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.

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Job 06 – The Myth of Hard Work and Success

Then Job replied:

“If only my anguish could be weighed
    and all my misery be placed on the scales!
It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas—
    no wonder my words have been impetuous.
The arrows of the Almighty are in me,
    my spirit drinks in their poison;
    God’s terrors are marshaled against me.
Does a wild donkey bray when it has grass,
    or an ox bellow when it has fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or is there flavor in the sap of the mallow[a]?
I refuse to touch it;
    such food makes me ill.

“Oh, that I might have my request,
    that God would grant what I hope for,
that God would be willing to crush me,
    to let loose his hand and cut off my life!
10 Then I would still have this consolation—
    my joy in unrelenting pain—
    that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.

11 “What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
    What prospects, that I should be patient?
12 Do I have the strength of stone?
    Is my flesh bronze?
13 Do I have any power to help myself,
    now that success has been driven from me?

14 “Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend
    forsakes the fear of the Almighty.
15 But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams,
    as the streams that overflow
16 when darkened by thawing ice
    and swollen with melting snow,
17 but that stop flowing in the dry season,
    and in the heat vanish from their channels.
18 Caravans turn aside from their routes;
    they go off into the wasteland and perish.
19 The caravans of Tema look for water,
    the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.
20 They are distressed, because they had been confident;
    they arrive there, only to be disappointed.
21 Now you too have proved to be of no help;
    you see something dreadful and are afraid.
22 Have I ever said, ‘Give something on my behalf,
    pay a ransom for me from your wealth,
23 deliver me from the hand of the enemy,
    rescue me from the clutches of the ruthless’?

24 “Teach me, and I will be quiet;
    show me where I have been wrong.
25 How painful are honest words!
    But what do your arguments prove?
26 Do you mean to correct what I say,
    and treat my desperate words as wind?
27 You would even cast lots for the fatherless
    and barter away your friend.

28 “But now be so kind as to look at me.
    Would I lie to your face?
29 Relent, do not be unjust;
    reconsider, for my integrity is at stake.[b]
30 Is there any wickedness on my lips?
    Can my mouth not discern malice?

Job is speaking for all the downtrodden here: all the blamed victims, all the casualties of an unfair economic system, anyone ever harmed by institutionalized racism.

I remember watching a news story on homelessness years ago, and a woman said, “it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots.” Her words came to mind when I read v. 13: “Do I have any power to help myself, now that success has been driven from me?” It is comforting to believe that we are in charge of our destinies, that if we just work a little harder, put the hours in, do the extra assignment, that we will be successful.  If that is true, then yes, we are all masters of our own fate.  But sadly, that is not true.

Before anyone rolls their eyes at my whining, let me just tell you a bit about how much I do believe in hard work.  I am up and writing this blog by 5:30 am to fit it into my day.  I have a whole series of pictures of me you can see (and a whole bunch of undocumented moments!) I call #farmingwhilemomming where I’m literally working two jobs at once.  Before Betty was one, I was the one who sifted through the mountains of paper work to get the farm a USDA microloan.  I am out there, working a little harder, putting the hours in, doing the extra assignment.  (So is my hubs, by the way: as I write this it is currently 5:57 am and he is up checking emails before he goes out to do farm chores)  I don’t say this to brag, I say this to silence anyone who might be tempted to brush off my argument with a “just have to work harder” type of response.

We work hard, and have seen success for it, but Chris and I face unique challenges as a black man and as a woman.  Chris talks a lot about his experiences elsewhere, so I’m going to mainly talk about my experiences here. Being in the predominantly male occupation of farming, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told I’m pretty smart “for a lady,” or been mansplained something I already know, or had someone be surprised that I can drive stick/park a 350/lift a bag of feed.  I educate myself about everything from how a freezer works to engine anatomy because I’m very suspicious that the service I might get is going to be different or less than a man because, as a woman, people expect I won’t know better.  That sounds cynical, and it is.  Fortunately we’ve met some very nice people since moving here and I trust my regular mechanics – but it took time to get there, and there are definitely services I’ve walked away from because I felt they looked down on me.

If you don’t see how this might effect my success, if you are still tempted to say “well, everyone has to be careful about who they trust their car care to,” or “you should be proud that you prove them wrong,” let me spell it out.  Lesser service, or, conversely, more service than I need because someone thinks they can up-sell an unsuspecting woman, costs me time and money, which hurts my bottom line.  And those same people who are surprised that I can drive stick or feel the need to talk down to me?  That’s the definition of a microaggression. Again, I can just hear the eyes rolling, and I’ll admit I haven’t found any studies on sexist microaggressions, but a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine did find that people who experience a high level of racial microaggressions (aka, the kind Chris has to face on a daily basis) age faster on a cellular level.  I wouldn’t be surprised if sexist microaggressions have the same effect.  So not only is institutionalized sexism and racism potentially hurting our business, it is also actually hurting our health.

And all of my ranting is coming from an able-bodied, cis-gendered, white, upper-middle-class individual.  Stop for a minute and try to layer on a few more other labels, if you will, and think about the challenges I might face if I were, say, a gay black woman? Or a disabled poor person? Or a dark-skinned Muslim immigrant? Can you begin to see how society might be stacked against me?  Job is right in calling out his friends in their calling out of him.  “Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?” Job asks in v. 12.  Here’s another quick aside for you: there’s even a documented racial bias in pain treatment, with people of color receiving less pain management than their white counterparts.  Is their flesh made of bronze? Is theirs the strength of stone?  Sometimes society seems to think so.

Job accuses his friends in v. 27 with the words, “you would even cast lots for the fatherless.” I think I’ve mentioned this before, but widows and orphans were the most disadvantaged people (except maybe lepers?) in society back then.  They were without any protector, any safety net.  Tell me, can you see any parallels between Job’s friends and the “haves” in today’s society?  The wealthiest 1% continue to receive tax cuts at the expense of schools, medical research, and especially social support programs like SNAP. We, as a society, are taking people’s boots away, then asking them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Is this what God would want? Is this what Jesus would stand for?  Job has the right, as he says, to bray like a wild donkey and bellow like an ox without fodder – for his sustenance is gone.  We, too, have that right.  If you are in a position of privilege, lend your voice to those that are not.  If you are not in a position of privilege, speak up (if it is safe to do so).  We have a long, long way to go.  But journeys are made one step at a time.  If we have God to guide us and each other to lean on, we can make it. Together, we can make it.