(Repost) Seeing Beyond Appearances

I am sharing again an old post aimed at calling us to see others beyond the judgments and labels we could place on them.  I feel our nation’s tension about race, about immigration, about identity which flared up in Charlottesville and which we see expressed in our tensions about immigration suggest these words from James I explore in an old blog post are worth revisiting.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

outward appearance 1James 2:1-13

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 outward appearance 4Hollowell 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.

outward appearance 2The 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.

outward appearance 3I 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,

Micah

Advertisements

(repost) Seeing Beyond Prejudice

In thinking about the issues of racial injustice and divides across culture and religion which we have seen flare up, particularly in Charlottesville but in other parts of our world the last year, I am reminded of the time in the Gospels Jesus is called to confront his own prejudice.  I wrote a little about this last year, and I share it now for your own reflection.

How have you learned to see others more through Christ’s eyes?

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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.

jesus-and-pheonician

“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.

lives-matter

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,

Micah

(repost) A Southerner Worth Knowing: Septima Clark

 

With all our talk about “southern history”, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about aspects of Southern history we often overlook.  In a visit my partner and I made to the Franklinton Center at Bricks, where Civil Rights leaders including Septima Clark worked to organize civil rights work then and now, I was reminded by the long history of Civil Rights work here in the south-land.  Perhaps taking time to remember Septima’s life can be a good reminder of the great work that is a part of our southern heritage, perhaps a better light to look to in these times than Confederate soldiers and their statues.  I hope my sharing a good a devotional I shared about her life in my days of pastoring in Fayetteville, NC, invite you to consider your own faith and values more deeply.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

One of my hopes in this blog is to take time here and there to point out the lives of southerners who have modeled the progressive values I am embrace as a progressive redneck preacher.  These southern embraced the best of their values, their culture, and their faith, while also rejecting the slave-holder logic still holds many of us back in the south.  Some, like the figure I want to introduce today, were progressives before progressive was cool.

I am currently using Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s and Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals as a daily devotional.  Its May 3rd reading, Common Prayer  introduced us to not only a southern who was progressive, but (like me) a Carolinian as well.


“Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) … was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to a father who as an ex-slave and a mother who had been raised in the Caribbean.  While her parents ahd very little formal education, they emphasize the need for Septima to go to school.  Though Septima was eligible to teach after completing the eighth grade, her parents and teachers encouraged her to finish high school.  After graduating she took a post as a teacher on Johns Island, off the coast of Charleston.  There she began to notice the extreme disparity between the education of African-Americans and that of their white counterparts.  This experience stayed with her and fueled her quest for educational reform.  An avid social activist during the civil rights era, Septima travelled throughout the South to educate African-Americans about their voting rights.  She worked closely with Myles Horton of the Highland Folk School.  Together they trained many civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, in nonviolent resistance and local leadership.  Although Septima was thrown in jail, threatened, fired from job, and falsely accused of wrongdoing, she never turned from her task of working against and unjust educational system.

“Septima Poinsette Clark has become known as the Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

The devotional continues quoting Clark: “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking.  I consider chaos a gift.”  When I read this devotional, I thought “what an important southerner for us to remember at the Progressive Redneck Preacher”.

 

Clark’s story reminds me of my grandmother who prized education, instilling in me the importance of a strong mind and an openness both to learn and teach.   These educated women devoted to educated others are a strong thread woven into the tapestry of our southern culture.

Her story also reminds us that the Civil Rights movement began as a southern movement.   Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Septima Clark were all southerners speaking out against discrimination, prejudice, and abuses that emerged in our southern culture based on values they had learned at southern schools and southern churches.  Many others who faced such prejudice simply moved out of the south.  About a decade ago when I was in training to be ordained as a pastor, I assisted on the pastoral staff at a church in Inglewood, CA, a historically black neighborhood of Los Angeles.  I met the some of the most interesting and loving men and women who as young people had chosen to flee the southeast due to its Jim Crow laws.   In many ways their neighborhoods felt to me like pockets of southern culture transplanted into California.  Their restaurants had some of the best southern fried chicken and grits I have ever eaten.  I still remember one church elder, Felix Johnson, who would bring collards to church on a regular basis just like a member of a church I preached at in South Carolina used to do there.  Their stories spoke of the courage they found inspiring them to move across country from a land they had called home to a new city, where there was greater opportunity.

Yet southerners like King, Parks, and Clark were making the choice to stand up against the unjust Jim Crow laws precisely because they were southerners who called the south home, and they refused to be pushed out by injustice.  They had a particular courage.  We fail to tell their story correctly and fail to remember our own history and culture of the south properly when we don’t bear in mind that the south was their home, and they were fighting for the right to stay here while getting equal treatment.  They chose not to be pushed out of the south, but to change the south from within.

Finally I think it is important to remember this Civil Rights movement began as a movement of faith.  It was largely southern Christian leaders, together with some Jews, who spoke up against the prevailing racist laws and agendas of the south.  Martin Luther King was a Christian preacher raised in the south, educated in the south, who preached in Baptist pulpits all over the southeast.   Rosa Parks lead a youth program with a Baptist church.   In many ways she was an equivalent to a youth pastor in her church.   Clark, too, was a woman of faith.   Many Catholic and Episcopal leaders joined eventually in Civil Rights work.   Also Jewish leaders joined in this fight, including figures like Abraham Heschel.

They show us the power of a progressive faith to stand against domination systems, against prejudice, and to transform our culture.

These civil rights leaders are an example of some of what is the best and most beautiful of our history and our culture.  They challenge us to examine which values of our culture we are embracing.  The south is a strange place with both a history of oppression — Jim Crow, opposition to women’s rights, mistreatment of illegal immigrants, and more recently homophobic laws — and also a place where some of the most powerful forces for social justice like King, Parks, and Clark are born.  Which values are you living out?

Our values and our faith should lead us to be educators like Clark.   We should seek to lift up those caught up in cycles of ignorance and poverty who live without hope.

Our values and our faith should lead us to become advocates like Clark.   Though a part of southern culture is the example of Civil Rights leaders, another very living aspect is the legacy of slave-holder mentalities and slaver-holder Christianity.   Here in Fayetteville, NC, as the Driving While Black study has shown, racist attitudes have not left us.  In NC we still struggle in our legislature about whether things like a Racial Justice Act are a good idea.   Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the day.  And the same bigotry aimed at people in the black community in our recent past is also today aimed at Hispanic immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual, & transgender citizens.  Our faith and values should lead us to work to transform this.

To live out what is best & truest in both our faith and our values, we need to find ways we can join in the fight of speaking out against injustice, bigotry, and ignorance in all its forms.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here!

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

 Image