Jesus is Woke; We Should be Too
Matthew 15: 10-28
The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis
Have you seen it? That picture of the chaos in Charlottesville; people flying through the air, because a terrorist turned his car into a weapon and careened into a crowd of peaceful protestors standing against racism? Have you seen her, the picture of Heather Heyer, a paralegal who made her way to a space to stand up for justice, who was killed in a barbaric act by a white supremacist? My prayers go out to her family, and the families of the two police officers who were killed when on the way to offer help, and their helicopter crashed.
When I am grieving American racism, I sometimes revisit the photos and videos of the people who've lost their lives. It's my way of saying their names. Like this Eric Garner video. I watch it to stay woke. I watch the story unfold. I listen closely for the details of that horrific event on July 17, 2014. Eric Garner had just broken up a fight. The fighting people had left the scene. A police officer is asking him about selling illegal cigarettes to a guy named Richard. Eric Garner says he is just sitting there and minding his business. He tells the officer that those standing around can corroborate this fact. He is pleading with the officers to just leave him alone; he has been feeling harassed. He wants the harassment to stop, today.
Then, they are touching him. He is saying, "Don't touch me, please don't touch me." Then they are on him, like white on rice, surrounding him, pulling him down on the ground. One that we now know is Daniel Pantaleo, is chocking him. Eric falls down to the ground, his face pressed into the sidewalk. "I can't breathe. I can't breathe..." he pleads.
The next day, when the New York Daily News released the video of the encounter, Garner had already died from neck and chest compression. His death sparked national protests about police violence against the black community, and his final words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. On December 3, 2014, when a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, thousands of people in cities all over the country stormed the streets to chant Garner's dying words.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo still works for the NYPD. In 2016, although he was on desk duty, with a base pay of $78,000, Pantaleo made $120,000. Eric Garner's family reportedly received between $4 and $5.9 million dollars as a settlement for his death. The money does not bring him back to life.
I weep every time I think about Garner's death. I weep for his family. I weep for a nation in which his black life did not matter. Not enough for the police to treat him with dignity. Not enough for Mayor Bill DeBlasio to fire Officer Pantaleo. I weep for a nation whose president can't say the words white supremacist, who has a known white supremacist advising him. I pray for an administration that fuels hatred, racism and xenophobia, as though that makes them seem brave.
I am one of the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people who took to the streets shouting "I can't breathe." Our congregation in Lower Manhattan participated in die-ins in our sanctuary, in the streets of Harlem and in the halls of power in Washington D.C. We have been persistently and stubbornly multiracial for decades; our work turned sharply to antiracism when Trayvon Martin was killed carrying Skittles and an ice tea on February 26, 2012. We wore hoodies in solidarity with him the Sunday after his murder, and again when his murderer was acquitted. Because we are Christian, we feel called to fight racism and white supremacy as though our very lives depend on it; we understand that racism in America is a matter of life and death. I need only to reference the tally taken since 2013 of deaths at the hands of police officers to know this and to be given more people and families for which to weep.
Just before 1 a.m. on May 19 this year, Tashii Brown approached two police officers in a coffee shop in the Venetian Hotel casino. He seemed, they say, agitated and erratic. He told Officer Lopera that people were chasing him. Then he took off into an employee's-only area of the hotel, and Lopera chased him there. Once outside, Brown attempted to open a tailgate on an occupied truck before moving to the driver's side. Lopera shot him with a taser seven times.
On police video, Lopera is seen yelling for Brown to listen to his commands to comply. Brown can be heard saying, "I will, I will," while on the ground. Lopera, aided by hotel security staff, continues to try to subdue Brown. Every time he tries to roll over, Brown is tased, then punched in the head several times and finally put in a naked choke hold. By 1:39a, he is dead.
According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by the police. For this and many other reasons-the gap in wealth and earnings between Black and White Americans, the disproportionate number of Black men and women in American jails, and the erosion of Civil Rights right before our eyes is why my congregation, Middle Collegiate Church, puts our antiracist work front and center in our life of faith.
No matter the distractions in American media, no matter the inordinate coverage of all things Trump, we remain part of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. We know there is only one race, and that one is called human. And we also know that the United States of America is built on a story that is a lie. The lie is that whites are superior to all other races, most especially to the Black people who descend from the Africans that were enslaved here in this country.
And we know that racism is a sin. It must be repented, it must be dismantled, and we believe the Church has to take the lead.
If I were Jesus' public relations expert, I would not have included today's text in scripture. Jesus does not look good here. Jesus has just told the Pharisees and Scribes that what defiles a person is what comes out of their mouth (Matthew 15: 10-11). And what does he go ahead and do? He says a pretty ethnocentric thing to a woman looking for his help.
But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
I mean no disrespect to Jesus, he's my guy. But I think this encounter healed Jesus as well. I mean, the human part of Jesus was a product of his culture, his sitz im laben. "Not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs"...We love Jesus but we can't approve of that ethnocentric, racist talk! The Canaanite woman uses her words to speak to Jesus in a way that shakes up his understanding of his call to ministry. She wakes him up to his own bias.
After this encounter with an "other," Jesus is woke.
I know many of you will be offended by this-perfect Jesus needing to be corrected, schooled, taught that Canaanite lives matter. I didn't write that text; I'm just sayin'. Read it. And see what's up.
I think this encounter helped Jesus to understand that not only did Jewish lives matter, Canaanite lives mattered. And until the lives of the least of the people matter, no life actually does. This was a lesson for ancient followers of Jesus, and it is a lesson for us.
We, who are the Church, must take seriously this text that shines a light on the humanity of Jesus. Like him, we can be bound by our culture and held hostage to our fears and insecurities. Like our leader, our rabbi, our role model-we can get caught up in the worth of those who are most like us and misunderstand that every human being-no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion-is a child of God, reverently and wonderfully made in God's image. Like our savior, we can get it wrong. And then, in close encounters with the "other" we can have our hearts and minds changed.
We can get it wrong. And then we can get it right. We have to get it right. If we believe in the radical love of Jesus as a call on our lives, we must be clear that we are not saved until everyone is saved. And they are not saved, the people of God are not saved unless there is food on the table, clothing on their backs, and healthcare for their families. They are not saved if those paid to protect them kill them with impunity.
We, who follow Jesus in the Way, have to seek ways to racially and culturally diversify our communities and our lives, so we know the "other" and can be changed by the "other." This might make us uncomfortable, like Jesus was with this Canaanite woman. But it will bring about the Reign of God right here on earth.
Middle Church and I are inviting you into a conversation about ending racism with Revolutionary Love. Join us April 6-8 for Revolutionary Love: Complete the Dream, in Manhattan. Join me and thought leaders like Brian McLaren, Valarie Kaur, Otis Moss III and William Barber II for thought provoking strategies on dismantling racism, right here and right now. We'll keep working for racial justice, until Black Lives Matter, and until every life matters. We'll work until every person who calls Jesus Lord and Savior will be woke.
1.) How does this text shape your understanding of the humanity of Jesus?
2.) Where are you needing to wake-up in your life, regarding people who differ from you?
3.) How might you use this text to invite others into learning community in which racism is put front and center in the conversation?
For Further Reading:
- Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- White Rage by Carol Anderson
Like ON Scripture on Facebook
Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture