Anything Good? Text Study for John 1:43-51, part 1

Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” After all, Nazareth was just one more backwater hick town where good things rarely happened. The real action in that neck of the woods was certainly in Sepphoris, six miles to the west. Sepphoris was the new regional capital, shiny and sleek with Roman plumbing and streets. It was a city of theaters and thoroughfares, with culture and class – at least when compared with dumpy, frumpy old Nazareth. Who in their right mind would bother with someone from such a hole in the wall kind of place?

I lived twelve miles from town, so I rode the bus to school an hour each way when I was younger. The last on and first off kids were from a small hamlet about three miles west of town. The hamlet didn’t even deserve its own name. It was just West Somewhere. The village was unincorporated, a place for freight trains to stop and do their business at the grain elevator along the tracks. Property taxes were low because there were no paved streets, city water, snow removal, or police protection. It was a Nazareth kind of place.

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The kids from West Somewhere weren’t really different from anyone else. They certainly weren’t that much poorer than someone like me riding that bus. But they came from a place with a reputation for being dumpy and frumpy, slow and stupid. The kids from West Somewhere carried that baggage the first time they got on the bus. They knew it. The rest of us knew it. No one ever questioned that reality. The prejudice directed at the village was part of their inheritance, and it made life harder for them every day.

Nazareth was a West Somewhere kind of place. That’s why Nathanael asks his snarky, snide, rude, and rhetorical question. Can anything good come out of West Somewhere? Instead of arguing the point, Philip simply says, “Come and see.” Nathanael, to his credit, went and saw. That is perhaps enough to honor Nathanael a bit on this day.

He could have dismissed the invitation without a second thought. We may be tempted to do the same. As we preach on this Sunday of the annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, we white people will continue in our complicity if we slide past the opportunity to point out and repent of our own past and ongoing prejudices that produce racist policies. Can anything good come out of the West Somewheres in our lives?

The West Somewhere of my experience sprang up in response to the conjunction of railroad tracks and the grain trade. There was a time when it was a going concern. Only later did the decline and the demeaning descriptions take hold. But many of our West Somewheres exist because of political policies and practices designed to keep Black and Brown people locked in such places in perpetuity. Nazareth was bypassed intentionally and left in the dust by the new Roman development. That sort of behavior is always how domination systems work.

“Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation,” writes Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law, “but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States. The policy was so systematic and forceful,” Rothstein continues, “that its effects endure to the present time” (page viii). Rothstein documents the creation and enforcement of these public policies across time and across the United States with painful clarity and depressing detail.

I live in Omaha, Nebraska, so I don’t have to look far for evidence of Rothstein’s argument. In our city the places are not West Somewhere but rather “North O” and South Omaha. The segregation of North Omaha can be traced to a pretty specific historical event – the lynching of Will Brown in 1919. Whites in Omaha rioted for several days as part of this public and extra-judicial murder. Brown was shot and hung and his body was burned in retribution for an alleged sexual assault on a white woman. The story is well-documented at the History Nebraska website – “Lest We Forget: The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha’s 1919 Race Riot.”

The mayor of Omaha barely escaped his own hanging and was never the same thereafter. Military forces were required to set up a perimeter designed, it was said, to protect the Black population. In fact, that perimeter became the boundary beyond which Black citizens of Omaha were not allowed to pass. Redlining and violence maintained the boundary for decades, and it has changed little to this day. Any possibility that the flourishing Black community might grow beyond these limits was cut off by early 1920.

Mainline Christian congregations within or near that boundary began moving to other areas of the city almost immediately. That process of moving accelerated after the Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954. Predominantly white congregations moved west with their congregants into areas closed to Black and Brown (and often Jewish) people. The combination of that exodus and the post-war baby boom resulted in a sort of “golden age” for those congregations in the 1960’s and 1970’s while North O burned figuratively and literally with the rage born of injustice.

Some of us live in towns that don’t share that explicit history where West Somewheres have been created by public policy, realty and banking practice, and routine violence. Instead, we may come from towns and cities where Black and Brown people were systematically excluded and/or removed in the period between the World Wars. Cities and towns in Nebraska were often official or unofficial “sundown towns,” where the Other was present only at grave personal and physical risk.

Why should this come out of the Sunday gospel reading? “The biblical town of Nazareth was the home of Mary and Joseph,” notes Jerome Morris, “Nazareth and the people who lived there were poor, neglected and despised. Yet out of this despair emerged Jesus, the Liberator.” Morris continues, “Nazareth metaphorically represents the scholarly and public portrayal of urban and predominantly African American schools and communities today.”

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? We know, of course, the answer to Nathanael’s question. Everything good is coming out of Nazareth. The challenge for Nathanael and for us is to recognize the gift from God coming into the world from that backwater hick town.

Then perhaps we can be better equipped to recognize and resist our own prejudices and policies that relegate Black and Brown people to “that part of town” so we privileged white people can maintain our hold on the rest of the property. Can anything good come out of Nazareth, or West Somewhere, or North Omaha? From there comes the Son of God, the King of Israel!

“What good can come from places of marginalization and oppression? A people who are willing to fight for the dignity with which God has endowed them,” writes Colleen Wessel-McCoy. “Leaders who see the liberation in the Bible and know God wants it to be real for them. Organizers who go out from places that are seen as nowhere and change not only those places but the whole nation. The end of segregation, the insurance of voting rights, non-discrimination in employment and housing — these were not coming from Washington, D.C. They only became a reality when people from the margins insisted that they be so.”

If we ignore the good that comes out of West Somewhere, we white people condemn ourselves to a sub-human existence. There is the obvious reality to which Rothstein points. “Racial polarization stemming from our separateness has corrupted our politics,” he writes, “permitting leaders who ignore the interests of white working-class voters to mobilize them with racial appeals” (page 195). But the cost of white supremacy for whites goes far deeper.

The system of White supremacy eats white people hollow, morally and spiritually. “The white southerner had to lie continuously to himself in order to justify his world,” writes Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. in Begin Again. “Lie that the black people around him were inferior. Lie about what he was doing under the cover of night. Lie that he was a Christian…the accumulation of lies,” Glaude concludes, “suffocated the white southerner” (page 49). And it suffocates those of us not so far south as well.

“Lie that he was a Christian.” I feel that sentence as a knife to the heart because I know it was true in 1919 and 1939 and 1959. And it is even more true in 2021. Domination is no longer a means but rather the end in itself. And the only White identity remaining is that of Master.

Apparently, not even the identity of Christian can stand up to this psychic cancer without effort. Glaude quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech from February of 1968. King said, “so long as the lie [of inherent Black inferiority] was believed the brutality and criminality of conduct toward the Negro was easy for the conscience to bear” (page 64).

Whether we white preachers will take the risk or not, this text on the day before MLK presents an opportunity to reflect on whether we can be released from our own deceit. Once again, we must determine if this deceit will be easy for our consciences to bear.

More on the gospel reading in the next post.

References and Resources

https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/lest-we-forget-lynching-will-brown-omaha%E2%80%99s-1919-race-riot.

Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.

Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Wessel-McCoy, Colleen. https://kairoscenter.org/can-anything-good-come-nazareth-sermon-celebrating-martin-luther-king/

After January 6 — Thinking More than One Thing at a Time

It’s January 7, 2021—the day after another of those days that will live in infamy in American history. The responses are predictable. This is not America. This is not who we are. This is a low point, but tomorrow we get better. I’m waiting for some hybrid of “It’s morning in America” and “Yes, we can!”

I appreciate the hunger for hope in such responses, the aspirational energy, the urge to reach beyond our grasp. I’d like to get paid on the basis of how many times people quote Lincoln’s longing for the better angels of our nature. In fact, I do believe that some things will get better as a result of the obscene debacle in the capitol of the United States of America.

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I also believe that some things will get worse. That’s what so many people struggle to embrace – that the American project is now and always has been a dual process phenomenon. “History duels,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “the undeniable history of antiracist progress, the undeniable history of racist progress” (page 33).

That dueling consciousness, that dual process phenomenon, is the framework for a great variety of competing arcs in American history. Liberal democracy duels with strong man authoritarianism (just revisit the rhetoric of the nineteen twenties and thirties if you have any doubts about that). Equitable distribution of wealth duels with increasing concentration of privilege, power, and position. White male supremacy duels with the just demands of others for a place at the table.

No matter how pure our aspirations, we are not all one thing. I was reminded again this morning of Maya Angelou’s line: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” We white, privileged, comfortable, unconscious folks might wish that January 6, 2021, was an aberration, an outlier, a blip on the cultural radar, an exception. We cling to the illusion that this is not America.

But it is. It is not all that America is, but it is some of what America is. We who are privileged must give up our insistence on uncomplicated thinking and try to learn a thing or two about reality in this society, historically and in the present. We have to learn how to think two things at the same time, both of which are to one degree or another true.

I have recently read Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s book, Begin Again. Glaude admits that this book, focused as it is on the thought and writing of James Baldwin, is neither biography nor literary criticism nor history. “Instead,” he writes, “Begin Again is some combination of all three in an effort to say something meaningful about our current times” (Kindle location 191). In my view, Glaude succeeds brilliantly.

While W. E. B. DuBois famously wrote about the double consciousness necessary for Black Americans in his context, Baldwin explored, whether he wanted to or not, the double consciousness of White Americans. “To be sure,” Glaude writes, “the idea of America is in deep trouble.” Baldwin uncovers and returns to this insight repeatedly.

“Though many will find consolation in the principles of the founders or in the resilience of the American story,” Glaude continues, “the fact remains that we stand on a knife’s edge.” We are hearing the plaintive pleas of those who seek that consolation in our founding principles and who promise that in America we can do anything if we do it together.

But such pleas and promises, however well-motivated, tell only half the story. “Donald Trump’s presidency unleashed forces howling beneath our politics since the tumult of the 1960s,” Glaude reminds us (Kindle location 193). That howling became a hunt yesterday as insurrectionists came to the capitol with guns and zip ties, intending to imprison the very heart of American democracy.

Black Americans and American people of color are not shocked by the events of the last forty-eight hours. Nor do they find any news here. In fact, those events are crystal clear examples of the dueling impulses Kendi notes above. Indeed, Georgia voters have elected a Black man and a Jewish man to the United States Senate. That is cause for wild celebration. And the immediate response is an attack on the very system that made such an election possible.

Which one is America? Both are. Until we privileged white folks in the ruling class admit, repent, and reckon with some complicated thinking, we will continue to be stupidly surprised. “The American idea is indeed in trouble,” Glaude repeats. “It should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today,” he concludes, “we confront the ugliness of who we are – our darker angels reign” (Kindle location 329).

Forty years ago, an earnest lay person pushed me on a point in an adult class. I have no recollection of the point. But I do remember the critique. “You don’t sound very optimistic about this country,” he accused. For him, that was a cardinal sin. “I’m not,” I remember replying as a right-thinking Lutheran theologian of the cross. “But because I’m a Christian, I’m hopeful that things can be different.”

I’ve changed in many ways over that span of time, but in this regard, I am the same. Blind optimism is a privilege of those whose positions are secure. We must be willing to see reality, and then perhaps things can be different. “Not everything is lost,” Glaude writes. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication,” he declares, “one begins again.”

Glaude reviews with us Baldwin’s diagnosis of American brokenness under the heading he calls “The Lie.” One element of The Lie is that “black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life” (page 7). The second element is the massive historical coverup of the trauma visited by white people on Black, Native and people of color, both here and around the world. “But the lie’s most pernicious effect,” Glaude writes, “when it comes to our history is to malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality” (page 8).

This is the real problem with President-elect Biden asserting that “this isn’t America.” His intention is certainly otherwise. But in that statement, he cooperates with the malformation of our historical understanding that allows white male supremacy to hide in the shadows, adapt to the next bit of anti-racist progress, and then roar back into the spotlight for another round. Baldwin helps us to see all of what is America, not just the pretty bits.

Glaude notes that he uses Baldwin “as a moral compass.” Glaude asserts that we live in a period of racist “after times,” quite like the failures of post-Reconstruction and the judicial reversals of the Civil Rights era in the 1970’s and beyond.

 Our after times are still a reaction to the election of a Black man to the office of the presidency. “Trump is the dominant manifestation of our after times. His presidency is the response to the political and social possibilities of Barack Obama’s election,” Glaude writes, “and the radical demands of the Black Lives Matter movement” (page 21). That response will certainly outlive Trump’s tenure in the White House.

That’s because Trump is not an aberration, an outlier, a blip on the cultural radar, an exception. He represents one part of who America is, a part that is more engaged and enraged than any time since the 1920’s. “Trump and his supporters have shattered any illusion that we might have passed through the moment,” Glaude says. “Some thirty years after Baldwin’s death we are still wrestling with the fact that so many Americans continue to hold the view that ours is a white nation” (page 27). Thousands of those Americans sought to commandeer the capitol of the United States on January 6, 2021.

What happens if we insist on thinking only one thing at a time? Not only do we unilaterally disarm in the face of white male supremacy for the sake of our mythical American goodness and innocence, but we become moral shadows as we try to maintain the façade. Baldwin understood that for white people to do to black bodies what we do requires that we drain our souls into the abyss of emptiness. White male supremacy makes and keeps us sub-human.

Saying “this is not America” can morph easily into saying there are “good people on all sides.” The danger is that we white people will come to another accommodation built on the bodies of Blacks and people of color. This was precisely the compromise of 1876 that led to the end of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow system of veiled and legalized slavery. The thin Democratic margins in the House and Senate put us at profound risk of another white man’s compromise.

Glaude quotes Vann Woodward in this regard. “Just as the Negro gained his emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of white men.” In the efforts to bring privileged whites back “together,” history tells us that it is likely that Black people and people of color will be sacrificed on that altar once again. That will certainly happen if we think only one thing – and if that one thing is the myth of American innocence.

Read Glaude’s book. And read Baldwin – repeatedly. I finish these thoughts with Glaude’s call to conversion. “We have to muster the moral strength to reimagine America,” he writes. “We have to risk everything now, or a choice will be made that will plunge another generation into that unique American darkness caused by the lie” (page 142).

America has been a system designed to maintain white male supremacy. And America is a place where real democracy can happen. Both are true. We Lutherans like to say that we are simultaneously sinners and justified. No wonder we humans have to think at least two things at once. If we do, we can leave behind the former tyranny and embrace the latter freedom, but only as we are willing to think more than one thing at a time and act accordingly.

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Begin Again. New York: Random House, 2020.