“Do you see this woman?“
-Jesus, Luke 7:44 (NIV)
The ages of the participants ranged from student to septuagenarian. There were professionals, blue-collar workers, and retirees. Some were new believers, and some had followed Jesus for decades. There were men and women, urban and suburban, Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian. It was one of the more diverse groups I had been a part of, and that’s saying something. There were even some White Sox fans there, and they don’t leave the house much these days.
What brought this group of people together was a desire for the church to take the lead in our society’s struggles for racial unity. Every person in that group, I think it’s safe to say, believes that “the saints,” the people of God through Jesus, should be salt and light in the struggles over skin color and ethnicity that have plagued our cities, our nation, and our world for three centuries or more now. Everyone who showed up out in the Illinois countryside last weekend came to do the hard work that might let the Spirit of God have his way in our hearts and help us to see how we might better be channels of the grace of God to heal the wounds of racial division.
At some point during the weekend, as people opened up about their experiences of racism and the ways that they have been marked by it, I thought of Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house.
If you don’t know or remember the story, Jesus goes to dinner at the house of Simon. Simon is a very religious guy, a very godly person according to most standards. Deliberately or not, Simon fails to show Jesus the basic courtesy of a host: having a servant wash his dusty feet before inviting him to the table.
So, while Jesus and the other guests are reclining at the table — that’s the way it was done back then, so you can imagine that foot-washing was more than just an interesting custom — an uninvited guest shows up, a woman who “lived a sinful life.” She comes to honor Jesus, and as she approaches him near the table she starts to weep. She’s weeping in gratitude for the forgiveness of her sins, maybe mixed with some sorrow for her past. In any case, she finds in Jesus someone worthy of honor, and she intends to honor him by pouring a jar of perfume on him — probably the most expensive thing she owns.
Maybe she intended to anoint his head with the perfume, but as she gets near him and sees his dusty feet sticking out as he reclines at the table, she shifts gears. Her tears suffice to wash his feet. And then, having nothing to dry them with, she bends down and uses her hair. And, while she’s there, she kisses his feet before pouring the perfume on them.
Luke give us a glimpse of what Jesus’ host is thinking as this is going on. He doesn’t say it out loud, apparently, but what he’s thinking is something like, “How could Jesus let this —insert insulting/demeaning word for a woman with questionable morality here — touch him like this?”
See, this is how racism works. And classism, and jingoism, and xenophobia and misogyny and ageism and whatever other -isms and philosophies and half-baked ways of thinking let us justify our prejudices and keep at arm’s length the people we don’t want around our tables. When we categorize people who are different from us as ignorant, inferior, morally defective, malicious, and so on, we give ourselves all the leeway we need for our worst impulses and most sinful, heartless actions.
Look, while we might think of Simon twirling his mustache and cackling evilly, for all we know this story captures a very good man on a bad day. This is why we have to be vigilant, even those of us who consider ourselves religious and godly and call ourselves followers of Jesus. It’s so easy to think we know “what kind of people” this group or that bunch or this race are. And once we “know” that, it’s even easier to dismiss them all and feel justified — even righteous — in doing so.
We excuse racism by assuming that Blacks are criminals. We excuse xenophobia by assuming that Muslims are all radicalized, or that immigrants are taking “our” jobs or our children’s spots in the best schools. Women are blamed for sexual assault because it’s assumed that they “asked for it” in some way. We know what kind of people these are. We say, with Simon, “The problem is in them, not me."
What Jesus says to Simon in response is, I think, a simple antidote to the poison of our prejudices. It’s easy to overlook. The story he tells Simon to highlight the woman’s joy and gratitude and Simon’s own stinginess is interesting, but it’s not what I’m thinking of. His connection of the experience of forgiveness with love is helpful, but what I’m thinking of is even simpler.
Jesus asks him a simple question: “Do you see this woman?”
That’s why I thought of this story over the retreat weekend. “Do you see her?” That, I think, is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, in confronting the sin of racism. Whatever racist attitudes I may have brought with me to that retreat, it would have been difficult for me to hold onto them in regards to any of the people there with me. At the very least, praying and talking and interacting with them over the weekend would have required me to add a caveat to my racism: “but not them.”
Not them. Because I saw them. I saw something about who they were. I heard the pain in their voices as they talked about their experiences wrapped in a skin different from mine. I saw that in every way that mattered they were no different from me, but that through no fault of their own they had lived some very different experiences than the ones I took for granted. And it dawns on me that this is the way forward. But to see takes work.
A friend told me recently he and his wife are moving to a neighborhood that I would consider “bad.” It’s made me think of why I would label it that way. Do I mean “bad neighborhood” as the code for “Black neighborhood” that I sometimes heard growing up? I don’t think so. Do I mean that it’s economically less well-to-do than where I live? Maybe. What am I assuming about the people who live there? What don’t I see? I bet they’ll be able to tell me before too long because they will see their neighbors. They’ll get to know who they are, and will see that they’re not so different from anyone else, in positive and negative ways.
As people who have been seen and loved by God through Jesus Christ, may we see with clearer eyes those around us, especially those different from us. May we get to know them so that we can see our similarities more clearly than we see our differences. And may we with joy show them the same love we have received.