to reflect God’s story rather than our stories?

Resources and References

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Text Study for Luke 14 1 7-14 (Part One)

12 Pentecost C

You may have heard or read about the new contract for teachers in the Minneapolis Public Schools. The contract, negotiated by district and teachers’ union officials and approved by a vote of union members, includes provisions that would protect teachers of color from layoffs if there are staff cuts in the future due to budget cuts. Union members voted about three to one in favor of the new contract, which also included higher pay, smaller class sizes and more mental health support for students.

The language of the contract includes an exception to the seniority-based system for reducing and laying off staff. The exception is for “teachers who are members of populations underrepresented among licensed teachers in the District.” While this language is not specifically race-based, racial groups are certainly among the populations included in the language of the exception.

Photo by Ann H on

In addition, there are provisions for additional anti-racist work and policies in the contract. This contract responds to the wide gap between the racial makeup of the student body in the Minneapolis School District and the racial makeup of the current faculty. Efforts to attract and recruit faculty of color are enhanced under the terms of the contract in order to continue to address the disparity and improve the educational outcomes for students of color and for the student body as a whole.

The seniority rule in many workplaces is “last hired, first fired.” That rule was a law in Minnesota until 2017 when it was repealed. It remains the rule in many teacher contracts and most other workplaces, not only in Minnesota but across the country. The exceptions built in to the new teachers’ contract in Minneapolis are going to result in lawsuits to have the exception removed based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. constitution. That has been the response to similar contracts in other places around the country.

I don’t typically follow the details of teacher contracts in Minneapolis, or even in my local school district. This situation first made the headlines in a variety of politically conservative news outlets. It was then picked up by most news reporting organizations. It has been reported as igniting a “firestorm” of controversy. It has been reported as targeting white teachers and thus as being “racist.”

It’s important to remember that no teachers are being considered for layoff at this point. In fact, the Minneapolis School District is just as short on qualified and licensed teachers and prospective teachers as most of the rest of the districts in the United States. Nonetheless, some outlets report that Minneapolis teachers are “outraged” at the contract – presumably the one in four who voted against it. In a time when the Supreme Court of the United States is preparing to hear and rule on some Affirmative Action cases in the new term, this conversation is politically and legally pertinent.

Why do I lead off the week with this reporting and reflection? I do so because our text seems like the epitome of an anti-meritocracy text. Those who are up in arms about the Minneapolis teachers’ union contract declare that it is “unfair.” People may be laid off even though they are more senior and better credentialed than some who will be retained. And one basis of that retention will be skin color or other ethnic markers.

What about merit? What about fairness? What about equality before the law? Those who came first should get priority and preference. Those who have put in the time and done the work should get the rewards merited by that effort. That’s the American way, after all, isn’t it? Work hard, put in the time, obey the rules, and you will be rewarded by progress and success, right? We White Americans are all in favor of “equal opportunity.” But we’re typically dead set against any system that moves us toward “equal outcomes.”

If I were one of those hypothetical [White] teachers laid off while other, less-experienced and less-credentialed teachers of color still had their jobs, I know I would be angry. I know I would struggle with a sense of injustice. I would wonder why I had put in all that time and effort just to have it thrown back in my face when the money gets tight. I would wonder how I was going to feed my family and pay the mortgage. I would be pissed off and afraid.

I get it. As that hypothetical [White] teacher, I had been operating under one set of social, political, and economic rules. Now, seemingly out of the blue, I am subject to another set of rules. I would have to think long and hard to make sense of this for myself and for the system in which I operated.

Part of the hard work for White people in this situation is to acknowledge that the rules were not neutral before. Hiring, education, advancement, and tenure systems have all been set up for centuries to benefit White people. That White privilege is built into the system up front.

All we have to do is look at the differential outcomes for White people and people of color. The numbers don’t lie. Based on the numbers we can draw one of two conclusions. People of color are defective in some way, and thus the system works as designed. Most of us, these days, would reject that premise when it is put so simply. The other possible conclusion is that White people get invisible advantages (and thus the system works as designed).

The second possible conclusion is the more accurate description of the social, political, and economic rules under which we White people have operated for the last five hundred years. If that privilege is built into the front end of the process, then it will be spit out the back end of the process – unless that privilege is interrupted somewhere along the way. The Minneapolis teachers’ contract is written in such a way as to interrupt that systemically built-in privilege and to move that faculty toward a more just and representative makeup.

I would suggest that one theme in our gospel text this week is about interrupting systems of privilege. “For the ones who elevate themselves shall be humbled, and the ones who humble themselves shall be elevated” (Luke 14:11, my translation). It would seem that Jesus followers are in the business of interrupting privilege and disrupting human hierarchies. And for those of us who are privileged disciples, that will mean taking a lower place.

The words of the Magnificat in Luke 1 come back to us now with a sharper sociopolitical edge. Mary sings that the Lord “has cast down the powerful from thrones and elevated the humbled” (Luke 1:52, my translation). The verb and noun in the second half of the verse are the same as in Luke 14:11. When we hear the Magnificat, we might be able to distance ourselves from this verse, since we don’t appear to be enthroned. But our text this week brings the issue to our tables and meetings, our structures and systems.

Disciples interrupt systems of privilege and disrupt hierarchies of power – in our own lives and in the world where we live and serve. Those of us who live with some measure of privilege will pay a price when the world is turned upside down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective). Thus, it is no accident that our text is followed by words about the cost of such discipleship. And it may be that the Lukan audience has lost their passion for such upturning, as is evidenced in the small parable about tasteless salt, in Luke 14:34-35.

I would not tackle the Minneapolis teachers’ contract directly in a sermon except in very limited circumstances. I fear that most listeners, especially in predominantly White congregations, would miss the point and get lost in protecting our privileges. But I do think that it’s a timely and useful case study for us as preachers to think through what this text can actually mean for our listeners and for the Church in such a time as this.

I would suggest that in Luke 14, Sabbath observance (a good thing in and of itself) has been coopted in the service of systemic privilege and power. That’s why Jesus takes it on with such directness and even hostility. His questions are directed toward those who benefit from the system as it is. His actions are directed toward those who need the system to be different.

When the system is interrupted, people are released from their bondage. Thus, for example, the man with dropsy is healed “and released.” The NRSV translates the verb in Luke 14:4 as “sent him away.” But I think that misses the significance here. A hierarchy is disrupted. A system is interrupted. A man is healed of his disease and released from his bondage to the system. Even if it seems repetitive, given last week’s reading, I would include Luke 14:2-6 in this week’s reading as an illustration of Jesus’ Kin(g)dom program.

One of the challenges in this text, perhaps, is to identify and proclaim the Good News for our [privileged] listeners. I want to think about that and come back to it in the next post.

Text Study for Luke 12:49-59 (Part Two)

This text creates all sorts of headaches and challenges for preachers. I think the first task for the preacher may be to help the congregants appreciate what we Jesus followers mean when we speak of the “judgment” God. Psalm 82 is helpful in deepening the appreciation. I think that the psalm should be read in the worship service. Perhaps it could be used liturgically as a call to worship and/or a confession of faith.

I think the psalm is helpful because it reminds us that while God’s judgment is without partiality, it is certainly not without priority. When the lesser “gods” noted in the text show favoritism toward the wicked, they are rebuked by the Most High God. This rebuke requires a time of awed reflection, as indicated by the selah after the verse.

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The priority of God’s judgment is to give justice to the weak and the orphan, to maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. The result of that judgment is the rescue of the weak and the lowly from the hand of the wicked. The impartiality of God’s judgment results in salvation for the oppressed and condemnation for the oppressors. The impact of God’s judgment depends on one’s position in the “system” of this world.

Therefore, God’s judgment is bad news for those who benefit from an unjust status quo. And it is good news for those who are oppressed and victimized by that unjust status quo. I don’t think some of our listeners understand that God’s judgment can be good news for at least some people. Perhaps that is because, in most American Christian congregations at least, the majority of our listeners possess power, position, privilege and property out of proportion to their need.

As the psalm reminds us, judgment by God leads to justice for the oppressed. This is not obvious to the “wicked” in the psalm. Those who benefit from oppressing others “have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness” (Psalm 82:5, NRSV). When God’s judgment takes place, the foundations of the earth are indeed shaken for the wicked (and for the oppressed as well, but in a good way). If we find ourselves in the company of the privileged, we perhaps have reasons to fear God’s judgment.

Certainly, this meditation on the nature of God’s judgment can have a deeply personal dimension. I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I am curved in on myself in sin. I wish to become my own god and displace the love, grace, and mercy of God with my own projects and priorities. Because of those realities, even though I am one of the children of the Most High, on my own I “shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:7, NRSV).

Therefore, I am justifiably afraid of God’s judgment for myself. One function of God’s Law is to make clear to me my own depth of sin and rebellion. If I am willing to be as aware of myself as I am of current weather conditions (to return us to a metaphor in the Gospel reading), then I will clearly see my predicament and my inability to rescue myself.

The Good News of the Gospel is that this bondage to sin and blindness to reality is not the last word in my life. In fact, the fire of God’s judgment will burn away all that which binds me to sin, death, and the devil. While that process is not pain-free, it is also not punishment. It is, rather, the purification which allows me to grow into the fully human person that God created me to be from the beginning. That purification is a daily return to my baptism into Christ in this life, and it will be fulfilled in the new life with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

The purifying power of God’s judgment in Christ is not purely a personal matter, however. If we read Psalm 82 in good faith, we see that this judgment re-orders our relationships with ourselves, our neighbors, and all of Creation. Therefore, God’s judgment is always concerned with systemic as well as personal injustice. Those two dimensions of human life cannot be separated and are mutually interdependent.

For example, if I am a person of privilege (and I am), God’s judgment is going to go hard on me from a systemic perspective. Loss of privilege is always experienced as discrimination and even persecution by the person who is losing that privilege. That explains the panic among many White Americans these days, as American society struggles to achieve actual equity for all people, rather the continuing dominance of White Americans over all others. Redressing this inequity is going to be painful for the privileged – and it is.

The price of that privilege, however, is to be people who depend on injustice for our identity. That system cannot be sustained. Jesus longs to free us from our foolishness and to restore us to full humanity – humanity that does not depend on regarding others as subhuman. When God’s judgment is applied to us, we who are privileged face a choice. Will we reject God’s justice and cling to our privilege? Or will we rejoice in God’s justice and take our proper place in the human family?

I think there is an ongoing conversation between our text and the Parable of the Rich Fool. A man comes to Jesus and asks him to “divide” the family inheritance between the man and his brother. Jesus asks the man who made Jesus the arbitrator in this case. The word for “arbitrator” literally means something like the “right divider.” It’s not Jesus who is dividing the man from his brother. It is the man’s lust for possessions which causes the division.

With that, Luke 12 launches into an extended discussion of the power of stuff to divide us from ourselves, from our neighbors, and from Creation. That’s a fundamental theme in this chapter. If we return to the matter of White privilege in America, we can see the divisive power of stuff at work. We White people have been desperate for centuries to protect what we think “belongs to us.” The identified reason for the Civil War, for example (as delineated in articles of secession by several states) was to protect the capital tied up in enslaved human beings.

There are times when division is perhaps necessary. But let us be divided only for a time and for the right reasons. Part of our call is to discern when our call is to draw apart and when our call is to draw together. That’s true for individuals, communities, and churches. We will sometimes differ on that discernment, even within our own households. If what is dividing us is our stuff – our power, privilege, position, and property – this section of Luke is clear that such concerns are not worthy of such division.

I would suggest that the text makes clear that division is not and dare not be the final word. In fact, in the face of judgment, we are best served by settling the case and making peace with our accuser. That’s why I think we must read verses 57-59 as part of our lection. In addition, I would remind us of the text that immediately follows our text. The reminder in Luke 13:1-9 is that there is time to think again, time to repent, time to work things out – even when we think there is no more time.

I hope this is helpful as we grapple with these difficult texts.

Text Study for Luke 12:49-59 (Part One)

I’ve often said that once I see something I can’t “unsee it.” I know from experience how true this is. But I also know that I am quite able to refuse to continue seeing something I find uncomfortable, challenging, or demanding. In fact, this temptation to refuse to continue seeing is an expected part of a process of coming to a deeper and fuller vision of things.

For example, in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum quotes the work of Janet Helms on the developmental psychology behind “the abandonment of individual racism and the recognition of and opposition to institutional and cultural racism.” That psychology unfolds as a process of six “states of mind,” according to Helms: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independent, immersion/emersion, and autonomy” (see Tatum, pages 186-187).

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I want to focus on the state of mind that Helms calls “reintegration.” That’s a stage in this identity-formation process where White people might succumb to the temptation to refuse to continue to see. Disintegration happens when I as a White person begin to grow in my awareness of racism and White privilege. That awareness can happen in a variety of ways. Regardless, that’s when I begin to see what I can no longer “unsee.”

That new awareness, however, produces deep discomfort, anxiety, and distress. It can and does result in changes in my relationships with other White people, some of whom are quite dear to me. The temptation is to retreat from the disintegration of my comfortable White-dominant worldview and to reintegrate comfortably into a White-dominant world. Reintegration can be marked by fear and anger directed toward people of color and/or the temptation “to slip back into collusion and silence” (see Tatum, pages 194-195).

I cannot unsee something once I’ve seen it. But I can refuse to continue to see it. I can pretend I haven’t really seen anything new or different. I can return to my comfortable assumptions about a world where I haven’t seen. Of course, the cost of that is a level of self-deception that is destructive to me and to those around me. It’s no wonder that in this disintegration state of mind I will be tempted to blame Black and Brown people for my discomfort and to further victimize the victims of my oppression.

I mention this set of ideas because of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:56 – “Hypocrites! You know how to discern the appearance of the earth and the sky, but not how to discern this present moment?” In the narrative flow, these words are addressed to the crowds (in addition to the disciples). Why does Jesus call them “hypocrites”?

The basic meaning of the Greek word for “hypocrite” is “one who wears a mask.” It’s a word from the world of Greek theater. In that theater, players often wore masks to represent the characters which they portrayed. Acting was regarded as a dishonorable profession because the players gave over their bodies to the “control” of their characters. Since they could be so “dishonest” as to portray someone else, how could such folks be trusted to be honest in other matters? At least, that’s how the cultural logic of the time went.

In the gospels, Jesus directs the label in most cases to the religious leaders who oppose him and his program of reform and renewal. Perhaps some of those leaders are in the crowds that Jesus addresses. After all, those leaders would be the ones tasked and trusted with helping the people to discern the signs of the times. I think Jesus accuses the religious leaders of refusing to continue to see. The evidence of Jesus’ authority is obvious in the gospel accounts, and the leaders have seen that evidence. They can only refuse to continue to see. Thus, they and those who follow them are pretending not to see. I think this is the basis of the label, “Hypocrites!”

Faced with the evidence of their senses, these leaders choose not to discern the time and then act like they cannot. I think it’s important to remind our listeners of the word for “time” Jesus uses in this verse. It’s not “chronos,” ordinary clock and calendar time. Instead, it is “kairos.” This is the time of fulfillment, of completion, of decision. Kairos is time pregnant with meaning and purpose. This is an inflection point in history, a moment of choice, a time of ultimate urgency. That’s the time to be discerned.

Is it any wonder the guardians of the status quo would refuse to see and pretend the inability to respond? After all, Jesus has just described to his disciples how his mission will turn the world upside down and inside out. He has come to bring the refining fire of God’s justice. This new regime will divide people, even in the most important social unit of the time, the family. If I refuse to see what has been revealed, perhaps it will just go away on its own. Then I can get back to business as usual.

You might think that I’m putting a bit too much weight on this paragraph as an address to the religious leaders charged with community discernment. But notice something about verse 53. In at least some editions of the Greek New Testament, that verse is shown to be a bit of poetry. That poetic citation may be an allusion to Micah 7:6, at least according to some of the critical apparatus in the text. I think that’s a helpful connection and worth pursuing a bit.

If Luke 12:53 is, in fact, an allusion to Micah 7:6, then we have an example of the “little text, big context” rule of interpretation. We are invited to use scripture to interpret scripture. Take a look at Micah 7:1-6 to see that bigger context. Micah’s oracle of judgment in that passage is addressed to the people as a whole. But there is particular condemnation for those who have leadership responsibilities among the people – the official and the judge are more interested in bribes than in truth.

What divides the people from one another is not so much an inconvenient truth as it is the desire to exploit one another for personal gain. Even the very best of the people are thorny stems, prickly and not safe to deal with up close. Friends cannot be trusted. Lovers might spill your secrets for personal gain. Family members regard one another with contempt. Enemies share households together.

Jesus’ brief allusion takes us to that place. Once we see it, perhaps we cannot unsee it. But it is so distressing that we might want to go back to a place of willful and comfortable blindness. It’s not that we cannot see. It’s that seeing asks so much of us – and we may refuse to pay that price for honesty and truth. But that level of self-delusion is unsustainable. Reality will not be denied.

For a moment, perhaps, we find ourselves back with the Rich Fool. There he is, enjoying his obscene abundance. But that very night, his life was required of him. Eating, drinking, and merry-making were self-deceptive distractions – nothing more.

This line of exegesis demands, I think, that we should read verses 57-59 as part of our pericope. Jesus gives another way of thinking about the urgency of the moment. As you head toward the trial of your life, that is not the time to pretend that all is well, and nothing needs to be done. That sort of pretending will simply land you in jail for life. The only thing to do is to deal with the reality in front of you and see what you really do see.

This is part of the law in the text, the word of the Lord that calls us to account. This is the theology of the cross at work as well. The theology of the cross always calls a thing what it is and not other than it is. The theology of glory always wants to call good evil and evil good. The theology of the cross is that power which will not let us “unsee” things. The theology of glory is that human temptation to refuse seeing so we may continue on a comfortable path at the expense of others.

I think this text challenges us to name those things we refuse to see. We might name things in our personal lives, in our church, in our world. Any refusal to see always protects some power, privilege, position, or property we might hold dear. But at some point, our very lives will be required of us, and our hypocrisy will be unveiled.

The law always leads us to the gospel. That which is veiled shall be unveiled. That which has been seen shall be brought to light. That which was constructed (such as White Christian supremacy and nationalism) can be dismantled. That which binds and burdens us can be removed. That which chokes and challenges us can be burned away…if only we will allow it?