Romans 14 – Appropriate Attitudes for Black History Month

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

A little back-story

A chapter wholly devoted to dietary preferences may seem a weird jumping off point for race relations, but there are actually many parallels here that can illuminate our current realities.

Let me start with a little back-story.  If you didn’t know already, my husband is black (I’m white, by the way).  He is very vocal about issues of injustice, especially those concerning representation of POC in and around farming, food, and land use.  (You can read his work on Medium.)  Last week, he noticed that Modern Farmer, a magazine in which he had been featured under the previous editor-in-chief a few years back, had not featured a single black farmer on their (very active) Instagram feed in the first half of Black History Month. In fact, they hadn’t shown any black farmers since November 20th (and even longer for a Hispanic farmer – both facts I independently confirmed when Chris brought my attention to it).  He reached out to them to let them know, and was ignored.  Then he publicly announced their oversight, and several other farmers reached out to them.  Again, this was largely ignored, other than a curt private message from Modern Farmer to Chris basically saying “cut it out and leave us alone.”  Well, Chris did not cut it out, and they eventually put up a weak apology – with a stock photo of a black farmer instead of a real, working, promote-able black farmer – on Thursday last.  They say they’ll do better, and I sincerely hope they do, but both of us have our doubts.

Those in power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power

Back to today’s Bible verse.  What it boils down to is people in a position of power respecting the needs and opinions of those not in power.  In the Roman empire, pagan temples often doubled as butcher shops, where the meat sacrificed to the gods was then consumed by the people.  With almost all meat having been dedicated to pagan gods, many observant Jews decided to forgo meat entirely so as not to accidentally defile themselves with meat that may have been involved in pagan ceremonies.  Paul affirms, and many Gentile Jesus-followers believed, that Jesus did away with the old systems, essentially making all food clean. As such, the Gentile believers saw no need to limit themselves to (in their view, obsolete) Jewish dietary restrictions.  This was greatly distressing to some Jewish Jesus-followers, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law but not the abolition of the law.  To them, dietary restrictions were another way to honor both tradition and God, and should not be abolished.  Take the dedication some people have to Keto, vegan, or gluten-free diets, add a religious aspect to it, and we can begin to understand how important this was.  Gentiles, being able to eat whatever they want and move more freely through the larger society in part because of that fact, are the people in a position of power in this story.  Jews, with the need for careful dietary observances, avoiding certain (or all) purveyors of meat, and being scrutinized by the larger society for that fact, are the people who lack power in this story.

Paul, though he does affirm that he sees all food as clean, stresses to the Gentile believers that they should respect the beliefs and dietary restrictions of the Jewish believers.  I’m not a huge fan of his word choice: “strong” and “weak” faith makes it seem like Gentile believers were better at believing in Jesus.  Perhaps progressive and conservative might have been more accurate, though those two terms are also pretty loaded now.  But I digress. The important part of the story is that Paul urges those in power to respect those who lack it, up to and including following the restrictions of those who are “weak in faith” as a default, and saving free-for-all meat eating for personal meals.

Stumbling blocks of our own making

Dear white people, this should be our guiding light during Black History Month and indeed all times.  While Chris has had many supporters in this Modern Farmer skirmish, I’ve been appalled at the number of people basically saying “So what’s the big deal?”  Here’s the big deal: Black Americans – indeed any people of color, here – live in a country where they’re routinely treated as invisible, labelled as “aggressive” if they speak up (and are often fired, demoted, or otherwise punished for it), and watch as their culture is commodified for white-only consumption while they are forced to assimilate into white culture.  Need an example?  A white teenager walking down the street listening to ODB is viewed as cool, a black teenager listening to the same music is seen as threatening.  We, as white people, are in a position of power, let us respect the opinion of – and indeed uplift those – who are not!

My favorite line from today’s reading is “make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”  If you’re over there reading this, getting defensive, thinking “well, not all white people are like that” while remembering how you invited your black coworker to your last cookout, then whatever, I’m not going to argue with you on that one.  But you’re just one person, and if that is your attitude, then you’re not exactly a starter on the offensive line of combating inequality.  There are so many stumbling blocks we need to help remove.  Pervasive stereotypes exist that black people have to overcome every single day, over and over again.  Google even had to fix it’s auto-suggest because the suggestions were so racist.  Still, after Google’s attention to that issue, society’s biases continue to come through.  I just did a quick experiment with Google Images.  Type in “deadbeat dad” and a lot of memes come up, but one of the top “you may also be interested in” suggestions is “black” complete with a picture of a black man.  “Welfare queen” is another telling example example.  While most welfare benefits go to white recipients (and are often less than what a person truly needs), the idea of a “welfare queen” being a large, lazy, greedy black woman persists – in Google images and in the real world.  Now, imagine that stereotype following you around to the grocery store…on a job interview…hell, even on a date.  It’s like handicapping a horse during a race, only you’re adding weight to the wrong one, ensuring that the favored horse will continue to win.

Working towards peace and mutual edification

So what are we to do?  Paul gives us the blue-print in my other favorite line from this passage: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”  This passage needs one tiny bit of clarification: Peace is not the same as silence.  Peace does not mean getting black people to “cut it out and leave us alone,” as Modern Farmer basically told Chris (again, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the clear intent of their message).  As Paul stresses, the onus of peace and mutual edification is upon those in power.  So yes, that means it’s up to us, fellow white people, to listen when a black person says something isn’t working.  Equally important, we cannot then deny or try to justify that wrong, but must try to fix it.

Yes, that means more work on our part – but we’ve got the bandwidth for it.  If you’re lucky enough to walk out your house without a stereotype (or several) hanging over your head the minute you interact with another person, then you’re already saving on emotional energy.  Pour some of it into being a better ally.  Educate yourself. There are several good books out there.  I’ve read bits of White Fragility and have also seen How to be an Anti-Racist and Between the World and Me highly recommended.

Then, listen and don’t overshadow.  It’s easy to gain a modicum of understanding and then feel like you are an expert.  It is particularly important to resist that urge when working towards equality.  If your discussion about racial issues in the workplace doesn’t include minority workers, if your business claims inclusivity without having a racial minority in a decision making role, if you are in any way speaking for or about someone (or a group of someones) to the detriment of them speaking for themselves, then you’re not doing much to promote equality.

Finally, don’t give up.  The minute you excuse yourself from fixing the problem, you become part of the problem.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Then there’s this quote (not from film director Werner Herzog, but from a doppleganger twitter account run by William Pannapacker, a professor of American literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  The authorship, in my view, makes no difference on its impact): “Dear America: You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”  In less eloquent language: indifference is the problem. Do not be indifferent to the sufferings of your brothers and sisters, of which we all are in Christ.  Do not look away, and do not excuse yourself from action.  Until there is truly peace and mutual edification for all, until all the stumbling blocks have been removed, then we have work to do.

If you are enjoying what you read please follow the blog for more!  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter, too!