Simon of Cyrene — Cross-bearing while Black

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

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

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

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

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Acts 8:26-40; 5 Easter B 2021

Non-Conforming (Acts 8:26-40)

It would be a shame to miss out on the first example in Acts of the gospel moving from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), and now the “ends of the earth,” aka Ethiopia. We need to exercise some care not to identify “Ethiopia” too closely with the modern nation state, although there are certainly historical relationships. Instead, in ancient usage, the label “Ethiopia” has been “used to refer to Africa [south] of Egypt, to Arabia, and even to India” (Gealy, IDB II:177f.).

The reference here is to the world beyond Palestine. “At times it simply appears to have been a useful word to give vague designation to all peoples far distant from the Mediterranean basin living in the far [south] and [east]” (ibid). I would not suggest that Luke is employing such a vague reference here, since there are details in the story specific to an Ethiopian royal realm. But it is useful, I think, to allow Luke to have multiple meanings in the background of this term. The gospel is moving out!

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

By the time of our text, it was clear that “Ethiopian” generally referred to the territory south of Egypt. And Ethiopians would certainly have been darker-skinned and curlier-haired than natives of the Mediterranean basin. Ethiopia was a center for trade and wealth, with traffic in grains, cereals, and fruits, precious metals and minerals, ivory, ebony, and herbs of various kinds.

The main character in our reading is not named. His position, status, and competence, however, are clearly identified. “That a high official in the queen’s court – indeed the treasurer of her kingdom,” Gealy writes, “should be able to read the Greek roll of Isaiah is not a problem,” since the realm had been at least somewhat Hellenized since no later than the time of Alexander the Great. Our Ethiopian friend was a person of power and influence, of education and training, of intellect and curiosity.

But was he a Jew? Whether he was a Jew by birth or by proselyte baptism is not the question. The question is his ethno-religious status in light of the fact that he was a eunuch. The Levitical regulations in Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 state clearly that a man with crushed testicles or removed penis could not be part of the congregation of Israel. Such a one could not be treated as ritually clean, and there was no procedure for reversing either the physical surgery or the purity status.

If the Ethiopian eunuch was a Jew, he was in multiple senses a “non-conforming” Jew. Some scholars argue that the text of Isaiah 56:3-5 renders the earlier regulations out of date, but that is not a strongly held view. It’s worth noting here those verses.

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;

and do not let the eunuch say,

‘I am just a dry tree.’

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off. (NRSV)

On the basis of the Torah regulations, Gealy concludes that the eunuch was not a born Jew and was unlikely to have been a Gentile proselyte (IDB II:178). Rather, he suggests that the eunuch was “Jew-adjacent,” (my terminology) what was known as a Gentile “God-fearer.”

Jeremias, however, offers a more nuanced view of the situation. Based on the regulations in Deuteronomy 23, rabbis issued legislation regarding “Israelites with grave racial blemishes” (terminology from Jeremias). While such Jews could be included in the community of Judaism, they could not be part of the ritual and political system of leadership. Members of these classes “were forbidden marriage with Levites…, with legitimate Israelites, and with illegitimate descendants of priests.”

Eunuchs couldn’t be part of the worshipping community. I suspect that when the eunuch was in Jerusalem for Passover, he was not permitted to enter any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. They could not marry (at least not other Jews). They couldn’t be part of the Sanhedrin or participate as officers in a criminal court. So, Jew or not, eunuchs were rejected as participants in the full life of Judaism.

Our Ethiopian friend is, therefore, “Mr. Intersectionality” – especially for readers from the dominant, white, European cultures. He represents an ethnic or “racial” group which can easily be regarded as “Other.” He is gender non-conforming, even if that status was forced on him without consent (the likely scenario, since consent was probably given by the parents before he reached puberty). He is a “foreigner” in the life of Judaism as it is centered in Jerusalem, and an outsider to the Roman imperial system.

Esau McCaulley discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in Reading While Black. In the history and tradition of Black interpretation of Christian scriptures, the eunuch is one of at least two representatives of African believers in those scriptures (the other being Simon of Cyrene). “Within the narrative world of Acts,” McCaulley writes, “the conversion of this Ethiopian manifests God’s concern for the nations of the world” (pages 108-109).

The text shows the eunuch as literate, curious, thoughtful, and familiar with the Hebrew scriptures (in their Greek translation). He is reading from one of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah and needs to have the text interpreted. Philip assists with the reading and interpretation at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “The early Christians interpreted Isaiah 53 as a reference to Jesus whose death for sins reconciles Israel and the world to God,” McCaulley notes. “This might have been what Philip explained to the Ethiopian” (page 110).

McCaulley suggests that the eunuch was especially attracted to the description of the Suffering Servant as one who had justice denied to him. Even though the eunuch was likely wealthy, influential, and politically powerful, he was still damaged goods. “In a culture with strictly defined gender roles, he would be seen as aberrant,” McCaulley continues. “Is it possible that he felt that what had been done to him was a grave injustice – for which he was forced, for his own safety, to keep silent like the suffering Christ?” (page 110).

The outsider status of the Suffering Servant (Christ), perhaps spoke to the eunuch in his life situation. He is then a touchstone for outsiders of all sorts who come to a relationship with Jesus. “If the eunuch did connect with Jesus as the one who suffered injustice,” McCaulley argues, “then he would be the starting point for an unending stream of Black believers who found their own dignity and self-worth through the dignity and power that Christ received at his resurrection” (pages 110-111).

McCaulley wants us to be clear about several things. First, it is sin that makes outsiders of us all – not something wrong with the eunuch (or Black people) ontologically. Second, the gospel calls forth and raises up our genuine humanity as children of God.

It’s worth quoting his whole conclusion. “The eunuch remained an image bearer. Christ showed the eunuch who he truly was. Christ, similarly, does not convey worth on ontologically inferior blackness. Those of African descent are image bearers in the same way as anyone else. What Christ does,” he declares, “is liberate us to become what we are truly meant to be, redeemed and transformed citizens of his kingdom” (page 111).

Pastor Lenny Duncan also discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in his book Dear Church. “The story of the queer folks in the church is the story of the Holy Spirit leading one of the early church’s most prominent disciples to baptize a queer person of color,” he writes, “a person who was studying Scripture already, which meant he was already part of the Jewish tradition or at least exploring it” (page 76). He reminds us that “the church is already queer.” The faith story of a “gender non-conforming” person is in our earliest manual on missiology, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles.

Duncan notes that some ELCA folks speak in hushed tones about our decisions as a denomination regarding human sexuality and Christian discipleship – tones that declare these decisions to be the beginning of our decline and downfall as a denomination. That’s bullshit, of course. Christianity has declined as a percentage of the US population by one percentage point per year for most of my life. So, let us not push the blame off on people we have victimized and demonized for centuries.

“People are deciding not to come to our churches,” Duncan reminds us, “because we have allowed [our churches] to become country clubs where we pantomime discipleship or to be German/Swedish cultural centers, not because we finally got the courage to love God’s own children” (page 78). The ELCA is going to continue to decline because of cultural shifts and demographic changes. Will we “go down” loving or fearing?

The Ethiopian eunuch offers a chance to reflect on the gifts and challenges of “otherness.” That must begin, of course, by talking about who is “other.” If the discussion centers me as a white, male, straight, cisgender, middle class American – if I remain the default position for Christians (and perhaps for “real Americans”), then let’s talk about something else – like arrangements for closing the church for good. But if we’re open to the surprising places where the Spirit lands, then we have some reason to go on our way rejoicing.

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-5.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.

Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018)  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

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

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.  Kindle Edition.

Text Study for John 2:13-25 (Part 4); 3 Lent B 2021

Part Four – Politics in the Pulpit

White scholars, preachers, and pew sitters squirm as we consider the Temple Incident. The squirming becomes sweating when we begin to discuss Christian civil disobedience. No, that’s not right. The sweating begins when we consider “politics in the pulpit.”

The general rule in white, mainline congregations on that one is quite simple. Don’t do it. When pastoral leaders engage in something that resembles Christian civil disobedience, such as participating in a peaceful public demonstration for Black Lives Matter, the response from some parishioners is somewhere between panic and outrage. So, this text requires us to dig deeper into such responses and look ourselves in our (white supremacist) faces.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

The fact that this is even an issue betrays our privileged, colonial position in the culture. If we resist Jesus’ actions, we are reading the text from the perspective of the religious, economic, and political establishment, not from the perspective of the oppressed and exploited people Jesus represents. That perspective is largely the viewpoint of white male supremacy that dictates the terms of power and the pace of “change.”

I think of the words of Ijeoma Oluo in this regard. She’s worth quoting at length (as is often the case).

“How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society? Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly? How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (Mediocre, pages 7-8).

Oluo’s words could be transposed quite easily into the Temple Incident. Who was resistant to changes in the Temple system of wealth extraction? It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between getting groceries and buying a pair of doves for the required sacrifice. It certainly wasn’t the people who had to decide between a visit from their friendly Roman legionnaires and having enough money to clothe their children. The people who reacted negatively to Jesus’ Temple intervention were those who benefitted from the system of exploitation.

With whom do we identify? And what is the place of “political witness” in the life of Christian congregations? Here we privileged, powerful, and positioned white people can learn a great deal from the experience and expertise of our sisters and brothers in Black congregations. I deeply appreciate the writing and witness of Dr. Esau McCauley in his book, Reading While Black. I want to quote extensively from that work here.

We white folks have a long history of treating Black Christian political witness as bothersome (at least) and far too extreme (most of the time). McCauley rehearses the criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King’s actions in the Birmingham bus boycott from eight white mainline religious leaders. We Lutherans have our own tales of shame as when, for example, James Forman was summarily rejected by Lutheran authorities when he presented them with a plan for reparations from the church. McCauley describes the pushback as a question. “Was [King’s] public and consistent criticism of the political power structure of his day an element of his pastoral ministry or a distraction from it?” (page 49).

In most of our white mainline congregations, the honest answer would be obvious. Pastors do spiritual things, not political things. White people generally thought that Dr. King should stay in his lane and tend to his flock. Of course, as McCauley points out, such a binary approach was not an option and would not be considered in most Black congregations. The privilege of separating religion and politics is a mark of white supremacy and not a mark of biblical Christianity. The Temple Incident is a case in point.

I can imagine some of the critiques applied to Jesus during and after the Temple Incident, especially by those in power. What does that stupid rabbi think he’s doing? He may know the Bible, but he knows nothing about the real world. Why doesn’t he mind his own business and help people deal with their problems? We liked him a lot better when he was healing people and handing out bread.

But now that damned fool has gone from preaching to meddling. Doesn’t he know the Romans are watching? What if they decide to strike back? And doesn’t he understand that the whole Temple system depends on that money? How will we keep the doors open if people stop buying the animals and using the Temple banking services? He’s going to have to be dealt with, one way or another.

McCauley then works through the “quietist” texts in Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2. He suggests that Romans 13 cannot be used to justify violent revolt. But there’s a lot of distance between armed insurrection and doing nothing. “Submission and acquiescence,” he writes, “are two different things” (page 51). Indeed, we are called to pray for the welfare of government officials. But that is also not an invitation to inaction. “Prayer for leaders and criticism of their practices are not mutually exclusive ideas,” McCauley says (page 53). “Both have biblical warrant in the same letter” (1 Timothy).

McCauley discusses the inherently political and politically explosive nature of Jesus’ ministry. This was not Jesus’ innovation but rather a fulfillment of the trajectory in the Jewish scriptures to challenge and upset the rulers of this world, beginning with the Egyptian Pharaoh. “It was precisely inasmuch as Jesus was obedient to his Father and rooted in the hopes and dreams of Israel,” McCauley writes, “that Jesus revealed himself to be a great danger to the rulers of his day” (page 55). The Temple Incident is a clear illustration of this revelation.

McCauley reminds us that “those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57). This means, of course, that those of us who remain silent are not following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s not something I’ve preached very often, nor have I heard it with much frequency in our pulpits until recently. John 2 presents an opportunity to at least point this out.

“Protest is not unbiblical,” McCauley concludes, “it is a manifestation of our analysis of the human condition in light of God’s own word and vision for the future. His vision may await an appointed time,” he continues, “but it is coming” (page 62). Analysis of the human condition in most of our mainline pulpits is limited to individual consolation and comfort. In order to avoid the political and social justice conversation, we retreat into individualized “spiritual disciplines” that may offer us personal serenity but do little to inform our social consciousness or energize our public witness. I know that in some cases such disciplines do in fact inform and energize. But my observation is that such connections are exceptional.

I come now to some real dynamite in McCauley’s chapter. I will quote the paragraph fully.

“The question that ought to keep Christians up at night is not the political activism of Black Christians. The question should be how 1 Timothy 2:1-4 came to dominate the conversation about the Christian’s responsibility to the state. How did we manage to ignore the clearly political implications of Paul’s casual remarks about the evil age in Galatians and his wider reflections on the links between evil powers and politicians? How did John’s condemnation of Rome in Revelation fall from view? Why did Jesus’ public rebuke of Herod get lost to history?”

We might add, how did Jesus’ act of civil disobedience fail to motivate white, privileged, mainline Christians to embrace such public and prophetic actions as normal for us? “It may have been,” McCauley continues, “because it was in the best interest of those in power to silence Black voices. But if our voices are silenced,” he declares, “the Scriptures still speak” (page 64).

It is not the case that radical liberal political crazy people have cherry-picked Scripture for a few proof texts to underwrite their causes. It is the case that our positions determine our reading. If we read without analyzing our social positions, we will read inaccurately and narrowly. It is not that Blacks carved an anti-slavery position out of a pro-slavery Bible. It is the case that slaveholders whittled their Bible down until the anti-slavery ammunition was removed.

McCauley’s work can help us to see that white mainline Christians do that more broadly. It is not that individual conversion is in the Bible and social justice is not. It is the case that privileged, powerful, and positioned people prefer a Bible that contains the former but not the latter. Such a pared down text then allows us to stay where we are. But if we stay where we are, we will not follow Jesus where he goes.

References and Resources

Croy, N. Clayton. “The Messianic Whippersnapper: Did Jesus Use a Whip on People in the Temple (John 2:15)?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 555–568. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25610203?seq=1. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

Domeris, William. The ‘enigma of Jesus” temple intervention: Four essential keys. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.

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

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-3.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

McCauley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.

Myers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-5.

Ruiz, Gilberto. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/cleansing-the-temple/commentary-on-john-213-25-2.

Salmon, Marilyn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-john-213-22-4.

Witherington, Ben. “Jesus and the Temple Tantrum (A Study of John 2:13-17).” https://www.seedbed.com/jesus-and-the-temple-tantrum-a-study-of-john-213-17/.

White Pastoral Poverty

I have heard tell of white (like me) pastoral colleagues who weary of conversation, reading, study, and calls to action when it comes to anti-racism work. Some note that they are already hard-pressed by The Pandemic and all its related complications. Some note that they have their hands full already with partisan political posturing without adding conversations about race to the mix. Some even suggest that since they have no people of color in their neighborhood or township or county, for them the conversation is beside the point.

In the spirit of Christian charity, I hope and am willing to concede that these responses may be the results of frustration and fatigue. I know in my own case, however, that frustration and fatigue do not create new thoughts in my head. Instead, they tend to lower my inhibitions, unfilter my words, and render me unfit for decent human company.

I am not throwing the first stone of judgment since I am freed from the slings and arrows of parish ministry in my retirement. But it is painful to hear that such conversations are taking place in the white, mainline pastoral guild.

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

If we strip away the superficial aspects of the complaint, the basic question is simple. What’s in it for me? Issues of racial justice don’t impact me and my ministry directly. I’m doing fine as I am. Why should I bother with this stuff when I have so many other things demanding my energy and attention?

Few of us would admit to such a jaundiced view out loud. But I have asked that question on many occasions as a pastor. I’m not proud of that admission, but it is no less true because of that.

The problem is, of course, that it is the wrong question. It is not the wrong question merely because it is so damned arrogant and selfish. It is the wrong question because it tacitly assumes that there is nothing “in it” for me as a white person to engage in conversation with Black and Brown and Asian people and their faith practices and traditions.

With a few exceptional moments, I have lived and worked that way for a lifetime. I am ashamed by my ignorance and grieved by what I have missed. The question presumes that if I am a white person with no connection to Black, Brown, or Asian people, that I am not missing anything. The question presumes that my whiteness is sufficient and self-sufficient. In fact, we White Christians are deficient and incomplete on our own and by ourselves.

Seventy-five percent of white Americans have no connections to Black, Brown, or Asian people in their lives – me included. The percentage is actually higher for White Christians. We who try to live as if Whiteness is enough have hollowed out our humanity almost beyond recognition.

That’s not a judgment merely on our white identities. It is, rather, contrary to a description of God’s intention for Creation. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot be fully and authentically human and Christian if we whittle ourselves down to mere Whiteness.

I forget that fact almost every day. I settle for the little nub of humanity left when I limit myself to Whiteness. So, I’m grateful for the reminders that human life is about so much more. I’m grateful for the reminders that people with other experiences and social locations can enrich my life and I can enrich theirs, if only I will engage in the conversation as a partner and be willing to listen and learn.

I need to engage in anti-racism work and relationships not only out of love for neighbor. I am not in the position of all-powerful giver here. I need to engage in that work and those relationships out of love for self. If my vocation is to be fully and authentically human, then I dare not cut myself off from the resources God provides.

My most recent reminder of this reality is Esau McCauley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. McCauley is assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a priest in the Anglican Church in North American, and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

McCauley did his doctoral work with N. T. Wright, and it pleases me to hear echoes of that relationship in his writing. But his work is no mere echo of a giant in the field of New Testament studies. McCauley is a careful and close reader of Christian and Hebrew scriptures, a careful thinker about biblical theology, and a clear-eyed interpreter of texts from an historic and contemporary Black perspective.

I don’t take McCauley as a representative of “Black theology” as a whole. That’s not the point and would be insulting to McCauley and to Black theology – a variegated and complex field (just like White theology). I do experience him reading scripture texts from a social position I cannot occupy. I can’t read the texts that way myself, but I can listen and learn and have my eyes and ears opened to new (at least to me) insights.

This is one reason to engage in such studies. I cannot live, read, think, or act out of a social location other than my own. How can I know what the larger world is really like if I am limited to my own understanding and experience? How can I be fully and authentically human if all I know is a small, cramped, and often not very attractive slice of that human experience?

Without the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian theologians, I am stuck with, as McCauley describes it, “a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice” (page 11). I will no longer be content with such an anemic view of Reality.

The question I want us white pastor types to ask is this? What do I need in order to be a better Christian and more fully human? And one answer I want us to give is that we need to listen to and learn from our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers. We need to do that for a very long time, especially we white males who have called the shots for too long.

We White Christians need to continue to learn that faith and politics are separated only to maintain the privileged, powerful, and propertied in their places. Black Christians have not been saddled with the social quietism that is assumed to be The Truth in most of our White congregations. “How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” McCauley asks in a chapter about political engagement in the church. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following,” he concludes, “in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

We White Christians need to continue to hear and practice a vital and passionate engagement with Scriptural texts for our lives here and now. We need to remember that from our social location, we are going to hear things in the texts that will convict us and demand conversion. We need to remember that others will hear words of liberation and life in the same texts. If we do not listen to the other voices, we will end up with a “slaveholder’s canon” designed to underwrite our White supremacy. And we will continue to be God-awful boring.

In particular, we benefit from the constant reminder that God is not only a forgiver but a liberator. We benefit from the constant reminder that Jesus not only welcomes the little children but challenges the powers that be. We benefit from the constant reminder that salvation is not merely about individuals but is about systems and the restoration of all of Creation.

The topics McCauley addresses in his work are, by and large, areas I have not addressed in my preaching and study over the last forty years. My ministry, education, and understanding have been impoverished as a result. He outlines, for example, a New Testament theology of policing based on an examination of Romans 13 and Luke 3. This is a deep and sophisticated discussion that opened my eyes to new possibilities in the text.

As he comments on the Magnificat in Luke 1, he asks, “Is this not the hope of every Black Christian, that God might hear and save? That he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God?” (page 87).

As I read that, I was wishing that someone might have preached such a gospel to my father who loved farming so dearly but was forced by federal and state policies to leave the farm and work “in town.” McCauley, as a side effect of his comments, reminds us that poverty and injustice easily cross the Color Line. We need our Black, Brown, and Asian sisters and brothers to keep rubbing or White noses in that truth until we get it.

We desperately need other witnesses to remind us that racialized “colorblindness” (even of the Christian variety) is, after all, just blindness. “God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness,” McCauley writes (page 106). A colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness – White colleagues, that’s what we have now.

“Instead,” he continues, “God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated,” McCauley concludes, “not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 106-107).

I am certain that McCauley and I would disagree about any number of textual, theological, and social issues. That’s the good news. My education is deficient, and my training is incomplete without such conversation. “What I have in mind then,” McCauley writes, “is a unified mission in which our varied cultures turn to the text in dialogue with one another to discern the mind of Christ” (page 22).

That’s one reason why we White Christians need to do this work. I thank God for the chance to be a partner in such a convicting and generative conversation.