Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Three)

The Twelve carried with them the assumptions, perceptions, and reactions of men raised and socialized in an honor/shame culture. The evidence is close at hand to our text. Malina and Rohrbaugh note, concerning Luke 9:46-50, that “A squabble over honor status would be typical within any ancient Mediterranean grouping” (page 344). The wrangling over who’s the top banana disciple is certainly a prime example of a squabble over honor status.

It’s worth reviewing the highlights of honor-shame societies from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s work. They contrast such societies to the more “guilt-oriented” Western cultures, although I have doubts about that contrast. Nonetheless, “Honor can be understood as the status one claims in the community together with the all-important recognition of that claim by others” (page 310). Such honor is either ascribed or acquired. In Luke 9, the disciples are wrestling with relative gradations of ascribed honor, since they all have been labelled as part of the Twelve.

Photo by Samantha Garrote on Pexels.com

In our text for Sunday, honor challenges and insults abound. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that Samaritans perceive an honor offense because Jesus is merely passing through. His face is set toward Jerusalem. “Of course the Samaritans perceive this as a slight,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “while James and John view such rejection of hospitality as insulting; hence their desire to get satisfaction by ‘commanding fire from heaven’ as Elijah did…” (page 345).

It should be clear that the system is working as designed. The Twelve are particularly primed to react to such an insult, given the conversation they’ve been having. They are tightly focused on their status and the honor such status provides them. That honor is tied to the status of their master. Jesus has been deeply disrespected, and such an insult cannot pass unanswered. The response of the disciples, in this system, is not only plausible but required.

Therefore, the surprising response comes, not from James and John, but from Jesus. Life in the Kin(g)dom of God will be anything but business as usual.

I noted earlier that I’m not so sure about the sociological differences between modern, Western societies and the honor/shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean. Indeed, it appears to me that an honor/shame culture has been driving the cultural and political life of American Evangelicalism for two centuries. I think there’s no question that the culture of the antebellum South was an honor/shame culture, with the wealthy White male at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. The defense of White womanhood, the celebration of chivalry, the culture of dueling, and the need for Black people to make up the base of the pyramid are all signs of that culture.

This matters to me because that’s the culture which came out of the Civil War and embraced the mythology of the Lost Cause. That mythology has undergirded White Evangelical culture since the end of the Civil War and has taken firm control of significant parts of the larger American social dynamic, especially the conservative Evangelical Christian part of that social dynamic.

For a full and clear treatment of this culture and its power in American culture and politics, I would encourage you to read (and re-read) Kristin Kobes DuMez’s book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. “Generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, ‘the homosexuals,’ the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants—and they were primed to respond to those fears by looking to a strong man to rescue them from danger, a man who embodied a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity” (page 13). Of course, that “strong man” was Donald Trump.

DuMez notes that many early-twentieth century Christians thought they had a masculinity problem. They were concerned that Victorian Christianity had made Christian men too soft and even feminized. This concern was echoed in the larger culture through the rhetoric of men such as President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had suffered shame as a young man for being a weakling, a fancy-pants fop, and a high-voiced girl. He reinvented himself as a cowboy, an paragon of male rugged individualism, and a combatant in the battles of life. One only has to recall Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech to capture the full flavor of his ideology.

This “crisis of Christian manhood” followed American evangelicalism throughout the twentieth century and continues in the twenty-first. I was taken, for example, by many things that John Eldredge had to say in Wild at Heart. The call to a more authentic masculinity in the face of post-industrial existence resonated with me and many of the men in my life. In the end, however, this perspective always ended in violence, subordination of women, and some honor-based classist and racist hierarchy. Anxieties about the honor of men always risk the call for a fiery end to one’s enemies. For Eldredge, the real model of a Christian man was not Jesus but rather William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson).

If anything, this rhetoric has gotten far worse and far more violent. It’s no accident that the attention of right-wing domestic terrorists has turned toward the transgender community. The anxiety is always about protecting White Male privilege, power, position, and property. Anything that might complicate that status is “the enemy.” In the 1990’s, the attention was directed toward the gay community more generally. The outcome of that attention was events like the torture and assassination of Matthew Shepherd. The White Male Christian rage expressed then and now is a direct result of the worship of privilege, power, position, and property claimed as the sole possessions of White Christian men.

Let’s be clear, then, that Jesus rejects this understanding of real “honor and shame.” As noted in a previous post, the desire of James and John to punish the Samaritans with a fiery death is not an honorable desire. It is, rather, demonic and receives Jesus’ rebuke. The desire for White male Christian power in our time and space is similarly demonic and requires a similar rebuke. This is not “bringing politics into the pulpit.” Rather, I think we need to respond to claims being made in the culture that coopt and pervert the Christian gospel for the sake of White Christian Male Nationalism.

The disciples cannot perceive the meaning of Jesus’ betrayal and death. We read that in the verses before our text. Nor can many people in our own time. When a nationally-known politician jokes that Jesus didn’t have enough AR-15 assault rifles to “keep his government from killing him,” we know that Christian thinking has gone off the tracks and is completely derailed. I can’t read our text without having this conversation in my head. I’m not quite sure yet how I want to have it in the message I will give. But I know that I can’t avoid the topic.

The “kick ass and take names” approach to following Jesus will get us a rebuke from Jesus and nothing more. The view that following Jesus is one lifestyle option among many on our busy calendar (see Luke 9:57-62) will get us an invitation from Jesus to think this whole thing over again. Neither of these responses is what it means to be a Jesus follower. As a disciple I am called to bear the full cost of Jesus-following in my life and to refuse the temptation to offload some or all of that cost onto others.

I can’t find a lot of “good news” in this particular gospel text. I would like to think that Paul can bail me out in the second reading from Galatians 5, but I’m not sure that’s much help either. I don’t know about you, but I have to sit with this one for a while yet.

References and Resources

Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Kobes Du Mez, Kristin. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 8:26-39 (Part One)

Who are you? It seems like a simple question.

My name is Lowell Hennigs. Yet, that doesn’t really answer the question. A name is a label. It’s not an identity. A name is handy handle to holler across a crowded room. But it doesn’t tell you who I am.

At times, people thought names meant more. A name could describe or even determine a person’s character. It could identify an ancestor’s vocation. It’s not hard to see where people got last names like Butcher, Baker, Carpenter, or Plumber. Even now, parents hope children’s names might matter. We name our children sometimes to carry our hopes and dreams for their futures.

Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

Yet, there’s more to me than my name. My name is an identifier, not an identity. “I am large,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes.” Think for a moment of your multitudes. I am a spouse, a parent, a friend (or enemy). I am a neighbor. I’m retired and still a pastor. I am white, cisgender, straight, and male. I’m a citizen. I’m a Lutheran Christian. And much more.

Some of my selves work together. Others contradict or even conflict. Some of my selves are dominant and obvious. Some are in the background or mere relics of my past. Some of my selves are more masks than identities. Someone asks me, “Who are you?” That’s hard to say. Identity is a moving target, a work in progress, a complicated dance.

Jesus travels from his home country of Jewish Galilee to the Gentile territory of Gerasa. Gerasa is on the Other Side. It’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee physically and geographically. Gerasa is also on the Other Side in religious, political, and ethnic terms. Jesus enters foreign territory. Who knows what might happen in such a strange place?

Jesus barely hits the ground, and all hell breaks loose. That’s not a profanity. It’s a literal description. A local, filled with demons, accosts Jesus. It seems that Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man. The spirit, still in the man, falls at Jesus’ feet in obedience and begs for mercy. Jesus asks him, “What is your name?”

It’s not clear if Jesus is addressing the man or the spirit at this moment. But the spirit answers. “Legion,” the spirit replies, “for (Luke tells us) many demons had entered him.” Legion? That’s an odd name. What’s going on here?

At the start of the story, we might have considered the man mentally ill. We wouldn’t be far wrong. The man’s neighbors had tried to protect him and themselves by restraining the man. If they didn’t care about his welfare, they might have simply put him out of his misery. But they tried to help him.

Those efforts failed. The man was so desperate for freedom that he rejected the limitations even of clothing. He fled human company to be free or to protect others from himself, or both. He wandered in a local graveyard as one who was already dead.

I can imagine such a man on the streets of our city. Most of us no longer attribute such a condition to demonic possession. Yet, with all our scientific advances, we don’t manage some of our neighbors who battle their own Legions much better than did the first-century Gerasenes.

Jesus asked him (or them), “What is your name?” The reply is no accident. My identity comes, in part, from inside myself. But it also comes from outside of me. It comes from the people and systems and forces that connect me to the world that isn’t me. The demonic name reflects a system and forces that are literally driving the man out of his mind.

My family has formed me. My communities shape me. I don’t create the laws and rules, values and histories, of this land. I didn’t sign up in advance to be white or male or cis or straight. For that matter, I didn’t check the boxes for left-handed or partially color-blind. I didn’t whip up Christianity or democracy or capitalism in my spare time. Yet, all these externals make me, at least in part, what I am.

Nor did I create the racism in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t manufacture the homophobia, the transphobia, or the misogyny in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t invent the classism, the ableism, the imperialism, or all the other “isms” that shape my life and worldview. Yet, they are part of who I am. These forces seek to possess me, to use me, even to destroy me. If these forces get a deep enough hold on me, they can literally drive me out of my mind.

For the man among the tombs, the external forces wore the face of the Roman Empire. A legion may have been an army of demons. It was also six thousand well-armed and highly trained Imperial invaders. They controlled thought and extorted taxes. The man lived with a system that demanded obedience and conformity on the pain of death. This system called violence peace, extortion prosperity, and oppression freedom. Such a system would make any person more than a little crazy.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go. I hope that’s a thought you’ll take with you. The only question is where the expelled Legion will land. Jesus allows them temporary refuge in a herd of hogs. But the poor piggies cannot tolerate the invasion any better than the man in the graveyard. The demons join the pigs in a watery grave.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go.

Now we see the man, for the first time, for who he really is. We see him for himself. His neighbors find him healed and saved. He’s fully dressed and completely lucid. Most important, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Who does that posture mean in the gospels? Disciples sit at Jesus’ feet. Jesus sets the man free. In that freedom, the man becomes himself. And he becomes a Jesus-evangelist in his hometown.

What is your name?

What makes you “you”? Paul wrestles with the Galatian Christians over this question. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The real key to our identity is not who we are but whose we are. The man became most fully himself when he took his place as a disciple at the feet of Jesus. What might that mean for us?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor. He participated in the German resistance plot to remove Adolf Hitler during World War II. The plot failed. The Nazis threw Bonhoeffer in prison. He was hanged there on April 9, 1945.

In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters reflections, and sermons. He also wrote poetry. One poem was titled, “Who Am I?” Bonhoeffer knew he was not only the bold disciple face he presented to his captors and cellmates. He knew he was also afraid, depressed, lonely, weary, empty, and ready for it all to end. Like Whitman, Bonhoeffer “contained multitudes.”

Bonhoeffer ends his poem with these words. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” Bonhoeffer had no time for illusions. Real life tears away the false and fragile identities we create. What is left, for me at least, is this calm assurance. Whoever I am, O God, I am yours.

I hope you can take that Good News with you today.

So, we aren’t imprisoned by identities we create to defend ourselves and dominate others. Nor are we defined and determined by identities that others try to force upon us. We can be freed from the legions that want to destroy us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul writes, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

If my primary identity gives me power, position, and privilege, that identity is bondage, not freedom. On this one hundred fifty-seventh anniversary of Juneteenth, we can celebrate with our Black sisters and brothers a triumph of human identity over the forces of power, position, and privilege. If you don’t know and celebrate the story of Juneteenth, I hope you will seek out the resources to help you know and understand.

Last Friday was the seventh anniversary of the murder of the Emanuel Nine is Charleston, South Carolina. This was an example of White Christian Nationalist identity as dominance and death. It’s clear that we White people continue to live in and benefit from a system that believes difference is for domination. That system of White supremacy is demonic and continues to make people crazy in a variety of ways. Faithful disciples reject that system and work to dismantle it.

Who are you? That’s the question of the day. How do my actions and commitments answer that question? I hope you’ll spend time thinking about your answers this week.

Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022 (Part Two)

Karoline Lewis suggests, in Sermon Brainwave podcasts, that we preachers need to “pick our Spirit” on the Day of Pentecost. In light of the significant differences between the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, that suggestion makes good sense. Nonetheless, it also strikes me that the accounts have something significant in common.

Both the Acts 2 account and the Johannine story have the same basic players in narratives involving the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, we are reminded in clear and graphic terms that Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus to the authorities and suffered a gruesome and guilt-wracked death. In the Johannine account, we read about the Paraclete after Judas has exited the scene to hand Jesus over.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Peter preaches his great sermon in Acts 2. Yet, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. This is the same Peter who declares in the Johannine account that he will go and die with Jesus. Yet, when crunch time arrives, he declares with the same vehemence that his is not one of Jesus’ disciples. This is the same Peter who gets a great deal of bad press from Paul in Galatians. And this is the same Peter who needs rehabilitation and a new vocation in John 21.

The other disciples are also present in each of the scenes. These are the ones who questioned, doubted, and resisted Jesus’ message. They didn’t get it, even though others did. They jockeyed for position and power. They wanted to call down fire from heaven on recalcitrant Samaritans. They wanted to shoo away the needy and vulnerable from Jesus’ care and attention. They were flummoxed by the bread and terrified by the storms.

Whether we are in the Book of Acts or the Gospel of John, these are the folks who serve as the foundation of the Christian movement. They don’t seem to be the best choices for the job.

There is this old joke. Jesus has just risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. He is hanging out with some angels on the clouds. They are looking down upon the earth.

 One angel says, “Lord, that was amazing; we thought you were a “goner”. We thought it was over. But then, you rose from the dead. You trampled death under your feet. You’ve defeated Satan! What’s next?” Jesus answered, “I left a handful of people who really believe in me, and they are going to tell the world about me and make disciples.”

The angels were stunned. They simply stared at Jesus. The silence got to the point of being uncomfortable. Finally, one angel tentatively asked, “Lord, what is Plan B?”

Jesus answered, “There is No Plan B”.

If I am going to preach on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in some way this Sunday, then certainly I need to make some choices. But if I’m going to focus on the ones whom the Spirit fills and sends forth into the world, I don’t need to make such choices. In each account it’s the same motley crew that makes up the first generation of the Church.

That fact gives me great hope — not because of the motley crew, but because of what the Spirit can do with such a questionable lot.

The institutional Christian church around the world is in deep distress at this moment. The Russian Orthodox church is a willing tool of the Russian imperial project (and hopes that project can be a tool for the resurgence of that church). The Southern Baptist Convention is embroiled in conflict and controversy after an independent report detailing the amount and frequency of sexual abuse on the part of SBC clergy and the lengths to which the church bureaucracy has gone to cover up both the abuse and the scandal. Already that bureaucracy is trying to tell us that there’s nothing to see here, but there is.

The statistical connection between White Christian evangelicals and both White Christian Nationalism and fostering gun violence is clear and shocking. No matter what other variables might be involved, the Evangelical movement is deeply implicated in the violent, anti-democratic, racist project that animates the current ideological Right in the United States.

I wish that my own theological tradition and its institutional expressions were exempt from the disaster and decay. The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is urging an LCMS college to take the opportunity during their presidential search to restore a theological commitment to white supremacy and political quietism. While he doesn’t use those words, that’s the impact of his instructions. There’s no concern about making the LCMS White again. The task is simply to keep the White people in charge.

The ELCA faces a developing crisis around the actions of the bishop of the Sierra Pacific synod. A report has come out in the last few days that details patterns of racism, abuse of power, and cover-up. The bishop in question has doubled down on the rightness of their actions and is supported by the majority of that synod’s governing council. In spite of the fact that the report recommended formal disciplinary action by the denominational bishop, that denominational bishop left the decision to resign in the hands of the alleged perpetrator. Now, the shit has hit the fan for the denomination. I suspect that the resignations which result will be multiple.

The ELCA’s largest seminary, Luther, has its own controversy. Students, joined by some faculty and staff, are pressing the seminary to engage in the process to become a Reconciling in Christ seminary – an institution that formally and fully welcomes, embraces, and includes members of the LGBTQIA+ community as students, faculty, staff, and candidates for rostered ministry. The seminary administration has engaged in bureaucratic sleight of hand and behind the scenes power plays to suppress this conversation and controversy. But the issue is not going to go away quietly, even though the end of an academic term may give the seminary a bit of breathing space.

I rehearse the previous paragraphs in part to get some of this garbage out of my brain for a few moments. As I reread this brief (and tendentious) account, I am tempted to despair of any hope for the institutional church. I, too, would like to know if there’s a Plan B. And I sigh with the knowledge that there is not.

Then I look in the mirror and am reminded that this is not merely about that terrible Church “out there.” I am ashamed of large parts of the institutional church at this moment. I also know that at times that church has had good reason to be ashamed of me as well. Just as I bemoan the self-serving mediocrities that we find in leadership in my own and other denominations, I remember that I have spent time as a similar self-serving mediocrity when faced with real challenges in the church and the world. The brickbats I throw at church leaders routinely bounce back and hit me as well.

I don’t remember this merely to write off the bad behavior of the institutional church under the cheap grace of “all have sinned,” etc. No, church leaders and structures are currently accelerating the already troubling decline in church structures and systems we have know for several generations. The prediction that the ELCA may disappear as a functioning entity by 2050 seems more real and likely at this moment than it did a year ago.

All that being said, I think about that first Pentecost and the characters who were filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the real miracle of Pentecost is that the Spirit can take such characters and build a church at all. If that is the real miracle of Pentecost, then that miracle is not a one-off affair. Instead, that Pentecost miracle continues to happen day in and day out, week in and week out, in our communities of faith. I know many, many competent and committed Christians who engage in works of justice, love, and mercy in the name of Jesus. But even the best of us are broken, fallible, and afraid. Yet, the Spirit continues to build and to use the Church.

The Book of Acts reminds us, of course, that some sorting is necessary for the life and health of the Church. We should never preach the joy of Pentecost without recalling the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira, for example. I suspect that many of the leaders I mentioned above will not be part of how the Church moves forward in mission, in light of the mistakes and malfeasance of the past and present. But the Spirit will find others to take up the cause.

Here, perhaps, is the place to move to the Romans 8 passage. Whether we describe the Spirit in terms of Acts 2 or John 14, the result of that endowment is the courage to live and act as children of God, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” God sends the Holy Spirit so that the Church may continue the work of Christ in the world and to do “greater works” still. That all happens, not because anyone is particularly competent or qualified. Rather, that all happens because the Spirit makes it so.

There is hope for us yet.

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022

If there is any historical moment that demands some homiletical work on the ethnic diversity in Acts 2, this is the time. The “Great Replacement Theory” of White Supremacy is in the headlines. States continue to pass laws banning the discussion of racism as a central feature of American history under the façade of opposition to the teaching of Critical Race Theory. White Christian Nationalism is no longer a construction of the lunatic fringe, hiding in the intellectual and informational shadows. It is now a talking point for a number of local, state, and federal candidates for elected office.

These ideas are embodied in individual and institutional lives, and on the basis of these ideas, people are being murdered.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

We all know that we prefer to gather with people “like us.” That’s been demonstrated in numerous psychological and sociological experiments and studies. The “us” that we are “like” is a socially constructed reality. Race, class, gender, generation, national origin, political affiliation, and other differences are things that at some point did not exist as they are now. Therefore, these realities were created, not discovered. What can be made can be unmade as well, even if that unmaking is difficult.

We prefer to gather with people “like us” especially when that gathering supports and enhances our self-interest. We tend to gather in ways that promote our power and privilege. Then we tell stories to account for the “like” and “unlike” we have constructed – stories that root our power and privilege either in our natural superiority, the natural inferiority of the “unlikes,” and/or some combination of both. The historic construction of Whiteness in the Enlightenment era West is a textbook example of the formation of such a story.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 is all about embracing and celebrating our God-created differences. It is a text that rejoices in all the “unlikes” who hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in the Temple that day. I would encourage you to read and reflect on Eric Barreto’s article at enterthebible.org as you prepare for this Sunday. I want to engage in a bit of that reflection here as well.

“Too often, Christians have hoped for a time when our differences would cease,” Barreto writes, “when in Christ we would all be indistinguishable. Such impulses,” he argues, “are earnest but fundamentally misguided.” I’m not so sure about the “earnest but misguided” piece.

I have served my entire adult life in a denomination which has expressed that hope for the disappearance of differences in a variety of ways. There was a time when my denomination aspired to have one in ten of its members to be BIPOC (although the term wasn’t current thirty-five years ago). What we should have known and only gradually admitted was that this was an assimilationist and colonialist strategy.

The ten percent solution, if it had come to pass, would have provided an ideological salve to the consciences of White Lutherans who knew that our segregationist history and practices were contrary to the inclusive nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This solution would have been just enough “diversity” to meet our institutional needs but not enough to bring about even a small bit of transformation.

An incarnation of this Whiteness protection strategy was the effort to launch and plant ethnic-focused ELCA congregations in communities of color. These projects were required to conform to the standards of the White power structure of the denomination and to operate according to the neoliberal economic model of financial self-sufficiency within three years (or else). Those congregations formed in economically oppressed communities that could not meet the financial independence standard were either shuttered or regarded as embarrassing liabilities.

I write this as one who has participated in efforts to achieve the ten percent solution personally and institutionally. As a denomination, we now know better – at least in theory. We would be well-served to make financial and institutional reparations to those communities which we sought to exploit for our own emotions and ends.

I could rehearse much more history regarding our failed and disingenuous efforts at racial “reconciliation,” diversity training, additional efforts at institutional representation, corporate repentance and apology, and shared leadership. These efforts have not all failed or been unconsciously cynical ploys to make our White selves feel better. There has been some good mixed in, but on balance we have failed as a denomination, judicatories, congregations, and individual White believers.

Barreto encourages us to allow Pentecost to “help us think differently about difference.” We humans prefer to gather with people “like us.” But the mania for monoculture is a mark of sin, not a sign of the coming Reign of God. “Simply, diversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world,” Barreto writes. “At Pentecost, God through the Spirit does not erase our differences,” he continues, “but embraces the fact that God has made us all so wonderfully different.”

Barreto disputes the reading of Acts 2 that regards the event as a reversal of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis 11. He argues that such a connection misreads what happened in Genesis. The “confusion” of languages was not a punishment for the arrogance of the Tower builders. “Is it really a punishment from God that we are all different, that we speak different languages and live in different cultures?” Barreto asks. “That is, is difference a problem in need of a solution? I certainly don’t think so,” he continues, “and the vibrancy of the world’s cultures is evidence against this misreading of Babel.”

In fact, the gift of the multiple languages in Genesis 11 protects the Tower builders from themselves and their own hubris in seeking to become like God and to take heaven by storm. This is the conclusion of the Primeval history that began in Genesis 2, when the man and the woman, desiring to be like God, took the fruit and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was the uniformity of language and the collective arrogance that uniformity facilitated which was the danger in this text.

Difference is not only good (indeed, it is). It is a way that God saves us from ourselves, from our sinful desire to create a god in our image rather than to live as those created in the image of God.

Barreto asks an important exegetical question. If, in fact, Pentecost reversed Babel by undoing the multiplicity of human languages, why then did the listeners in the Temple hear the gospel, each in their own languages? And, I would add, why is that diversity of ethno-linguistic groups so lovingly detailed in the text if the purpose is to wipe out that diversity? “Why not cause everyone to understand one, universal, heavenly language?” Barreto asks.

His answer is worth quoting. “Perhaps because the writer of Acts does not understand Babel to be a punishment God inflicted upon us. Perhaps because Acts understands Babel as an expression of God’s greatest hopes for all of humankind, not a punishment. Perhaps because Acts understands God’s commitments to our differences” (my emphasis added).

I like that phrase, “God’s commitments to our differences.” If God preferred to gather with those “like God,” then God would spend eternity enjoying the diversity of the Triune community. God must like diversity, otherness, difference. Otherwise, there would not have been a Creation. No finite creature can be “like God” in any substantive way. We can and do reflect the image and likeness of God, as human beings. And, miracle of miracles, we each do it in a different way!

Therefore, we humans would most fully reflect the image and likeness of God by gathering with people who are not “like us.” I cannot reflect the image and likeness of God by myself. I can only do so in the company of others who are not me and not like me. Yet, we White Christians continue to gather in our segregated congregations and to act as if it’s all good.

“I think this is one of the most powerful messages of white supremacy,” Robin DiAngelo writes in Nice Racism, “there is no inherent loss in leading a segregated life.” I can live my entire White life with no significant interaction with BIPOC people. And I can live that way under the impression that nothing is missing or deficient. “Most white people will go from cradle to grave with few if any authentic sustained cross-racial relationships with Black people,” DiAngelo continues, “and not see that anything of value is missing” (page 83, my emphasis).

I can only plead guilty as charged and work now to do better because I know better. I’m not doing very well, and neither is my denomination.

“Lots of Christians hope to transcend ethnic division by erasing ethnicity,” Greg Cary writes in his online comments for The Christian Century. “’I don’t see color,’ some will say. But Acts sees in color and values ethnic difference,” Cary continues. “Acts imagines unity that embraces diversity rather than bleaching it out. The miracle of Pentecost is not that one language brings everyone together. It is not that everyone learns English Aramaic,” Cary concludes. “It is that all the people hear the gospel in their own languages.”

The texts for the Day of Pentecost and for the Sundays following will offer the opportunity for sustained reflection on God’s delight in difference and our calling to embody and enact that delight as followers of Jesus. I will seek to lift up those opportunities, and I hope you will partner in that effort.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin. Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 2021.

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

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

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

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

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

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

In the resurrection, what color will I be?

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

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

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

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

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

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

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

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

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

Photo by Kalpit on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

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

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

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

Photo by Amy Pointer on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

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

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

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

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources and References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Two)

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

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

Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

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

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

Right…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly