Sunday, September 14, 2015
Well … it has happened again. This week a story was shared with me and it got me very upset. A man in Minnesota was waiting for his kids to get out of school. The school meets in a business park of some sort. While he waited someone harassed him. A nonviolent conflict ensued, police were called, and he ended being tased.
He had not broken any law. He was a man waiting to pick his kids up from school and he reacted negatively as you or I would to being harassed for no reason.
He is black. All the officers are white. Much of the confrontation was recorded. I heard and watched it. I was upset.
This is the place where real life, your life and mine, and the Bible and the Holy Spirit of God collide. It all comes together.
How many more times in our country must a black person be assaulted by the police who are supposed to protect us? I read of someone who had been an American citizen for 4 decades. She moved from Miami to Georgia and someone posted on Facebook, “make sure you bring your flag.” The reference was to an unfortunate phrase, “Would the last America to leave Miami please bring the flag?” The inference is that people who look like Cubans, whatever that means, are not as American as white people.
Then there is a video, a farce, where a white man, a jogger, sees another jogger, a woman with Asian features, in the park. Both are stretching. He says, “Hi,” and she responds. Then he says, “Where are you from? Your English is perfect.” She says, “San Diego. We speak English there.” He says, “No, where are you from? Where are your people from?” He proceeds to ask dumber and dumber questions.
Then she turns the tables on him. She asks this white guy, “Where are you from?” He names an American city and she says, “No, where are your people from?” He says, “Oh, well, I am just a normal American.” But she presses him until he says, “England, I guess.”
Aren’t we all just normal Americans?
When I led a youth group in Arlington in the late 90’s, nearly every kid in the group was either Hispanic or Sudanese. The Sudanese were actually born in Sudan or in refugee camps in Kenya or Egypt. Every single one of those tan skinned Latino kids were born in Arlington, Virginia. How much more American can you be?
But they didn’t see it that way. If they discussed a friend at school they might say, “She’s American.” I’d say, “What do you mean?” They’d say, “You know, white. Not Spanish.” I though not Spanish. These kids had parents who were Costa Rican and Argentinian and Salvadorian, but some of the kids, Hispanic kids, could barely speak Spanish themselves. Yet in their minds, a normal American is white.
Sometimes, I will meet a person who is Asian or Hispanic. I will ask, “Where are you from.” I ask the same question upon meeting someone who is white or black. It is a way I show interest in the other person. I want to connect. Regardless of what they look like, I expect to hear “I am from Detroit or I am from Wilmington or I am from Georgia or I am from St. Louis.” I see the other as American, but she responds, “I am Korean.” She doesn’t trust that I see her as American.
Why should she? If she has been hit with subtle prejudice or outright racism over and over, why should she believe that this white guy will be a nice one who sees her as a beautiful human being, who wants to celebrate her uniqueness, who wants to hear her story? Why should she believe my good intentions? She’s been hurt too many times by people who look like me.
In the case of the Hispanic youth group kids this is a matter of self-identity. In the comedy video, it is how we see others. In Miami, it is a matter of some people deciding that individuals who they think “look Cuban” and probably want to be in this country so much they fought to get here are somehow less American looking than those who had the fortune to be born here. For the black man who was tased in Minnesota, it is a matter of extreme embarrassment in front of his kids and the unsettling reality that he cannot trust the police to be for him. In the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the racism that plagues us as a people turned out to be deadly.
I said earlier, this where real life, your life and mine, and the Bible and the Holy Spirit of God collide.
Ephesians 2 is seen against the backdrop of divided people. Those called “the circumcision,” the Jews were distinct. Jewish males were circumcised. Gentiles males, all men who were not Jewish, did not get circumcised. Jewish people lived by the Law of Moses. Those who were not Jewish did not live by the law. The Jews observed Sabbath. Perhaps this distinction was the oddest to the Gentiles around them. Why don’t the Jews work today? Everyone else does? What makes today so special?
These distinctions marked the Jews as separate, holy, the people of God. But they also marked all non-Jewish people as being not included in the people of God. Gentiles were vile, unclean, and cut-off. The division was as dramatic and pregnant withthe danger of violence as are the divisions between people in our country today.
It cannot be so for we who are “in Christ.” Paul would not tolerate two churches – a Gentile Church and a Jewish one. He insists that in Christ Gentiles are “no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (2:19). Were Paul to step onto the scene today, he’d tell churches that divisions are antithetical to the Gospel. Even if our worship styles are different, we are to be one. Even if my grandparents persecuted your grandparents, I am to confess and repent, and you are to forgive. We are to be one in Christ. Even if our peers don’t seek unity and love, as followers of Christ you and are I commanded to seek unity and love in Christ.
In Ephesians 2, Gentiles by virtue of being Gentile are separated from God. “Remember,” we read in verse 12, we who are Gentiles, “were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” However, in Christ, by the blood of Christ, we are now brought near. Jesus, is our peace.
This word peace is central. I specifically wish individuals in law enforcement would have the inner drive to seek peace and the imaginative creavity to find peaceful solutions to conflicts. I am sure in a confrontation a policeman feels disrespected. And if they don’t respect him, he will lose the authority he needs to do his job. I am sure that’s how he feels. It is hard. There is pressure. I am sure he feels he must show his strength in order to be respected by.
But, the effort to project strength is resulting in policemen and policewomen doing awful things like shooting unarmed teens and tasing Dads who wait to pick their kids up from school. I wish more people wanted peace and worked for it. In Ephesians 2, the word peace is mentioned in verse 14, 15, and twice in 17.
Jesus is our peace. “In his flesh, he made both groups into one and” broke down the dividing wall of hostility. We cannot stop others from hating or giving in to fear. But we can offer a new story. We can help break down the wall of hostility through prayer and acts and words of love which include a willingness to listen as others tell the stories of when they were wounded by racism. With humble patience we listen as much as the other needs us to listen. What better act of love is there than to value another by affirming his worth as we listen to his story?
We have to keep faith in Jesus at the center of this because He is our peace. Without him driving our words, any steps toward peace come up short. I know religion is a source of division in the world, but that is bad religion, religion built on the destruction of other. In Christ, our posture is open, humble, inviting, God-focused, Spirit-powered, and aimed at love and unity.
This is why Ephesians 2 is so intent on destroying circumcision as a qualifying mark. This is why Ephesians 2 insists in verse 15 that Jesus has abolished the law. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and it is true. Everything the law intended to accomplish in creating people who worship God and live with each other in peace is accomplished in and through Christ. So in that sense, Jesus in fact fulfills the law completely. But when the circumcision and the law are markers that identify some people as insiders and others as outsiders, then law and circumcisions no longer serve God’s purposes. In that sense, Jesus does away with the distinctions.
Therefore we see in verses 15-16 that Jesus “creates in himself one new humanity in place of the two, making peace and [reconciling] both groups to God in one body through the cross.” The next verses insist that Jesus proclaims peace and peace means that we all have access to God.
In Christian faith we see this in Baptism and Communion. Baptism tells a story that ends with an invitation: I was a sinner, I died in sin, Jesus rose from death, and because I am in Him, I will rise from death; and you can too if you receive Jesus into your life and follow Him. He came that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life as children of God. Communion is a share meal and the only requirement for coming to the table is the willingness to acknowledge sin and our powerlessness to defeat sin. We come to the communion table as everyone comes to it: dependent on God for everything.
Our one humanity is not homogenous and I would not want it to be. In other letters, Paul brags about his own Jewish credentials. He is a Jewish man, not an everyman. In Ephesians 2, he does not want Jews to stop being Jews. He is not in search of the generic disciple. There is no such thing. Our relationship with God is always particular, always personal. There is no general Christianity. Christianity is always the story of you, an individual, walking with Jesus, living as his disciple. It is even inaccurate to say, “The story.” I cannot tell “the story,” but I can tell my story.
The world becomes beautiful when we hear one another’s’ stories. I will never say, “Well, black people and Hispanics and Asians and whites – we’re really not all that different.” We are. We are beautifully different, but united in Christ.
I pastored in Arlington for 9 years and I got into a group of friendships with single people or young couples prior to having kids. Once kids come along and grow into school age you don’t hang out with friends very often. Everything in life is geared toward baseball practice and orthodontist appointments and PTA meetings. By the time it is all done each day, you can’t go out to clubs or sports bars. For one thing, you’re too tired. For another, it would be irresponsible to leave the house with your children in bed asleep and go out for beers.
But, years ago, I did have that life and I had my crowd. We’d go out to eat at Dupont Circle or go to movies in Adams Morgan. One of the guys in that crowd is married to a woman who is not Caucasian. I say it that way deliberately because for years, I did not know her ethnicity. And I was scared to ask. She is very outspoken, politically far, far to the left of me, and I thought if I ask, “What are you,” fiery laser beams would come out of her eyes and pierce my skull. So I didn’t ask.
We were part of the same circle, though. We all even traveled to Honduras together in 2004 when one of our group married a Honduran woman. So I was around her a lot. I now don’t remember the conversation, but I remember her figuring out that I had no clue about her ethnicity. She liked that I didn’t know and that she knew I was uncertain of how to ask. After teasing me a bit, she finally told me she was Korean. She had been adopted by a Caucasian family in Ohio. They had 4 boys and her mother wanted a daughter badly. So they adopted a Korean girl.
If you go deep enough with people and listen long enough, you get past the uncomfortable issues that plague our world, like the race conversation. People will find you are safe and they can share their stories with you. And they do because we all want to share our stories. And when they do, then the race conversation is no longer uncomfortable. It is beautiful.
Janessa and I were friends and so when Candy and I were getting ready to adopt, I could talk to her. I could ask, “Now you are an adult. What is it like, your relationship with the parents who adopted you? What do I need to do to make sure my children will want a relationship with me when they are grown?” And she helped me.
Maybe it sounds like I am way off topic here. I have been discussing unity in Christ especially among people of different races and I have wandered off on this tangent about my old crowd in DC. But this is the point! Janessa and I remained as white man and Korean woman, but as we listened to one another and came to that safe place in friendship, we became something more. We became brother and sister in Christ, people who listened to one another’s stories and helped each other.
This is the other story, the alternative narrative. Ferguson, Missouri is a reminder that there’s a lot of hate in the world. The body of Christ has another story to tell – the story of the gospel bringing us together, making us one.