This is the sequel to Our most bitter opponents: the Christians who fought against Dr. King and also to Oppression is Bad, Now What?. Thanks to Sharon William’s comment on The Mennonite for my title.
As we think about what it means to be an ally and look at the continuing legacy of white supremacist Christianity, the Beattitudes in Matthew and Luke have a lot to offer us.
Too often, when we read differing version of Jesus’ words in different gospels, we try to ignore them. But I think these two passages speak deeply to beautiful, complimentary truths about the movement that Jesus invites us into.
In short, the beatitudes in Matthew focus on spiritual and emotional virtues: poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, thirsting for righteousness, mercy, pureness of heart, peacemaking and the being persecuted for righteousness.
As I grew up learning these, I thought of these as things I do on my own. It was up to me, as an individual, with God’s help to be merciful, pure in heart and meek. It might be hard, but it was fundamentally a personal struggle that God and I worked on.
It’s easy for us to look at the beatitudes and say, as the Bishop of London did, “This is just a spiritual thing. Jesus wasn’t concerned with people’s economic or political well being. All he cared about was their spiritual virtues.”
But let’s take a closer look at the Luke passage:
Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
In short, blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated. Woe to the rich, well fed, those who laugh and those of high status. With the possible exception of mourning and laughing, these are all the material conditions that the Bishop of London was so sure Christianity wasn’t concerned with.
Jesus was very consciously countering the message of shame that the poor, hungry, hated and excluded people experienced in his day. They weren’t that much different from who is shamed and who is honored today. In 2 Enoch, a Jewish book written around the time of Jesus, we get a pretty long list of who society honored:
2 Enoch 42:2
As one year is more honourable than another, so is one man more honourable than another, some for great possessions, some for wisdom of heart, some for particular intellect, some for cunning, one for silence of lip, another for cleanliness, one for strength, another for comeliness, one for youth, another for sharp wit, one for shape of body, another for sensibility, let it be heard everywhere, but there is none better than he who fears God, he shall be more glorious in time to come
It’s the rich, the smart, the strong, the attractive (that’s what comeliness means), the witty and those with nice “shape of body.” Sound familiar? These are still things that our society values.
These are the norms that Jesus is turning upside down. Because we’ve heard the beatitudes so often, they don’t have the surprise impact they did back then.
Jesus isn’t just making a one time declaration here. This isn’t a fix-it-and-forget-it moment. This is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which is a foundational text of his ministry. In both the Matthew and the Luke texts, it’s specifically addressed to his disciples:
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
This is what Jesus is inviting his disciples: the absurd, radical, crazy, foolish work of turning the world upside down. This is what he was talking about in the great commission when he said,
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19)
And he was clear what the consequences would be. That’s what he was talking about when he said, “Take up your cross.” James Cone points out that the cross then was like the lynching tree. As I pointed out last week, they had a shared goal of controlling the oppressed. So Jesus could just as well have said, “Take up your lynching tree” and follow me.
What does this really mean practically? I come back to to the term “Becoming an Ally” when thinking about practice. I believe that it’s one way we can join Jesus in turning things upside down. I’m just going to focus on one aspect of that:
Listening with Humility
I said that the Matthew and Luke beatitudes are complimentary and this is where that becomes really important. Just as a slave-holding Christianity focuses exclusively on a spiritualized Jesus, we can get too focused on the Luke version and ignore the beatitudes as recorded by Matthew. Let’s look at the first one in particular:
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
It’s about humility. About submitting ourselves to God and to each other. This is absolutely critical when trying to be an ally. If I decide I’m going to stand with the oppressed and turn the world upside down, I can get into a world of trouble if I’m not submitting myself to those oppressed people. If I don’t know how to listen with humility.
I’ll be really honest. I know this is important, because it’s something I’m bad at. I really want to be the white hero swooping in to save the day like in Dancing with Wolves and Avatar. I like to think I understand racism and I’ve sorted it all out.
I struggle to be honest with myself and other when I fall short, when I screw up, when I let my prejudice show. I don’t like feeling ashamed. I really don’t want to think about these things.
In his Ted Talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race” (embedded below) Jay Smooth, an anti-racist activist, puts it this way: “When you believe that you must be perfect in order to be good, it makes you averse to recognizing your own inevitable imperfections and that lets them stagnate and grow.”
Sounds complicated, right? Smooth calls racial issues “a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up.”
Smooth uses the metaphor of tonsils. Getting rid of your racial prejudice is not like having your tonsils taken out. Racial prejudice isn’t like that. If someone suggests that something you did or said was prejudiced or racist, you can’t say, “No, I had my prejudice removed back in 2005 when I did that one training.”
Jay Smooth suggests a different way to talk about racism. When someone comes up to us and says, “You have something stuck in your teeth,” we feel a moment of embarrassment and then we set about the unpleasant task of digging it out.
That’s how I need to work at responding, as a white person, when a person of color challenges me on my racism. A moment of shame and then move on to digging it out.
The goal in listening with humility is for talking about racial prejudice to be more like dental hygiene. We don’t say, “What do you mean, I have something stuck in my teeth? That can’t be! I’m a clean person.”
So “listening in humility” is like this: It means that when someone calls you on something they thought was prejudiced, don’t jump immediately to defensiveness. You almost certainly didn’t intend it, but 400 years of white supremacy don’t go away overnight. I as a white person am soaked and marinated in it.
This act, in and of itself, is a blessing. Being listened to and taken seriously is a way of honoring someone.
This is just one specific part of the concept of becoming an ally. But its something that everyone can do. And it chips away at the legacy of white supremacist Christianity that Dr. King spent his life fighting.
It may seem simple, but I think if we could talk about racism like we can talk about dental hygiene, we can bring together the wisdom of both Matthew’s and Luke’s beatitudes, and we can be stronger as the body of the Christ that God calls us to be.
Here’s the video of Jay Smooth. I highly recommend it:
P.S. If you’re within driving distance of Philadelphia and want to go deeper with these themes, I highly recommend the upcoming Damascus Road Anti-racism Analysis training in Philadelphia on February 24-26.