Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Five)

Theorizing and theologizing about trauma are highly visible in my information networks these days. While inter-generational trauma has been a known and acknowledged reality in communities of color for generations, this psychosocial reality has become mainstream in the last few years. A primary reason for this shift is obvious and ubiquitous – the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on American society and societies around the globe.

Why does this matter for my writing in this space? One way to examine, interpret, and apply the reading from John 21 is through the lens of trauma theory, theology, and pastoral care. But first, let’s review some of the realities of this historical moment.

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As of this writing, the United States is days from recording the one millionth death from the Covid-19 pandemic. This number is certainly a significant undercount, perhaps as much as 200,000, based on the additional deaths recorded during the pandemic that exceed expected mortality rates. “These immense losses are shaping our country,” Melody Schreiber writes in her Scientific American article, “how we live, work and love, how we play and pray and learn and grow.”

These losses will have generational impacts. This pandemic will be an historic “anchor event” – similar in this way to September 11, 2001, or – to expand the cultural and generational framework – April 4, 1968, or November 23, 1963, or December 7, 1941. For example, Schreiber reports, nearly a quarter of a million children lost a caregiver to COVID. Older Americans as a cohort and communities of color have been particularly hard hit. The consequences of these concentrated impacts will only unfold over the coming decades. “On average,” Schreiber notes, “every death from COVID leaves nine people grieving.”

Other age and social cohorts have been hit in other ways. The death rate among working-age Americans is the highest ever recorded in the experience of the American insurance industry. These death rates are forty percent higher than they were pre-pandemic. By comparison, a ten percent jump in the mortality rate would be considered a once in two hundred years catastrophe. The current death rate is unprecedented.

This working-age death rate was especially concentrated in the fields of food and agriculture, warehouse operations and manufacturing, and transportation and construction. “And working in a nursing home,” Schreiber observes, “has been one of the deadliest jobs in the U.S.” during COVID-time. The overall losses suffered so far are more than double the American deaths recorded during World War II. Just as it has taken generations to process and to continue to grieve those losses, it will take generations to process and grieve the devastation of this pandemic.

Some of the impacts have been immediate. Over one million women so far have left the work force during the pandemic, primarily to deal with disruptions in childcare and other caregiving responsibilities. Many older adults, who were primary caregivers in the unofficial world of childcare, are simply no longer there. This loss has been concentrated in communities of color that depend more heavily on the unofficial childcare network and resources. This loss of primary caregivers has physical and mental health consequences for children as well as economic ones.

“The Bible is one long series of traumatic events and accounts of how people struggle to speak about God in the face of them,” Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace. “Two traumatic biblical events jumped out at me immediately,” she continues, “the crucifixion and the resulting trauma of those Christians who experienced it” (Kindle Location 124). The crucifixion was an experience of terror and torture, of humiliation and shame, of personal agony and political theater. “So, for Christianity,” Jones suggests, “understanding trauma is not just a kind of secondary issue—it is rather the most central event of our faith” (Kindle Location 129).

Jennifer Allen writes that all traumatic events cause cultural trauma, a change in the collective identity of group members in response to and in the wake of that traumatic event(s). Allen quotes Jeffrey Alexander in this regard. “Trauma,” Alexander writes, “is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (Allen, page 6). This entry results in an “enculturation” of the trauma which produces shared memories, stories, and interpretations of the traumatic event.

Allen applies these insights to the telling and writing of the gospel accounts. She points, in particular, to Shelly Rambo’s description of the Johannine account as a “survivor narrative.” Allen writes that, “The emphasis on witness and the many post-resurrection narratives in John provides a significant basis for claim-making and transformation of the collective identity” (page 6). The disciples carry the experience of the trauma of the crucifixion (and resurrection) and discern the meaning of these events as they tell and re-tell the gospel stories. In this way, the event changes the collective identity of the group.

“The Christian story is bathed in trauma,” Allen writes, “and in understanding God and our relationship to God in the face of historic, enculturated trauma. It is in the face of the shared narrative of trauma,” she continues, “where Christians can gain an understanding of God and God’s relationship to their own brokenness” (page 12). She argues in her thesis that John 21 offers a story that attempts to explain God’s presence in the trauma and to offer Jesus’ instructions on how to proceed in response to the trauma.

Allen describes Peter in John 21 as a “survivor seeking healing.” He responds to all that has happened by trying to return to the way things used to be when he and his companions worked and lived as Galilean fisherman. I imagine many of us church folk think immediately of the desperate desires in our congregations for things to return as quickly as possible to “the way things were before Covid.” But in John 21, we see that there is no going back to the before times. “Peter’s lack of success in fishing,” Allen argues, “proves that he will not be able to return to life ‘before,’ but will need to reintegrate his life with the presence of trauma” (page 18).

Nonetheless, when (with the prompting of the Beloved Disciple) Peter swims to shore, he seems to rejoice that perhaps he and his companions have gotten past all that unpleasantness and may be able to move on in triumph. The rest of the disciples clearly see that this avoidance and suppression of the traumatic memory isn’t possible. They know who Jesus is but won’t risk talking about how exactly he got from where he was to where he is.

In the threefold questioning, Jesus leads Peter to review and re-narrate Peter’s own place in the traumatic story. Jesus meets Peter where he is and allows Peter to come as far as he can in the conversation but presses him no further for the moment. “In Peter, we see the effects of trauma in their earliest and least processed manifestations,” Allen writes. “Peter has not yet processed the trauma to the point where he is able to share the narrative with others, establish trust, or reconnect relationships,” Allen continues. For Peter to become a “carrier” of the tradition to the community and succeeding generations, “he needs to begin processing his own trauma and he needs a witness who can hear his narrative and help to integrate it into the larger narrative” (page 20-21).

Allen examines the roles of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in similar ways, and I would encourage readers to take some time with her fine thesis (as well as the books to which she refers). But there is something about Peter in this text that makes him a helpful focus for preaching this week. In our historical moment of trauma, we are, I think, most like Peter. We would like very much to get back to fishing in the way we did before all this stuff began to happen to us.

When I say, “we, of course, I am referring primarily to White, privileged, and propertied people in the United States and western Europe. We are far more accustomed to triumph than we are to trauma. In fact, we love triumph so much that we have willingly inflicted trauma on others – especially upon Native, Black, and Brown people – in order to maintain our triumphant and privileged positions. One of the realities that makes our current trauma so terrifying is that we White, privileged, and propertied people are in the process of “losing” all of that advantage.

It’s no wonder that we want to go back to the way things were, back to fishing as if nothing important had happened. But that’s not an option for us or anyone else. The downstream consequences of the COVID trauma will be with us for generations, just as the consequences of White Supremacy have been visited upon Native, Black, and Brown people for generations. We White people might get our feelings hurt as we hear these stories, but we can either sit and listen, or we can try to silence the testimony with violence.

Allen notes that the Beloved Disciple has made more progress than Peter in processing and integrating the trauma of the cross and resurrection. Thus, the Beloved Disciple serves as both a witness and a partner in Peter’s process, whether Peter wants that to be true or not. Perhaps this is an invitation for us White, privileged, propertied folks to recognize the partnership of the traumatized among us. Now is the time to listen to Native, Black, and Brown people, to women, to the disabled, to the LGBTQIA+ community, to those who do not conform to the tyranny of the “normal.”

They know what we don’t. We may not be able to fish as we once did. But that’s not an end to the old life. It’s an invitation to the new one.

References and Resources

Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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

In the resurrection, what color will I be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

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

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

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Text Study for John 12:1-11 (Part Five)

The first thing that happens in our text is that Mary is seen. She steps forward and becomes visible. This is a primary threat to any domination system. Domination systems thrive on the invisibility of the oppressed. “I am invisible, understand,” Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “simply because people refuse to see me” (quoted in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations, page 29).

Invisibility is the product of social segregation and control of public space. Patriarchal systems tend to keep men and women separate, especially in public communal settings. And patriarchal systems give the power of public speech to men while limiting women, for the most part, to private communication behind the scenes. The result is that men do all the talking and acting in public. And men only see and hear men talking and acting in public. Thus, men only have to deal with the talking and acting of other men.

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Mary steps forward and makes herself visible and important. I imagine that’s one of the things that pisses off Judas (at least in the report of the Johannine author). Notice that he doesn’t even acknowledge Mary’s presence as a person. He addresses the perfume rather than the person. It is Jesus who refers to Mary as a person – with three pronouns in two sentences. Jesus sees Mary. He does not collude in the continuing system to render her invisible.

“The inhabitants of White Christian America don’t understand why African Americans were so angrily protesting in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore,” Robert P. Jones writes in The End of White Christian America, “because their communities and experiences are insulated from many of the problems facing black Americans.” We White Americans have small sympathy for our Black neighbors primarily because they are not our Black neighbors. I am a personal case study in the point Jones makes – at least in terms of my personal and social core networks.

“White Americans’ notions of race and fairness are shaped by their everyday experiences (already very different from those of African Americans),” Jones continues, “which are then reinforced by interactions with neighbors and friends. And these core social networks,” Jones observes, “the space where meaning is welded on to experience – tend to be extremely segregated” (page 160).

How does this social segregation function? It serves to keep the lives of Black people invisible to White people. It serves to sustain the White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort that are essential to the White experience of social reality. As long as we cannot see the lives of Black people, we White people can go about our daily business with not a thought about those lives or the system in place that privileges us with power, position, and property — at the expense of those we choose not to see.

Where are the primary places that invisibility can be dismantled, and White core social networks can be made part of the real world where color is the majority? One of those places is the public schools. “One of the important purposes of public schools, beyond their educational mission,” Jones writes, “is to bring together American children – and, more indirectly, their parents – across race and class lines” (page 161).

If the function of separation is to sustain the invisibility of the oppressed, it is no wonder that public schools have been and continue to be some of the frontlines in the battles regarding race. The history of public education before and after Brown v. Board of Education is clear and well-documented. With the advent of court-ordered desegregation, a boom began in the founding and support of private schools.

These schools were and are primarily for White, relatively affluent, children. And these schools were, and are, primarily owned and managed in the United States by Christian congregations and institutions. Battles are fought over school “choice” these days, regarding funding and vouchers. The real function of these battles is to sustain the Black and Brown and Indigenous invisibility necessary to sustain White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort.

It’s clear in our text that Judas would have been more comfortable had Mary remained silent and in the shadows. The cocoon of male privilege would have remained intact. And thoughts about his own pilfering the common purse might not have been so much at the front of the Johannine author’s mind. Mary may have soothed Jesus’ feet with the expensive ointment, but she made Judas twitchy and irritable, to say the least.

One of the functions of the invisibility of the oppressed is to sustain the blissful ignorance and blithe comfort of the privileged. This is, of course, the social function of state laws that would prohibit the teaching of history that risks making White people uncomfortable. As Robin DiAngelo reminds us, White discomfort is not trauma. It is discomfort. Bringing the truth to light – whether it is Judas’ thievery or White oppression – should be uncomfortable. The discomfort means that the truth is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

As I’ve noted before, this anointing story appears in various forms in all four canonical gospels. Scholars debate the relationships between those four accounts, and we may get to some of that debate before the end of the week. Regardless of how these texts are related, seeing the woman is a feature in each and all of them. In the Lukan version (Luke 7:36-50), the meal takes place in the home of Simon, the Pharisee. I am always arrested by one sentence from Jesus – “Are you seeing this woman?” (Luke 7:44b, my translation).

It’s clear that Simon is not seeing that woman. Judas is not seeing Mary. The function of the not seeing is to sustain the existing power structure. The function of the not seeing is to keep the theft and oppression hidden along with the woman. Jesus is not having it.

Perhaps, the community of Jesus is the place to be seen and to see. Just as Jesus sees Mary – her gratitude and gift, her hurt and her heart – so we proclaim that Jesus sees us. Not only does Jesus see us as we are and love us nonetheless, but Jesus also sees us as the fully flourishing human beings God has created and imaged us to be. What a joy and privilege it is to see ourselves as Jesus sees us! I wonder if that is the real gift he gives Mary at that dinner table?

The community of Jesus is also the place to see – to see others as Jesus sees others. We cannot do that, however, if we insist that others remain invisible. “From the very beginning,” Kwon and Thompson write, “American culture was rooted in and dependent on an inviolable form of racial distance between White Europeans and the Africans they enslaved. Over time,” they continue, “as Americans chose to become more dependent on slave labor, this division was formalized into highly choreographed rituals of intimacy and distance that characterized the system of slavery that persisted in American from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century” (pages 35-36).

That system of intimacy and distance was reformatted into Jim Crow segregation. That legal and institutional separation continues to persist in the de facto segregation of American life even as the de jure segregation no longer exists. My life is White. My core social network is White. My neighborhood is (mostly) White. My social media feed is White. My church is White – locally, regionally, and denominationally. I continue to collude in the system of invisibility designed for my supremacy, innocence, and comfort.

The most direct action I can take is to seek out settings where White is not the definition of right or might. I know that is the action required of me. It goes against all of the comfort I treasure and hoard to myself. Putting myself in places where I will be uncomfortable, where I will rightly be regarded with initial suspicion, where I will make mistakes and be foolish – that’s not the whole answer to the problems of racism in the world around me. But it’s one thing I can do.

And I wonder to what degree I can help and be helped by the congregation of which I am a member. I’m part of a denomination that has lots of good anti-racism statements and policies. And those statements and policies are clearly breaking down repeatedly in application and practice. Just as voting rights and fair housing legislation have not changed the behavior of millions of White Americans, so denominational pronouncements have not changed the behavior of thousands of Lutherans

But I’m part of a congregation where we do work to make the hidden visible in many ways. I’m hopeful that my church can be a resource in opening doors to new relationships and networks. But I dare not wait for that to happen and then just go along for the ride.

Perhaps the hardest part of this conversation is that I must admit and grapple with the fact that I am seen by others every day – just as I am. No matter how I deceive and delude myself about my own awareness of oppression, I have to come to terms with the reality that others will see me as I am, in my failings and brokenness, my privilege and posturing, my unwillingness to take risks and get it all wrong. Lord, I hate to be seen for who I am under the best of circumstances. But that’s nothing compared to what needs to happen for me to grow further.

I don’t know if any of this will preach on Sunday. But it certainly reaches out of our text and grabs me by the throat today.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2012): 281-297.

Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.

Coakley, J. F. “The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 2 (1988): 241–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267698.

Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.  Kindle Edition.

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Kwon, Duke L., and Thompson, Gregory. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2021.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/28/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-april-3-2022-john-121-8/.

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Text Study for John 12:1-11 (Part Four)

Each of the four canonical gospels has a report of a woman anointing Jesus at a meal. Only in the Lukan account does this report take place outside of the final days of Jesus’ ministry. Each of the gospel composers uses the story in a different way. We can see that this story has a critical and early place in the memories and traditions of Christian communities. And we can see the freedom that each gospel composer exercises in using the story to accomplish the composer’s rhetorical purposes.

In the Johannine account, Mary of Bethany is named as the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. Even though she is named, she speaks no words. Yet her actions not only fill the house with a beautiful fragrance. Her actions fill up the story with pathos and power, with emotion and energy. Mary’s actions do all the talking necessary here.

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Judas, on the other hand, is all talk and no action. Let’s look at how Judas’ words function (or not), and what this says to us in our study and proclamation.

Judas engages in several male power moves in this scene. He speaks publicly to and for the whole group rather than engaging his concerns quietly or privately. The Johannine narrator undercuts this attempt at authority by reminding readers and listeners that Judas was the one who was going to hand Jesus over (John 12:4b). Even though Judas tries to control the responses of the group, the narrator will not allow him to get away with that move.

In this public display of woman-policing, Judas appeals to the dynamics of male solidarity and the patriarchal structure of his community. Jesus interrupts that appeal and tells Judas to back off. Jesus not only approves Mary’s actions, but he lifts her up as the epitome of a disciple in that moment. The power of Mary’s love and devotion overwhelms the normal structures of male power in the room and in the group. Jesus breaks with male solidarity and stands with Mary.

It is clear in Paul’s letters that early Christian communities struggled to integrate the gifts and leadership of women into their life together. On the one hand, Paul’s missionary work is financially underwritten, at least in part, by women of means such as Lydia. In addition, Paul relies on a theology of gifts rather than the restrictions of gender to select and mentor leaders in the movement. If we make an honest accounting of those Paul lists and greets as leaders in his letters, we can see that women play prominent and relatively equal roles in the mission.

On the other hand, the Corinthian correspondence shows that the congregation at Corinth was having some trouble implementing an egalitarian understanding of mission and service. I don’t think that Paul really got the issue settled in writing for the Corinthians. He fell back on the male solidarity of patriarchy to some degree in order to resolve the controversy.

In other parts of the church, we know that things did not develop any better in terms of the role of women in church leadership. In the generation after Paul, the counsel is that women should obey their husbands as is fitting in the Lord. Women are to keep silent in church, not to have teaching authority over men, and to find their salvation in childbearing. Those scriptural benchmarks continue to haunt the Church around the world today, as various traditions wrestle with and too often reject the gifts of women for church leadership.

It’s clear in the Johannine account that Mary’s gift is not only welcomed but also commended. Judas uses a kind of virtue signaling to control Mary’s behavior and to cover his own deceit and theft. How could he be a thief, after all, if he was so deeply concerned for the poor! It’s the perfect camouflage. He accuses Mary of misusing money when all along he is the one (according to the Johannine composer) misappropriating the funds.

The sheer hubris of this is obvious when we look for it. After all, Judas is in Mary’s house. He’s eating free food from her table. He’s protected, along with the other disciples, for the moment from the authorities by the status and position of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. And, with his mouth full of Mary’s food, he has the temerity to tell her that she’s wasting money! That’s an image of male privilege if I ever saw one.

Is this an issue in the Johannine community – “changing channels” in order to escape notice? I think that’s a legitimate consideration in our reflection and study. We can look at the First Letter of John, perhaps, for some clues. I think the channel changing begins early in the letter. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, NRSV). It’s easiest to argue that we have no sin “in us” if we can offload that sin on to someone else.

This channel-changing becomes especially clear when the issue is using our goods for the sake of another. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” the writer asks. “Little children,” the writer continues, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:17-18, NRSV). Talk is cheap Judas, but real love costs money.

I wonder if in the Johannine community, there was a bit of pious cluck-clucking about the best ways to use money. In my experience, that sort of conversation is often a smokescreen for the desire to just keep “our” money rather than “wasting it” on “those people.” We want the biggest bang for the buck, the best use of our dollars, the surest return on our mission investments. Since we can’t really guarantee those sorts of things in the real world, it’s best if we keep our money to ourselves until the “right” set of circumstances arises. And best of all, we can portray ourselves as “good stewards” in the process.

What better way for Judas to change the channel than to “out” Mary as an irresponsible rich person who has no concern for the poor? In twelve-step communities, there’s a helpful rule of thumb that manages our tendency to judge others. “You spot it, you got it.” That rule of thumb is certainly being applied by Jesus in our text.

Judas is trying to use shame to control Mary and her behavior by this public calling out. He tries to alienate and separate her from the “real” disciples, who clearly don’t have that kind of money. So, he weaponizes a sort of class solidarity. He turns the spotlight from himself to her and waits for the recriminations to come. It’s a brand of “whataboutism” that would make twenty-first century practitioners of the craft proud.

This text presents an opportunity to examine and critique our own discourses of self-justification and self-service. I’m reading Robin DiAngelo’s newest book, Nice Racism: How Progressive People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Her specialty is discourse analysis, and she hits me right in my white supremacist guts over and over. When I see Judas’ discourse as an exercise in self-deception, domination, and deflection, I realize that I’m looking in a mirror much more than I’m looking through a window.

I think of the times over the years when I have had opportunities to live and work in less segregated spaces. Each time, I have taken the path of least resistance, the softer and easier path, and remained in Whites-only spaces. That’s been true in housing and education decisions, in financial decisions, and in church participation and membership. I can make all the self-justifying arguments about why these choices were the “right” ones (for me and my family). And all those arguments leave me in the same self-serving space I have occupied for a lifetime.

I’ve also been reading Kwon and Thompson in their powerful work, Reparations. When Judas is identified as a thief, I cringe with self-recognition. If White supremacy is, at its most basic, theft, as Kwon and Thompson convincingly argue, then I am a thief no better than Judas. I may not be taking the property of someone else directly (although I don’t think I can sustain even that innocence), but I am certainly guilty on a daily basis of receiving and benefitting from stolen property.

I live on and have legal title to land that was at some point in history taken from the original inhabitants. I live in neighborhoods that benefit disproportionately from city and county and state funding, simply because of my zip code. My kids and grandkids attend schools that have better funding at the expense of schools with majority Black and Brown student bodies. The value of my house has skyrocketed in part because it’s in an area that has never been surrounded by a red line on a real estate or banking map.

So, part of the point in the text, for me, is, “Don’t be Judas.” That may seem too obvious to bear mentioning. But the point is to not be Judas in the way he was Judas. If only he could have watched Mary’s actions. If only he could have seen her devotion for what it was. If only he could have been moved by what he witnessed, he might have chosen another path and become a different person. Am I willing to be led and taught and challenged and shaped by those who are not powerful? And am I willing to change even when that’s not in my self-interest?

That’s always the challenge for those of us in charge…

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2012): 281-297.

Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.

Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.  Kindle Edition.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/28/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-april-3-2022-john-121-8/.

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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Five)

“But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice, because this one, your brother, was dead and lives, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32, my translation). Perhaps a good sermon title might be “Some Celebration Required.” N. T. Wright suggests, “The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well, we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality” (page 184).

I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.

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Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.

Of course, there is rejoicing over the one found lamb, the one found coin, and the one found son. But what has really happened is that the coin collection is once again complete. The flock is full. Will the family be whole? Or will we on the inside settle for being found ourselves and giving little thought to those who still are lost? That’s a good reason for the third parable to be inconclusive and unsettled. The question is still in the air. The family is still on shaky ground.

I wish the NRSV had not over-determined the translation of Luke 15:32. The Greek text is much less specific than the translation. “But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice…” Necessary for whom? The text doesn’t say. It was necessary, perhaps, for the family to be whole again, but that can’t happen until the older brother is once again able to claim his connection to the younger brother. It was necessary because “this one – your brother – was dead and lives and was lost and is found.”

Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.

God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.

But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.

I was part of a congregation that wrestled long and hard with what it means to be a “welcoming” community. The congregation reflected honestly on this question. When we say, “all are welcome,” is it really a question: “Are all welcome?” Framing the issue in this way sparked some deep introspection and honest confession. We welcomed those who looked and sounded like us, who brought something that we wanted, who came and stayed on our terms and didn’t kick up a fuss.

We weren’t looking for people who might make our community more whole and our lives fuller through their unique gifts and perspectives. Instead, we were like the Borg in the Star Trek franchises. As a long-time Trekkie, I remember the moment when I made the connection. “We are the Borg,” the mechanical voice from the Borg cube threatens. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

We were happy to welcome people who were willing to be assimilated to our congregational culture, habits, assumptions, preferences, practices, and traditions. Until we could engage in a welcome that moved beyond assimilation, we would continue to be content with incompleteness. I’m happy to report that the congregation made some real progress in moving from assimilation to open engagement. But it was not an easy process.

Would the older brother be open to new possibilities, to a change in the family system? Or was his condition for reconciliation really assimilation – the application of punitive power to the younger son to make sure the system was not threatened like this again? We don’t know how it went for the older son. Do we know how that goes for us?

The parable makes me wonder to what degree we are happy with a limited, familiar, comfortable community that leaves us as the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. Jesus’ critics advocated that the tax collectors and sinners should be segregated away from decent people. Those who crossed these boundaries were in danger of being contaminated by the outsiders and thus becoming one of them.

American cities remain just as segregated, if not more so, as before the days of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. “Segregation is a costly self-imposed error,” writes Heather Abraham. “It is not a natural phenomenon. It is government-subsidized and government-reinforced,” she continues. “Some of the documented ways segregation infiltrates our society include how it drives the racial wealth gap, undermines metropolitan GDP, drastically diminishes life opportunities like quality education and healthcare, and ultimately results in highly unequal health outcomes like shorter life expectancy and higher homicide rates for communities of color” (page 2).

We who live well because of White Supremacy and systemic racism can easily document those costs to communities of color and the individuals in those communities. But how often do we think about the cost to those of us who not only benefit from but continue to impose such segregating systems on other human beings? As part of the perpetrating system, we make ourselves less than fully human.

More than that, we have persuaded ourselves that we are complete by ourselves. We who live completely White lives state by our way of living that people of color and their communities have nothing we want or need. We have made Whiteness the be all and end all of existence and notice no deficit created by limiting ourselves to one skin tone and one cultural reality. If there are things from other communities and cultures that we desire, we do a Borg assimilation and simply appropriate them and make them ours.

If I apply a Christian biblical lens to this reality, I see that our White life does not reflect the character of God. God, as Jesus portrays God in these parables, is not content with a part of the flock or the piggy bank or the family. A part won’t do. God wants us all and wants all of us – and wants us all together.

I think this takes us once again to both the first and second lessons for this Sunday. It’s not often that all of the texts work together in such an effective way, so let’s be sure to take advantage of the intersection. We think about community as insiders vs. outsiders. That’s not how God thinks about or sees things. We are the ones who need to change our vision (that’s repentance, by the way).

Reconciliation doesn’t come immediately after repentance. It takes repair of the relationships and the community impacted by the brokenness. White Christians have always wanted to go straight to reconciliation and to skip the repentance and repair stages. Even if we make some efforts at confession and repentance, we’re still not willing to do the hard work of making reparations. Until we do that work, reconciliation is really just a word to make White people feel better about themselves.

We don’t get beyond some initial repenting in the third parable. Perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs had to be made in that family system before real reconciliation could happen. And perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs we need to make in order for all of us to act like God’s family.

In the meantime, whenever sinners are welcomed, some celebration is required. I look forward to celebrating a bit once again this week, even as I wrestle with who does not yet have a seat at the table.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

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

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

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

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

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

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

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Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Two)

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, has written another book. This one is called Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021). She titles the second chapter of the new book, “Why It’s OK to Generalize About White People.”

DiAngelo notes that one of the most consistent complaints she gets in her work is that she is generalizing about White people. She gets accused of stereotyping White people rather than treating them as “individuals.” The accusation might even lead in some settings to accusations (although DiAngelo doesn’t mention this at this point) of “reverse racism.”

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Why do I mention this here? I mention it because the pushback DiAngelo receives strikes me as a White supremacist variety of the self-serving bias. The complaint she receives is that she is not treating White people as the discrete and unique individuals they really are. All those “other people” may be guilty of racist actions, language, and thinking. But you don’t know me, as an individual White person. You don’t know my heart as an individual White heart. So, don’t go making broad generalizations and then lumping me into the mix as a generic White person.

I’m different. I’m an individual, as opposed to all those other people.

Right…

Central to the narrative of White supremacy, according to DiAngelo and other scholars, is the ideology of individualism. American society lives with an irreconcilable tension. On the one hand, our political ideology says that all people are created equal. On the other hand, DiAngelo writes, “we each occupy distinct raced (and gendered, classed, etc.) positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not voluntary or random” (pages 22-23). The narrative of individualism is the way we White people manage this tension.

This narrative of individualism “posits that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of a systemic structure but of individual character. Individualism,” DiAngelo continues, “claims that success is independent of position, that one succeeds through individual effort alone, and that there are no favored starting positions that provide competitive advantage” (page 23). That sounds a great deal like the interior dimension of the self-serving bias.

We all know this argument. Other people may have had help from their family, their birth, their zip code, their education, their friendship network, their gender, their language, their looks, and dumb luck. I, on the other hand, have pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I have succeeded through hard work, intelligence, and good choices. No one has given me anything. I earned it all. I was just as disadvantaged as the next person, and I succeeded anyway. So, stop all the whining about systemic bias and institutional injustice.

Most people realize that it makes no sense to argue that I’ve done it my way, but everyone else is a victim of systems and circumstances. This is the “they are worse sinners than me” argument. Therefore, everyone must be an individual if I am to maintain my mythology of personal accomplishment. If everyone is an individual – completely unaffected by external and societal constraints – then the fact that you’re having some trouble is just your own damn fault.

Do you think those other people are sinners and you’re not? Best not to bring that one up with Jesus, especially before he’s had his morning whatever.

If the ideology of individualism is part of the narrative underpinning of White supremacy, as DiAngelo and others argue that it is, then it’s much more serious than just a thing that makes your arrogant neighbor such a pain in the ass. She writes that the ideology of individualism is one of the common barriers that keeps us White people from seeing our own racism. DiAngelo “is not denying that we are all individuals in general.” Instead, she seeks “to demonstrate how white insistence on individualism in discussions of racism in particular prevents cross-racial understanding and denies the salience of race in our lives” (page 23).

In order to interrogate the ideology of individualism in more detail, DiAngelo asks the important critical question. How does this ideology “function”? That is, what does the narrative of individualism do for those who benefit from that narrative? She argues that individualism “denies the significance of race and the advantages of being white” (page 25). The narrative removes us history and its messy stories of responsibility, and it makes whiteness the universal standard for normalcy.

In addition, the ideology of individualism allows us White people to deny that there is a social hierarchy that helps to determine the distribution and acquisition of power. “If we insist that group membership is insignificant,” DiAngelo argues, “social inequity and its consequences become personally irrelevant. So too,” she continues, “does any imperative to change inequity” (page 33). As individuals we aren’t responsible for the bad actions of other White people. We aren’t responsible for the misfortune of BIPOC members of our society. In fact, we aren’t responsible for anyone but ourselves.

In that narrative, DiAngelo notes, we all end up in our “natural” places. If we are powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied – and if all of that is the result of our individual initiative – then things are just as they “should” be. The fact that White people are ten times more likely to be those privileged people is either a statistical accident or because White people are just better at everything. Individualism results, DiAngelo notes, in a system that asserts meritocracy, Social Darwinism, and White superiority. How else can one explain the “individual” differences of outcome?

Now DiAngelo arrives at the answer to the chapter’s overall question. Why is it OK to generalize about White people (and not about BIPOC people)? It’s about the outcomes. If individualism is only granted to White people, then whatever is “wrong” with a particular Black person, for example, is “wrong” with all Black persons. White individualism results in White superiority and supremacy.

If, on the other hand, individualism is granted to Black people, the dynamic is reversed. “Granting Black people individuality,” DiAngelo writes, “interrupts a racist dynamic within a culture that has denied their individuality. Conversely,” she concludes, “suspending individuality for white people is a necessary interruption to our denial of collective advantage” (page 35). We can’t claim individual merit and ignore that this only seems to work for White people. But that’s what White superiority seeks to do.

DiAngelo offers an exercise to thoughtful White people who want to do some critical reasoning here. “A simple question can be applied to any exception white people offer up as evidence that they are free from racial conditioning,” she suggests, “How does being white shape how you experience that exception?” (page 36).

Let me try a church-y example. I think many of our “nice racist” ELCA congregations wonder why more people of color don’t sit in our pews and join our congregations. One of many answers to that wondering is that our traditional worship style is not attractive to people from other worship cultures. If we’re honest, we nice racist Christians wonder why people from other worship cultures can’t see that “our” worship is the “right” kind of worship – liturgically correct, historically accurate, theologically appropriate, aesthetically pleasing. We resist questioning that assumption because that questioning will produce civil war in the Whites only pews.

But how does being White shape our experience here? Either we think that our personal preferences are more important than those on the outside, or we think that our way of doing things is better than the ways of others. So, we either put ourselves and our preferences first, or we assert that the preferences of others are deficient (or both!). We nice racist Christians can’t stand to do either of those things (theoretically). So, we ignore the issue and wonder why those outside don’t “get it.” I like my worship my way. Why can’t you?

We White Christians have been conditioned to being in charge. We have been conditioned to believe that our way is always the best, the superior way. We have been conditioned to assume that we are at the center of the culture, the Church, and the universe. We have been conditioned to assume that being comfortable in church is not only our privilege but our birthright. Anyone who challenges that conditioning is spoiling for a fight and is likely to lose – especially if that anyone is some meddlesome pastor who can certainly be moved on with little fuss or muss.

“We [White people] receive plenty of reinforcement on what makes us special,” DiAngelo writes. “We have likely offered up our exceptions countless times when the conversation is on race. Let’s try stretching in a new direction,” she urges. “One day, we may treat every person as a unique individual, but it is precisely because that day is not here that the insistence on individualism is so pernicious” (page 36).

The Lukan account is known for an emphasis on the “Great Reversal.” We have one of those Great Reversal verses in Luke 13:30, a small conclusion to this section of the gospel. Perhaps we could read the Great Reversal this way. Those who have had the power to pretend to be individuals will no longer have that power. And those who have been relegated to a featureless mass of identity will be seen by God for who they are (for example, look at how this works in Luke 16:19-31).

If that’s the case (and I would argue that it is), then we nice, racist, White, liberal Christians have some deep thinking and praying and repenting to keep on doing.

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Text Study for Luke 13:31-35 (Part Four)

I listened to Ezra Klein’s conversation with Masha Gessen regarding Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine. She suggested that it’s not enough for an autocrat to control what people think. The real control focuses on how people think. I heard something more here. It’s not enough to shape and restrict what people think is practical. What’s necessary for an autocrat is to shape and restrict what people think is possible.

Autocrats seek to dominate and control the imagination of the subject population. If that is accomplished, then the flow of false information goes smoothly. Contradictions and conundrums disappear, not because they are resolved, but simply because they are “impossible.” The predictive power of George Orwell’s 1984 continues to astound me in his understanding of the mechanisms of such autocracy.

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Today I’m reading Luke 13:31-35 as a collision of two imaginaries – that of the “fox” and that of the “hen.” Whether the Pharisees who come to Jesus want to warn him or warn him off is immaterial here. They have accepted the “fox” narrative as the true description of their reality. I think it’s an odd and unfortunate coincidence that a certain cable news network goes by the same name. I’m not making any causal or intentional connections here. It’s just interesting.

In fox-world, the ultimate authority is violent death. The one who controls the machinery of violent death controls the way the world works. Herod Antipas controls that machinery at the relatively local level of his tetrarchy. He does so on behalf of the Roman Imperial state. He is subject to the same regime of violence, coercion, expropriation, and deception as everyone else. He’s just a bit higher up in the food chain.

In fact, it will be just a few years after our text that Antipas is exiled to what is now Spain by the emperor Caligula. Readers of the Lukan account would likely know what was for them recent history. Ancient sources suggested that in fact Caligula ultimately had Antipas executed. Modern historians doubt the accuracy of those reports. Nonetheless, Antipas lived by the Imperial sword and died by it as well. He lived in the Imperial imaginary where violent death trumped all other factors.

Those who warn Jesus live in that same Imperial imaginary. Jesus does not. He puts Herod Antipas in his place by calling him a fox, a “little dog.” I suspect it’s no coincidence that Jesus (and/or the Lukan author) uses this image. Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, were – according to the myth – raised by a she-wolf as “cubs.” Rome was the big dog who ate first. The little dogs, like Antipas, only got to eat afterwards from what was left behind.

Jesus brings the values and imagination of “hen-world.” These are the values and imagination of the kin(g)dom of God. In hen-world, it is compassion, gentleness, and loving self-sacrifice that define the limits of the possible. Jesus rejects the power of fox-world to define and determine his course and his destiny. Violent death will certainly be part of his journey (see verse 33). But that violent death will not determine the course or conclusion of that journey.

The good news of this text is that hen-world values are Kin(g)dom values. Fox-world values are not. Hen-world reflects God’s desires and longings, God’s plans and goals. Jesus is on the divinely necessary path through fox-world, but he will not live or die there. Instead, he subverts and transforms those values and that world. He overcomes death by dying, and by living he brings new life.

In light of that good news, we can interrogate our own imaginations. What do we believe is possible? Do we limit our vision of the possible to the values of fox-world? Or do we allow Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to expand our vision of the possible to the values of hen-world? The values of fox-world in the end will produce only destruction, despair, and death. The values of hen-world will produce creativity, hope, and life.

I can’t help but think about the current war by Russia in Ukraine. The war has large doses of fox-world values at work. That’s the nature of war. It is violent, brutal, destructive, and evil. That being said, the most notable parts of this war are the ways in which hen-world values are having an impact. I think about the Russian soldiers who have surrendered and then received food, medical care, and a chance to call their parents to tell them they are alive.

I think about the use of humor, both in the rhetoric of leadership and in the actions of the people. The videos of Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian tanks and planes by towing them away with their tractors is both hilarious and astonishing. The creative resistance and assistance demonstrated by the Ukrainian people show a population that has not yet lost its human heart to the inhumanity of war.

I don’t want to valorize any of the conflict. Nor would I suggest that Jesus had violent resistance in mind as a hen-world value. But even in the most brutal situations, hen-world values can leak through and have an out-sized impact. Of course, the values of fox-world are not easily overcome. We have only to see the discrimination based on color in the treatment of those fleeing the war to know that fox-world is alive and well even in the warmest of human hearts.

We can and should interrogate our own imaginations through the lens of this text. When it comes to our own White supremacy in American Christianity, this is a matter, first of all, of imagination. Is it possible to imagine a society where skin tone is not determinative of one’s worth as a person and a people? I know that many of us White people cannot yet imagine such a society, no matter how many times we quote a small clip from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”

Why do we resist the positive power of a new imagination? Because we were so familiar and comfortable with the old model. It’s time for an oldie but a goodie. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? It takes ten: one to change the bulb, and nine to reminisce about how much they liked and miss the old bulb. As my CPE supervisor often said, people believe that bad breath is better than no breath at all. Better the Devil you know…etc.

A new imaginary means that some things about the old imaginary weren’t working. We often experience that as some sort of judgment or failing. I’ve worked with congregations who fervently resisted and resented hearing about the successes and innovations of other congregations. People feared that such new imagination would cast a shadow on the existing imagination and make people feel bad. I wish I was exaggerating.

The first step in bringing about constructive change is identifying a good reason for the change. Otherwise, making a change is irrational – literally, without a reason. The best reason to make a change is because what we’re doing now isn’t working. Someone, typically someone in leadership, is tasked with saying out loud that things as they are aren’t working as they should. That’s no way to win popularity contests. I speak from experience.

The alternative, of course, is Einstein’s “definition” of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Identifying things that don’t work is the first and necessary step to a new imagination. The things that work may not seem that important at first. After all, Einstein was bothered by the fact that the orbit of Mercury didn’t seem to obey with precision Newton’s law of gravity. That wasn’t going to change life for most people, but it was the beginning of a revolution in thought.

What are the things about fox-world imagination that aren’t working – in the world, in our society, in our community, in our congregation? That’s a question worth asking and allowing listeners to think about and answer for themselves. Fear and coercion, violence and death, hierarchy and privilege – these things are not making life better for any but a very few people at the peak of the power pyramid. If that’s good enough for most folks, then there’s no reason to seek a different world.

But we know that’s not good enough – certainly not good enough in the Church of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we can imagine together the newest ways we’re being called to bring hen-world values to bear in our congregations, neighborhoods, and communities.

The first response will be that we don’t have enough resources, time, energy, and resolve to even take care of ourselves much less to spread our wings and gather in others. That’s fox-world thinking. When there’s not enough pie to go around, don’t make the slices smaller. Figure out how to create a bigger pie! For the church, that will mean new partners and platforms, new ways of seeing the world and being seen by the world.

I would refer you to an RNS article reporting an interview with ECUSA Bishop Michael Curry. It’s not only our imagination as church people that’s at stake here, according to the survey upon which the article was based. It is the imagination that people outside the church have of us. “When asked how well Christians represent the values and teachings of Jesus,” the article reports, “many religiously unaffiliated respondents said ‘not at all’ (29%), while only 2% said Christians represent Jesus’ values and teachings ‘a lot.’”

Those outside the church see us Christians as largely living in fox-world, when we see ourselves as largely living in hen-world. It’s time for a bit more imaginative thinking and doing on our part.

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Text Study for Luke 13:31-35 (Part Two)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The killer of prophets and the stoner of those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children the way a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you wouldn’t have it! Behold, your house is lost to you.” (Luke 13:34-35a, my translation). Francis Weinert closely examines these words to interpret what Jesus means in this cryptic saying.

For a long time in scholarship, the thought was that the Lukan author was rejecting the Temple. “Luke, it has been said, is critical of the Temple institution,” Weinert notes, “he [the Lukan author] sees it as rejected, destined only to be destroyed and replaced by a superior form of worship” (page 69). Among those holding this view, according to Weinert are Conzelmann, Ellis, and Haenchen. Weinert argues that is perspective “distorts the Lucan data and should be abandoned.”

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Weinert’s perspective has been adopted by many contemporary Lukan scholars. The passage that gives the most support to the anti-Temple thesis is before us this week – Luke 13:34-35. Weinert sees it as central to any argument about the Lukan evaluation of the Temple and Jesus. He compares the usage of the verses in Luke and Matthew to make his point (this material does not appear in the Markan composition). Most important for his argument, he proposes that the text does not indicate a permanent abandonment of Jerusalem or the Temple in the Lukan view.

“Here, Jesus’ saying about Jerusalem’s house emerges primarily as a prophetic lament,” Weinert concludes, “rather than as a judgment of inevitable doom” (page 74). Moreover, based on the vocabulary and usage of the Lukan author, the word for “house” here “does not primarily refer to the Temple. Rather,” Weinert continues, “it designates Israel’s Judean leadership and those who fall under their authority” (page 76). In other words, the reference to Jerusalem’s “house” refers to “some personal, collective entity, and not a specific place or building such as the Temple.

Most commentators think that Luke 13:31-33 and 34-35 were not originally combined in Jesus’ actual discourse. These sayings were combined, in all likelihood, by the Lukan author, since they don’t appear together in the Matthean account. This combination, for the Lukan author, creates “a prophetic declaration by Jesus to his opposition in Israel,” Weinert argues, “which for Luke is embodied mainly in its leadership” (page 76, my emphasis).

Weinert concludes his argument with these words. “In Luke’s hands this oracle becomes a prophetic lament which Jesus addresses to Israel’s leaders in Judah, from whom he expects no more warm a welcome than he has received from those in Galilee. Jesus declares that the situation between himself, the leaders of Jerusalem, and those who are under their authority will be left undisturbed for a while, but not indefinitely” (page 76). Jesus’ lament is about the people in charge rather than about a place or a population.

Weinert’s argument strikes me as convincing. But why does the Lukan author put this in connection with the ridicule of Herod Antipas as an inconsequential cog in the Roman machine? Frank Dicken argues that the Lukan author actually sees the various Herods and Herodians in the Lukan account as a “composite character.” The Lukan author refers to three different people in the account (including Acts) as “Herod.” This could have caused confusion for at least some of the Lukan readers and damaged the author’s attempt to render an orderly account of things.

Dicken suggests that the Lukan readers could assume that “Herod” was one character in the account, just as “Pharoah” is rendered as one character in the OT stories but may have been more than one person. The same is true, he argues of “Nebuchadnezzar” in Daniel. If this composite character argument works in the Lukan account, and I think it does, then Dicken leads us to wonder what such a characterization adds to the narrative.

He suggests that “composite characters serve in stereotyped roles in order to provide the reader with an example to follow, an enemy to distrust, a foil over against the protagonist(s), etc.” In the Lukan account, Dicken proposes that the Herod character “represents an actualization of Satan’s desire to impede the spread of the good news through his rejection of the gospel message and through political persecution.”

No matter how often Herod is portrayed as expressing curiosity about Jesus, he (they) is deeply implicated in Jesus’ trial and execution in the Lukan account. Herod is one of those powers that Satan possesses and manages (and promises to Jesus in the Wilderness Testing). Herod might have responded positively to Jesus’ preaching but in the end does not. “Luke’s Roman rulers represent a spectrum of responses to such preaching,” Dicken writes, “from belief to outright hostility, with composite ‘Herod’ serving in the stereotyped role of persecutor par excellence at the negative end of this spectrum.”

If Dicken is correct, then the connection between foxy Herod and the lament over Jerusalem is clarified. Jerusalem, why have you hitched your political wagon to such a bunch of losers? If that spiritually and morally bankrupt administration is the best you can do and the most you can want, then have at it! Jesus urgently desires that God’s people would choose the better course, but for now it seems that they will not. Thus, what they get is an “empty house (dynasty)” filled with “empty suits.”

Christian churches are often in danger of betting on the wrong horse when it comes to secular authorities and administrations. It is astonishing to watch how the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church turns theological summersaults in order to maintain a favored position within the current autocratic system of Putinocracy. These theological gymnastics have led to a fracturing of the Orthodox communion and charges of heresy and the presence of the anti-Christ being thrown from one Metropolitan to another.

Dr. Chuck Currie (@RevChuckCurrie) put it this way on a recent tweet. “The Russian Orthodox Church provides theological cover for Vladimir Putin in much the same way white evangelical Christians provide theological cover for Donald Trump. If your Christian faith leads to Putin or Trump, you aren’t following Jesus.”

You can substitute whichever autocratic nationalist you prefer and insert whichever theological tradition has been most recently prostituted. For example, Luther and Lutherans have much to repent and repair still with Jewish communities around the world for the ways in which our founder and tradition were used to underwrite and cover the Nazis (for as long as some of us were useful).

Watching this “Christian nationalism” from a distance reminds us of the ways in which the White Church in America has hitched its political wagon to White American supremacy and exceptionalism. We should all spend time with Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry. They document the ways in which White Christian nationalism has been and continues to be the ideological and political underpinning for large segments of American Christian belief and practice.

Robert Jones makes similar points in his excellent book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather,” Jones writes, “as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6).

It may be that Jesus is lamenting the commitment on the part of the Jerusalem elites to survival at any cost, even if that means getting into bed with the Herods and the Romans. Such a marriage of convenience can only ever be temporary in a universe created and ruled by the God of justice and mercy. If that is the anchoring upon which those elites choose to depend, that’s all they will be left with in the end.

I find that to be a helpful interpretive template for our text and our time. If we White Christians have anchored ourselves to White Supremacy and American exceptionalism as the place on which we will stand, that’s all we’re going to have for ourselves. If this is the case, it is no wonder that people are abandoning Christian churches as places of empty talk and hollow morality.

“The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy,” writes Robert P. Jones. “And the genetic imprint of this legacy remains present and measurable in contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South,” Jones continues, “but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast” (page 6). And Jones has the sociological and survey data receipts to prove it.

Therefore, whoever makes up the “Jerusalem elite” in our system must carefully and relentlessly examine with whom we make our political and cultural beds. The temptation to put all our reliance on such political and cultural arrangements and accommodations will leave us theologically vacuous and morally bankrupt. When that happens, the destruction of our own temples will not be far behind.

Fortunately, the day comes when those who remain can cry out, Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”

References and Resources

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

WEINERT, FRANCIS D. “Luke, the Temple and Jesus’ Saying about Jerusalem’s Abandoned House (Luke 13:34-35).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 68–76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716183.

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Text Study for Luke 13:31-35 (Part One)

“When the Diabolical One completed all the testing, he departed from [Jesus] until the right moment” (Luke 4:13, my translation). Welcome, friends, to one of those “right moments.” So, Jesus, you turned down the opportunity to rule all the nations of the world, eh? Let’s see how that works out for you when even a petty and puppeted pretender to power places you under threat. How’s that wilderness testing looking to you now, huh?

“In that very hour,” the Lukan author writes, “some Pharisees approached, saying to him, “Get out of here and go, because Herod wants to kill you!” (Luke 13:31, my translation).  Commentators debate at length about the intention and motivation of these Pharisees as they warn Jesus. In much of the Lukan account, Herod ranges from curious about Jesus to positively disposed toward him. In that light, the Pharisaic warning seems like a duplicitous attempt at manipulation.

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On the other hand, the Pharisees are not painted uniformly in the Lukan account with the “villain” brush. Jesus spends time in the homes of Pharisees and engages in collegial debates with them. Jesus is not complimentary to them, and they often reply in kind. But the relationship is ambiguous. There may well have been Pharisees who, at the very least, didn’t want to see yet another Jewish public figure hanging from a Roman cross to shame the nation once again.

In addition, it is likely that none of Jesus’ adversaries operates with unmixed motives here. Herod Antipas could certainly be fascinated by a local holy man, such as John the Baptist, and still decide that he was more trouble than he was worth. The Pharisees could certainly hold a need for Jewish solidarity and a desire for Jesus to be silenced in the same strategic basket. The human exercise of power is rarely a clear and clean transaction.

In this post, however, I want to focus on the threat itself, regardless of its source or credibility. We see here the threat of violence used as an administrative tool. Whoever is the source of the threat, that one wishes to use the threat of violence to manage power and change behavior. That is a reality common to human experience, including human church experience.

I spent time in the past working with conflicted congregations. One of the most common features of congregational conflict was anonymous communication. A leader in the conflict would note, with great sincerity and an attempt at pseudo-intimacy, that people had been talking about the pastor or the situation or the conflict or the other “side” or all of the above.

The anonymous communication always carried a camouflaged threat of some kind. Often, there was the concern that if things didn’t change in the right way, then the pastor would have to be removed. The threat that offerings would be withheld and/or that people would attend another congregation was often part of the package. Rumors and gossip about the pastor’s behavior, family, or finances were not out of bounds. The same sorts of destructive allegations about other congregational members sometimes surfaced.

Most of the time, these allegations were unfounded. Often, they were pure fantasy or delusion. Sometimes they were complete and intentional fabrications. The intention was rarely to state a truth. Rather, the intention was to curb unwanted behavior and to manage the other “side.” Rumor and gossip were used as methods of social control in violent and coercive ways. “Stop doing what you’re doing, because Herod wants to kill you!”

I wonder if Herod’s minions were collecting a file on Jesus as he moved through Galilee and toward Jerusalem. Our anti-racism book group is going to discuss the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, this week and next. The documentary notes Baldwin’s FBI file and then quotes a bit from it. The file in total contains 1,884 pages of information observations, and conclusions. Baldwin was stalked, harassed, and censored by the FBI. His phone was tapped, and he was followed by agents posing as ordinary people.

The purpose of collecting such information on Baldwin was to equip the United States Government to intimidate and manipulate Baldwin, should the opportunity present itself. He was associated with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Symone, Lorraine Hansberry, the Black Panthers, the SDS, and various so-called “communist fronts.” Thus, he was regarded as a potential “asset” as well as a threat. The collection of information on Baldwin was part of an attempt to manipulate, intimidate, and coerce him and other leaders in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

We see similar efforts at information control and fabrication as we watch the Russian propaganda machine at work. Our American electoral system and numerous government agencies have been deceived, deterred, and derailed by Russian disinformation. At times, people in power in the country have been used by Russia and used Russia for their own purposes and power. Twenty-first century examples of “Herod wants to kill you” abound in this space.

When the threat of violence is not sufficient, then power structures move on to the real thing. I must think about the uses of threats, intimidation, and lynching as ways to intimidate, coerce, control, and exploit Black Americans from 1865 to the present day. “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation,” writes Bryan Stevenson in the report, Lynching in America, “a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.”

This use of the threat and then employment of violence to control a subject population is one of the ways in which lynching and crucifixion are quite similar. “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “that one wonders what blocks American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (page 31).

With threat of violence in the text, we see the shadow of the cross falling upon Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Today we have a preview of the “right moment” for the Diabolical One.

Jesus replies to the Pharisees, “You go and tell that fox…” It’s hard to know how to play that particular line in the drama. Does Jesus speak the words with steel in his voice, a growl curling from his lips? Perhaps. Or does he laugh with derision at the thought that one of Caesar’s lap dogs might intimidate him with a little yip of warning through secondhand channels? I lean toward playing the line that way.

I don’t think Jesus minimizes the risk or the danger. All we have to do is read the rest of the text with its language about Jerusalem as the executioner of prophets. But Herod is not going to deter Jesus from his path. Jesus will not be intimidated or manipulated, or coerced from his mission. Rumors of disapproval and threats of violence will not determine his route to the cross.

I write these words on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1965. White Alabama authorities (the only authorities under the Jim Crow system) were determined to keep Black citizens from registering to vote. In protest, marchers decided to walk from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in order to protest these crimes against human dignity and the American constitution. As they came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers fell upon the marchers and beat them nearly to death. Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered during the series of protests as was James Reeb.

The intention of the violent response was twofold. First, the powerful intended to stop the protest itself. Second, the powerful intended to send clear communication to all who were watching that the status quo would remain in place. Quite the opposite happened, of course. This was a televised revolution, and Americans were horrified at the inhuman brutality visited upon the marchers. One result was the rapid signing of the Civil Rights Act into law, the very thing the White authorities sought to prevent.

Jesus did not respond to the Pharisaic warning with false bravado. The violence was coming, and he knew it. But it was going to be on his terms, for his purposes, and in service of his goals. He would not be deterred from his path today, tomorrow, and the third day.

We can perhaps wonder about the ways we react to threats and intimidation, whether internal or external. We can wonder about that in our personal lives. I’m far more easily frightened by secondhand threats than I care to acknowledge. I worry about being physically attacked or legally sanctioned if I protest or resist injustice. I don’t even like the confrontations that might happen with family members about divisive social issues. Too bad for me…Come, Holy Spirit.

I know that White, mainline congregations are routinely terrified of pissing off members by being too confrontational or political. So, we typically choose silence and the status quo rather than shaking things up. Jesus is clearly comfortable with stirring up trouble and getting powerful pushback. I think, as I have noted before, that I (and we) need a lot more practice in tolerating good trouble as White people and white congregations…Come, Holy Spirit.

Well, there’s a start, eh?

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Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Six)

What is the good news that we can hear and proclaim in the Lukan story of the Wilderness Testing? I might perhaps put it in the words of Bryan Stephenson in Just Mercy. “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths,” he writes, “including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (pages 17-18). The truth about ourselves is a source of healing and hope rather than one of humiliation and horror.

I’m not suggesting that Jesus confronts some terrible truth about himself in the Wilderness Testing. Indeed, we have seen that even the Diabolical One acknowledges the truth of what Jesus hears in his baptism – that he is the beloved Son of God, in whom God takes delight. But the Diabolical One wishes to take that truth, twist it to perverse purpose, and use it to lead Jesus onto a path that violates and invalidates that very truth.

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Jesus comes to recover and redeem human beings as the bearers of God’s image and likeness, to recover and redeem the identity with which we are created. This is the connection the Lukan author makes in identifying both Adam and Jesus as Son of God. Jesus will not be deterred from the truth of this identity by false promises of easy glory and quick fixes. Nor will we be imprisoned by sin and locked away from this identity forever.

The simplest good news in the Wilderness Testing is that Jesus wins. But Jesus will not use the tools of the Diabolical One in that victory. He will not use magic tricks or political violence or publicity stunts to try to accomplish what only self-giving Love can do. This is consistent with the commands in the Sermon on the Plain. There we learn that we also cannot defeat the Enemy using the Enemy’s tools. We who follow Jesus are called to a different way, the way of truthfulness.

Each of us sinners is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. No one needs to be defined by our past failings and falsehoods, our hatreds and hungers, our misdeeds and mayhem. We all have truths we wish would remain hidden and histories we have worked hard to bury. Truth-telling sounds much more like threat than freedom. But the sins of omission and the lies of not telling deform and deface us just as much as do aggressive acts of violence. It is in truth-telling that we find real liberation.

Here in the Wilderness Testing we see the One who joins together truth and love, honesty and grace. There is no healing from trauma without truth-telling, either for the victim or the perpetrator. And we have been each and both in our lifetimes.

I think about the reconsideration of the “Mark of Cain” that Robert P. Jones offers in his book, White Too Long. He describes the jars of soil one can find at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These jars have come from places where Black men, women, and children have been lynched over the last one hundred and fifty years. One of those jars was filled just a few miles from my home here in Omaha and brings to remembrance the lynching of Will Brown in 1919.

Jones notes that each of those jars embodies God’s words to Cain after he murdered his brother, Abel, as recorded in Genesis four. God declares that Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for justice. The very soil itself bears witness to the crime. “And despite our denials, equivocations, protests, and excuses,” Jones writes, “as the biblical narrative declares, the soil itself preserves and carries a testimony of truth to God” (page 231).

Cain resists the truth and compounds his crime by lying to God. He complains to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to that question, of course, is yes. “Here, it’s clear that Cain’s decision to lie about his hand in the murder and to deny responsibility makes his future harder, just as our denials threaten our own future,” Jones continues. “The challenge for white Americans today, and white Christians in particular, is whether and how we are going to answer these questions: ‘Where is your brother?’ and ‘What have you done?’” (page 231).

Jones makes the case that our insistence on denial and deception disfigures the souls of White Christians in America. It may be that the myth of white supremacy has twisted our Christianity almost beyond recognition and into a cruel parody of the real thing. He quotes a James Baldwin op-ed column to drive home the point. White Christians have been formed by the lie of White Supremacy in such a way that “the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself” (page 233).

It is only through truth-telling that we can begin to heal from the trauma of perpetrating four centuries of inhumanity upon millions of other image-bearers. Truth telling is painful and terrifying. But there is no healing from trauma without testimony. As Jones suggests, if we White Christians would engage in confession and repair, reconciliation would take care of itself. And as long as we will not tell the truth and embody it in actions, reconciliation is just a word behind which to hide.

In a recent article for RNS, Jones applies his analysis to our theology. Truth-telling will of necessity make us White people uncomfortable. That is the nature of confession. If we had nothing to discomfort us, confession would not be necessary. “If we white Christians can muster the courage to walk in its company,” Jones concludes in that article, “discomfort with our racial history can be a sacred and saving gift.”

In the Wilderness Testing, we can find the resources for truth-telling if we want them. The Holy Spirit assures us in the words of Jesus that “One does not live by bread alone.” The Word of God, the word of Truth, is the source of our life. We need not live on the false nourishment of a failed perfectionism.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” we read in the First Letter of John. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). Truth-telling is the path to freedom, and we can trust God to hear our truth and make us clean.

The Holy Spirit assures us that we find our humanity when we worship the Lord our God and serve only God (and not self). Jones notes that White Supremacy has been the idolatrous focus of Dominant Christianity on this continent for four hundred years. It continues to deform and deface the Christian witness to such a degree that the best statistical predictor of virulent White racism in a person is that White person’s commitment to and involvement in a Christian church. The Diabolical One must regard that perversion as a crowning achievement.

The Holy Spirit reminds us that demanding a life of comfort and security as the proof of God’s faithfulness is not faith but rather idolatry. If we demand that nothing in our faith should ever discomfort us, then we are putting God to the test.

I think about one of James Baldwin’s most powerful and memorable quotes here. “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without become something monstrous yourselves, and furthermore you give me a terrifying advantage: you never have to look at me; I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Nothing can be changed until it is faced. These are good and important words for the first Sunday in Lent. In telling the truth about what needs changing in us, we open ourselves to the possibility of life beyond deception and death.

The right path is rarely an easy one. The best path is rarely the comfortable one. The good news should lead us to what Robert P. Jones calls “Holy Discomfort.” That’s a good summary of the essence of the Lenten journey.

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.

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

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

Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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