This week I was taking with a guy I know who works in a store that I shop in frequently. He and I always have funny or interesting conversations. This time, we were joking about his nickname and his favorite superhero, and then, he told me an unexpected story that I will now paraphrase. He said:
When I worked in another store, I used to wear my stocking cap down over my hair. And, you know, since I am not as “black” as other African-Americans, this guy who worked with me kept staring at me and then finally he said to me:
What are you? Are you Puerto Rican or something?
I then took off my hat to reveal to him my hair, which I assumed would show that I was indeed black.
You are one of those good-looking blacks…
My friend, as he finished the story, said that he didn’t curse out the other individual, but simply remarked about how shocked he was, and also how inappropriate the comment was.
Truthfully, it makes me sick to my stomach to think that we still do this to each other.
What are you?
Oh, you are one of those good-lookin’ blacks…
And yet, this is all too real.
Racism. Prejudice. Discrimination.
Words many Anglos avoid using.
But they are more than words to many, many people who are black or brown; very real to people who are discriminated against or mistreated simply because of the color of their skin, their cultural or national background, or their religious background.
Of course, after my friend told his story, we started talking about Ferguson, MO and Mike Brown and racism in the U.S. and white privilege. Many people choose not to talk about these things because they are too heavy or maybe because the topic makes them uncomfortable or maybe because they prefer to live in isolation from what is really happening in the world.
But the thing is, we have to talk about how we treat people.
We have to be aware of prejudice and stop denying its existence. And those who have privilege and never have to look over their shoulder in a store because someone might think they will steal something; or who never have to fear police officers in particular neighborhoods or immigration officers and the TSA in airports; or who never have to put up with ignorant, offensive comments about their skin color, nationality, or language—those with privilege need to accept that much of society is built upon prejudice systems that favor only a few and push down many others.
If we ignore that, we are compliant.
And all people—not just people of faith—should care about people in Ferguson, MO; in North Philly; in Central America; in Iraq; in Gaza. They are our neighbors and we must remember that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So said Martin Luther King. And so hatred and violence against anyone due to the color of their skin, their nationality, or their religious background should matter to us.
Even if it does not happen directly to us.
And now to the Matthew story.
Jesus of Nazareth leads with this:
Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
Apparently, this was an inflammatory thing to say, because the disciples were worried. Why?
The Pharisees were offended; this scared the disciples because they obviously cared more about appearance and pleasing people than they did about the truth of what was going on.
The “what was going on” part has to do with rules, once again. The Pharisees, the disciples, and others were more concerned with what people ate and drank, what they read and studied, what they put “into” the mouth [or mind], rather than what actually came “out” or in other words, how they behaved.
Jesus was getting impatient with his own disciples.
What goes into the mouth goes into the stomach and into the sewer.
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.
People’s hearts inspire them to do evil, hate, murder, steal, lie, etc.
But if someone doesn’t wash their hands, in other words, if he/she does not follow your specific rules, that doesn’t make him/her a sinner.
And then, the disciples are tested, and they fail the test miserably.
They are in Tyre and Sidon and a Cannanite woman starts shouting:
Have mercy on me! My daughter is tormented by a spirit.
The disciples get impatient.
Let’s go, Jesus. Send her away. She’s annoying us.
The woman [and her daughter] do not count. They are unimportant to the disciples.
Wasn’t Jesus supposed to help the people of Israel first?
Shouldn’t he give his teachings and his healing and his time to them?
The disciples thought so.
So nobody listened to the Canaanite woman.
But the woman was persistent and came to Jesus of Nazareth and knelt before him.
She was called a dog and not worthy to eat at the table with everyone else.
But what came from her heart impressed Jesus.
The mere crumbs would be enough. She was not a dog, but a human asking for healing. She deserved to be heard, to be treated like everyone else; to be afforded the same opportunities.
And so the healing happened.
The story is relevant for today.
Many times, Christians are just like the disciples and just like the Pharisees. We argue and argue about religious rules, cultural norms, and who is clean or unclean. We crave attention for ourselves and wish none for others. It’s about me, me, me or us, us, us and we forget about her or him or them.
We focus too much on appearance; we focus too much on the outside.
We ignore what comes from the heart—real human behavior.
And in doing so, we ignore and disenfranchise others; we say they don’t count.
We don’t listen to them; we send them away.
Friends, the story cuts deep, does it not?
I wonder how much good we could do in the world if we focused less on the surface and more on the behavior that comes OUT of people. What words do we say? What actions do we perform? And…most importantly, how do we treat other people?
The Matthew story is a challenge to anyone who thinks that believing in Jesus or God or religion is enough. The disciples said they believed. But then they were still worried about appearance and wanted to push away a woman asking for healing.
Where was the mercy and compassion that was supposed to come out of their belief?
Where is our mercy and compassion that comes out of our belief?
In Ferguson, Missouri; in Gaza; in Iraq; in Syria; in West Africa; in Central America; in Philly and in Warminster.
Where is our mercy and compassion?
Perhaps this is a lament more than anything else.
I’m saddened and maddened by how poorly we treat each other in this world.
And how people are ignoring Michael Brown’s story, and the story of others who have been attacked because of their skin color.
Are we listening to their stories?
Or are we pushing them away?
It is sad that Twitter has to explode with #dontshoot for people to pay attention.
Howard University students shouldn’t have to do this to get people to listen to the cries of those who suffer discrimination every day in this country.
Prayers are fine but not enough when teenagers are shot out of fear.
This doesn’t need to happen.
The appearance that we live in an accepting and open country is a fallacy.
Prejudice is alive and well once you move past the surface.
There are imbedded systems that are built on prejudice and give advantage to a certain few while pushing down others.
So people of faith [and no faith], let’s stop being silent about it.
Stop justifying it.
Stop ignoring the real stories of those around you.
Listen to them.
And when you see or hear this kind of prejudice, don’t stand by and watch it happen. Don’t be a bystander.
Any of your friends, family, or neighbors who make prejudice comments—challenge them; call them out. Don’t put up with it, because you care more about the heart and aren’t fooled by the surface.
Be friends with people who are different than you. Stand up for anyone who is pushed down.
May the behavior that comes out of your heart be more important than any appearances you try to keep up.
Let mercy and compassion come out!
P.S. I have permission to share the following comments from one of the members of the church I serve:
We haven’t mentioned anything to our daughter–she’ll be 10 next month and probably at that age where we should talk to her about these things, but she is so naive and innocent still. We want her to stay that way for as long as possible. 🙂
We believe in setting a high bar for these girls to reach, because they will reach it. We believe in teaching them to be kind and thoughtful first and foremost. We believe in showing them how to set a good example for others to follow.
And in doing those things they will SHOW people that maybe their initial judgment of them, based on skin color, was incorrect and maybe teach someone something without even realizing they were doing so.
That is our hope.
I know some day they are going to get awakened to racism and pre-judgment. But I hope when they are, they are strong enough to know who they are and don’t let it define them.