Monday, February 8, 2016

Ruby Bridges, Racism, & Jesus

Today Cava brought home homework about Ruby Bridges. It didn't surprise me since it is African American History Month. So I sat down at the table to work with him on this and to help him comprehend better what he was reading. It can also be hard for Cava to understand racism since he came from a part of Ukraine where there is absolutely no people of color at all.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I sat both of my boys down and we watched some of Dr. King's speeches, including the "I Have A Dream Speech." I talked with them about what this speech was a culmination of and how we, even today, have not lived out that dream. I listened to their thoughts about the subject. 

Today it was hard not to get emotional reading Ruby Bridges' story of courage and forgiveness. It floored me that she would stop and pray for those who were hatefully yelling racists slurs at her as she would enter and leave William Frantz Elementary School. How Christ-like was this child and how much were those around her like the very ones who chanted, "Crucify him" about Jesus?  How does a child that young respond with so much love and forgiveness to adults who cannot see past their own hate?

Cava and I discussed this at great length and put ourselves in her shoes. It was frightening to imagine the fear and confusion she must have felt. Just doing this changed my own perspective of the historical event. 

But helping him with his homework on Ruby Bridges also brought back my own experience learning about racism as a child. 

I remember when I was in elementary school and first learned about slavery. I rushed home after school to ask my mom all about it. Out of breath from running, I struggled to get out the questions. She had me calm down, take a breath, and then I finally asked her. "Did our family ever own slaves?" I asked and was afraid of the answer.

"Yes, our family did a long time ago," she replied before adding, "but we were good slave owners."

"Good slave owners?"

This thought perplexed me.

How could someone who owns slaves be good? So I asked her.

"They were nice to their slaves," she said. But this did not sit right with me. Even at a young age it was unsettling to realize that such a horrid part of American history was also a part of my family history. My ancestors had owned slaves. It also bothered me that anyone could refer to a slave owner as "good" or "nice." As I got older, it continued to gnaw at me. It was a rewriting through rose-colored glasses. A Gone with the Wind version of slavery and the South. Romanticized and sentimentalized. Pure fiction. 

Yet I remember even more when we studied about Ruby Bridges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. About segregation and the South. Once more, I felt a fear that this was all tied to my own past, to those from whom I was descended.  My poor mother, being the one that was there for me when I got home from school, had to suffer all my questions. This one was less distant and closer to home, "Did it bother you that there was segregation when you grew up?"

"We just didn't know any better. That's just the way things were," she answered. I'm not sure if it was a fair question, but as a child, I didn't think past the wrongs of what I had just learned about in school. Only as I grew older did I ask myself those same questions. "Would you have stood up? Would you have marched with Dr. King knowing the hatred and violence you would face from those very people you grew up with? Knowing that you would go to jail? Knowing that your own family and friends might ostracize you? That you would begin to feel that persecution yourself? What would it cost you to do so? Family? Friends? Jobs?" I would like to say I would have the courage to stand up for what was right, but I'm not one hundred percent sure.

All of this made me begin to think about how Christ would have responded? This only stirred up more questions (surprise, surprise as I am one for wondering and wandering).

It also made me think about this Jesus. . . 

Richard Naeve, a forensic anthropologist created this image of Jesus based on the features of those men that existed in the exact time and place where Jesus lived while here on earth. What struck me about this image was the stark contrast to all of those paintings we have had of Christ over the centuries. 

Growing up, I never, ever saw a Jesus that looked like this one and yet it is historically more accurate? Why? Because those painting Jesus remade him in their own image. To have a Jesus who looks like this is to be confronted by an "other" and by "difference." So they painted their white Christs. Not this Jesus, who was dark complected, with dark hair, beard and eyes. (To read more about this recreation here's a link to the article:

I thought: How would our worship be different if this Jesus were in our paintings and our stained glass windows and our art?  Would there be those who would reject this Jesus simply because of his appearance? 

Too many cling to their Hollywood Jesus with his rugged looks and Western appearance.

Yet the more I looked at the face created by Richard Naeve, I could not help but wonder: How would that Jesus be treated in modern day America?

As a terrorist?  

Or what would happen if his car was pulled over by the police? 

During the era of Segregation, would this Jesus have been allowed to share a water fountain with a white person who claimed to worship him? Would he have been allowed to enter one of their churches where they said they followed him?  Would they have invited him into their homes for a meal? Or gone into his if he had one?

To stare into this face of Jesus is to be confronted by our own bigotry. Jesus understood racism. He taught about it in his parable of the Good Samaritan. He picked the one group the Jews hated the most and made them the example and epitome of "good" to drive home the hatred that was in their hearts of those listening. Samaritans were the lowest of the low in their culture. They weren't even considered Jewish anymore. The Samaritans were a racially mixed group in that society who were separated and looked down on. Jews avoided walking through Samaria (unlike Christ who did so just to meet one woman by a well). Yet who would be the Samaritans if he were telling that parable to us today?

What race?
What religion?
What gender?
What sexuality?
What political party?

Who is our Samaritan?  

We all have them. They all lurk there in our hearts. That's why Jesus always honed in on the heart. He cut right past the actions and the talk to the matter of a man's heart. At the root of racism is hatred and sin. As soon as we cast someone in the role of "them" or "those people" or see them as the "other" then we have acted out of sin and not the love of Christ. As soon as we put up racial or ethnic barriers we are no better than those whom Jesus spoke against when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

What happens when we see an image like this in the media?

How do we respond?

Like Christ?

Christ would have loved her. Embraced her. Told her she did indeed matter. That black lives really do matter because they are made in the image of his Father. Imago Dei. 

Do we? Or do our hackles get raised by this photo? if so, why? 

Or how about when we see this young man with his arm raised and his hand clenched in a fist?

What enters our hearts and our thoughts as we see this image?

Do we see him as Christ would?  Do we pray that there will, indeed, come a time when all lives really do matter? Do we pray that we, as Christians, work towards this?  That the Church, the body of Christ, steps up and takes the lead in matters of racial justice? Or fight against any and all inequality? Do we work to make it "on earth as it is in heaven?"

To do this means we have to confront our own sins, our country's sins, and realize that only the love of Christ can change us so that we can love unconditionally and without hatred or fear. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew and understood the power of this kind of love. He preached it, walked it, and lived it. He understood that love was action, love was justice. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that," he said. This has its roots in the gospel. John 1:5 tells us, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." Darkness and hate never can. 

Yet Christians are called to be light in this darkened world. To love as Jesus loved.

Does this scare us?  It shouldn't. The Bible tells us that "perfect love casts out fear" (1st John 4:18). 

So would we have followed Jesus into Samaria?  What about the projects of our own cities and towns?  

We must ask ourselves: How do we see Jesus? 

And how would we respond to each one of these?

What does that say of our hearts?

It's a question I'm definitely confronting in myself.

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