Daily Lenten Bible Study — "Faith on Race": Old First E-pistle 02.18.15

Daily Lenten Bible Study — "Faith on Race": Old First E-pistle 02.18.15

Lenten Daily Bible Study

For Lent, I’m offering a daily bible study that relies on Scriptural texts to reflect on our faith, experience and the sins of racism (to partner with the work that our Sacred Conversation on Race Ministry Team is bidding us to do during this time). [To sign up to participate in our Sacred Conversation on Race Housemeetings, please click here.] It therefore stretches for the 30 days between the first of the Lenten House meetings Feb. 25 and the second meeting, March 25.

If you wish some devotional, reflection exercises for the first six days in Lent, I would suggest that you consider these 7 questions, that ask you to consider race and racism in your personal life:

Thursday, 02. 19 ~ identify your earliest memory of an awareness of race?

Friday, 02.20 ~ remember a recent instance of how race or racism separated you from someone else, or something you feel you were supposed to have done or experienced?

Saturday, 02.21 ~ make a list of the ways that race has added to your life. If that’s difficult, think of the people who are racially or ethnically different from you who have been a blessing to you. (This might turn into thanksgiving at during worship tomorrow).

Sunday, 02.22 ~ make a second list: “how has racism taken away from or limited my life?” (This could inform confession at church today).

Monday, 02.23 ~ share with someone some of what you noticed about the two lists you made for reflections on Saturday and Sunday.

Tuesday, 02.24 ~ what is one step forward you would like to see made towards racial equality?

Wednesday, 02.25 ~ are you gathering with others tonight for first Lenten Housemeeting Conversation on Race?

(There will be a few days left of Lent after the second housemeeting on March 25. I encourage you to take a few days off and rest. I will prepare an 8-day Bible study again for Holy Week (on the texts and themes of Christ’s passion, crucifixion and resurrection, and what it means for our lives), beginning on Palm Sunday, March 29.)

What’s the Connection between Lent and Racism?

Someone asked, “Why are we doing this for Lent?” Here’s my reply (but the members of our Sacred Conversation on Race group might explain differently):

“Lent traditionally is a season of self-examination, where we look inwardly, deeply, seeking to see our own sinfulness, that we might repent of it, on the way to Easter.

One explanation of sin is that it’s separation– from God, from God’s will for us, from our neighbors, from our true selves. Think of all the ways that racism separates from neighbors, God, ourselves. And from the lives God means for us to live.

There is a resource from the UCC that states it clearly: “Racism Declared a Sin.” And there are all the awful killings of unarmed Black men by police that have happened this year (and the years before of course).

Would that we could free ourselves of the sin of racism in time for Easter. But since we cannot, we are trying to raise our awareness and begin a journey towards resurrection…”

This year, our Sacred Conversation on Race Ministry Team is encouraging us to begin such a Lenten reflection by breaking the taboo of NOT talking about race. Instead, turning to God in order to find the trust for such a difficult undertaking, could we — this Lenten season at Old First — begin to talk openly and honestly about our experiences and differences of race?

Scripture and Race

I offer these daily bible reflections as a way to keep your heart and mind focused and churning on the questions that race and racism present in our world, in our daily lives and to our faith.

The term “race” as used in our modern world does not exist in the Bible. In fact, the word itself first came into use in the 17th century, European context in reference to national differences, e.g. “‘the English race’ and the ‘Irish race’ appear similar in many respects, but turn out to be different in character.”

Our use of the concept of “race” seems to have come into practice referring to various genetic traits of skin, features, hair, eyes concurrent with Darwin’s introduction of natural selection and explicitly employed for the purposes of ordering a hierarchy of races and racial values.

So this Lenten study of the Bible is going to asks us to interpolate a bit. And begin to think more critically.

Mostly, our texts are about how the faith exhorted the ancient faithful to deal with someone who was identified or experienced as “the other.” As you work on these texts, you might ask yourself, first, “who is ‘the other’ for me?” And then translate the text, its teaching and your sense of the other to the modern institution of racism, asking ourselves what our response as Christians is to be to the ways that racism treats and mistreats people.

It seems to me, there is a thematic arc in the sacred text itself concerning how integral “outsiders” are understood to be in God’s plan. One might be able to make an argument that the Bible deals with “other people” differently as the contexts in which the Scriptures were hammered out change. Another way of saying the same thing: as the revelation and its sacred text proceed, the horizons are widening, from the tribes of the Israelites to the known classical and multicultural world of the Pauline diaspora. That said, I do not want to leave anyone with a sense that the Christian writings are better, a corrective, more developed, an improvement or a true reveleation than the Hebrew Scripture. The Jewish sense of “chosenness” always included vocational responsibilities well beyond the limits of their own community.

Therefore, I’m alternating texts from the Hebrew and Christian writings. They are all our Scripture. In both case, the contemporary Christian reader has a similar task — asking what the text could have meant in its original context (and various socio-political situations since then), and then asking for the Spirit’s help in understanding its meaning today. I think if we look and listen closely, in light of where the community of revelation found itself, and where we find ourselves, we begin to recognize common themes and a Divine movement.

Still, as is always the case with the Bible, it is a complicated text. I could have easily chosen condemining passages as prophetic passages when we want to bring our faith to the questions of racial equality.

And faith, of course, is not our only resource or metric. There are also complicated, interrelating economic, political and social factors. Still, I believe it is important, if you wish to say you are a Christian, to ask what perspective your faith gives you on racism.

(These bible study prompts will be forwarded daily to everyone who is signed up for our Sacred Conversation on Race and anyone else who requests them. They will also appear daily on Old First’s FB page.)

The Daily Reflections

Read each passage (they are all hyperlinked to the New Revised Standard Version of the text). If you are unfamiliar with the passage, you may wish to read a bit more, before and after the portion selected, in order to get a better context. Then read the prompt and reflection questions.

Wednesday, 02.25– Luke 13:29. What if for us to actually have any experience of the Kingdom of God, we need to find ourselves alongside of and intimately and inextricably connected with people from the four corners of the globe (if not literally, at the least figuratively)?

If “radical diversity and intimate connection” are the condition of experiencing God’s Kingdom, how well does your life — identity, family, community, workplace, church, social and recreational circles… serve as a stage for relating to and identifying with people who are different? Do you spend most of your time, interest, concern on people defined in major part like yourself? Are there places where you come together with others? is your life ennabling you to have experiences of the Kingdom?

Thursday, 02.26 — Acts 10:28. Within the theology of Jewish understanding up to the time of Jesus, there is a deeply religious sense of wishing to remain “pure and holy.” That meant many things, but included a fear of syncretism (how foreign religious ideas could lead Jews away from their God and the right practice of their faith) and, in a daily sense, a belief that being in the presence of or touched by a foreigner could leave one polluted.

Is there anyone or group whose presence or who exposure to has felt threatening? Or might be judged as dangerous or a risk? Who do you believe you do better to avoid or stay clear of?

Friday, 02.27 — Genesis 11: 4-9. In the ancient story of the Tower of Babel, humanity, united by a common purpose, seems to be a threat to God. In response — almost as if defending heaven from our intrusion? — God disperses humans and takes away the capacity of having a common language.

Do you experience our various distances and diasporas, and our competing languages and other differences… are they impediments or are they enrichments?

Saturday, 02.28 — Acts 17:26. Human history has been a constant migration of different populations. And both peaceably and violently, people have met, intermingled, affected, replaced, displaced, and transplanted. In all those movements, do you see God’s hand as the primary determinant, or does God’s will work itself out more indirectly, and often affected or even overshadowed by human intercessions? Are there certain times and places that certain people belong? Are there others where they don’t? Certainly we can end up where God never meant us to be, namely lost and alone, but in light of our faith, what do you think about “forced migrations” and “displaced persons”? Can anyone ever be “illegal” — or in the wrong place such that their location should be the cause of their endangerment or punishment?

Sunday, 03.01 — Galatians 3: 26-28. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the early church was that it was a mixed community of equals (very rare for any kind of grouping in its time). Jews and Gentiles ate together. Slaves were considered equal to free folk (well, at least in the rhetoric). Women were no longer looked at as inferior to or under the authority of men (probably as an ideal that lost its place by the time Timothy was written!).

Did the church maintain and grow that commitment to its egalitarian beginnings? What would make our church community more an assembly of equals?

Monday, 03.02 — Numbers 12:1-16. Did you know that Moses’ wife was Ethiopian? Probably not. …Perhaps because Miriam and Aaron’s criticism still holds some sway… What could that be about? Were Miriam and Aaron capitalizing on some prejudice in their society? Is there some prejudice that still affects our faith tradition?

Is what we know (and what we don’t know) affected by who we are and “where we stand”? Likewise, is what we perceive affected by prejudice?

(As an added bonus, a second challenge from this Scripture passage:

Did you notice some rare imagery in this passage: whiteness, associated here with leprosy, connotes something negative, rather than, — as is more often the case in literary and linguistic imagery — the positive opposite of things described as “dark” or “black” as a sign of their being devalued. “Whiteness” in this pasage is actually punishment that causes one’s banishment from the community.)

Tuesday, 03.03 — Acts 10:34-35. Basic to the Jews’ covenant sense of identity and relationship to God is the belief that God had chosen them for a special calling / mission. Non-Jews often get a little sensitive about this claim and critique their stance, experiencing the Jewish claim of being “the chosen people” as standoffishness or even thinking themselves better than others.

But the concept is not as foreign to us as we might like to believe: in our faithfulness, don’t we also hope to find favor and a special relationship with God too?

In light of such human hopes (that our actions can earn us God’s favor), how radical was it for early Jewish Christian communities to hear the writer of Acts (as Paul also wrote in the Letter to the Romans) insist that God shows no partiality? No favorites? No special relationships? No deals? God’s love is equal opportunity!

How does it make you feel to consider that God loves your competitor, your enemy, the religiously incorrect, and even someone you know is a “no good, lowdown rat” just as much as you? Does this mean we cannot get any advantage with / from / through God? Doesn’t it suggest that we too should be more impartial (that is, more like God)?

Wednesday, 03.04 — Luke 10:25-37. It’s a sign of Jesus’ success with this parable that we know the story so deeply that we have redefined its cast of characters according to their role in Jesus’ telling. There’s some irony in our hardly being able to hear the teaching with its original import.

A Samaritan is found in our dictionaries and in our everyday vocabulary as a “Good Guy,” a stranger who offers help for no more reason than someone else has need. And the priest and the Levite (after this story has become part of how we see the world)… well, what would you expect from the likes of a pair like that? Jesus‘ tale (and his public ministry over against the Pharisees of his day) has so colored our imaginations that there’s little surprise in his story: we now expect Samaritans to be good and religious leaders to be sinister (thanks Jesus!).

But it wasn’t so when Jesus first told his parable. Figure out your modern replacements so you can hear the story back some of its original impact:

Who do you trust would be there for you… who you are sure you can count on? Who, walking right by and letting you down, would force a change in the way you see others and your world? They are your Priest and Levite.

Who is someone you would least expect to be of help if you were in need (come on, you don’t need to tell anyone else who you say… there’s got to be someone)? Maybe even someone you fear might actually want to leave you to suffer, or even harm you? S/he is your Samaritan.

What would it be like for you to receive their help?

And what does it do to have all your expectations upended and undercut?

Did race play any part in your updated version or your imaginings of who you can count on and who you have to fear? (It does in Jesus’ parable or his first hearers listening… well, as close as the Bible comes to race!)

How, after hearing the parable anew, do you move through the world?

Thursday, 03.05 — Genesis 1: 1-5. Day 9: Light and dark have taken on a signifcance greater than themselves, carrying a heavy load of meaning for different hues of skin. Consider, however, how this passage relates dark and light as foundational, without giving one or the other greater value: Dark was the fundamental condition; light was the first creation. As the text proceeds, God reverses the order: naming first the light “Day” and then the dark “Night.”

But even God’s distinction was not so “black and white” as every day, two times, dusk and dawn, we experience time that is neither completely or clearly day or night.

Still there’s a certain yin and yang quality to all this: Could any of us be be Black or white without the other? (Not to mention that none of us is actually that color and there is a whole range “in between” that is mostly considered “people of color.”) Is our racial binary inevitable, the only way, an unquestionable reflection of an indisputable reality?

Are you aware of certain societies / cultures where even within families — of the same parents! — the gene pool means that siblings could be alternately Black or white?

Is race then more of a human construct that a biological reality… how we have come to categorize certain characteristics in our attempt to describe and justify certain histories / to reinforce conventional boundaries?

Friday, 03.06 — Luke 24: 46-47. There is an aspect of the salvation history as related in the Bible that seems to suggest that it extends to everyone exactly and necessarily because it is “of God.” This is sometimes identified as the “universalist” thread that runs throughout.

According to the Bible’s account, where do you believe this theme of God’s concern for the interests of all humanity begins?

In our world, where do you see signs of universalism? And where would such a magnanimus and gracious concern for ALL lead you?

Saturday, 03.07 — Ruth 1:16 – 22. Ruth was a Moabite woman who Naomi’s son took as his wife. Naomi’s family had emigrated to Moab to avoid a famine. And there her husband and both married sons perished. Orpah, the other daughter-in-law returned to her people when her husband died. Ruth, however, returned to Israel with Naomi, where she married her deceased husband’s kinsman, Boaz. (Ok, it all a little Peyton Place!)

Boaz and Ruth’s son was Obed, who was Jesse’s father. Jesse fathered David, as in King David. Hence the iconic King of Israel’s great-great grandmother was a foreigner.

What if you found out that your great-great-grandparent was racially different from you? Consider how different this question is for Euro-Americans and African Americans…

Sunday, 03.08 — Matthew 15:21-28. Does Jesus really learn something from a non-Jewish woman?

In his day, this Syrophonecian’s being both Gentile and Female made it hard to imagine that she had anything she could teach this man. (To begin to grasp how unbelievable this sounded to Jesus’ hearers, imagine telling an pre-bellum Southern audience of slaveholders a story of an African American, enslaved woman successfully opening the eyes of the her White master who literally had the power of life and death over her…)

Even more striking, not only does she have the chutzpah to talk back to the Messiah, she actually seems to be schooling Jesus in his own calling!

Can you remember a situation when someone you didn’t expect to offer you anything — because everything you had been taught about them confirmed they had nothing to offer — surprised you with her or his wisdom, especially if it was something you desperately needed to hear?

Monday, 03.09 — Ephesians 2:13-16. Judaism’s understanding and practice of “choseness” sometimes left little room for the Gentiles (everyone else). Are the ways in which “white privilege” (or, though it hurts to even use the phrase “white superiority” — that is not often explicitly articulated in polite company, but implied as if an ever-constant reality whether or not it’s acknowledged) in North American culture likewise “claims too much space” — making people and things identified as “Euro-American” normative and crowding out the experiences and needs — even existence — of people of color and their history and culture?

Tuesday, 03.10 — 1 Samuel 16: 7. The original reference for this verse is when Samuel identifies David, still a shepherd boy out with the sheep, as the one of Jesse’s sons, over all his more age-appropriate older brothers, who God means to be King. The lesson is that God’s not stopped by our outward appearance, because God looks on the heart.

As we think about race and God looking deeper (where we are all the same?), do you think this means God could be color-blind? Why or why not? How are we sometimes ‘stopped by outward appearances’?

Wednesday, 03.11 — Revelation 14:6-7..

When asked about people who have been married more than once — the question is literally to which spouse will someone be married in heaven — Jesus answers that there is no marriage in the resurrection. We interpret that answer to be about how people relate differently in the life eternal.

Do you think that there will be “nation, tribe, language and people” in heaven / the end times? Or, finally, will we be at last, as other places in Scripture promises, “one people”?

We say as Christians, we believe in bodily resurrection, but will my resurrection body have a racial identity or not?
Thursday 03:12 — Genesis 1:27. At Old First, we believe everyone is made in the image of God. Therefore we embrace the female image of God, the Black image of God, the gay image, the youthful image, the immigrant image, the poor image, the otherly-abled image…

Identify people who reflect each of these for you as a reflection of godliness. What are the aspects of God you have trouble imagining?

Friday, 03.13 — John 1:1-18. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. The poetry of the 4th Gospel’s opening is set up, at least in part, as a struggle between the light and the dark. And darkness is a sign of chaos, evil, despair, whereas light brings hope and order and meaning. Can these images be employed or even heard at this point in time without being racialized? Could you as a spiritual discipline think about what’s positive with the darkness and negative about the light?

Saturday, 03.14 — 2 Cor. 6:14. Again, the use of images of light and dark, particularly in an injunction against mismatching ourselves — believers and unbelievers, righteousness and wickedness, light and darkness…

Are these images helpful or hurtful?

The text warns us against certain people.

Who do you fear? Are there people you feel you should avoid? How’s that sense square with your understanding of Jesus’ teaching?

Sunday, 03.15 — Psalm 51:6-12. In recent translations, the verse that is most closely translated from the Hebrew as “wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” has been translated alternatively as “wash me, and I shall be purer than snow.” How do you feel about reworking biblical verses because of greater sensibilities that we hold currently vis a vis race (or gender, or power differentials…)?

Monday, 03.16 — Colossians 3:11. If we at Old First speak of the female, Black, gay… image of God (see Bible study on Gen. 1:27, above from 03.12), this passage today suggests that Christ is also more than we expect or can imagine. Not only Jewish, but also foreign. Not only ritually clean, innocent, but also the one we think is polluted, infected, contagious. Christ is the outsider, the one who is far-off, even a warrior. He is a servant and a master…

Think of Christ in each of those images. Do they add your understanding and make easier your loyalty and love, or make it more difficult to follow him?

Does a more complex picture of Christ change the way you look at other people?

Tuesday, 03. 17 — Matthew 28:19-20. There are in this passage two opposing movements; 1) the church can stretch to include all; 2) that streching most often is understood to include an acquiescence to a common theological understanding?

Do you believe that God’s love can extend to the farthest reaches of our human race? Does God’s love demand or depend on our all being Christian?

Wednesday, 03.18 — Jonah 4. The Book of Jonah is really a morality play. The prophet didn’t want to care for the people who God cares for. And he refused to be changed by God or by those people who God cared for (though God was moved to change by and for them?).

Can you bear God’s love extending beyond your heart’s reach?

What does that suggest about anyone you don’t care about and who you’d rather not see cared for?

Thursday, 03.19 —1 Cor. 12:12-26. The Church in Corinth was a fractious, fighting congregation that could make of any issue a disagreement that threatened schism. So much so that Paul needed to write them twice! And in his first and second letters, Paul created some of the most evocative and beautiful metaphors of our faith… to explain to us “hard-hearted and thick-necked” brawlers a different way, what the church community is supposed to be like.

In this passage, he begins to sketch an important reality: we are not all the same. We look and act differently. We have different ways, roles, callings.

But none of that means that we are disconnected or could ever be independent of the others. You can’t even say that the brain is the highest of the parts, because without a stomach or even more down and gritty organs, it couldn’t survive. It takes a whole body with all its different constituent parts to make a healthy living organism.

Look for deep, abiding differences today. See how people and cultures really are not all the same. But don’t stop there.

Consider how each — especially the ones you find most foreign, strange and difficult to embrace — adds something to make a whole that is richer and holier than we could possibly be without. (If you are really brave, you could thank someone for their or their peoples’ unique contribution.)

Friday, 03.20 — Luke 4:18. Jesus announced and explained his ministry, from the beginning, by invoking the prophetic tradition of his people’s faith… by speaking of how God empowered and called him to those who have suffered and lacked, to the people who have been constrained (and restrained!) and denied.

If racism is a denial of some groups of people’s equality as human beings, what then do we who profess to follow Jesus have to say and do?

Can Christian faith abide any kind of caste system, or “hierarchy of human beings,” that constrains anyone from being fully who God has created them to be?

What if, in the world as we know it, you are not among those people to whom Jesus’ ministry seemed to call him; does he offer us something too? What does he offer to you if you are among those whom he was called to serve?

Saturday, 03.21 — Genesis 2:18 – 25. God meant Adam for community. The first possibility God thought of and offered was the animals with which Adam shared the earth. Interestingly God gave Adam, with his capacity for speech, the power to name all the animals. And Adam, so the story goes, did so, but in so doing, Adam — not God? — recognized that none of the animals was the company that Adam longed for.

It was only then, in this, the second version of creation, that it seemed to occur to God to make a second human, who Adam found to be a pleasant companion. And Adam named her — in perhaps a bit of hubris? …according to her relation to him.

From Adam and Eve and then ensuing parent-couples down through the ages, the Bible depicts the people of the ancient near East spring forth, spread out (primarily as they are driven for food and safety), and develop separate identities.

Did you notice, however, that no where in the Bible — not even in the creation stories — is there a reference to race? There may be descriptions of individuals being “fair” (King David) or “black” (the young woman in the Song of Solomon). But never is there any explanation of or even reference to peoples gathered by racial characteristics or history. Instead, the Bible refers to “nations.”

Neither Adam, nor any other human in the Bible makes a racial distinction, not even God is given to name or group or categorize according to the modern typologies we refer to as the races. But clearly, the Biblical characters knew what we would call racial diversity.

Why do you think the people of biblical times and Scripture itself is silent on race?

Why has race become such a reality that we can hardly think of it in any sense imperceivable?

Why has it become an issue, racism, that occasions enough brokenness and hurt to be considered “a sin” by the contemporary church?

Sunday, 03.22 — John 13:34-35. With the illustration of washing the disciples feet, Jesus offers a new commandment, the mark of his church: a love before which one is to kneel at the feet of an other, head bowed in humble and humbling service.

Does that sound like the attitude or movement that comes of racism? In racism, aren’t we indulging our arrogance… to stand over or even step on someone else?

Can one truly love someone against whom one bears prejudice; acts in a discriminating fashion; thinks about, or feels about or experiences ‘racist-ly’?

Monday, 03.23 — Jeremiah 8:11. There was a time when the UCC considered declaring itself “a peace church.” Historically, the Quakers and the Mennonites are ‘peace churches’ in as much their understanding of God’s calling and their Christian Witness demand pacifism, the commitment not to do violence to another person.

In the end, the UCC invited its congregations to declare themselves “just peace churches.” The denomination did not adopt a pacifist vocation for its members. Instead, it pointed out an important wrinkle (perhaps the mirror image of “just war theory”). Namely, that the absence of physical violence — without justice –does not constitute a true peace… Because injustice translates into harm just as warfare and physical violence do.

Even with a defeated calm or apathtetic truce between people of different races, if there exist injustices, are there not harms, even violence?

Make a list of the injustices, harm and violence that racism ocassions or causes.

Tuesday, 03.24 — Genesis 1: 11-12, 21-25. The Bible does not say “God created the plant and the animal.” It says that God created different kinds of plants and different kinds of animals.

In striking contrast, the Bible never says “God created different kinds of humans, humans of different kinds of color and race and ethnicity.” It says that God created one single human, and that from that one single human, all humans are descended.

We live in a time when we recognize and appreciate difference and diversity, how they make our world and cultures and communities richer. But even in a denomination like the UCC that lifts diversity high, we never let go of a basic truth of our faith: biblically, there are no various human races; there is instead only one human race.

In essentials, unity. In inessentials diversity. In all things, charity.

Make a list for yourself of that which is common for all humans (despite all the diversity that we can present)…

Compare your lists of the injustices and harms of racism with this list of commonalities?

Wednesday, 03.25 — John 10:10. John 10:10. Jesus says that he has come to bring life… that we may live abundantly. Before that he speaks of a thief who comes only to steal and kill and destroy.

Racism affects Black and white people both (even if in very different ways). And whites are, in the perverse “logic of” or “case for” racism, promised to be the winners and receive the better portion.

But doesn’t everyone lose when it comes to racism (albeit in different ways and unequal measure)? Could anyone say that racism in any way brings “real life” — much less truly abundant life — to anyone?

Ultimately, don’t we all lose when anyone’s humanity is denied or even doubted?

Perhaps “Racism” is the name of one of the thieves Jesus warned about, who comes to steal and kill and destroy?

Are you going to the second housemeeting tonight?

Thursday, 03.26 Evaluation/Feedback: Partnering with the Sacred Conversation housemeetings, I have invested some time / energy to “Faith on Race,” trying to turn us towards Scripture to keep our considerations of our experiences of race and racism also about our faith.

I am also very interested how messages like these might promote daily biblical reflection.

Please help me by providing some evaluation / feedback (on these daily bible studies, not the Sacred Conversation):

Does delivery of an e-mail prompt — a bible passage, some context and questions — help you get to daily biblical reflection?

Did these bible reflections help you apply your faith to your thinking about race and racism?

Any other comments or suggestions?

See you in church,