As usual, the writer of James cuts right to the heart of our human situation. So often we who claim to be upholders of our Scriptures, be they the law of Moses as the members of his Jewish Christian community or the Christian Scriptures in my community of faith, or perhaps the Quran, the Gita, the words of the Buddha in other religious communities, are more focused on being gate-keepers to determine who is “outside” our circle of welcome than truly living out they inclusiveness at the heart of our traditions.
The purpose of our faith, whatever name it goes by, is not according to James to give us badges to declare us holy and good people, especially if those badges distinguish us from the other and the outsider. Instead it is to live out lives of selfless love, compassion, and grace toward others.
James’ words let us know that if our religion motivates us to prejudice, exclusion of those who are different than us, ostracizing the marginalized, let alone hate, we are practicing them wrong. James focuses on what the Rev. Hugh Hollowell of Love Wins Ministries has deemed “hobophobia”, a prejudice against those who are poor, struggling to eke by. So often those of us who are middle class, let alone a part of either financial or academic elite, look on those with less money, less resources, less education as if they are beneath us, even dangerous, for their situation. I think of a church I served once where the poor in the community began to come to join in worship due to the church reaching out in service and members with money began to become afraid things would go missing at church, the nice buildings becoming damaged. I contrast that with the Methodist church that allows part of its building to be used by the Love Wins congregation, a Mennonite church start which intentionally includes people experiencing homelessness as the heart of its membership.
But I’m not guiltless. I have to admit since moving into a bigger city at times I flinch, want to look away, when I see the seemingly homeless man or woman on the side of the road with a sign, since having some pretty uncomfortable confrontations with some whom I felt threatened by in how they expressed symptoms of mental illness. I am aware I need to be careful to not let those experiences cause me to begin to return to living out our society’s message about those struggling with poverty, addiction, or mental illness which paints them in ways that rob them of their humanity and which can, if we live into those messages, rob us of our own. I confess I’m not there.
The tendency to fall into prejudice against others is not just one that deals with poverty. As a part of my studying in counseling, I read up on the powerful hold racism has on us. Every few years they test children on the effects of cultural messages of racism through having them rate their responses to pictures of people of various races, and even today so many decades after the Civil Rights movement, young children buy into the racial stereotypes that privilege white people over people of color, considering lighter skin and traditionally White features over those of people of color. With the highly publicized shootings of young people of color by police and with analysts reporting that we still imprison young black men at a much higher rate than white youth, we have to face that we are not done in combating racism. The starting place is looking within at the subtle ways we may buy into these messages, pushing against the unintentional racism that if we are honest influences each of our souls. I recommend groups like the Racial Equity Institute centered out of Greensboro, NC, which organizes programs to help people examine both the ways in which they personally unknowingly are living out racist conditioning and unknowingly propping up racist systems, whether as white people or people of color experiencing internalized racism.
In all the ways our heart puts up all walls to others – racism, homophobia, sexism, and many other ways – one of the easiest and most insidious things that happens is we put up barriers to see this, telling ourselves “we are good people. We don’t hate”, convincing ourselves we don’t see color, see gender, see the difference in others. Far too often instead of this truly being the compassion and openness we want it to be, this is just a defense that we spin up psychologically in order to keep ourselves from seeing the ways in which we have been negatively influenced by our culture’s prejudices.
I think this is why the recent Go Set a Watchman is so troubling to us. The hero of racial equity, Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird is depicted as having disturbing prejudices which we can’t imagine a hero of justice having. We don’t want to think our heroes had shortcomings, areas where they too were being molded by the prejudice in their day and age. And, of course, they did.
This even happened to Jesus. When the Syrophoenician woman comes to him asking for healing, Jesus dismisses her out of hand for not being Jewish. Her response, speaking up against this initially discriminatory act by Jesus helps Jesus see he is just going along with his culture and inspires him not only to heal her but to reach out to the Gentiles. It is possible to read the text as one where Jesus is simply always planning to heal her, presenting a front of the culture in his day to teach her and us a lesson, but I think it makes more sense to see Jesus as fully human. Being fully human means at times unconsciously going along with the racism, homophobia, sexist, prejudice, all around us. If Jesus is without sin, then while such conditioning is unconscious it is not sin per se. But when an opportunity comes to raise our awareness of how we are being warped by the prejudices of our society at large and we choose to embrace it, we consciously fall into sin. Jesus models that having shortcomings, failing to see the big picture, itself is simply being human. However failing to be open to seeing a bigger picture is sin, while choosing to raise your own awareness, discover deeper compassion, is joining God in the sacred journey. It is discovering, embracing, and living into the Christ presence in your life.
This text challenges and calls me to see beyond my preconceived notions, to pray for eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand. Putting aside my prejudice opens the door to growing more into the open heart of God I’m called to have. And it is my small step in helping heal this world. I’m not there yet, but James invites you and me to find that true path for ourselves.
And I sure ain’t whisting any Dixie here,
Your progressive redneck preacher,