Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 23) transports me to a highly publicized criminal trial, the transcript of which has been read and re-read and dissected ad infinitum by interested observers near and far. A rigid fundamentalist culture, coupled with nationalist and racist ideologies, has created a community with clear insiders and outsiders. Here, in this trial, the insider people of privilege are trying not an outsider, but one of their own, a person accustomed to the assumptions of privilege. A great clamor arises as rumor of the verdict spreads. The very possibility of a not guilty finding creates dissension that rips through the community, accompanied by threats of violence. Some sectors of the population in this drama have a basic trust in the legal system, while others see nothing but conspiracy and corruption and discrimination at the core. The case itself reveals deep rifts within the community that will only deepen with time.
It’s not the case you might be thinking about today. Long before a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of any wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, the inner workings of a tribunal of fundamentalist Pharisees illustrated the deeply conflicted feelings New Testament writers had about the system of justice they experienced. The early followers of Jesus were being profiled and stalked by the powers that be who perceived them as threats. Vigilantes acting under Caesar’s authority had no qualms in rounding up the marginalized and marching them to death row. Paul, who himself could claim credentials as a pedigreed person of privilege, nevertheless joined the persecuted ones in solidarity, and in today’s passage suffered abuse similar to theirs. This is the same Paul who in one of his pastoral letters could extol the system, saying no one should be afraid of the civil authorities, as they are God’s instruments for justice. But here, Paul is channeling Jesus’ rant against these same authorities, cursing their whitewashed wall system of supposed justice. He reveals his somewhat schizophrenic feelings when he immediately backs down on his critique and apologizes for a lack of propriety and respect. The idealist part of him really wants the system to work, even as it is demonstrating its abominable failure to execute anything remotely resembling justice.
Two millennia after Paul experienced his conflicted feelings of blessing and cursing on a justice system that was at once heralded as God’s instrument for justice and at the same time berated for justifying systemic oppression and murder of marginalized populations, the Zimmerman verdict is creating the same kinds of mixed reactions and feelings. My friends of color question how they are to raise their children in an environment in which the legal system provides justification for the profiling and stalking and killing of teenagers who are suspect because of color and clothing. Some of my peers in the majority culture of privilege counsel trust in the system; the lawyers and judge and jury members dealt with the evidence and made informed decisions; that’s how the system works, and no matter our personal opinions, justice was served. Other friends in my peer group lament the shameful injustice embedded in the culture and the legal system that allows for such justifications of predatory vigilantes on the prowl for the marginalized in their midst (I share their lamentation). The passage in Acts gives those of us in the world of assumed privilege a couple of instructive lessons. One, as much as we’d like it to be, the justice system is not always an instrument of God’s authority in the world. Sometimes it is a whitewashed wall, constructed by a rigid fundamentalism and racism that creates clear insiders and outsiders. As much as we’d like for everyone to experience the same sense of assumed safety and security that we white straight men take for granted, it simply doesn’t exist. The second lesson, for those of us in this majority world of privilege who claim to be followers of Jesus, involves the call to live in solidarity with the marginalized of our world. Our faith demands that we take risks that might afford us opportunities to share in the suffering of those who are regularly profiled and stalked and sometimes killed. It was the way of Paul among the early church. More than that, it is the Way of Christ, who from the creation of the world had lived in a position of power and privilege–equal with God–but emptied himself of these presumptions, choosing to live and work and die in solidarity with the suffering of the world. In a world of whitewashed walls dividing insider and outsider, Christ chose to live on the outsider’s side of the wall. People like me who live with presumed privilege will never be able to fully know the feelings and experiences of marginalized and profiled communities. Sometimes we get complacent and comfortable in in our not knowing. But events like the Zimmerman debacle act as clarion wake-up calls. They call those of us on the inside to jump the whitewashed wall and live in full support of those risky efforts led by the marginalized outsiders, efforts to transform our culture and reform our system until it more closely resembles the ideal we dream it to be.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.