Scripture: Matthew 10:34-39
I remember the first time I learned that some people are scared of the police.
I was 23 or 24, in my systematic theology class in seminary, part of a comment made by a black classmate. She didn’t say it like it was any big and shocking revelation. For her it wasn’t. But in my world police were helpers; maybe the worst that would happen would be that I would get a ticket for speeding or my taillight being out, but definitely people I could call if I were in danger. It had quite literally never occurred to me that some people were scared of the police.
The summer before, I had been in a chaplaincy program where on the first day, a black man on our student chaplain team told me he didn’t like white people. I was shocked that this was the kind of thing that could be spoken aloud. I was there, a white chaplain working almost entirely with black kids in low-income housing, to save the world. Looking back, I kind of get it. This man and I butted heads multiple times that summer over issues I never saw coming, issues of cultural expectations and language and politics. To be honest, he butted heads with everybody, including the other black members of our chaplaincy team, but looking back I also understand, though I am quite sure this was not his mission, how much he had to teach me.
Once a year or so, when some act of white domestic terrorism and/or police brutality brings race and racism to the forefront of our national consciousness yet again, these memories come back to mind for me. The memories themselves, though, weren’t forged in any sort of national historic front-page news kind of time. They were forged in my mundane, day to day life as I met people who said things that shocked me for what they taught me about myself and others and the world I thought I had figured out. They were small moments that forced me to confront my own racism. I wasn’t racist, of course, like the people who carry torches at neo-Nazi rallies. I wasn’t even racist like the family members who make you dread the conversation over Thanksgiving dinner. I was just racist like a white person who had never realized how much the world was set up to accommodate and benefit and center me.
It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you that racism is evil. It’s easy for me to say that it is not God’s intention for humanity. No one disagrees with those statements. No one debates those things. It’s harder to confess that we ourselves are not immune to it.
Some things we do debate, “we” being the country at large: We debate whether it’s right to say that black lives matter or that all lives do. We debate whether monuments should come down, or stand as a testament to history. We debate whether black men and women who have lost their lives had it coming somehow (“they shouldn’t have struggled”); whether their lives were just unfortunate collateral damage in the course of police doing what police do. We debate whether officers who do these things are just a couple of “bad apples” among a larger group of public servants and heroes; or whether the police as an institution need serious reform; or even whether the concept needs to be abolished altogether. We debate whether rioting is acceptable – “we don’t condone the destruction of property,” though as others point out, perhaps our outrage over the loss of property during protests over the loss of life is misplaced. And yes, maybe some of those questions get in some of our faces a little, threatening to expose the assumptions that underlie them. I get hung up on the argument about abolishing the police. Who would I call if I needed someone to protect me? It’s only more recently that I’ve begun to recognize the assumption inherent in that question – that they will, in fact, protect me when I call.
Some of those questions – not all, but some of those questions – I’m still working out my own answers to. And sometimes I wish that I could hear the voice of Jesus cutting clearly into these conversations. Sometimes I long for a word of faith that goes beyond culture wars or whatever people I know happen to be saying on social media.
If he were here now, what would Jesus tell us? That’s what I want to know. Jesus was a pacifist, right? He told people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. But he did have some pretty harsh language for leaders that exploited and harmed their own people. He would never condone destruction of property, though, right? Except that time he turned over the moneychanger’s tables in the Temple. Jesus brought together both tax collectors and revolutionaries in his circle of disciples, yet he said he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. Jesus didn’t liberate Palestine from Roman rule like many people hoped he would, and yet his entire life was in its way radical resistance to empire.
Jesus was kind of a complicated guy. Which makes sense, because he is inviting us into a relationship with the living God, not handing us a checklist of good deeds to do. We sometimes like to say it’s easy: just love God and love your neighbor. But does love always have to be gentle? Can it sometimes be angry? Is it enough to love our neighbors in our own comfortable, unexamined ways, within the racist structures that define our lives, or does love demand we take down the structures themselves? And is it possible to really love without having to give part of yourself away?
It’s not lost on me that the books of the Bible that tell me these things is written by, for, and about brown-skinned Jews living under the oppressive hand of empire. We are all used to identifying ourselves with the people in Jesus’ stories, and for those of us who are white, we are aided in that endeavor by the white characters who so often populate our Sunday School worksheets and picture Bibles and stained glass windows. But for those of us who are white in America, the fact is that we are the Roman Empire. That’s our social location in the story, at least inasmuch as we read it in the context of power and oppression and resistance. Try reading the Bible from that perspective and see how things change. And I have to wonder if that means that Jesus isn’t always talking to me. Maybe I don’t get to weigh in when Jesus talks to his fellow brown-skinned subjects of empire about what kind of resistance is good resistance, about what turning the other cheek really means. Maybe they get to be the interpreters of that.
There are some times, though, when I do hear Jesus speaking to me loud and clear.
Earlier this week, President Trump walked through crowds dispersed by pepper spray and held up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. I found myself wondering what exactly he thought was in that Bible, whether he knew how much Jesus lived in solidarity with the most marginalized people around him, whether he knew how much of the message Jesus lived and preached involved saving your life only by giving it up. It’s not, I think, a very American message.
I do not, for the record, think that Jesus meant for his brown-skinned followers to hand over their lives to their oppressors. Taking up your cross does not mean submitting to your own humiliation on earth while you wait for something better in heaven. That’s a Roman Empire reading of that passage. Rather, it’s something we are invited to do willingly, boldly, for love of neighbor, for refusing to live as anything less than people made in God’s own image, because that is freedom, that is finding life. For Jesus, even in the actual cross was freedom and life.
Meanwhile, for those of us more Roman than first-century Palestinian Jew, living in our world that has been bent to our advantage for so long we can’t even see it, there’s a lot to give up, and a lot we have to lose.
Losing your life to save it may, at times, look like standing in a crowd facing tear gas and rubber bullets. But I don’t think it starts there. Losing my life starts with losing my assumptions about this world I live in, things that are right or wrong or good or not good simply because I know them to be that way. It involves listening to people who have things to teach me about their different experiences of the world, and opening myself up to questions about things no one has ever caused me to question before, about why things are the way the are and whether they have to be that way.
You think that’s the easy way out? You think that doesn’t hurt? Well, I can tell you from experience that it does. That it continues to.
But I believe it’s a matter of life and death. For people like George Floyd. And for me.
And the life to be found on the other is one we can live, as God’s children, together.