Tag Archives: heritage

Narrative Wars and the Way of the Cross

I did it!
art credit: Catherine Clark

Everyone loves an overcomer story. We cheer for the underdog, holding our breath as they persevere through obstacle after obstacle and booing the advantaged one simply for the fact that he expected to come out on top. But what about those moments when life casts us in the overdog role? “I didn’t sign up for this!” we may be tempted to whine. “I’m just doing my best to live my life and do good by all. I didn’t ask to be written as the oppressor in someone else’s story!”

Race killings and race riots in the United States have awakened many white Christians to the prevalence of racism. But with that awareness comes a deep discomfort as lifelong assumptions about how the world works and who we are within it are suddenly overturned. I wonder if much of white angst in America today comes from fear of being cast as the bad guy. If I listen to the cries of my African American brothers and sisters, my version of the story—the one in which I am the “little person” who worked hard, came from behind, and made it despite all the odds—comes under threat. Instead, I’m suddenly that privileged, arrogant “champion” we all despise, enjoying the luxuries of monogramed equipment and expert coaches to give me every advantage in the game of life.

Since when is pride compatible with the cross?

I don’t like that second version of the story, and even when I am pushed to admit that it is true, I don’t like the way that it makes me feel about myself.  I’d rather rehash stories of the American Revolution in which “my people” fought off the colonial oppressors with bare feet and raw grit.  I at least want the luxury of largesse, to think of my people as the liberators who brought down the Nazis or brought aid to suffering populations around the world. But when I stop to consider the story from the perspective of a Native American who was driven from her land or an African American who was imported to the land but denied equal status, “my people” come out as the bad guys. Add to that generations of mistreatment and social positioning in which my people continue to come out on top, and the pride I feel in my heritage—the heritage which forms much of my identity—starts to crumble.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Philippians 3:4-7

Perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. It may not feel nice, but since when is pride compatible with the cross? The reason we love the underdog is because God Himself has a heart for the disadvantaged. Scripture is replete with statements about what He does for the humble and how He treats the proud. The fact that I am holding on to my pride reveals which side of the narrative I actually am standing on. As a follower of Jesus, I get to lay aside anything in which I formerly found gain, including the advantage of my whiteness.

“I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

But how can I help that? Perhaps a second cause for white angst comes from the sudden sense of helplessness in the face of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history. I want to jump the fence to the other side, distancing myself from the racism around me with claims of #NotMeToo. “I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:1-4

Examining myself for areas of implicit bias (while assuming that they are probably there) is a good start. Where do my impulses betray an internal sense of being better than, or perhaps deserving better than, people of a different race? These may surface in the respect I demand for myself or the treatment and opportunities I expect for my children. Am I equally incensed when these are not afforded to my neighbor from a different “community” or her children? Am I equally invested in looking out for her interests as I am my own? What have I done (or not done) to change the systems that make it hard for them to flourish?

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.

…“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks…”
John 4:9,21-23

Confronting the areas of bias within myself not only benefits Black lives; it also helps me become more like the Jesus I adore. I adore Him for His meekness with the Samaritan woman, absorbing her defensive reactivity over the way her people had been treated and extending to her a listening ear, a willingness to consider her side, and a friendship that broke all the social rules. I adore Him for going out of His way to seek out her company and sit with her on her turf, neither lecturing her for making a mess of the opportunities that had been afforded her nor insisting that she adapt to His cultural ways in order to be accepted. It can’t have been easy to listen to His people being framed as the bad guys, yet He acknowledged their privileged position in history while also considering her too valuable an asset to leave out of the new integrated community He was forming.

And perhaps it is in Jesus’ example as a privileged Jewish male that I find a way forward as a privileged white woman. Try as I might, I can’t stop being white. And I can’t undo the parts of my heritage that I am ashamed of. But I can humble myself, reach across the racial divide, and use whatever advantage is mine (though I may need help in being able to see it) to my neighbor’s advantage. After all, is this not what Jesus did for me?

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

A Unifying Feast

IMG_7822“What is the significance of Thanksgiving?”

Inevitably the question gets asked around our nomadic Thanksgiving table each year, primarily because the guests who fill our mismatched chairs are a constantly varying assortment of races and nationalities. Years ago we established a family tradition of inviting friends from whichever local community we happened to belong to at the time to share our feast with us, largely inspired by our desire to express our gratitude to them for welcoming us in and helping us settle. I have always relished answering this question, getting the chance to draw the parallels between their kindness to us and the kindness of the Native Americans to the pilgrims.

But in more recent days I have been struck with the awkward question: what if in return for our new neighbors’ sacrificial kindness, we abused them, took over their land, and forced them into exile? Is that not how the story of the first Thanksgiving turned out? All of a sudden my warm fuzzies over happy natives and holy pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal together shrivel into a nasty knot in my stomach. Sadly, this is my American heritage.

We perpetuate a heritage of sacrificing other’s best interests for the sake of our own.

But what can I do with it? I can dismiss the rest of the story as an unpleasant memory and choose to focus on the positive. But positive for whom? I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid I have been guilty of remembering history only from the perspective that is most convenient to me. And in so doing, I have privately propagated the very practices that I would publically condemn. Racist assumptions. Double standards. Convenient cover-ups. Selective memory.

When I actually face up to the facts, I shudder at the story of what my ancestors did to the people who inhabited the land they wanted. Their behavior makes Ahab and Jezebel look like saints! In a similar way, I cringe at the story of what my people did to the black people they imported to work their stolen land. I start to read the story of Israel’s slavery in Egypt from a different perspective, recognizing that my heritage is that of the oppressors, not the oppressed.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, … if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

And trying to separate myself from my ancestors’ actions won’t work either. On varying levels and on different fronts, these racist practices have continued right through the generations and into my day. We perpetuate a quickness to sacrifice other’s best interests for the sake of our own, conveniently slotting them into the category of “outsiders” so that we can be left alone to enjoy the fruit without the guilt. Free-market competitive pricing becomes an excuse for international extortion. Self-defense becomes an acceptable reason for killing someone who makes us feel threatened, even if he was defenseless.

My heart breaks as I witness in the news the physical manifestations of an ever-present rift, both in the racist assumptions that would lead to multiple police killings of African-American youth and in the violent backlash in response to them. But I have to admit that I am not surprised. Generations of divisive attitudes and oppressive behaviors have built this wall, and a smattering of charitable gestures and affirmative actions won’t tear it down.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

So what is the way forward in reconciling a history of racial division and distrust? What tiny part can I play in tearing down this too-long reinforced wall? I think the first step is to acknowledge the true story, to listen to my African-American and Native-American neighbors’ retelling of the past and to humbly bear the shame of my ancestors’ role in it. But beyond that, I relish the opportunity to participate with them in a new future.

Each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, we replicate Christ’s unifying feast.

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. Out of His fragmented body, He drew together people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to become one holy race. Each time we gather around the communion table, we participate in this reality. And each time we gather around our dinner tables, we replicate that unifying feast.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
Acts 2:5, 44-47

The early Christians understood the significance of eating together, of gathering around the table and entering into face-to-face communion with people whom they had formerly considered “other.” I can’t help but wonder if this is what the pilgrims had in mind when they initiated that first Thanksgiving meal. And though the communion between European-Americans and Native-Americans would turn out to be pathetically short-lived, it is what we commemorate each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables.

Tomorrow I look forward to once again eating that meal with the odd assortment of multi-racial guests whom I have the privilege of calling friends. As we break bread and share turkey together, we are practicing for the ultimate Thanksgiving feast, the unity supper of the Lamb.