Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 21:17-36) transports me to Asheville’s 240 Bypass in the middle of a blizzard in January, 2003. I almost wrecked the truck when I remembered just as I got to exit 7 that the movie Undercover Brother was due out on DVD that very day, and I foolishly slammed on the brakes and swerved over two lanes to get to the exit so I could go by Blockbuster and rent it. I had been waiting for months to get the movie and show it to Kim, ever since I saw it by myself on a service trip, when all the others in my group went to see the Ya Ya Sisterhood. Undercover Brother, a satire on the blaxploitation films of the 70s, was one of the funniest movies I’d ever seen (and apparently I’m one of the few people who think so; Kim didn’t share my enthusiasm when she saw it). Here’s the premise: Black culture is on the decline due to the insidious efforts of a secret organization led by “The Man.” Eddie Griffith plays Undercover Brother, a throwback to the 70s stereotypical black culture (in terms of food preferences, music, sexuality, hair styles, etc). He discovers and joins forces with the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to preserve black culture and battle The Man. You’ll just have to watch it to see how it all plays out, as Sistah Girl and Conspiracy Brother and Smart Brother and the token White Brother (who joined the group out of guilt after watching Roots) train Undercover Brother to infiltrate white culture and “pass” as a nerd in order to get to The Man. A guest appearance by James Brown adds a nice touch.
When Luke documented the history of the early church in the book of Acts, he was hardly writing a John Ridley satirical comedy. But this particular episode has some similarities. The Jewish community, a minority group in the Roman Empire, felt that their culture was under attack. Efforts by The Man to assimilate them into the larger culture threatened their identity. The Jewish culture had come to be defined by mores related to food preferences, circumcision, hair styles, etc. The context of our passage today is a time when Christianity was still largely seen as a Jewish sect; Paul’s outreach to the Gentile community was seen as a threat to the integrity of Judaism. So when he comes to Jerusalem, some of his friends immediately grab him and say, brother Paul, you’ve got to do some undercover work. He has to try and pass as a faithful Jew, by participating in one of the public hair-cutting rituals, to prove to the community that he is not a threat. Further, they tell him they’ve sent some instructions to the Gentile believers, telling them how to act so they can pass among the Jews. Paul complies, participates in the ritual, but it doesn’t work. He is outed by some in the crowd who don’t buy his act. They accuse him of identity theft, claiming he has defiled the temple by bringing some of the Man’s folks, Gentiles, into their sacred space. A melee breaks out; there is an ironic follow-up to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple as they toss Paul out and he is nearly beaten to death. One of the Man’s military commanders hears the ruckus and comes to the temple with some of his soldiers and quells the unrest. The Roman rescues Paul by arresting him and carrying him off, out of harm’s way.
Christians are often quick to pass judgment on those early Jews, critiquing them for their cultural identity markers–the strict emphasis on dietary laws, circumcision, hair styles, etc. And then we can look back and see two thousand years of history when the church has defined itself on the basis of various cultural markers–food and drink, hair styles, music, sexuality, etc. Many a melee has broken out over these and other fears of assimilation and perceived threats to the integrity of our community of faith. Whether or not we can use contraception and what kind of couples can enjoy the blessing of marriage raise the most recent questions of identity. In the midst of all these culture wars, we can remain hopeful that there is an Undercover Brother in our midst, the incognito Christ, who reminds us all, Jew and Christian, that our true identities are not wrapped up in cultural mores, but in how we love one another and how we care for the least of these among us. Say it loud.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.