Mother Teresa used to say, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
I don’t know what you think of this. It strikes me at first, like a claim from a more innocent time. It seems inadequate in the face of the recently amplified voices of white supremacy, of oppression and intolerance and hatred—perhaps most unnervingly, from the occupant of the White House whose role is supposedly to speak with a moral voice, to represent all the people, not an intolerant few.
It seems inadequate in the echo of extremist voices reviving the language of racial purity and ethnic intolerance. It seems inadequate given these beliefs led to the systematic murder of 7 million Jews and people of color by the Nazi Party of Germany—of people with physical and mental disabilities, and of lesbians and gays and transgendered people who were only trying to be their true selves.
It seems inadequate given the long history of slavery, of overt and covert oppression and malicious intimidation of people of African ancestry these past 400 years. It seems inadequate given the ebb and flow of government policies over the life of our troubled nation that have further privileged the interests of the already protected insiders.
Perhaps a quick reminder of legislative history in the United States might help us to keep things in context here:[i]
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was signed into law by Andrew Jackson, authorizing the forcible removal of Indian nations from their homes to unsettled lands west of the Mississippi. During the fall and winter of 1838, 4000 Cherokees died on the forced march that became known as the “Trail of Tears.” And President Andrew Jackson who authorized this?—His picture is still on our $20 bill, although it was moved to the back in 2016, replaced by the image of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.[ii]
The “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882: This was the first major law restricting immigration to the US. It was enacted in response to economic fears on the West Coast where native-born European Americans tied unemployment and declining wages to Chinese workers whom they also viewed as racially inferior. It was intended to keep out a non-white ethnic group that had grown in numbers with the building of the railroads by halting Chinese immigration for ten years and prohibiting US citizenship to Chinese residents.
1924: the “National Origins Quota” limited immigration according to current demographics effectively favoring people of British and Nordic descent. It was designed to keep out Italians, Jews and others who were coming to the US in large numbers.
From 1931-34, 500,000 people of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the US—a third of the Mexican population. 60% were children who were American citizens. Mexican repatriation was carried out by American authorities and took place without due process.
From 1942-1964, the Bracero Program allowed for the migration of 4 million Mexican farm laborers into the United States to work the fields. These farm workers converted the agricultural fields of America into the most productive on the planet. But the law refused to allow citizenship, so it became the first temporary worker program. Bracero literally means “arm” as if to say, “we want your arms, but not all of you.”
1942-46: Japanese American Internment.
1954: Operation “Wetback” reversed the Bracero program by deporting the large number of non-citizen Mexican farm workers that had been invited in. Nearly a half-million fled for fear of being arrested. Tens of thousands more were caught and deported, often with their children who were American citizens.
And, of course, there was the systematic oppression enshrined in Jim Crow Laws that lasted some 80 years from the end of the Civil War to the 1960s.
But it didn’t end there. More recently we could point to voter-ID laws and gerrymandering that effectively disenfranchise minority voters. We could talk about the war on drugs and the rise of private prisons and laws and policing and prosecutorial practices that systematically incarcerate people of color. The Muslim ban. The wall. Abstinence only education and the perpetuation of the myth that President Obama was not born in the US.
This is only a sample, of course—a heartbreaking one, a tragic one, and a pointed sample, to be sure—of the sordid and complex history we remember as we stand—or sit—whenever the national anthem is played, or when non-violent protestors are killed by vehicles of intimidation and mass destruction. But its also a reminder that Mother Teresa’s admonition to love our family to change the world came from a time that was perhaps no less complicated than today.
The conventional wisdom is that what is happening today is remarkable—and unnerving—in its boldness, and in the support it is receiving from offices of power that have a moral obligation to protect the underprivileged and dispossessed, frightening in the potential to repeat times of tragedy and violence and darkness whose horrors are simply beyond description or understanding. And while there is certainly truth to this, the story of systematic oppression has always been too much a part of our story. Perhaps what has changed of late is that it is harder for those of us who live on the safe side of history to ignore the destruction that continues to be perpetrated on our behalf.
Perhaps the stories we encounter today, of the neat bow Joseph ties for his brothers around their own history of oppression, and the not-so-neat bow of Jesus and the Canaanite woman are just what we need—reminders of our complicity and of God’s power to transform.
I suspect that one of the ways that we can err is to imagine that the only way to follow God is in extremis—that we have to stand out, be a Gandhi or MLK or some historic anomaly personally responsible for a hinge in history, when in reality it is this quiet, gentle, persistent, hopeful work of fiercely blessing and shaping those around, of standing with and speaking on behalf of—that ultimately makes the difference. Loving our family as it were—but being clear that our family is the whole extended mess of creation that Jesus gave to us from the cross.
Don’t get me wrong. Big ideas, followed through, matter. But loving, quietly and persistently, giving ourselves and our privilege and our preferences away for the sake of something bigger—that’s a hard enough thing to do, as we know full well. If we were to get just this right, we might well change the world. We might see God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
And according to these passages, that’s what God seems to be about. The texts live as witnesses to a God who loves us fully and loves our full selves—messy, convoluted, imperfect emotions and all. Joseph’s slobbery tears and messy emotions seem to get all over everything. And Jesus. He needs some margins of grace in this story. He must be tired. His weary intolerance spills out in all sorts of aggression and micro-aggression against this desperate woman who has to take responsibility not only for her behavior, but for his as well.
Alternately, this may be an example of Jesus using the power he has as a male leader in a male-dominated culture, to give the floor to one who would normally be ignored. We might imagine that he is setting the table for her to invite others to see through her eyes and learn. And we could do worse if we were to simply allow our privileged place in society to amplify the voice of another who is ignored and systematically denied the rights we enjoy. To say, as the Spirit of God says at Jesus’ baptism: here is a voice of truth. Listen to her.
Regardless, the woman is up to the task. Should we be surprised that the fire of oppression has given this woman a moral clarity that is so often softened and muddied by my easy life and maybe yours? And Jesus is moved and his followers with him. And the Matthew story pivots on what happens here. Suddenly, despite Jesus’ claim that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the Gentiles become a part of the story. And for us, the Mexicans and the Guatemalans and the Nicaraguans and the Middle-Easterners too. Suddenly Jesus’ mission changes. And the Apostle Paul’s will too, reflecting the historic turn toward a religion that is more than narrow tribalism, but a full-throated embrace of all people.
This is, of course, our hope. And it is the work of this gospel and its call back to the whole human family for which God bends history, and the whole quiet creation that suffers at the hands of our abuse and still sings of God’s majesty.
I can’t say with certainty what your work is to do as a child of God, and as a disciple of Jesus the Messiah. But I know you have work to do, as do I. All I can say, figure it out. And do it.
Do it with the persistence and hope of Joseph. Do it with the humility and the courage of Jesus. Do it, as if the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Justice, the Spirit of God is within you. Because she is there, stoking that fire, calling out to you to mend the world.
Thanks be to God.
[i] These events are summarized in class notes from a 2011 DMin class led by Dr. Charlene Jin Lee at SFTS called “Self, Other, and Community.”
[ii] In 2016 Andrew Jackson’s image was moved to back of the $20, with Harriet Tubman’s image appearing on the front. See NYTimes article “Harriet Tubman Ousts Andrew Jackson in Change for a $20” April 20, 2016. Retrieved August 19, 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/us/women-currency-treasury-harriet-tubman.html?mcubz=1&_r=0.