Jesus, Justice-Fatigue, and Why Being Black Is Exhausting (John 12:1-8)
By Billy Honor
Several days ago I was asked by a local news reporter what my response was to the report that Donald Trump, the leading vote getter in the Republican Presidential primary, waffled on whether or not to denounce the support of widely known White Supremacist David Duke. Normally, it would have taken me seconds to get on my rhetorical high horse and rattle off a list of reasons why I found this deplorable yet not surprising given the current public resurgence of white nationalist/supremacist sentiment in this country.
But instead, I found myself with only the motivation to say very little this time. With a slight smirk and a hint of fatigue in my voice, I simply responded, "no comment." That's it. That's all I said. And it wasn't because I didn't have anything more to say, it was because I just didn't feel like saying it.
These days persons like myself (that is, black and involved in fighting social injustice) are almost constantly giving explanation for the continued contested existence of black life in America and quite frankly, this can be extremely exhausting. Moreover, I contend that given all of the pervasive injustices that continue to threaten black life in America it can be said that simply the act of being black is an exercise of exhaustion. From this viewpoint, you can understand why many in the Black community who've been fighting for justice find themselves, as my Grandmother would say, "sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Justice Fatigue and Care for the Caregivers
But if the truth be told, Blacks do not have a monopoly on social justice exhaustion or "justice fatigue" as Dr. Teresa Fry Brown describes it. The fact is many people of goodwill that make up the broad rainbow coalition of those who fight for justice and inequality find themselves increasingly tired and overwhelmed these days. With all of the intractable issues in our society that seemingly won't get right or can't get right many justice workers and seekers of all kinds are finding themselves in need of a refreshing well of renewal.
This raises the important questions, who cares for the care-givers? Who shows love to those who seek the expansion of love in public policy and democracy?
We often speak magnanimously about loving "the unlovable" and serving "the least of these" but who cares for those who dare to take on these tasks? For example, there is a growing crisis among clergy-caregivers in the United States as it relates to self-care and wellness. Some studies have shown that possibly 70% of all pastors are stressed out and burned out. Now couple this fact with all the ministers, activists, program coordinators, nonprofit workers, legislators, attorneys, artists and academics etc., who are involved in justice work in our society and a picture will begin to emerge of a significant group in need of care.
So I ask again, who cares for the care givers?
Jesus and Care for Caregivers
In the gospel of John chapter 12, verses 1-8, the writer gives a narrative that provides us the opportunity to ponder what a faith-inspired response might be to the question who should care for the caregiver? Consider these words from the gospel:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 "Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me." (John 12:1-8)
In this narrative Jesus is depicted to be in Bethany before Passover having dinner with friends and individuals to whom he's given care and healing in the past. At a certain point one of the individuals, named Mary, decides to take a costly perfume and anoint Jesus' feet and hair. Initially the reader is not told why Mary chooses to act in this way. But eventually in verse 7 we are told that she has been preparing to serve Jesus as a part of helping him fulfill his mission.
In other words, Jesus was a justice-worker and care-giver who needed at times for others to show care to him. Without this reciprocity of care it stands to reason that he would not have been able to fulfill his mission. In the same way, we all who fight for and seek justice must find ways to care for ourselves and those whom we serve must find ways to show their love and support and not wait until we are dead to give us our flowers, as the saying goes.
I understand that the process of caring for care-givers and justice workers can be tricky because there are those like Judas Iscariot in the biblical text who will attempt to exploit the process for their own personal gain. These justice hustlers, as I call them, use the work of justice and service as a mere means to gain fame, wealth and power. But the presence of Judas like justice hustlers is not good reason enough to abandon the worthy cause caring and showing love for those who give their lives caring and fighting for us. These are just some things to think about as we continue the long march toward justice!
Bible Study Questions
1. How do we address the force and structures in our society that make black life often exhausting?
2. When you read John 12:1-8, what sticks out in your mind the most about Jesus's response to Judas and his understanding of Mary's show of care? Is it important to think about the unnamed and voiceless people in the text and what they may be thinking?
3. What organizations are involved in providing care to justice workers and care-givers of various kinds? How can you be a greater support to care-givers you are connected to?
For Further Reading
Mclaren, Brian & Padilla, Elisa & Seeber, Ashley Bunting (editors). The Justice Project. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.
Spong, John Shelby. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
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