Who’s in? Who’s out?
What constitutes ‘cool’? And beauty, and worth?
Who are ‘we’? And what do I mean by “my people’?
Every community has agreed upon answers to these questions. And every community has ways of dealing with those ”in” (the cool, beautiful, worthy) and those ”out” (dorks, losers, the damned). The recently reported case of an area teen bullied by classmates on Facebook reminds us these questions deserve our attention. I’ve written about this social hierarchy before, saying, “We can make ourselves more valuable (by becoming good, athletic, rich, pretty, popular, or by becoming a blogger!) or make someone else less valuable (through put downs, racism, discrimination, labeling).”
The more pernicious of the two is damning someone to increase our own worth. This is the stuff of pop culture (anyone ready for Muggles and Mutants?), politics, and Biblical literature. In-crowds are hungry to identify a person or people they can blame. As Douglas Wilson says in Heaven Misplaced, “Accusation equals guilt, and condemnation for him equals salvation for us.” Known as scapegoats, these people are terribly important in a community to engender a sense of purity, right-ness, and worth. As if to say, “At least I’m not him…”
Jesus, insightful as always, picked up on this and identified four primary scapegoats in Luke 4 : the poor, hungry, mourners, and the hated; and four primary ingroupers: the rich, full, happy and famous. Matthew expands Jesus’ list of damned to include the meek, merciful, pure, and people who make peace. As someone said in church this morning, sounds pretty much like the same folks we still like to damn today.
Racial/ethnic minorities, homosexuals, immigrants, Muslims, victims of human trafficking, poor people, woman, homeless, disabled, the old, the young. These are people on the fringe, today’s community of the damned. We scapegoat them not simply because they are somehow “wrong,” but because in doing so we’re able to see ourselves as somehow more ”right.”
Imagine living on the fringe like this; how hard it would be sustain a sense of self worth when all around you suggests otherwise. Imagine trying to “make something of yourself” not living in a vacuum, but when people have a vested interest in your peril. Doesn’t sound easy to me! In the daunting context of being labeled a scapegoat, James Fowler says, “It takes many such acts of power to overcome the dominant social structures of power and to reclaim the power of naming for oneself and one’s own group.” Civil Rights, Black Power, Gay Pride, Women’s Rights and the Feminist/Womanist Movements, and the Chicano Movement are all attempts to overcome the self hatred demanded of social hierarchy.
Jesus engages in one such ‘act of power’ by walking amongst the community of the damned on top of a mountain and saying to them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Known as the Beattitudes, Jesus here refuses to engage in scapegoating, instead pronouncing blessing on the community of the damned! In effect declaring the community of the damned to be the community of the blessed! The invitation is clear. If you are one of the damned, see and act as if you are blessed by God; because you are. God is not your accuser (that’s the Satan’s job), God is your defender (The Holy Spirit in greek is the word used for defense attorney).
And for all of us, create communities of blessing where previously hatred and misunderstanding reigned. We must forge a future with no in-groups or out-groups; we must find worth in something other than the marginalization of people created in the image of God; we must engage in acts of power with and for those who have no voice. To migrants, the bullied, homosexuals, those caught in cycles of poverty, the kid on the end of the bench… we must speak good news of welcome, love, and empowerment!
How will you live your life? Creating communities of the damned? Or communities of blessing?
Happy Juneteenth everyone!
Preached June 19, 2011 by pastor Marty Troyer. Follow Marty on Twitter.