O my people

Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-15, Matthew 15:21-28
August 20, 2017
Isaac Villegas

“O my people.” The words from our hymn have been circling in my head ever since Eric sent me the list of songs Friday afternoon, at 2pm, in an email I read on my phone in front of the old courthouse in Durham, near the empty pedestal where a metal figure of a confederate soldier stood since 1924, a monument erected by racist Southerners, nostalgic for their slave-owning society—the monument installed in downtown Durham by the generation that broke box office records by spending over five million dollars on tickets for the racist movie, “Birth of a Nation,” originally titled “Clansman,” a film that resonated across the south, so popular and convincing that it became propaganda that fueled the rebirth of the KKK.

The monument in Durham was erected in the mid-1920s, at the peak of the Clan’s power, when they had four to five million members. As a sign of that generation’s dream of a white supremacist society, as a graven image proclaiming their vision for the future, as an icon celebrating their claim on the South, that statue has stood there ever since, towering over the residents of Durham. Until this past Monday, when it was torn down, toppled, crushed into the ground.

“Comfort, comfort, O my people.” I wondered about that line from the hymn, as I read Eric’s list on my phone, as I stood with a thousand people flooding down from the courthouse steps, across the sidewalks, through the streets, all of us there to show the KKK what our community looks like, to show them who we are—a multiracial people, a miscengenated city, a mixed society.

We danced in the streets while the KKK lurked elsewhere in Durham, waiting for our crowds to retreat, so they could honor their fallen statue, as they mourn the demise of their dream of a segregated society, as their hope for a pure, white peoplehood becomes more and more impossible.

“O my people.” As a society, as a church, we are in the midst of working out who we are, as a people, as a community, who we are as neighbors. In the White House and in the streets, in our denomination and in our neighborhoods, we are deciding who we will include as our people, as my people, as your people. The federal government is decided for us everyday as they deport more a more vulnerable people, stealing away our neighbors. Just this week the administration found another way to restrict refugees from becoming our neighbors, our people. Nearly three thousand Central American children were on a waiting list, all of them fleeing violence in their communities—and the United States decided to deny them, and to end the program, to close another door into this country, to shut another path for refugees to become our neighbors, your neighbors.

No matter how welcoming we want to be, in our homes, in our church, and no matter how hospitable we think we are, the federal administration is deciding the borders of our peoplehood, of your identity—of who we are and who we are not, of who we will let into our life and who we will refuse, of how we will let ourselves be transformed by someone else, by a people foreign to your story, alien to your family line, a stranger to your national identity.

This is our world, where we work and play, where we care for loved ones and struggle against oppression, where we labor for peace and pray for mercy. And we turn to our Scriptures for wisdom and assurance, for God’s word to speak to us, for these stories to inspire our imagination and fuel our lives, that we may be a blessing to the nations, that we may show God’s love for this world.

But this week, given the claims people are making about their desire for racial purity, for their supremacy—militiamen declaring the superiority of their whiteness, emboldened by their numbers and guns, even using their cars as weapons—this week I can’t help but hear ominous tones in between the words of our Psalm, Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when kindred [or brothers] live together in unity.” The unity of kin. The reunion of family. The brotherhood uniting.

These verses, these sentiments sound chilling to me now, after the rally in Charlottesville last week—after, what they called, the Unite the Right rally, a movement of unity, to bring together people from all over this country who are committed to their racial supremacy. They sang their dreams for “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan about a homeland for their bloodline, to dominate other peoples. Kindred living together in unity.

And there’s Joseph, in our story from Genesis—a story about the reunion of brotherhood, where Joseph takes care of his own because he has set himself up as a master, the master of the land—lord of Pharaoh’s house and overseer of all of Egypt, he tells his brothers. As a master, Joseph settles his family in fertile land, set apart of Egyptian society, so his people can flourish, to grow in number. They are separate. They refuse to intermix.

I’ve seen pictures of a t-shirt that supremacists have been wearing at their rallies—all about the preservation and dominance of whiteness. The t-shirt says, “We must provide a future for our white families and children.” It’s about the family; it’s about the children. That’s where they sneak in their racism.

There’s a theme, in this story about Joseph and his family, that fits too easily with segregationist ideologies—a tone to the story that sounds all too familiar today. I’m troubled this week by how easy it is for Christians to use our Bible to support their racist ideologies, to justify their violence and oppression, to claim status as blessed, as chosen, as ordained by God to inherit this land, to become masters, like Joseph.

And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus, when he’s not paying attention, finds himself thinking like Joseph—thinking only about his bloodline, his people, his brotherhood. That’s what it sounds like in our passage from Matthew’s Gospel when a Canaanite woman interrupts Jesus with a request. She doesn’t belong to the people of Jesus. She’s foreign to him and his disciples. She begs for him to heal her daughter, to save her from the torments of a demon. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David,” she cries out as she grovels at his feet.

The disciples sneer, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” They think of her as a nag, a pest. So Jesus calls her a dog, which is as bad as it sounds. Jesus lets her know that she doesn’t belong with him, that she’s got her on people, that she is unclean, that she comes from an unclean people, profane, just like the dogs, wild scavengers, eating trash. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus says.

Yet she presses on, and in her perseverance she invites Jesus to look at her again, to see her anew. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs,” she responds, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” With these words, Jesus realizes that she belongs too, that the both of them are bound up together in God’s story, in God’s family—that God has made them kin. “Woman,” Jesus says, “great is your faith.”

On Friday, in front of the courthouse in Durham, as the chanting turned into dancing, I got a call from a church leader, asking if I knew of any prayer vigils happening in response to the Clan, asking if I would be interested in leading one. And I said that the dancing in the streets felt like our prayer, a prayer for a world without one people declaring mastery over another. And I imagined the drums and the dancing as a secular prayer for a new peoplehood, lives drawn closer than before, through mutual care, mutual love, a desire to belong to one another. The dancing was a prophecy of a healed world.

And for us, here, now, the Canaanite woman bears witness to great faith, to what our faithfulness might look like, faithfulness that sounds like shouting, as the disciples say, as we beg for a new world, even if only for enough crumbs to sustain our dancing.

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