White Evangelicals and Our Prophets
In order to speak prophetically to white evangelicals, one must first “leave” that community, risk permanent personal loss and allow oneself to be identified as an outsider. The prophet is always seen as a traitor and a malignant member within the community he/she is called to speak to and prophetically reside in. Living amongst and speaking from within a community as a “member in good standing” to bring change rarely, if ever brings change.
“Leaving” is less about geography than it is about identity. Leaving behind an identity and the privileges it affords you does not require relocating or emigrating. Jesus did say that a prophet has no honor in his hometown, but he didn’t say, therefore leave your hometown. He merely recognized the limitations that our place of origin sets on us making it difficult to become prophetic in that community. But I am thinking mostly about Old Testament prophets.
Old Testament prophets rarely uprooted and left. The typically struggled with credibility because of this statement.
Prior to his last three years on earth, Jesus was a participant in the status quo of his Jewish community. It was after he returned from the desert that he embraced his role as an Old Testament prophet. From that point on, he began the journey of renouncing who he was expected to be and eventually was considered an outsider to the religious establishment, as well as to the collective identity Jewish religion provided its own sect under Roman rule. He was ultimately murdered for being an outsider who challenged the norms and boundaries of his own religious community and their political identity. In three short years, he had become a religious and political threat.
Jesus: An Illegitimate Jew or an Ideal Israelite?
Why? Well, Jesus purposefully and publicly challenged the religious establishment’s sacred identity markers. He taught and practiced non-violent resistance against the Empire and the Sanhedrin and was regarded by the Sanhedrin as an illegitimate Jew.
Even though he was regarded by powerful religious elites as an illegitimate Israelite, he was, in fact, the ideal Israelite. By threatening their political identity under Roman rule and their religious leadership in Jewish communities, Jesus posed an active and growing threat. He did nothing but live out what a true Israelite was called to be and as a result was thrown out of the Synagogue and the incumbent favors afforded to families who were ruled over by the Sanhedrin. He did this willingly based on his convictions and invited others to do the same based on following him. He also gathered people around him who had already been dismissed from the synagogue by the Sanhedrin, i.e. “Sinners”.
White evangelicalism in today’s North American church has begun to operate very similarly to the political and religious identity attained by those who belonged to the Synagogue, living according to the standards set by the Sanhedrin of Jesus’s day.
We see an example of this in Jesus’s healing of the man born blind in John 9:22
22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
In order to be uninvited to the Synagogue, Jesus had to do something they couldn’t reconcile with. In the case of the man born blind, he healed on the Sabbath amongst many other infractions. The community found it difficult to challenge the magisterium of the Sanhedrin even if they had legitimate grievances, but Jesus knew he had to “leave” by example. When a prophet leaves a community, he/she doesn’t necessarily leave on their own accord but because of the Vision they receive and the new way of living they embrace, they become uninvited and are assumed to be no longer a member in good standing.
Once that happens enough, they may realize the need to depart on their own ideologically or religiously. Either way, the departure is usually initiated by their own community, i.e. The “If you don’t like it here, then why don’t you leave” trope.
Jesus the Sinner
Jesus did like being an Israelite, because he was one, but knew that in order to be a true Israelite he had to prophetically stand up to the distortions and political compromises created by the religious elite of 1st-century Israelite communities. This eventually cost him his life, his family’s welfare and his identity in the community, i.e. He became known as a “sinner” – a religious lawbreaker who had become a societal outcast.
In today’s American religious landscape infused with all of its racial issues, to be a true “evangelical” one should live in such a way that white evangelicalism disinvites you from belonging to them. Too often white evangelicalism has been a buffer for white supremacy and racist ideology. While most white evangelicals wouldn’t consider themselves racists, there still exists a host of racial tensions and assumptions that have never been adequately addressed. In order to address those ills, following Christ’s example would be first order business. As THE ideal Israelite, Jesus was considered an illegitimate Israelite and a religious lawbreaker by the religious elite of his day.
Again, he was called a “sinner” numerous times by them which means they considered him a religious lawbreaker. “Sinners” were considered as outsiders and no longer could be proper Israelites even though they would have been born into the Israelite community. From the moment he started his three-year ministry, Jesus chose to live in such a way that would label him as a “sinner.” He knew it was going to happen from day one.
Leaving In Order To Return
Staying in a community without buying into that community’s ideology and theology provides one with prophetic presence. So being spatially resident in one’s community of origin can still happen while at the same time one is unwelcome ideologically, religiously or theologically. Jesus practiced prophetic presence by living out the ideal Israelite lifeways in full view of those who assumed they instead were ideal Israelites.
By doing this Jesus “left” that community in order to return to it when he began his 3-year ministry. Geographically he didn’t relocate, he just began living as an ideal Israelite in full view of the distorted Israelite practitioners.
At the same time, he did actually leave Israel when he crossed the Jordan into the Desert only to re-enter as the true prophet of Israel, the ideal Israelite. That journey to the desert was his inauguration into a prophetic identity, the New Moses, who now gets to finally cross the Jordan River and lead Israel back to Yahweh.
He actually did leave in order to re-enter as a prophet. But he never intended on leaving geographically. He left and returned to embrace his full identity as a true Israelite in contention with those who claimed that title for themselves.
Renouncing To Announce
As people who claim to proclaim the Good News, we have to renounce something in order to announce something. If like Jesus we are called to announce the Good News, the corollary is that we must renounce something.
In the U.S. today, white Christians, myself included, are being called to renounce whatever whiteness provides us that at the same time is a barrier to People of Color. If we are not willing to do so, our announcement of the Gospel is a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal.
Renouncing can take numerous forms and isn’t merely an embrace of poverty, giving everything you own away, etc. It starts with recognizing the existence of White Privilege. It continues with owning one’s complicit participation in the oppression of others, historically and presently. It then can mature with public acknowledgment of these realities through protest, acts of embodied solidarity and ultimately repentance for our apathy and ill-informed ignorance. Listening and growing our “I was wrong” muscle will be the way forward after that as well as discontinuing the socially acceptable racial attitudes in this graphic below.
Jesus renounced what was required of him to belong to the Israelite synagogue and instead found an identity and belonging with “sinners” – religious lawbreakers who, though Israelites, would be considered as non-Israelites by the Sanhedrin.
He lost privilege, access, mobility, his family’s welfare and ultimately his life. If he had not been prepared to renounce all of that, whether it would happen or not, he could not have proclaimed the Good News to the Poor – his first address in the synagogue upon returning from the desert.