Text: Luke 4:14-30
When did you first realize you were white?
What do you like about being white?
These are two of the questions posed during Damascus Road anti-racism trainings, initiated by Mennonite Central Committee.
The questions aren’t just for white folks. “When did you first realize you were black?” “What do you like about being brown?”
When I participated in a Damascus Road training in 2012 and heard that question, “What do you like about being white?” I remember thinking: Hmmm…that roughly resembles a trick question!
Is one allowed to like being white?
I do feel a special appreciation for my mom’s Swiss Mennonite heritage. That’s OK, right? I guess most of the music I listen to is from white artists. Even though I don’t drink much coffee, I do like coffee shops, which, I’ve discovered, did land as the #1 item on a lengthy list in a book called “Stuff White People Like,” just nudging out #2 which was “Religions their parents don’t belong to.”
Is it taboo to bring in biological factors? I like milk and dairy products and know that people of certain European descent have a higher level of lactose tolerance than other ethnic groups because of our closer co-evolution with dairy cattle.
Is it OK to like things that are overtly examples of white privilege? Is it OK to like not being followed around by staff in grocery stores afraid I might steal something? Is it OK to like getting the benefit of the doubt rather than being assumed suspicious? To able to put on a hoodie without thinking twice about it? Is it OK to like that none of my close relatives are incarcerated? Is it OK to like that I grew up never having any reason to doubt that White Lives Matter?
And when did you first realize that you were white, that you were black, that you were brown, or that you didn’t fit into any of these narrow categories?
I think back to my childhood. I think back to those formative years in my hometown. I think about right now and wonder how far I have to go before really realizing that I am white.
We might as well take it as an act of Divine affirmation that we’re considering these questions on the Sunday when the designated gospel reading comes from Luke 4, Jesus returning to his hometown. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell some version of this story, although Luke is unique in placing it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Right after Jesus’ baptism and wilderness temptations Luke says, “Then Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” Luke is most likely using as one of his key sources Mark’s gospel which has five chapters of events between the time of Jesus’ baptism and this return to his hometown of Nazareth. Luke’s brief sentence saying that Jesus had been teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee is his way of acknowledging that other events have been happening, even as he chooses this one particular event as his way of introducing Jesus’ ministry. “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.”
Regardless of what has already happened chronologically, Luke chooses to launch his description of Jesus’ adult life the same place Jesus was launched as a young person. He was raised in the village of Nazareth, formed his social bonds among its relatives and neighbors, came of age in its streets and fields and buildings. Heard the Torah and the prophets recited and interpreted in its synagogue. I wonder if Jesus had been asked any question that started with, “Where did you first realize…” how many of those answers would be “Nazareth.”
Where and when did you first realize that your life is tied up in this thing we call race?
As I’ve thought about this question I’ve considered that one of my first playmates was black, adopted by a white family in our small house church. I realized we looked different, but didn’t think much about how that might affect our experience of the world. Same goes with different relationships up through high school. In my own experience it wasn’t until I left my hometown when the lightbulbs started turning on. On a trip to Mexico in the middle of my college years I had my first stark realization that I was indeed a white American. I took my Mennonite Christian faith very seriously as a young person and for the first time started to wonder if it could be that the full package of my life had actually been shaped more by being white than being a Mennonite. I didn’t like that thought at all, and still don’t.
There’s a new book that’s just come out a few days ago. It’s by Drew Hart and it’s called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Drew Hart calls himself an Anablacktivist. He’s an Anabaptist, black, and an activist. In the first chapter he tells a story about a conversation he had with a white pastor at a McDonalds over a cup of sweet tea. In the middle of the conversation the white pastor abruptly grabbed his cup of tea and slid it to the middle of the table in between them and said this: “Drew, this cup has writing on my side of the cup and a logo on yours. But I can’t see what is on your side of the cup. Likewise you can’t see what is on my side of the cup… I need you to share with me your perspective so I can see things from your standpoint. Likewise, you need me to share my point of view so that you can understand the world from my vantage point.”
Hart spends the next few pages talking about his response to this sentiment. In short, he says that as nice as this sounds, it’s an illustration of a key misunderstanding of how racism works. Because he did, in fact, know what was on his friend’s side of the cup. He had spent his school years learning history from a European perspective. His teachers and professors had been mostly white and he had learned from mostly white literature and watched white-dominated television. He said to this white pastor that he could most likely go through his entire life without needing to know black literature, black wisdom, black art and music, or black history. It was purely optional for him learn how to navigate black communities and black culture, and he wouldn’t be penalized if he didn’t.
Drew Hart writes: “He seemed, like most people in the church, to comprehend the problem as though it were a horizontal divide between two people on equal standing. If that were the case, then our problems could be fully solved with strategies that mirror cross-cultural exchange programs…Racism isn’t first and foremost about a horizontal divide; it is a vertically structured hierarchy” (p. 26).
And from things as subtle as culture and social norms, to things as violent as whips, stockades, and nooses, black folks have been reminded of that hierarchy for centuries.
It was that realization of being on the top of a social hierarchy that I never quite saw in my hometown, but experienced while in Mexican villages. I think that’s when I first realized I was white. And I did not like it. I never asked to be in that hierarchy. But there it was.
When Jesus is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he unrolls it and recites this passage from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. When we read a scripture in worship the person sits down afterward, they go back to their seat, their task completed. It’s different in the synagogue. Sitting down is what rabbis would do when they were ready to teach, a signal to listen up. So after Jesus sits down Luke says, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” The people were expecting an interpretation of the scripture, like we expect a sermon after the scripture reading. So what’s Jesus’ sermon? What’s his interpretation of Isaiah’s proclamation of the poor receiving good news, captives being freed, blind receiving sight, the oppressed going free? It’s a one liner. Jesus says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It’s a bold and provocative move on Jesus’ part, and apparently the listeners agree. The kind of sermon you remember years out because it’s so different that others. Luke says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Maybe these things were murmured during the offering time that followed, or during the Sharing Time. “I just want to say that Joseph’s boy has really given us something to think about today. Imagine Isaiah being fulfilled right here in our hearing.”
In our cultural history of race relations, there’s a fairly clear line of who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors; who are the captives, and who are the captors. It’s the hierarchy that Drew Hart writes about, and knows in his own body. The structure is still there, even if those at the top aren’t consciously oppressing.
In Jesus’ time it was his listeners in Nazareth who would have been the oppressed. Under Roman occupation they would have qualified for every one of Isaiah’s categories of people poised for redemption and deliverance.
The twist in this story comes when it turns out that Jesus has more to say after his one line sermon. After a warm reception, Jesus, the hometown boy, gets himself in trouble when he suggests that there are others also in need of deliverance. Jesus names two examples from the Hebrew Scriptures, both foreigners. One was the poorest of the poor, the widow of Zaraphath in Sidon who was kept from starving by sharing her meal and oil with Elijah the prophet. The other was the most powerful and privileged of the privileged, Naaman the Syrian, the wealthy commander of an enemy army, who even had as a slave an Israelite girl who was a prisoner of war – Namaan had received healing from his leprosy at the hands of Elisha the prophet. In mentioning these stories, Jesus suggests that the need for deliverance and healing applies far beyond the boundaries of any one oppressed group, reaching all the way to the bottom of that hierarchy, and all the way to the top, applying even to someone like Naaman, the oppressor-in-chief.
Today is an introduction to a theme we’ll be diving into for Lent, and which we’ll carry through the year in various ways. As many black folks have been declaring, there is an urgent need for our culture to recognize that Black Lives Matter, to end mass incarceration, and to address structural injustice. We need to find ways to give solidarity to these movements.
But what we don’t want to miss, and where we are giving our initial attention, is recognizing that we are all captives, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. We have work to do in telling our own stories and dismantling that hierarchy that dehumanizes all of us in different ways. We have work to do in being freed from fear or guilt or whatever it is we bring to this conversation.
I for one confess that this year I will be engaged in what one of my seminary professors called “doing theology by the seat of your pants.” In other words, I’m not sure how to do this and I don’t know where we’re headed. Any of us, with the best intentions, could say something offensive at any moment. Maybe I’ve already done that this morning. We could be that white pastor at McDonalds, thinking we’re on track and then having to rethink everything. What’s that saying? “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” We might make fools of ourselves, and that might be OK.
As we walk this direction I’m grateful that Luke’s way of introducing Jesus involves his declaration that he came to set us free, and that all of us are included in that “us.” I’m grateful that God is present in all our stories, including Naaman the Syrian. I’m grateful that we can like who we’ve been created to be, even if we carry centuries of baggage with those identities. I’m grateful that our hometowns have things to teach us, whether we ever live there again or not. I’m grateful that Jesus has already fulfilled this Scripture in his crucified and resurrected body, and invites us to come follow him.