Pass the Toothpicks: Becoming an Ally with the Beatitudes

DSC_0057This 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

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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:

Matthew 5:1-2:

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.

Luke 6:20:

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.

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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.

Comments (10)

  1. Tim B

    I used to think of the Bible as this large challenging book. I remember cracking it for the first time and realizing how ridiculous it was and how much it shocked me to the core. The silliness of David, a small boy, fighting a giant. Or Abraham sacrificing his son. All of these weird shocking things that altered who I was. At first, I didn’t agree with the whole thing, or understand it all. But as I came around and started to read it more and more, it jived more with what I believed. Then, sometime around 2006, I started to lose it, and it became unusual to me again, and it remains that way still. But while I often argue with God, and wonder at His word, and let Him challenge my core beliefs, the more I see that few do. And while some people love to challenge the status quo, few are personally challenged. In short, after 13 years of being a Christian, I’ve learned that almost everyone will use the Bible to re-enforce their own worldviews. It’s not really a weird challenging book at all, because no one wants to be challenged by it though they’ll gladly challenge others with it.

    You say

    “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.”

    but in all my years reading this site, I’ve never seen the author say something out of character. Maybe Jesus isn’t as upside-down as you suggest.

    Same old, same old Jesus. Pushing others outside their comfort zones, and leaving me still.

    Reply
  2. Sam

    TimB,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly that it is really easy to contort Jesus and the Bible into something comfortable, familiar, normal-to presume that God believes all the same things that I do, to fit God in my worldview.
    But I would push back just a little bit-first, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you ‘out of character’ either-isn’t that just a sign that both you and TimN have a fairly consistent reading of the text, and are challenged in particular ways by this weird Bible we share? I’m not sure that’s a sign of not honoring God’s oddity.
    And second, I won’t speak for TimN, but I basically agree with this post-that Jesus pushed people outside their comfort zones, asking us to turn to the poor and outcast with humility. But I find that teaching of Christ challenges me-it asks me to turn my life upside-down as well. It is not easy for me to do anti-racist work, to listen to the poor, to feel challenged in my consumerism and comfortable middle class wealth. I wonder regularly if I ought to be doing more, to be more radical-it’s not like my reading of the Biblical text leaves me comfortable, or fully confident that this odd calling from this man from Nazareth is really how the world is supposed to work.
    I confess that God envisions a world where Americans share most of their wealth, where Christians do not take advantage of the power politics of empire, where the poor are honored as much as the rich, and all people worship together at the throne of the Lamb, and I confess that more often than not I am part of the problem then part of the solution. I too have been shaken by the Gospel.

    Reply
  3. TimN (Post author)

    TimB,

    Can you give some specific examples of how God has challenged your core beliefs?

    Reply
  4. Tim B

    My point wasn’t to suggest that I had been changed by the Gospel and others have not (though that may or may not be true), but that in order to not be changed, we warp the Gospel to fit within our own worldviews. Periodically I’ll see YAR get a mention on some forum followed by outrage and ridicule. I don’t know why, nothing here is surprising or challenging. Nothing unexpected is ever said in this space. Sadly, this blog post is about as Biblically minded as this site gets, which is, sadly, sort of surprising.

    Reply
  5. Joseph P

    TimB, you make a fine point about the unfortunate human tendency to warp things to fit their world view but then bury it under a mound of inexplicable griping. Why the griping?

    Reply
  6. Tim B

    Because without it this site would be far less interesting? A good story needs a good villain. And while a straight up conservative seems like an obvious choice, I think my anti-agenda, um, agenda is a far more interesting foil to this site’s unwavering activists. No one comments on anything until I point out how dumb it is. You can thank me later.

    Reply
  7. Sam

    That’s sort of true. It does require a foil to get the comments sections rolling. I do appreciate your work TimB.

    Reply
  8. TimN (Post author)

    TimB,

    Watch out, I think you might have just laid out your anti-agenda agenda there. But seriously, you’re totally right. No one comments much around here anymore unless its to argue with you. Which is too bad. But like you say, interesting novels and books always have some sort of conflict. As angry as they sometimes make me, your comments usually force me to think through my position more clearly.

    I’m glad to have you lay out your YAR manifesto. I’m going to file the url for future reference.

    Reply
  9. Tim B

    Exactly, I provide a necessary service. Who would Spider-Man be without, say, Doctor Octopus? He’d be some bored teenager, that’s what. Who’d Lebron be without Kobe? There’d be nothing to debate about who’s the greatest. Face it Tim, I’m Lex Luther and without me you’d only be The Daily Planet’s third best reporter. :)

    Reply
  10. one9

    and let the tao yeast rise a bit more?

    Reply

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