July 8, 2018 | by Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary[a] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense[b] at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Mark 6: 1-6
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine, an African American leader in this community, posted an article by Michael Harriot entitled “White People Are Cowards.” It was a pretty controversial title, and it’s a pretty controversial article. He doesn’t pull any punches. He’s not polite. Even we well-meaning whites are silent, he says, because we don’t want to rock our own boats. Says Harriot:
Inequality and racism exist not because of evil but because the unaffected majority put their interests above all others, and their inaction allows inequality to flourish. That is why I believe that silence in the presence of injustice is as bad as injustice itself. White people who are quiet about racism might not plant the seed, but their silence is sunlight. …
At least once a week, I will receive an email from a well-meaning white person who wants to know what they can do to fight injustice and inequality. The answer to that is simple. Whenever and wherever you spot racism or inequality, say something. Do something.
Every. Single. Time.
If a white person spoke up every time a fellow Caucasian used the word “nigger” in the safe space of whiteness, they would stop doing it. If a white person advocated for diversity and equality behind the closed doors of power, where black faces are seldom present, people in power wouldn’t dismiss the reality of the tilted playing field.1
Until we whites do that, Harriot says, we are being cowardly.
Now, my friend who posted this is well respected in Fort Worth. He works consciously on reconciliation and understanding between the races. So it was instructive and a bit disturbing to see the reaction of many of his white FB friends. “How could you say that?” “My feelings are hurt… You know I’m on your side!” “You are perpetuating stereotypes!” “You aren’t helping the problem by posting this, you’re making it worse.” Etc. Etc. My friend responded simply that he found the article interesting, not that he necessarily agreed with every part of it.
As I read the reaction to the article, all these white people with their feelings hurt, a line from the play Hamlet came to mind: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” People protesting so strongly to one person’s opinion suggests that the author hit a nerve.
Now, not everyone reacted that way. A lot of white people took the article to heart. They admitted that they could do more, but are often afraid to because of the backlash. For myself, I realized that often I too am silent when I should speak up. That’s not easy or fun to admit. I like to think I’m racially enlightened. But the article made me realize I still have a long way to go.
But so many took offense at it! And it calls attention to a challenge that plagues our conversation on controversial topics these days: WE ARE MORE ENGAGED IN SELF-JUSTIFICATION THAN WE ARE IN SELF-REFLECTION. We are quite busy proving ourselves to be right and on the side of good; but the truth is that when a challenging word is spoken to us we would prefer to cover our ears and not hear it; to demonize the speaker rather than to look into our own hearts to see if there’s any truth in what they are saying. This has recently become especially troubling with the practice on college campuses of not inviting or disinviting speakers whose opinions are considered “hate speech.” Now first off, I agree there’s such a thing as hate speech, and I agree that speakers whose goal is to deliberately incite violence or hatred should not be welcome on a campus. But he definition of hate speech has extended to the point that it simply means political opinions I don’t agree with. Ultimately, I agree with the position that the solution to bad speech is not repressed speech but more speech.
But we are training our young people to believe that speech can hurt them. Yes, it can—when it’s insults that demean and belittle—when it’s speech meant to hurt you. But now we seem to believe that language that makes us uncomfortable, that makes us look inwardly, that makes us see things from someone else’s point of view, is meant to purposely damage us. Whatever happened to “Sticks and Stones”? There’s a line there somewhere.
Uncomfortable, challenging opinions shape us and shape our character. None of us is fully formed, no matter how long we’ve lived. There’s still a lot we can learn, and many, many ways we can improve. We are better served—God is better served—when we engage in self-reflection—when we force ourselves to listen to uncomfortable opinions and then examine ourselves to see where the truth lies in what they say.
Jesus, too, expressed uncomfortable opinions. In our passage today, Jesus preaches in his hometown of Nazareth. We don’t know what he preaches. In Luke, Jesus preaches a sermon that really upsets his hometown hearers, so badly that they even try to kill him. But in Mark, their reaction is more subtle. They attempt to demean him, to belittle him. They say, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary[a] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” “Is not this the carpenter?”–They don’t even say Jesus’ name. They say “the carpenter,” as if that means he couldn’t also be a prophet, too. They say, “the son of Mary,” and don’t even say his father Joseph’s name. This may be a reference to the questionable status of Jesus’ birth. You and I know that Mary was made pregnant by the Spirit, but to most people it probably looked like Joseph was what Shakespeare called a “cuckold.”
It’s a put-down. It’s a way of saying Jesus is low class; we know Jesus, look at his family. He does miracles with his hands but he’s supposed to be making furniture with his hands! We know where he comes from. Who does he think he is?
So Mark tells us, “They took offense at him.”
And then Mark tells us, “Jesus could do no works of power there. “
The Nazarenes’ unwillingness to listen made it almost impossible for Jesus to do his “works of power,” his healings, his miracles of various sorts. In fact, let me suggest that’s exactly what the Nazarenes wanted—it was to squelch Jesus’ power. They wanted to squelch Jesus’ ability to change them, to open them to the tantalizing and frightening and transformative power of the Kingdom of God.
Now, I’m not suggesting that every opinion out there is somehow a doorway to the Kingdom of God—in many cases, quite the opposite! But what I am suggesting is that if we are going to take offense at every opinion we don’t agree with, we are closing the door on the possibility that God will use those words somehow to improve us, to build our character, to make us better people; and through us to make the world a better place.
Now, it is a common argument to say, “Well, the person who expresses that opinion should clean up the problems in her own house instead. They should engage in self-examination rather than expecting me to.” Well, bad news. It’s not our responsibility to tell others to engage in self-examination. We need to look to ourselves. Remember that Jesus taught that we must remove the log from our own eye rather than worrying about the speck in someone else’s.
In his book Faithful Citizenship, Christian commentator Greg Garrett addresses the issue of understanding, respecting, and appreciating the points of view of others with whom we disagree. He teaches at Baylor–you may have heard of it–and tells the story of discovering that the incoming chancellor was to be none other than Judge Kenneth Starr, of Clinton impeachment fame. Now, of course, we today also associate Judge Starr with the scandals that rocked the Baylor football team, but Greg wrote before any of this had occurred. He writes that, as a democrat, Judge Starr was “the boogieman” and that he and many of his fellow faculty members at this Baptist school awaited with dread. “We smugly assumed…[Starr] was either a flunky for political conservatives and religious zealots—or one himself.”2
The day came when Garrett finally met his boogieman, the new chancellor. It was a large faculty event, where Starr was meeting “potential allies or enemies” and, from a political perspective, probably he should have been working the room. Instead, to Garrett’s surprise, Judge Starr “noticed the wait staff lined up along the walls and he turned away from us—and other faculty–to meet and shake their hands.
“I have a theory about human nature,” Garrett says, “This theory has never failed me. How a person behaves toward those he or she doesn’t have to treat kindly (the help, if you will) is the measure of who he or she actually is.
“When Judge Starr turned away to greet those who took such good care of us, I realized that maybe I was wrong about Ken Starr. He is a man who lives faithfully, loves students, treats staff and faculty with respect and who pursues consensus. He is not an ideologue and is almost certainly not the boogieman.” Furthermore, Garrett realized that in prosecuting President Clinton, Starr acted “out of conscience” and “respect for the law” and because “he and his legal team had reached a consensus that they must pursue their case wherever it led.” While Garrett still disagreed with Starr over the impeachment, he could see things from Starr’s perspective and could never again see the judge as a boogieman. Garrett was humbled by this and it led him to examine his own judgmental attitude, and to approach interactions with those with whom he disagreed with humility and respect.
Socrates is credited with saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The polarization of our society into extremes has made so many of us define our own lives and the lives of others by the limited definitions those extremes seem to put us into. But as children of God, you and I and our ideological opposites are so much more than that. God created us as needing one another—as complementing one another. We need to hear the perspective of others, and respect it, in order to become more fully the people God calls us to be, and to create the society that God wants us to have. This will be accomplished so much better if we engage less in self-justification and more in faithful self-examination. Only if we pay more attention to the log in our own eye, rather than the speck in someone else’s, can we move past the point where we are shouting at each other to the place where we are listening, learning, growing, and living together in peace and true justice.
1 Harriot, Michael, “White People Are Cowards,” https://www.theroot.com/white-people-are-cowards-1826958780
2 Garrett, Greg. Faithful Citizenship: Christianity and Politics for the 21st Century. Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2012. Introduction.