Friday, July 28, 2023

Who Are "Our Own"?

 There’s a country song that’s been getting a lot of attention lately — negative attention, though it’s also number one on the Country charts. Which just goes to show that, up to a certain point, it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I really don’t want to bring the song even more attention from the tens of people who read my scribblings, so I’m not going to name it or link to it. Likely you already know the one I’m talking about. Given its title, people who live in Chicago aren’t exactly its intended audience, so I’m sure it doesn’t bother anyone associated with it that I don’t care for it. (It turns out I went to high school with one of the writers, who I always liked. So, you know, nothing personal.)

     That said, I agree with a lot of the criticism leveled at the song. It talks about how in small towns, people “take care of our own,” and if you “cross that line”…well, it’s kind of non-specific as to what happens, but it has to do with “good old boys.” It’s a song that appeals to all the worst instincts of human beings. It’s about taking  matters into our own hands when “lines” are “crossed” and “our own” are threatened. 

     Well, taking matters into our own hands is exactly how some of the worst atrocities in human history came about. We can’t be trusted to draw “lines” in the right places. And we definitely can’t be trusted to define “our own” properly. 

     Every town in America, small and large, has stories about what happens when lines are crossed and we take care of our own. There were at least 5,000 “sundown towns” in America, where Black people were not allowed after sundown. Some of those towns had ordinances still on the books into the 70s and 80s. “Our own” almost always has very specific connotations, full of racial, gender, religious, and ethnic prejudice, sometimes not even consciously articulated. (We just know when someone is “our own” and when they aren’t.) When a Black man was lynched in a small town, or when a Chicago gangster fires into a crowd with the intention of killing somebody affiliated with another gang, when a bunch of “good old boys” in a small town roughs up a trans woman or a neighborhood is redlined in a large city, it’s the same problem, isn’t it? We’re fine with some lines getting crossed; in a lot of places, small and large, a White person can get away with a lot more disrespect to a police officer than a Person of Color can. It’s all about who is “our own,” and who’s not. It’s all about who decides which lines can’t be crossed by whom. 

     Maybe — hopefully, surely — the songwriters didn’t intend all that. But, be assured, that’s what people hear. And that’s at least part of the reason the song is so popular. Its sentiments are a dog whistle for some of the least admirable qualities of human beings, wherever they might live. If you feel like whatever lines you’ve drawn are being crossed, like your “own” are threatened, this song validates those feelings. It appeals to fear, anger, bitterness, victimhood. If you like the song, ask yourself honestly why. What does it say that appeals to you? You don’t have to justify it to me, of course not. But when you hear about lines being crossed and “our own,” what comes to mind? And what should be done about it?

     Even in the song, the “lines” that shouldn’t be crossed kind of blur. Flag-burning, which is legal, is included with assault, carjacking, armed robbery, and spitting on a police officer — which, are not legal, let’s see…anywhere. No one, whether you live in New York City or Bucksnort, Tennessee, thinks any of those things are OK. (Not even the people who commit those crimes.)

     I think the flag lyrics are actually about public demonstration and protest, which, if I remember correctly, is part of my Constitutional right to peacefully assemble. I can burn a flag a day for the rest of my life if I’m so inclined (I’m not), and there’s not a boy, however good or old he may be, who should feel justified in trying to stop me. Sure, sometimes demonstrations and protests annoy and anger us — but isn’t that the point of a protest? To draw attention to some injustice by shaking us and disrupting life as usual? 

     But, see, that’s what happens when we draw and police our own lines. We keep drawing them tighter and tighter. Until before you know it, the only “our own” worth fighting for are those who think, act, and speak just like me, who protest only what I already hate and value the same symbols I value. The song offers a “might makes right” view of the world, where nearly anything I have the strength to do to police the lines I’ve drawn and take care of my own, however narrowly defined, is acceptable.

     Well, let me offer an alternative point of view. 

     Jesus didn’t distinguish between “our own” and everyone else. He was the victim of vigilante justice and state-sponsored assassination, and yet as he died he didn’t call “his own” to take matters into their own hands. He prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers. He called his followers to the kind of love that crosses lines and extends far beyond “our own.”

     He told a story once, a story we call The Good Samaritan, in answer to a man who asked who he should regard as his “neighbor.” This man wanted to know who his neighbor was because he knew the Scriptures told him he was to love his neighbor as himself. A love that all-consuming — well, it’s reasonable to ask how many people you’re on the hook to love that way, right? 

     In the story, a man was robbed and beaten. A Priest and a Temple worker, who Jesus’s hearers might have expected to stop and help, cross to the other side of the road to avoid helping. The one who stops is a “Samaritan” — an ethno/religious group many people listening to Jesus would have looked down on. 

     Jesus drives home the point of the story when he asks, “Who was a neighbor to the victim?” He turns it around. This guy just wants to know who his neighbor is. Jesus reframes the question: “Who was a neighbor to the one in need?” Neighbor isn’t a noun. It isn’t a matter of drawing lines and deciding who fits within them and who doesn’t, who qualifies to be called “our own” and who deserves to be regarded with suspicion or hostility.  “Neighbor” is a verb. It doesn’t ask us to draw lines and cross the street; it draws us out of our comfortable places to give, to sacrifice, to put ourselves on the line for other people. Jesus’ view of the world challenges us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and defines our neighbors — our own — as every person we have the opportunity to love and care for. 

     Here’s a question: If Jesus told the story to us today, who would he say stopped to help, and who would he say passed by on the other side of the road? A Democrat? A Republican? A Black man? A Latino teenager? A wealthy person? A poor person? A single mom on welfare or a “Karen”? Someone from a big city, or a small town? A Christian, Muslim, or Jew? A Central or South American immigrant? 

     How we answer that question might say something about how we define “our own” too narrowly.

     We’re wasting a lot of time and energy if we’re worried about policing our lines and defending our own. That will shrink your world down to little more than a tiny circle with you alone in the middle. Jesus calls us to more than that. Who is your neighbor? Not “your own” — your neighbor.

     To whom will you be a neighbor going forward? Who will you reach out to help, serve, and care for? Make it someone who you wouldn’t have imagined helping before. Or who you never imagined would help you.

     Try that in a small town. Or a big city. Or anywhere in between. See what happens. 

Friday, July 21, 2023

Don't Close the Drawer

 I came across a really interesting story this week, one that has some personal relevance for me, as well.

     The story was about a woman named Stacie Marshall, who lives in a town called Gore, Georgia, just a hop, skip, and jump away from Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up. Stacie moved back to Gore to work the family farm a few years ago, a farm that five generations of her family have tilled and harvested. 

     Cleaning out her grandparents’ home in 2020, she came across a piece of paper that turned out to be a record of the slaves that had been owned by members of her family. She considered just trying to forget that she had ever seen the document, but she realized that many families had been in Gore for multiple generations. She realized that some of the descendants of the slaves who had worked her family’s farm might live in the area. 

    The records didn’t include the names of any of the enslaved people, just genders and ages. She had no idea where to start researching who they were, or if they had descendants around. But then she remembered something from a few years earlier, when she was having trouble nursing her first daughter. Her grandfather had said to her, “That’s a trait of Scoggins women…That’s why they bought that wet nurse, Hester, to nurse my great-grandfather.” He had been told that Hester had been “like family.” Stacie had put it out of her mind. But now she had a name.

     One of the enslaved people on the record was a woman, 34 years old. Stacie figured that was Hester. Post-war census data confirmed that a woman named Hester Scoggins who would have been the right age was still living in the area. She took that name to a childhood friend of her father, Melvin Mosley, and his wife, Betty. They  were gratified that Stacie was interested in finding out more. They prayed that God would use her efforts to break generational sin, and that Stacie’s farm would be a place of love for the community.

     In July of 2021, in a New York Times piece on her story, Stacie said, “This is something I will live out for the rest of my life. I want to do what Melvin and Betty charged me with, to use this farm as a way to tie our community even closer. That won’t ever be truly finished.”

     Then a few months later, something really amazing happened: A local historian figured out that Betty Mosley’s great-great-grandmother was Hester Scoggins. Now Betty and Stacie host college groups at the farm. The students take an experiential farm tour, eat the Mosley’s barbecue, and listen to Betty and Stacie talk about their families’ intertwined history. None of which would have happened if Stacie Marshall had just closed the drawer on that slave record and an uncomfortable fact of her family’s legacy. 

     As I read that article this week, the Florida Board of Education was approving a new set of curriculum standards that, among other things, require instruction for middle school students that includes “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” In other words, students have to learn about how Black people benefitted from slavery. (In case you’re wondering, that will be a very short chapter in the textbook.) The Board also rejected a proposed Advanced Placement course in African-American History, claiming that it lacked educational value. 

      All of this was the predictable outcome of legislation passed by the governor in May that prohibits schools from teaching students that anyone is privileged or oppressed based on their race or skin color.  

    Somehow, many of the people who approve of this proposal, whose political leanings the Governor was almost certainly trying to appease with his legislation, are people who would most emphatically claim to revere the Bible. They will argue that it’s pointless to acknowledge and repent of the sins of the past. That the Bible says we’re responsible only for our own sins. 

     I’m reminded of Nehemiah, whose work reconstructing the walls of Jerusalem began with repentance for the past. Not a past he had direct part in, mind you. Still, he mourns, he fasts, and then he prays: 

“I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.”

     Nehemiah includes himself and his father’s family in the sin that led to the disaster of the Babylonian Exile. He includes himself among those previous generations who “acted very wickedly” toward God. He includes himself, no doubt, because he feels his own sin. But also because the sins of his ancestors had marked his own generation. He intends to be in the vanguard of a new movement back to God, back to faithfulness, justice, righteousness, and holiness. He takes it upon himself to begin his people’s return to God by taking responsibility for the past.

    The American church has often insisted that returning to God means calling out the sins of other people and gaining power for ourselves and those with our “values.” We should take another look at Nehemiah. If we only find that Scripture justifies ourselves and demonizes other people, if we aren’t confronted by our own sin in its pages, we aren’t reading it right. If we really want to return to God, it requires that we take responsibility for the past. Not to wallow in guilt, but to recognize the pervasiveness of sin, selfishness, and injustice. Otherwise, we’re doomed to the same failures as those who came before us. Their unnamed sins will ensnare us too.

     But it’s more than that. The sin of slavery still marks our world. Black families have been stripped of their history and names. Generational wealth has been stolen. Racism still exists, long after enslaved people were emancipated in America.  If we can’t show our children that we recognize and are sorry for the sins of our shared history, how can we assure them that we won’t repeat them? 

     I said Stacie Marshall’s story was personal. My great-great-great grandfather, Britton Odum, established a multi-generational family farm in Middle Tennessee after he received a land grant for fighting in the War of 1812. He died on December 15, 1862, two months after the Emancipation Proclamation. I have a document similar to the one Stacie found, except the one I have lists 12 enslaved people: 2 adults, 3 teenagers, 7 children. 

     I wish that wasn’t true. We all want to idealize our families, I guess. But my family is marked by the sin of slavery. Succeeding generations of Odums, including me and my son, have benefitted from the work of those enslaved human beings. I don’t know their names, if they had descendants, or what became of them. 

     I can close the drawer on that sin. Or I can acknowledge and repent of it. It doesn’t invalidate my whole family history, of course not. But it marks it. And I owe it to those 12 human beings to feel sorrow, to wish it were not so, and to repent of that sin on behalf of those who cannot, but who I hope would if confronted with it. I owe it to my son. And I owe it to people in my life whose own families were touched by its evil. 

     God can take even a horror like slavery and redeem it. With his grace, I can choose a different legacy to leave behind: one of love, acceptance, and reconciliation. As Stacie said, that’s something I’ll have to live out for the rest of my life. It won’t ever be truly finished. It’ll take lots of different forms, and demand along the way that I repent of other sins, no doubt. 

     As God’s people, we’ll never make a difference in the world as long as we think that the way back to him is amnesia about the past and judgment turned outward on the sins of other people. But if we’ll accept our own sins, including those of our ancestors, and commit to a different legacy, God will honor and bless that.      

Friday, July 7, 2023

More Suggestions for Reading the Bible With Other People

 In our last post, we looked at Romans 14:1-15:2 for some best practices to help us read the Bible better. In those chapters, Paul is addressing issues of conscience in the church at Rome.  Jewish and non-Jewish believers differ on whether or not Christians should eat meat (that may not have been slaughtered in a way that was acceptable to Jews, or have come from a pagan temple), or observe holy days — the Sabbaths, feats, and fasts from the Jewish scripture. For those who were scrupulous about these things, they weren’t matters of opinion — even though Paul calls them exactly that. He calls their faith “weak” because it doesn’t “allow them to eat anything” or to skip the observance of special days. It isn’t strong enough that they understand that Jesus has given them freedom. They’re what we might call more conservative readers of Scripture. 

     Keep in mind that the “weak” Christians aren’t trying to be difficult or judgmental, and they don’t necessarily have anything against Gentiles. Their standing with God,  salvation through Jesus, or share in the Holy Spirit aren’t in doubt. They’re not weak in love, or holiness, prayer, or good works.

     Paul tells those stronger in faith, for whom eating meat or observing holy days isn’t an issue, that they should “accept the one whose faith is weak.” They shouldn’t quarrel over “disputable matters.” (14:1) He writes, “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord…and whoever abstains (from meat) does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (14:6) For those of stronger faith, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (14:21) 

     We made three connections as a starting point to help us in our own reading of the Bible:

  1. We can be absolutely convinced that we’re interpreting the Bible correctly, and be mistaken. 
  2. We should always read Scripture according to our consciences: “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (14)
  3. Reading Scripture together requires some “bearing with.” (15:1) Reading in community is important, but not easy. 

In this post, I want to add to those connections, again, in hopes of helping us to read Scripture more effectively in community, with people who will of course sometimes see things differently:

  1. We can cause brothers and sisters in Christ to sin by our interpretations of Scripture — even when we’re correct! Paul is convinced that in Christ “nothing is unclean in itself.But he’s just as certain that “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” Interpretation of Scripture is not just hypothetical. It leads to action, action that can cause others doubt or uncertainty.  “None of us lives for ourselves alone.” (14:7) So Paul cautions those who are stronger in faith not to “do anything…that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (14:21) He writes, “whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Sometimes we may “distress” our fellow Christian and even “destroy” God’s work in them for the sake of winning an argument, and that’s not acting in love. (14:14-15) Before we consider arguing with someone who we regard as “too rigid,” we need to make sure they understand that we love and honor them and support their desire to please the Lord. They need to know that they don’t have to change any conviction they have to be accepted and loved. We should rather be limited by someone else’s convictions than to exercise our freedom and hurt a sister or brother. (14:20-22)
  2. Our attitude toward others can cause what we know is good to be spoken of as evil. (14:16) This is counter-productive. Often, disputes about the meaning of Scripture escalate to personal squabbles, passive-aggressive behavior, even character assassination. When that happens, the issue under discussion in the first place gets lumped in with the way the discussion is carried out. If you’re convinced that it’s OK for Christians to drink alcohol, but you belittle those who have stricter convictions, you make it even less likely for them to hear your case. I recently heard a believer with a strict Calvinist viewpoint question non-Calvinist believers’ Christianity; that did nothing to sway me toward his theology. There is a place for discussion, learning, convincing. Just don’t do it in a way that undermines the very thing you’re supporting.
  3. In many situations, our attitude toward God is everything. You’re not going to be on the right side of every argument. You’re going to get some things wrong. Paul believes there is a right and wrong answer about the dispute in Rome, and yet he writes, “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (14:6) He says, “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. (14:12-13) We can apparently come out with the wrong answer for the right reasons, and still be all right with God. We stand or fall to our own Master — and thankfully that Master is at work in us to help us stand. (14:4) Let’s also assume that our sisters and brothers in Christ are trying to please the Lord at least as much as we are.
  4. Judgment can and does flow from right to left and from left to right. Paul reframes the argument in Romans 14 and 15 — it’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about love and looking out for one another. He asks, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (14:4) Again, “Why do you judge your brother or sister?” (14:10) He says, “Let us stop passing judgment on one another.” (14:13).   Three times in the space of ten verses — “Let’s not judge each other.” And yet that’s the first thing that goes out the window when we disagree about the Bible. And it can go from right to left — from more restrictive to less restrictive — and it can go the other way, too. Conservative Bible readers judge more liberal Bible readers. More liberal Bible readers do the same to those more conservative. Whether we dismiss someone as not caring about what God says, or dismiss them as uneducated or legalistic, we’re still dismissing them. There’s almost always someone we can snicker at for their lack of sophistication or rail against for their lack of true belief. We need to snuff out both impulses.
  5. We need to know what the Kingdom is “about.” Paul’s point in 14:17 is that when we’re arguing with  and judging each other over persnickety points of Bible interpretation, we’ve lost focus on the real work God is doing: creating “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” We end up leaving no room for the Spirit, miserable instead of joyful, actively working against peace, and treating each other unjustly and unfairly. 
  6. Finally, Don’t be too settled in your reading of the Bible. Where you’re too liberal or too restrictive in your reading of Scripture, you’re mistaken. We all have those areas where we need the grace of God. And God, in his grace, can help us to understand better. But not if our views are set like concrete. We can always learn from each other, and ultimately through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. May we be open-minded and open-hearted, always eager to learn and grow.