On Protests and Honor Contests

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I want to again examine the intersection of these predominantly white folks condemning the protests with the church. Many of these people would identify at least somewhat with the label Christian. Many I suspect identify strongly. I keep coming back to the thoughts that part of what is wrong with the American Church today is that they don’t really want to be Christ-followers.

American Christianity in too many places has become nationalism with the trappings of the church which is a gross perversion. If the church sat with the generational hatred of the Jewish people towards the Samaritans and vice versa, and if the church sat with the knowledge that a good Jewish man of that day — much less a rabbi — wouldn’t been seen in public talking to a woman that he wasn’t related to, and if the church understood the idea of an honor contest and how Jesus publicly lost one to a woman of an ethnic background that was also despised, then they couldn’t sit in church today and loot scripture for ideas about our present moment that are completely antithetical to who Jesus was.

Jesus said, “I must go through Samaria.” I must go to the country that my people have discriminated against. And then he sat at a well by himself in the middle of the day and waited, knowing that it was the women who came to the well, and knowing that any woman who came in the middle of the day would be a social outcast because the gathering of water was a hard chore made easier by the chance for community and a chat at the well to start your day off.
He was going to Jerusalem for the passover and he stopped on the way to bring the gospel to the outcast of the outcasts. And by talking to her, he raises her to the status of equal, upending both the gender and ethnic codes of his day. These are Jesus’ priorities. Jesus never stands with the powerful, and if we are to stand with Jesus, then we — especially as white Christians — need to check where we are standing.

Likewise we find Jesus answering the challenge of the Syrophoenician woman. This is one of the most debated exchanges in scripture I think, and it’s utterly fascinating. To understand it, we must understand the context of an honor/shame culture, and the place of a verbal honor contest within that. There are certainly longer expositions of this, but for our purposes, it is sufficient to note that she challenges Jesus publicly: “Have mercy on me!” Once again, another rabbi would have ignored her completely. Jesus replies with the famous comparison to a dog, and that he’s only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. On the surface it’s an insult: one that people have struggled with repeatedly. However Jesus is coming to this fresh off of having been challenged by the religious leaders on a question of purity, and that exchange sets the stage for this one. Jesus is breaking purity rules from the perspective of the religious leaders as he makes points about what is really important.

He not only speaks to her, he opens up the floor for her to respond. And she matches his wit with her own, winning the contest and securing the healing for her daughter. I think Jesus would have healed her daughter anyway, it’s kind of what he does, but setting himself up to lose an honor contest with a woman from a people that his people despised, gives us another insight into where we need to stand as people who claim to follow this Christ.

Fast-forward to Acts and we see the official beginning of the church at Pentecost as the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples and they began to speak in different languages. And all these different people who were in the city heard the disciples speaking in their own individual ethinic languages, and I don’t know all the stories, but I guarantee that list of nationalities contained several that were considered “less than” in their day.

God in the flesh goes to the outcasts and loses honor contests to women from despised ethnicities and then pours out the holy spirit in such a way that clearly shows the gospel is and has always been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Peter stands up to preach and draws a clear line from the prophecy in Joel that says, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.” All racial divisions, all gender divisions, all divisions are rendered moot in light of Pentecost. And if we have any doubt about that, Philip went down to Samaria to preach and after he finishes there — just in case we had any doubts — the spirit sends him to go share the gospel with an Ethiopean eunuch who is both a racial and a sexual minority.

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You see when God says “all flesh,” God starts with those whose flesh has been traditionally discounted, seen as less than, seen as disposable. And if we want to say we follow this God, then we cannot preach a false gospel of all lives mattering when specific lives are experiencing so much injustice and suffering.

Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. You can find her at @aehowardwrites on Twitter and at aehowardwrites.com

Originally published at https://medium.com on June 18, 2020.

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Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN.

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