Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Ferguson’

Who Are You Willing to Be?

Matthew 16:13-20

I’ve been reading Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, over the last few months. I’m taking my time. It is a book that I think people who identify as Christians should most certainly read. It took Ehrman, a NT scholar, eight years to research and write. The main purpose of his book [to quote Ehrman] is to explore how an apocalyptic prophet from the backwaters of rural Galilee crucified for crimes against the state came to be thought of as equal with the one God Almighty, Creator of all things.

EhrmanHowJesusThe book leads the reader through the history of thought about divine beings and humans who became divine beings—focusing of course on Israel and Palestine and the time periods relevant to the writings in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus, according to Ehrman, was transformed from a human prophet to the Son of God exalted to divine status at his resurrection. But this transformation happened because of how other people defined Jesus over the centuries. The closest followers of Jesus did not recognize him as divine until well after his death. And if you read the Gospels closely, not even all the writers were sure about Jesus’ divinity.

This could be a discussion for an entire year…or for a lifetime.

I recommend that you give this book a chance. At the very least, it will open your mind to the possibility that most of what you have been taught or what you have learned about Jesus comes strictly from your particular church traditions, denomination, pastor, or some creed.

People in the Gospels tried to define Jesus—all of them had different ideas. People in the 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th Centuries tried to define Jesus. Creeds again.

And after that, more and more people defined Jesus’ identity. The Middle Ages. The Reformation. Liberation Theology. Missional Theology. It never ends!

And so, here is the thing I want you to do. Just ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly, okay? Don’t let someone else or a denomination or a church or a pastor answer for you.

Who is Jesus to you? And why?

Think about that.

Identity [and not just Jesus’ identity] is really at the heart of the Gospels of the NT. Matthew and company all tell stories about Jesus of Nazareth, but in different ways; they all paint a unique picture of this man of Galilee. This is what I like about the Gospels, actually. There is not “one” tried and true definition of who Jesus was and is. The Gospels are more interested in telling the story of how communities formed around the teachings and life of this Jesus, and how people’s identities were formed. Think less about doctrine and more about formation.

Who is Jesus is not about a creed or a doctrine that is “right.”
Who is Jesus relates to who am I and who are we and what shall we do in this world?

Specifically, in Matthew’s story, identity is not just about who you are but who is around you. There is collective identity that goes hand and in hand with your own identity. Jesus was clearly preaching such a message. If someone knew who his/her neighbor was, then he/she had a chance to know themselves better.

And for Matthew’s community, they formed identity in a certain time and environment. We can never forget that those who followed Jesus of Nazareth were living under the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation of Israel was on everyone’s minds.

Would Jesus be the political leader to overthrow the Romans?
Would he restore the Israelites to power over that land?

None of that actually happened, did it? Jesus died. The Romans still had power. The predictions of God coming back to save and restore a new kingdom did not happen. People’s definitions of Jesus as king did not come to fruition.

This should not sound unfamiliar to us.
In this place and in this age, do you notice how empires still rule over us? Ancient empires like Rome did indeed fade away, but new ones with different names are imbedded in society. Armies and political structures exist, things we ignore or accept blindly as reality. We are placed in social levels, given categories and boxes into demographic stereotypes. Empires can trick us; they can tell us that we are not worth much, and neither are certain others around us.

That’s how Empires oppress; they mess around with our identities.

They run in with SWAT teams and heavy armor and guns.

fergusonGas

They hurl tear gas at peaceful protestors.

ferguson_tear_gasWoman ferguson_tear_gasMan

They criminalize people based on skin color, nationality, or religion. They silence truthful voices. They push back justice-seekers. They favor the materially wealthy and powerful.

And empires use fear to cause apathy, to calm passion, and to push us to forget who we are capable of being.

In Ferguson, MO and all over this country some people call the “land of the free,” young Black men are killed. This is not about criticizing all women and men who are police. This is about telling the truth. Young Black men are targeted, arrested, and sometimes even dealt with violently or fatally. We cannot ignore this.

In Gaza, children die because of bombs. These bombs are funded by the U.S. and other countries that have political and economic interests in Israel and Palestine. We cannot ignore this.

In Iraq, soldiers, drones, and heavy military presence of the U.S. and others continue. People are dying. And people of particular religious traditions or cultures are being pushed out of Iraq or even killed. We cannot ignore this.

Just like we cannot ignore the identity question.
Who are we?
Are we Christians?
If so, what part of the Jesus message moves us to identify with others who suffer?
Which part of that message helps us to be more human as we are?

Does our faith/spirituality inspire us to be love/mercy for others?

The I AM of Jesus and the I AM of all of us is about deciding who we are willing to be. Are we willing to stand up against injustice, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular? Are we willing to tell the truth and lift it up, even when others do not want to hear it and seek to hide it? Are we willing to take a risk and befriend someone, even love someone who thinks differently or looks differently, because we simply value their humanity? Are we willing to be real about society’s evil empires, the prejudice embedded in them, and our sometimes apathetic response?

Are you willing to answer this vulnerable identity question with action?

Who do you say you are?
Who are you willing to be?

To close, if you haven’t seen this, watch it.

Orlando Jones’ take on the “ice bucket challenge” speaks loudly.

The challenge:

To listen without prejudice;
to love without limits;
and to reserve the hate.

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Mercy and Compassion Come Out!

Matthew 15:10-28

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.

Oh…

He said.

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.

Help me.

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.

howardunivPrayers 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. 

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