In my last post I talked about some basic practices I find help me discover Christ in another’s story and the role we all can have in witnessing the presence of Christ in another’s deepest self as it unfolds before us as they open their lives to us. I suggested we take the role of Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, before people who open their lives to us. As she chose to recognize Jesus’ sharing of himself as a holy moment and so paused what was happening to sit at his feet, so we can recognize another opening up the depths of who they are is a holy moment. In it, we are freed to, like Mary with Jesus, join them in encountering the presence of Christ within their lives.
Today I want to focus on the first practice I mentioned:
Don’t lump people together as “just like them”, but also acknowledge the ways their unique identities have situated and shaped them.
For me, I often learn what this path looks like by considering what it doesn’t. Lucky for us, we are given in the Gospels an example of where Jesus himself fails to embody this practice. From this experience it appears that Jesus learns to embody this practice, and continues to do so throughout his ministry.
This event is recorded in Mark 7.
“From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a housed and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter. So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.’”
In this Gospel text, Jesus does fail to live out the practice I emphasized. Often-times well meaning and pious scholars, Bible teachers, and preachers, will try to do some mental gymnastics to make it as if Jesus was not rude nor demeaning to this woman who approached him. I don’t buy that. It seems pretty clear to me Jesus treats this woman as lumped together as “one of those”, a Gentile, an outside, an unbeliever, due to her being Syrophoenician. He speaks as if her needs are not equal to the needs of those from his land, from his religion, from his people. In fact, he goes so far as to call her and her children “dogs”, not a compliment then or now. Momma would’ve had words to me growing up if I called anyone a dog, let alone (what is implied here) a female dog.
I think for some people this shakes their idea of Jesus as God in the flesh, but for me it is a reminder of what his “in the flesh” nature means. Luke tells us that from childhood on Jesus had to grow, learn, and develop just as we do. We learn at times by acting in ignorance and having the experience correct us, which is a part of us being “in the flesh”.
Jesus’ failing to live out this practice in this one recorded instance can be a word of hope for us. Our faith teaches Jesus to be without sin. Sometimes when we or another fails to treat others as they should, we or they can be overcome with guilt and shame. We can throw up our hands in despair and give up. Or worse yet, become angry and resistant to the lessons the experience has for us. Jesus’ experience suggests that we may try and fail to live out such practices in our lives without being horrible sinners. Rather, we learn by trying. Falling short can be sin but it can also be the process where we learn, just as a toddler learns to walk by first crawling and then taking her first stumbling steps, which at times means falling on her fanny quite a bit.
Yet Jesus learns from this experience not to lump groups of people together. We can see this because in the Gospels after his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman Jesus expands his outreach out beyond the people just like him to Gentiles, to other races, to people of other cultures & faiths, with special emphasis on those outcast and downtrodden by society. After his encounter, because of failing to treat another appropriately and learning from it, Jesus begins to live and act in the way we recognize him.
Our attempts to see the presence of the Sacred in another, to meet them where they are, to embrace them as they are, will not always work. We will do our best and fall on our faces. That is ok. If we let those experiences teach us, we like Christ can have failing to live things out as we should be a part of our journey to holy encounter.
What we see Jesus doing after this is not lumping people together, not treating all prostitutes as society pictures them – morally inferior. He treats not all tax collectors as necessarily irredeemable cheats. He treats people, whether ostensibly religious and seemingly irreligious, as equally bearers of the Sacred.
But in his interchanges, again and again Jesus recognizes the uniqueness of their experience. With those who are wielders of wealth and power, Jesus speaks in firmer ways that unveil the injustices that boost their privilege. Yet he also willingly goes into their homes, building intimate connections with them.
With those on the edges of social life – the sick and those with disabilities, women without hope, children – Jesus again and again treats them with a respect to the unique challenges of their condition.
To me this reflects a lesson necessary to encounter God in another’s story, becoming a witness of that of Christ in them. We must recognize the moment we lump them into a group, assuming they fit some cultural image of what “those kind of people” are like, we will miss what can be witnessed in their life.
Not all gay men are effeminate, victims of sexual abuse, flamboyant, or (straight men listen) interested in you if you are a man. Likewise not all straight men are more rational or less emotional then women, into sports teams, desire to work with their hands. Recently when asked about their response to the concerns of people of color, one candidate for office went on a long tangent about inner cities, crime, and poverty. I was struck how many people of color spoke up and said “that is not my life”.
In our encounters with others, we need to be willing to lay aside our assumptions about who they are based on their background, approaching them with a curiosity about their lives, and an openness to how they are at heart. Many who seem to be “dogs” and not “children”, in other words outside our circle and unlike us, are more alike to us than we would assume. And many whom we might assume based on their appearance or background to be just like us are in fact more different than appearances seem.
Yet, to deal sensitively with others, we also need to be aware that other’s (and our own) background shapes them & us.
While serving as a pastor in Fayetteville, NC, one of the truly enlightening parts of that experience was being asked to accompany some church members who were people of color to talks about race in the city. I will always remember one such talk. In the talk, a groups of mothers were asked to talk about their experiences bringing up their children. This came as a result of a recent incident in which the wife of a leading pastor in the black community had, over the phone, heard her son, while away on business, have a team of police surround his hotel room with guns raised. The reason? The community assumed he must be a drug dealer or have stolen his car, since they did not think a black man could have such a nice car in their Florida town unless he was up to no good.
Almost to a person, the mothers who, like my own mother, were white told the same thing: had taught their children to be themselves, to trust police and authorities in school were rotting for them. Almost to a person, the mothers of color shared how they had to teach their children, particularly their boys, how to stand, talk, and act in ways that did not bring attention to their blackness. They had to teach them, they said, how to avoid the gaze of police and authorities, lest they become targets.
The last few years have borne out how true to life this group was, in the dichotomy between the experience of those of us who are white and those of us who are people of color.
There are different pressures, stresses, and challenges that face people in a minority community from the community of power. There are different resources of support existing for straight couples and queer couples. As a cisgender man who looks very stereotypically male, I never have to fear people will call me out for being in the wrong bathroom if I am in the men’s restroom so a level of stress and set of hurdles do not exist in my life which friends who are transgender or who don’t fit their gender stereotype must face.
Recognizing the difference experiences people have gone through will shape them in unique ways is key. So to truly witness the presence of Christ working in them, the gifts and lessons their lives bring, we need to be willing to take into account and take seriously the experience of privilege or oppression they may have gone through.
It means that when I, as a chaplain, listen to a person of color talk about their experience of racism I try to not dismiss their stories, but accept what they describe in their own terms. I also try to pay in mind when I talk to a gay couple that, though they may get the same kind of support in their relationship I did when I was married, there is a good chance that they don’t but instead face daily pressure from their wider family, from the church, and from their community for their relationship to fail. Paying attention to the unique stresses and struggles others face, as well as unique resources for personal growth and resiliency they produce, can help us better be there for others.
Being mindful, then, that I cannot go into another’s life expecting their story or perspective to my own is key to being present with them in a way that allows me to be a witness of that of Christ in them.
How have you learned to practice this principle in your relationships with others? How have you experienced others practice it?
Your progressive redneck preacher,