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/