It’s been said that as Christians we are to live with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Meaning, we are to stay current with the world around us and define our role and response to the world through our faith.
Lately, as a priest, every aspect of my life, from clergy colleagues to Facebook, blogs, and other social media, from newspaper articles, to books I should be reading and books I am reading, to diocesan convention and other diocesan workshops, to my own personal reality as one who was a kid in the 1960’s and in college in the 1970’s, all around me, all the time, there exists an urgency to reconcile racism and diversity.
Recently I listened to an interview from “On Being” with Krista Tippett, who was speaking with Ruby Sales. (First broadcast on September 15, 2016). Ruby is known as a “public theologian,” she’s a civil rights activist from the 1960’s, working to make meaning out of the world we live in and reconcile our lives with a loving God who calls us to love one another. In this interview Ruby said that black people, rooted in black folk religion, have a theology of love that anchors them in the world, one that assures black people of their goodness and worthiness and necessity in the United States today. Black folk religion has its roots in the tobacco fields and among neighborhoods but not in the structure of a church building. It is a theology that resonates in the spirituals that are sung, the very spirituals that we are singing this morning and in these final weeks of the Season after Pentecost. Ruby said that she grew up being taught to love everybody, and they would sing, “I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart.” Hate was not a word or sentiment that she was taught.
But, what Ruby said, which spun me on my heels to hear her articulate it so clearly and with such love, is that white people have lost their meaning and purpose in our society, as if being white is no longer good. She says that its as if white people feel like they are being eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday.
This, she says is seen in the tension that plays out in our society, in the news, in our politics, and in how people speak to one another. The harsh rhetoric and angry behavior stems from feeling diminished and devalued as white people. This wise black woman asks, where is the theology, the understanding of God and our relationship with God, that redefines for white people what it means to be fully human? The problem, Ruby says, is not that one is white, but rather how one lives as a white person and actualizes the history of being white in this country, of our inheritance of unreconciled guilt from slavery, but more than that, of our misperception of what it means to be white and poor and therefore the challenge to develop an understanding of what it means to be white and to be fully human.
This is the challenge I face in my very own family and the conversations we have. For some it may be the challenge of affirmative action - where in the effort to equalize opportunities for people of color, means that white people, usually poor white people who are also struggling, are passed over for educational opportunities or jobs. The point that Ruby Sales is making, the point that is made in the first chapter of the New Jim Crow which some of us in this parish are reading, is that we need to reconcile the hurt and pain and divisions that have been inflicted on both people of color and poor white people in the United States. We need to reconcile the fracture between wealthy white people who hold all the power and poor white people whose needs are ignored and whose very personhood is devalued. Family Systems Theory, which I have studied and practiced for twenty years, says the same thing, which is why I found Ruby Sales’ statement so startling. Two completely different sources pointing to the same phenomena.
And I suggest that our reading this morning from Habakkuk is speaking directly into these challenges. This reading is a lament, a cry for God to take action in the world and heal the broken places with God’s presence and love. But what both Habakkuk and the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel reading tell us is that God does not come into the world and fix the circumstances of our lives. Rather God is in the world with us, in our struggles and pain and sorrow and confusion, God is with us. God being with us is an invitation to deeper relationships, to risk trusting one another with our stories, our lives, our very being. Zacchaeus didn’t let his limitations stop him from trying to see Jesus, he forged his way through the crowd and climbed a tree to see Jesus. Jesus in turn called Zacchaeus down from the tree and called him right into the heart of the matter, because Zacchaeus, this despised tax collector belongs in the beloved community.
There are a couple of things we each can do right now to live in and through these times, to make our way through the crowded tensions and climb down from the tree of anxiety and enter the beloved community. One, in singing these spirituals in worship we can internalize the words of love. Originally these words were sung to and by a people who were in need of liberation, in need of being free of that which oppressed them, sung with the expectation that they would be set free because God was with them, God loves them, and God reminds them that they are worthy. We are loved. We are worthy. We are valuable members of this world, valuable members of this beloved community, the kingdom of God here and now.
Secondly, we can strive to embrace the idea that we live in a diverse world in which there is no one single story that describes who we are as a people, regardless of the color of our skin or our ethnicity or our gender or our religion. Rather, it is the combination of each of our stories that make us who are. And so on those days when I feel like I’m going to explode from overload or when I just want to crawl in a hole, when I feel like I can never do enough, I remember that the world is bigger than me and that all of this is about building the beloved community. A community that embraces the kingdom of God now, a community of love. So, my story, your story, are stories of hope, or for the hope for hope, of the yearning to be loved, and the need to be valued, expressing a yearning to be understood and embraced as worthy for being exactly who one is.
That’s the hope in the reading from Habbakuk and the message that Jesus offers to Zacchaeus when he calls him down from that tree of anxiety. It’s the message Jesus offers to us, too. Let us unlearn what it means to hate, and instead sing as Ruby Sales does in that interview, I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart.
a reflection on Proper 26C: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10