By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
August 29, 2021
James 1:17–27 Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23
“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village
Education is the hugest societal topic of the last few decades. What should we teach our kids? What shouldn’t we teach our kids? The topics line up across every line of division. Right now the hot topic is so-called “Critical Race Theory,” but what most people are angry about isn’t critical race theory at all, which was founded as a way to understand American legal issues and is not taught in public schools at all. What people are really riled up about is how to talk about race generally in American classrooms.
How do we talk about race without it becoming divisive? On the other hand, how can we be honest about United States history without talking about race? Is there a way to talk honestly about race that is productive and creates a better society, or is it best just to pretend it isn’t an issue at all?
We are at the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. King famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin,
but by the content of their character.” So the question, you see, is how we can talk about race in way that improves the content of our children’s character. And not just our children’s character: our character as a nation. How do we live into Dr. King’s dream for us as he stated it that day at the Lincoln Memorial: “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream—one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men—and women too—are created equal.’” How do we educate not only our children, but ourselves, in ways that fulfill the dream in which our nation was founded?
Ultimately, while education is a door, the goal is character. The goal is better people living a better way in order to create a better nation in the world. So ultimately, the issue is not what goes into our children—or what goes into us—but what comes out: character. What the Bible sometimes calls righteousness or right behavior. As Jesus sagely observes, the issue is not so much what goes into us or into our children as what, ultimately comes out of them: Will they be better people?
Will we be better people?
Jesus’ directive, remember, isn’t to children, but to the adults in their lives. The particular adults he’s talking to not only seek to direct how children behave, but how other adults behave. They are religious leaders, the educators of the day, and they direct their flocks how they should act to avoid the fires of hell. And their focus is on telling them the following things: What they should and shouldn’t eat—what goes into their bodies;
ritual behaviors that they should practice, and if they don’t practice them they are by definition not right with God; what to read or to learn, and what NOT to read and to learn—a type of censorship for their own good (as of course censorship always is for our own good); and rules they must obey in order to be pure in the sight of God, and which if they break them they are impure.
These religious leaders teach a type of religious self- involvement. It’s all about whether I am right with God. And this kind of religious selfishness is a full-time job. It is so hard to obey all these laws, learn all that you are supposed to know, and avoid all the pitfalls you must avoid, that you can never relax your vigilance. Other people are trying to break you down. Other people are out there to trick you, to tempt you, to make you fall away from God. Outside forces, the unfamiliar, new ideas or ways of being, are there to mislead you. Eternal vigilance against these tempters is the price of your salvation.
And it leads you to see everyone you meet as a potential hazard to your personal salvation, and every new opportunity to try something different, or to learn something new, as a threat to your soul’s purity.
It is godly selfishness. You aren’t thinking about your neighbor. And really you aren’t thinking about God—only about your own salvation. It is godly selfishness. And therefore ungodly, because “godly selfishness” is an oxymoron.
Jesus hates that. It’s exactly that sort of thing that he constantly rails against. Only by losing yourself do you find yourself, Jesus tells his listeners when he’s feeling a bit Zen. Lose yourself to find yourself in God and in your neighbor, is what he means. As a friend reminded me again this week, when you read the Gospels it’s pretty clear that for Jesus everything comes down to two things: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. That sums up everything you need to know. Love God and love your neighbor. In other words, it’s not about you. Once you know that, you realize it’s not what goes into you that counts, but what you do with it—what comes out of you.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that being raised in a poor or abusive situation or under the oppression of racism or any other kind of injustice doesn’t matter. But I’m also not saying that being raised in good schools and a happy home with good strong religious values are what will make you a good person. The proof is in the pudding. Do you love God? Do you love your neighbor? If you don’t, then all that blue blood you’re so proud of or all that great Jesus talk you throw around doesn’t make a bit of difference. The proof is in the pudding.
Jesus’ teaching here should make us rethink a couple of ways we approach life. One is the way that we use the injustices of our personal histories to justify being selfish or self-involved when we grow up. We are terrible about that. “My parents treated me badly, and that justifies my own self-involvement as an adult.” Yes, it matters very much whatever trauma we experienced in life. It matters deeply. But while it might
explain our lack of care or empathy or our selfish behavior, it doesn’t justify it. Jesus is calling us to take responsibility for our lives and for our actions, for how we treat others; and not to rationalize and explain it away. Recently I heard a speaker talking about the fact that as a teen she was frustrated and arguably damaged by her mother’s refusal to tell the truth about her incarcerated, criminal father. But when she grew up, she redirected that anger toward societal injustice and helping other people who were victimized. In other words, she used her own trauma as a way to help others rather than to trap herself in a cycle of resentment and disappointment.
The other thing Jesus is warning against is the assumption of our innate personal righteousness, integrity and superiority. Oh my gosh, this is so prevalent now: the assumption that I am naturally superior to someone else because of my upbringing or my political beliefs or even because of my personal pain. Again, it’s not that these things don’t matter: but Jesus again pushes back. If it doesn’t make you love God and neighbor better, so what? If your assumption of superiority causes you to lack respect for another, not to treat them as your equal and a child of God whose experience and perspective deserve a fair hearing, and whose suffering demands your kindness, empathy, and support, well, to paraphrase that British theologian Mick Jagger, it doesn’t matter about “all your well-earned politesse,” your soul will still be laid waste.
Our debates as a society are often about what has gone into us: our racial identity, our Southern heritage, the damage our parents did to us raising us—and parents, let’s be real, we’ve
all damaged our kids somehow—what kind of education we have, the neighborhood we grew up in, the wrongs the world done us, even what food we eat. These debates have tricked us as they often do, as if what has gone into us has made us who we are. Again, there’s truth in it. I’ve counseled too many people and been in counseling myself too often not to acknowledge that our backgrounds–the lessons we learned good and bad growing up and those learned from often harsh experience–shape us as human beings in profound ways. Our own struggles with mental health, personal identity, or disabilities are real and they shape who we are and who we are becoming. What goes into us matters.
But we are more than our past. We are a future awakening. And to God the future that counts—to the world the future that counts—is how we live into what it means to love God with our whole selves and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We don’t have to fix our past to live into that future. And we shouldn’t allow our pasts to constrain us from that future. We can be the broken vessels that we all are—and still love God and love neighbor. This is the redemptive love of God: that we can always be better than our history. We can always be better than our resumes. We can always be better than what other people think of us or what we expect of ourselves. We can always be better than we were. Because God is always there in who we are becoming.
It’s what comes out of us that really counts. Do we love God? Do we love neighbor? If not, how do we fix it? How do we get better at it? The good news is that it’s never too late to start. The challenge is that we never stop needing to be better at it.
A lot of times, maybe we need to get past the baggage of the past in order to get better at loving God and neighbor. We may not fully succeed. That’s okay. God honors our heartfelt effort.
As a nation, we have to ask ourselves: Is what’s coming out of us bearing witness to selfLESSness, kindness, love for neighbor, putting the other first, seeking the good of others and of society first rather than of ourselves? Is it living into the values of what Lincoln called our ‘better angels’?
Or have we become wrapped up in ourselves, our own bitterness, and grievances, protecting what is mine without concern for our neighbor, whom we view only as someone who wants to take what I have?
If it is the latter, it is never, ever, ever too late to change—to seek the better path. It is never too late to trust God to recreate us, to guide us into the paths of righteousness for God’s name’s sake. It is never too late to develop the kind of character that God wants us to have—and in the process shape the character of generations still to come.