Review of On Critical Race Theory, by Victor Ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Luke 17:11-19 (Part Three)

The skin is the largest organ “in” the human body. It is also our most important physical boundary. Skin marks where we stop, and the world starts. It holds “me” together and protects me from illness and infection. My skin marks me as an individual person – or at least it should. In social terms, however, skin also broadcasts to the world messages about who I am. If I am outside the ranks of the privileged, my skin may in fact hide my identity and relegate me to the status of a category or class.

Yet, how often do I – a White American man – actually think about my skin? Not very often, because my white skin remains the cultural norm and center of Western culture. That blithe lack of consciousness is only one symptom of my White-skin privilege. Those without such privilege must think about their skin all the time. Just do a search on a book by a Black author, for example. In Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, “skin” shows up ninety-seven times. For those in America who are not White, “skin” matters.

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White Westerners use the reality of skin tone differences to construct the fiction and mythology of racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that race is the child of racism, not the father (page 7). Superficial differences in appearance get reified into real distinctions between persons. These distinctions are then used as the justification for differences in the valuation and treatment of persons. These distinctions are used to erase individual identities and to create limiting labels.

I imagine that “skin” was a regular subject of conversation, attention, and awareness in the leper community in our text. Those ten men must have talked about the ways they had found to manage their skin conditions. They likely compared blemishes, scars, and the lack thereof. I assume that they helped one another monitor changes in their skin conditions – especially in places they could not see themselves. Skin was a central part of their shared reality.

I have some second-hand acquaintance with such concerns about skin. If one has or has had some variety of melanoma, the condition of one’s skin becomes a heightened concern. SPF becomes a very important number when considering a variety of products. I have learned that even hats can have an SPF rating. Regular monitoring of moles and blemishes becomes very important. Sometimes those offending spots must be surgically removed. Ignoring one’s skin is a luxury for the few, not the norm for the many.

The ten lepers didn’t choose this shared reality. Nor did they seek out skin focus as a way of life. Nor did they construct leprosy’s social and religious meaning. They shared a superficial resemblance and ceased to be individuals. They became a category of people, subject to rules and regulations regardless of their individual identities. While these ten knew intimately how they were alike and different, the world around them only saw “lepers.” Not even the distinctions between Jew and Samaritan could transcend the erasure of individual identities imposed by the label of “leper.”

The very vagueness of the biblical understanding of “leprosy” means it is also a constructed category. A superficial skin difference that might remind viewers of a corpse becomes the basis for a label, legislation, and loss of status. Whatever the degree of isolation those labelled as lepers suffered, there was sufficient ostracism for the condition to be one that cried out for healing.

I recently finished Jessica Nordell’s excellent book, The End of Bias, A Beginning: How We Eliminate Unconscious Bias and Create a More Just World. I would strongly recommend this book for your consideration. Nordell examines all sorts of unconscious bias, but she offers deep insights into race-based bias and discrimination.

“Discrimination on the basis of skin color arrives around age five or six,” Nordell reports, “though recent research suggests that White children may form biases at the intersection of race and gender as early as four, reacting more negatively to Black boys than to Black girls, White girls, or White boys” (Nordell, page 45). I wonder if discrimination against “lepers” began as early and was as deeply entrenched in first-century Mediterranean culture. I suspect it was.

Gabor Mate’ would ask a “penetrating” question of this text, I think. To what degree is biblical leprosy a symptom rather a disease itself? What if the disease is more social than personal, as much psychic as physical? Does this concatenation of skin conditions represent and express deeper psychosocial illnesses in the culture? Are the lepers merely the identified patients in a psychosocial system that suffers from violated boundaries?

“The suppression of individual authenticity plays havoc with biology, breeding illness,” Mate’ writes, “even greater mayhem will ensue for bodies belonging to groups whose self-suppression has been systemically imposed, often with great violence” (page 318). Mate’ outlines in excruciating detail the ways in which racism, for example, causes the gap in health outcomes directly correlated with race.

Mate’ quotes the German physician, Rudolf Virchow. Virchow is now known as the father of modern pathology. He “disdained any separation of health from social conditions and culture,” Mate’ writes. When Virchow was challenged with the critique that his views were more political than medical, Virchow replied, “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale” (Mate’, page 324).

Perhaps we could say that even more for a religious faith. What social and political traumas do those lepers wear on their scaly skins? I don’t know. But I imagine that their ostracism made things worse for them, not better. They lived in a place and time where boundaries of all kinds were assaulted (as do we). The place between the world and them (to nod toward Ta-Nehisi Coates) – their skin – carried the signs of assaults on the self. Those assaults were perhaps on their own selves, but surely on the selves around them as well.

Jesus cleanses their blemishes. He does that for all ten. But the one who acknowledges and accepts the depth of his healing – the Samaritan – that one was saved. Perhaps a sermon title for this text might be, “Salvation is More Than Skin Deep.” Ten were cleansed. One was rescued. Ten were invited into a required transaction. One was personally transformed. The Samaritan could embrace his full humanity, worshipping and praising at Jesus’ feet. That one received transformation rather than mere transaction. Trauma was transmuted and transformed.

It strikes me that Jesus transforms the whole “system” in this story. The prescribed response following such a healing was to “go, show yourselves to the priests.” After a thorough examination, the former leper was pronounced “clean” and could return home. The Samaritan “returns” to Jesus and praises God. John Swinton declares that “Jesus did not sit with those on the margins of society, Rather,” Swinton argues, “he moved the margins” (page 49, Swinton’s emphasis).

The Samaritan’s skin condition could be remedied and removed. However, his social status, vis a vis, Judaism, could not be remedied and removed. The Samaritan’s ethnicity could be embraced or rejected, but not altered. “The social location of Jesus reveals the proper social location of the church,” Swinton concludes, “and the primary orientation of the theological journey” (pages 49-50).

That “proper social location” of the church is not inside our church communities and institutions. The Lukan documents emphasize “going” more than “receiving.” Even when Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, Jesus goes to the homes of those sinners. He doesn’t wait for them to come to him. The forgiving father goes to meet the prodigal son. Jesus comes to the home of Zacchaeus, and in that way, salvation comes to that house.

It’s too easy for us White Christians, heirs and inhabitants of colonizing imperial denominations, to think that when we go, we are the only ones who bring something to the table. That’s part of the wonder of our little story this week. Jesus brings cleansing and saving with him. But the Samaritan brings insight, trust, worship, praise, and gratitude – responses the “insiders” apparently didn’t bring to the table. When the church “goes out,” our first posture is that of listening learner, not that of White savior.

And the Samaritan becomes once again a “person,” when his leprosy is removed. That is certainly the case in cultural terms. Jesus recognizes him as an “other-born” person. But more than that, the Samaritan embraces what it means to be fully human. He praises God with joyful worship. He thanks God for the fullness of life restored to him. He has stepped out of the shadows of prejudice and despair. He walks in the light of love and hope. That’s what being saved looks like – a fully human being joyfully embracing their own, God-given skin.

References and Resources

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Myrick C. Shinall Jr. “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 4 (2018): 915–34.

Mate’, Gabor, and Mate’, Daniel. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. New York: Avery, 2022. Nordell, Jessica. The End of Bias: A Beginning. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole thing scares me to death…

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Pentecost C 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

Text Study for Luke 14:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources and References

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

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

12 Pentecost C

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

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

Photo by Ann H on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part Two)

First, a correction to the previous post. The healing of the man with dropsy in in Luke 14, not in Luke 6. While there are parallels between the healing in Luke 6 and our text, the parallels are more pronounced in the Luke 14 text. In fact, it would appear that the healing of the woman in Luke 13 and that of the man in Luke 14 create a small inclusio.

If this is the case, then the material between the two healing stories offers some interpretive clues for both of the healing stories. And the healing stories create both framework and interpretive context for the material between them. I’m going to go with the assumption that the Lukan author has created a small framework here for the listeners.

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As the Lukan story was told aloud, it would only be a few minutes of listening from the one story to the next. Thus, the parallels would be far more obvious to those listeners than to those of us who read or hear the text piecemeal in our lectionary schedule.

The settings of the two healings are different. However, the content of the controversy is virtually the same. We see in this repetition the Lukan tendency to double stories so that we have a female lead in the one scene and a male lead in the other. The controversy is about whether healing on the Sabbath is permitted by the Torah.

While Jesus heals the woman on the Sabbath in a synagogue, he heals the man in the house of a Pharisee on a day that we can assume was not the Sabbath. In the woman’s story, the question is pressed by the ruler of the synagogue. In the man’s story, Jesus pushes the question toward his host and his host’s colleagues. In the woman’s story, the healing precedes the controversy. In the man’s story, the controversy climaxes in the healing.

These small differences give a sort of chiastic structure to the two healings when placed side by side. This is further evidence that the Lukan author intends for the one healing to lead into a sort of theological discourse, and for the other healing to lead out of it. Despite the differences, Jesus’ response to the controversy is remarkably consistent.

In each case, Jesus reasons from a lesser case to a greater case. You certainly feed or rescue your livestock (or a child), whether it is the Sabbath or not. Should you not then rescue this woman or this man as well, whether it is the Sabbath or not? In each case the opponents do not answer the question, thus rendering it rhetorical. The answer, it would seem, is obvious. Of course, we would effect the feeding or rescue, regardless of the day. And, of course, we would effect the healing, regardless of the day.

The issue is that the religious leaders know what needs to be done. Yet, they put other needs and priorities higher than the rescue and release of the suffering children of Abraham. Perhaps you noticed the label “hypocrites” jumping out from our text again this week. As I discussed previously, this accusatory naming points to the pretense of Jesus’ opponents. Don’t pretend that you are unable to tell the time, he argued last week. And don’t pretend that you are confused about what needs to be done for the suffering, he argues this week.

That’s the hypocrisy that receives criticism throughout this part of the Lukan account. Jesus’ accusation is heightened in our text this week. It is perhaps subtle, but the difference is there. In Luke 13:15a, we read, “But the Lord answered him and said, ‘Hypocrites!” Up until that verse, our text refers to “Jesus” in the narrative. But the accusation of hypocrisy comes from “the Lord.” That raises the stakes of what’s happening here. I suspect that the Lukan author would like us to think about the words of Luke 6:5 where Jesus tells his opponents that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

I’m not sure we should judge the ruler of the synagogue too harshly. Rather, I suspect that the Lukan author wishes for us to identify, at least to a degree, with that character. I think the character is legitimately concerned about faithful practice and good order in the life of the synagogue.

It is, after all, only a few hours until sundown. Can’t the whole matter wait that long? If so, then there is no controversy. But throughout this section of the Lukan account, Jesus’ point is that matters of the Kin(g)dom of God will not wait and must not be put off for any reason. The ruler of the synagogue perhaps wishes to be more cautious, to slow down and take all the details into consideration before acting with such haste.

I have made many of the worst mistakes of my life, in church and out, by acting in haste and without due consideration. I have spent hours in meetings with church councils, especially in conflict situations, encouraging everyone to take a breath, to sleep on it, to give it some thought, to spend time in prayer, to reflect and discern – to just slow down, for God’s sake! If only I had taken my own counsel on numerous occasions. There are times when the best advice is, “Don’t just do something; sit there!”

Yet, that’s not the case here. When we actually know what needs doing for the sake of the Kin(g)dom, the best advice, it would seem, is “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Well, more to the point, “Do the right thing!” That’s easier when the “right thing” is a clear and unambiguous choice.

Our anti-racism book group continues to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She has a massively informative chapter on affirmative action. The chapter deals not only with the history and structure of affirmative action programs in the United States. She details studies that explore how and when employment discrimination is most likely to happen within process-based affirmative action programs.

Process-based affirmative action programs, where the emphasis is on “equal opportunity,” tend not to produce any improvements in equal outcomes. We White people should be clear that we cannot be “color-blind” or “non-racist” in our interactions with people of color. Even those most firmly committed to cultural values of fairness and justice for all still act based on unconscious bias. If you’ve never taken one of Harvard University’s “Implicit Association Tests,” take ten minutes and find out the deep truth of unconscious bias.

Tatum describes studies with interesting conclusions. “When the norms for appropriate, non-discriminatory behavior are clear and unambiguous,” Tatum writes, people committed to racial equality “’do the right thing,’ because to behave otherwise would threaten the nonprejudiced self-image they hold.” But when the “right thing is not so clear and unambiguous,” Tatum continues, “or if an action can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, racial bias will reveal itself” (page 221).

This is why we White people have to be so alert to efforts to “change the subject” in conversations about race. If “the issue” is something other than race – class, economics, ethnicity, politics, etc. – then we will likely succumb to the temptation to make choices based on our (largely unconscious, I hope) bias. And we will feel justified in those choices because we have reasonable bases that happen to suit our preference for White privilege. “Social science research is also conclusive,” Tatum writes, “that, while explicit bias is infrequent, implicit bias (automatic race preference) is pervasive and contributes to the racial discrimination against Black Americans” (page 225).

I don’t think the ruler of the synagogue hated disabled women. Instead, he may well have had what were in his mind legitimate conflicting interests. Given that ambiguity, the ruler of the synagogue went with what suited his interests and agendas – maintaining the status quo and supporting what was, for him, the traditional understanding of how to apply Sabbath Torah.

We (church people) can find all sorts of rationales to maintain our own status quo and sustain our own privilege and power. We can dither and delay all day in order to maintain our own comfort and the niceness of our privileged communities. Most of us do that, not in order to be cruel, but rather in order (we think) “to do the right thing.” In what we experience as ambiguous situations, we choose what is safe and selfish.

Jesus declares that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty. The suffering woman is the priority. The man with dropsy is the priority. That’s how the values of the Kin(g)dom work. If our discernment is in line with the Lord’s priorities, we are less likely to make unconsciously biased choices. If our discernment is not clear in that regard, we are more likely to cooperate in the bondage to Satan that describes the lives of many of our human siblings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Luke 10:38-42 (Part Four)

Part Four: Text Matters

I find that one of the most challenging parts of our gospel reading this week is simply understanding the text as we have received it. English translations, including the NRSV, tend to obscure significant – if seemingly small – details that might either help with my understanding or provoke further questions and confusion. Either way, a closer inspection might be useful.

The NRSV uses the connective “Now” to move on from the story of the Man Who Fellow Among the Robbers. That may be fine, but it’s worth noting that the Greek connection is a mild adversative, “de.” Jesus tells the lawyer, in 10:37, “Go, and you do likewise.” The root of the verb for “go” here is poreuomai. The same verb is used eight words later in Luke 10:38. That should cause close readers to sit up and pay attention.

Photo by Askar Abayev on

There’s nothing remarkable about the verb itself. However, this close juxtaposition in a narrative as carefully worded and constructed as the Lukan account should not be ignored. In addition, the two instances of the verb are separated by the mild adversative. There may well be some contrast between the first “going” and the second “going.” The positioning of the two stories may indicate that there is an important difference between them.

Therefore, what we have is something like this. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Go and you do likewise.’ But as they were going, he himself entered a certain village; but a certain woman, Martha by name, welcomed him [into her house]. And this one was sister to one called Mary, [who] also, as she sat at the feet of Lord, listened to his word.” (Luke 10 37-39, my translation). The small details make some notable differences in how the text sounds and works, when compared with standard English translations.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, it seems clear that Mary was not the only one who sat at the feet of the Lord and listened to his word. Mary “also” did it – presumably along with Martha. “But Martha [while she was sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his word] was distracted by much ministering; but since she was in charge [of the household], she said, ‘Lord, is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone? Therefore, speak to her in order that she might come to help me” (Luke 10:40, my translation).

When I read the text closely, I get a somewhat different scene in mind than I have often imagined. Martha, as the head of the household (with no adult man in the immediate family, in the Lukan telling) welcomes Jesus appropriately as host. Both Martha and Mary sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word. Martha, however, is in charge of the festivities and needs to attend to the arrangements. The word the NRSV translates as “she came to him” in verse 40 also has the sense of acting as overseer or being in charge. I’m surprised that this sense doesn’t show up in translations.

Martha wants to be in two places at once, but that can’t be. Making the final arrangements would go more quickly if Mary got up as well. But Mary doesn’t budge. I’d be put out as well if I were in Martha’s shoes. She asks Jesus to excuse them somewhat forcefully for their duties. After all, there will be more time for teaching during and after the meal. Instead, Jesus gently urges Martha to calm down and sit back down. The meal will be there when they’re ready for it.

“But replying, the Lord said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. For Mary has chosen for herself the best portion which will not be carved away from her’” (Luke 1041-42, my translation). I first notice the verbal similarity between the Greek word for “worry” here, merimnas, and the Greek word for “portion,” merida. You may know that I’m a fan of alliteration in my own writing and reading. So, this verbal similarity captures my attention. This oral/aural feature of the story may well be a clue to the contrast between Martha’s choice for herself to keep worrying and Mary’s choice for herself to keep listening.

In addition, it seems to me that the text contains a delightful play on words at this point. A “portion” can refer, obviously, to some food served at a meal. Could it be that Jesus is offering a pun to get Martha’s attention? “Yes, Martha, I’m all about the servings, here,” Jesus may be saying. “But the most important item on the menu is not the lamb in the oven. The best portion right now is a serving of my word. So, sit back down and take a second helping!”

In Luke 10:42, Jesus declares that Mary “chose the good portion.” Wallace (page 298) refers to this verse under the heading of a “positive for a superlative.” He notes that occasionally, for example, that which is “good” actually refers to that which is “best.” When the word for “good” comes in the attributive position (immediately following the Greek article), and the article is of the par excellence class (a grammatical category that, I think, may well be in the eye of the beholder), then the positive form (“good”) should be translated as the superlative form (“best”).

The Greek verb for “choose” in verse forty-two can be translated in the active voice as a middle deponent. The result is “Mary chose.” Or, it can be translated in the middle voice, the translation that Wallace regards as the more reliable. Therefore, the result is “Mary chose for herself.” Even though the verb is an aorist and is therefore a simple past tense, the context, at least in English, suggests more of a continuing past tense. The result, then, is “Mary has chosen for herself…”

My interest in the littlest words was piqued by John Kilgallen’s note on the use of gar (for) in Luke 10:42. The word doesn’t make it into the NRSV translation, and that troubles Kilgallen (and me). When it is used in a similar context in Acts 8:31, the word can indicate “an unexpressed denial or refusal,” to use Kilgallen’s words. What might that unexpressed denial or refusal be in our text?

Lord,” Martha asks, “is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone?” The implication is that it certainly should matter to Jesus. And he ought to do something about the situation forthwith. When Jesus includes the gar in his reply in verse forty-two, he does not explicitly deny or refuse Martha’s request, Kilgallen notes. But he does give “the reason…why refusal should be understood as an element of his reply” (page 258). “I’m not going to do it, Martha,” Jesus says, “because Mary has chosen for herself the best selection on the menu.”

There are moments in the life of the faith community when the call is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But there are also moments in the life of the faith community when the calls is, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” As we’ve observed before, the key is to know what to do when. When is the right time to speak and the right time to listen? When is the right time to step forward and the right time to sit back? The Samaritan knew the right time. Mary knew the right time. That’s what they have in common, even though their responses were different.

I think about the ongoing conversations we have in our antiracism book study group. This is a very important part of my week and has been for most of the last two years. Often when the group reads and discusses a passage that is especially challenging for White people, we may say to one another, “But what shall we do about it?” I have found that to be a natural question but not the most helpful one. If we don’t yet know what we personally need to do, perhaps we’ve not yet spent enough time sitting and listening.

And the move to doing assumes that we White people are the ones who could know what to do and when to do it. I wonder if one of the struggles for Martha was the leadership role reversal that Jesus affirmed. Mary was, presumably, the younger sister. At the least, she was not the one in charge of the household and the hospitality. Yet, Jesus allowed Mary to set the pace and to choose the portion. Perhaps it was Martha’s task to listen not only to Jesus but to Mary as well.

I can tell you, as an oldest, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I can transfer that experience to all the ways I’m accustomed to being in charge – White, male, pastor, older, credentialed, financially resourced, able-bodied, etc. My shoulders tighten and my jaw clenches, involuntarily most of the time, when others are in charge. I don’t really want to listen. I don’t really want to follow. I want to lead – as I am in the habit of doing.

But that’s not the best portion for me in many cases and situations. The best portion for me as a White, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, college-educated, English speaker is to listen to the words of those unlike me and to follow their leads. That’s the best portion. And it is the hardest helping to swallow for many of us in the once-dominant cultural positions that we feel slipping away from us.

Thus, we worry and are distracted by many things. Those worries can make us difficult and even violent. Perhaps one of the opportunities for witness in and through the Church is to model what it looks like to stop doing (if we’ve been in charge) and just sit there. After all, Martha, Mary can do things too.

References and Resources

CARTER, WARREN. “Getting Martha out of the Kitchen: Luke 10:38-42 Again.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 2 (1996): 264–80.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3 (1990): 441–61.

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

González, Justo L. The Story Luke Tells. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

Kilgallen, John J. “A Suggestion Regarding Gar in Luke 10,42.” Biblica 73, no. 2 (1992): 255–58.

Kilgallen, John J. “Martha and Mary: Why at Luke 10,38-42?” Biblica 84, no. 4 (2003): 554–61.

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

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Luke 10:25-37 (Part Four)

“Who, then, is my neighbor?” It is such a deceptively simple question. But let’s think about it together. I can read that question from a demographic perspective. Who are the people with which I live in proximity? I live in what was originally a first-ring suburb, a White-flight destination. But that reality is two generations past.

Now, I live in a neighborhood with a small amount of racial and ethnic diversity in the single-family homes. I live next to an apartment complex with a much higher amount of racial, economic, linguistic, ethnic, and age diversity. Our property is one of only a few in the neighborhood that actually touches both the single-family properties and the multi-unit property. Most of my single-family neighbors do not regard the apartment people as their neighbors, although we do.

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I’m wondering how even that geographic proximity affects our perceptions. Most of my single-family neighbors regard the children of the apartment dwellers as interlopers and potential threats. They monitor those children (mostly BIPOC folks) with suspicion and tend to ascribe anything negative in the neighborhood as their fault. We don’t see those kids the same way and have come to know some of them a bit. They are our neighbors.

Who, then, is my neighbor? Is that a question of definition? Perhaps the lawyer remembers that “neighbors” in the Leviticus 19:18 text are Israelites, not “foreigners.” I think at least some of my physical neighbors believe that their neighbors are supposed to be white, middle-class, native-born Americans who own their houses, pay their taxes, and have nice lawns. Those who fall outside such parameters don’t qualify for the “neighbor” label.

This takes us to a third way of hearing and reading the question. Who should be my neighbor? Arland Hultgren argues that this is the real nub of the conversation in our text. He writes that “the thrust of the story and the follow-up question of Jesus expose the initial question for what it is, namely an attempt to classify people into two groups: those who are the neighbors whom I am to love, thereby keeping the love commandment, and those who are beyond my circle of concern” (page 75).

Hultgren argues that “making that distinction is wrong.” The issue is not about defining “neighbor” in order to determine who’s in and who’s out. “One’s concern should be,” he concludes, “How can I be a neighbor to anyone in need?” (page 75). As you know from my previous post, I’m not sure that’s how the rhetoric of the text actually works out. But the outcome is virtually the same.

Jesus followers shall not allow the boundaries of human enmity to determine the scope of neighbor love. God does not allow the boundaries of enmity between God and sin to determine the scope of God’s love. In fact, God’s love renders those boundaries null and void. For God, the boundaries of enmity are not removed in order for neighbor love to cross. Instead, neighbor love crosses those boundaries, and in the crossing dismantles them.

Here’s how I would put it in theological terms. Grace is the source of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the precondition for grace. The Samaritan comes as neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers. The Samaritan continues that neighborliness to the end. Will the man be changed by that encounter and see the Samaritan now as neighbor?

Like most interpreters and preachers, Hultgren reads the text as a story about the call to help others in need. “How far am I obligated as a Christian,” Hultgren asks, “to help another who is in need” (page 75). The story and our reflections will get us to that question, I agree. But that’s not the first stop on the rhetorical journey. Will I risk accepting help from, being vulnerable to, being naked and alone with one who is by historical definition and social convention, the Enemy? Can I endure the danger of allowing grace to come ahead of guarantees?

The Samaritan is the “hero” of the story – if a hero is to be found. We who are part of the dominant culture in America always want to identify with the hero. Entertainment media has complied with that desire by making our historical heroes White like us. I’d refer you to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s work in Jesus and John Wayne for the straight scoop in that regard. We press the Samaritan into that mold and assume that somehow, he is just like us.

But the Samaritan is not like a White, privileged, powerful, and propertied American. And I can’t make him to be so. This Samaritan is the Enemy, the Outsider, the Half-Breed, the Traitor, the Heretic, and so much more – at least to first-century Jews. The character we can identify with is the man in the ditch – likely a Jew heading home after faithfully practicing his faith in the Jerusalem temple. This is a man of at least some privilege, power, property, and position.

Hultgren proposes a sort of “color-blind” sensibility for the Samaritan in the story. “The Samaritan crosses over religious and ethnic boundaries, and the fact that Jesus includes that feature within the parable makes it a crucial point,” Hultgren argues. “The Samaritan provides an example of one who does good to another person in need with any regard for religion or ethnicity. Authentic love,” he concludes, “pays no attention to religious, ethnic, or culture differences when need is present” (pages 76-77).

The Samaritan crosses those boundaries in the story. But there is no reason within the story to think that the Samaritan is anything but painfully aware of those boundaries. Only those with privilege and power can be oblivious to such boundaries. The Samaritan saves the man in the ditch in spite of those boundaries, not because they have now become somehow invisible or irrelevant. Love in action is always specific and incarnate. The Samaritan didn’t stop being a Samaritan. The Jew didn’t stop being a Jew.

I note this because Hultgren’s reasoning leads him to minimize the realities of racial, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries in the works of neighbor love. Such boundaries “are simply there,” he writes. “But there is a perennial tendency, faced by each generation,” he concludes, “to make the distinctions more important than they are” (page 77). The real result of this way of thinking will not be more vocal neighbor love. The result is the continuing culture of oppressive silence when it comes to dealing with such boundaries.

Expanding the boundaries of our own neighborhoods of active care is a critical part of following Jesus in contemporary America. I agree wholeheartedly with Hultgren in that regard. But that focus leaves the powerful in positions of power. We are the ones who do the healing and helping, the soothing and saving. We are still the heroes, and control of the system still belongs to us (White people). Opening ourselves to the care of the Other – that’s even harder to do.

In my anti-racism book study, we’ve launched into a discussion of the twentieth anniversary edition of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Our conversation led us to reflect on the sources and causes of the generalized White fear of Black people. While the sources and causes are, to coin a phrase, legion, one of our members spoke with candor about a particular cause for the fear.

A significant expression of White fear, our friend noted, is the expectation that Black people will, given sufficient power and resources, at some point retaliate for the violence, oppression, injustice, hatred, and theft they have experienced at the hands of White people over the last four hundred years. After all, that is probably how White people would generally respond if the roles were reversed, right? The historical data is all too clear in that regard.

In this understanding, supported by studies, journalism, and other documentation, Whites and Blacks regard one another as enemies rather than as neighbors. At least some White people do not trust Black people to act with civility and restraint, given half a chance to act otherwise. Our mythology is that Black men are beasts who want our women and our money. Therefore, White fear leads to continued structures and systems of restraint and oppression directed toward Black people.

At the very least, White people continue to resist having Black people as actual neighbors in actual neighborhoods in actual villages, towns, and cities in the United States. That’s an interesting lens through which to read our text. We can ask it first of all, not as a theological question, but perhaps as a demographic and sociological question. In fact, where I live, who is my neighbor? And how does that impact how I live as a daily disciple?

More than that, will I as a White person risk being vulnerable enough to engage in relationships with those “unlike” me? Will I risk the possibility that I might say or do something hurtful to a BIPOC friend, colleague or associate and then have to ask forgiveness and receive correction? Or will I remain, as Robin D’Angelo puts it, a “nice racist”? Am I willing to lay naked and alone, hurting and vulnerable along the road and trust that a potential “enemy” could be my neighbor? I think that’s what we’re called to “go and do likewise.”

References and Resources

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

Hultgren, Arland J. “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25–37).” Word & World 37, no. 1 (2017): 71-8.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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.

Tranvik, Mark D. “The Good Samaritan as Good News: Martin Luther and the Recovery of the Gospel in Preaching.” Word & World 38, no. 3 (2018).