Iris de León-Hartshorn is associate director of Operations for Mennonite Church USA. This two part series is based on a sermon Iris gave at Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church on MLK weekend.
The story of the rich man is also a story of the possibility of redemption for a man whose riches have become a stumbling block to following Jesus. Many who look at this story, might presume it’s about rich people, but I beg to differ. This story is about those unable to follow Jesus because of the privileges that possess them. Martin Luther King Jr. saw that the stumbling block in America was whiteness, and we could push that further to say white privilege. The surge of hate crimes and utter disdain for people of color these last few years is not new. The need to protect whiteness is strong and has a long history in the U.S.
Here in Portland, for some of us, life feels safe. We see ourselves as a liberal and well-educated community. The truth is, our state is one of the top states experiencing an increase in hate crimes, with half of those crimes happening in Eugene, Oregon. I was shocked recently at the grocery store as a woman told me to go back where I came from to justify getting in front of a long line where the majority of people were Latino and African American. At first, I was surprised. An older man in his 80s with a cane, who was actually first in line, stood there in silence. I was about to say something when the old man grabbed my arm and in Spanish whispered in my ear, “She is not worth it, let it go.” The most hurtful in this whole incident was that all the cashiers (who were white) witnessed the incident and said nothing. Instead, they cheerfully waited on the woman. Not one white person there stood up to her.
Within the same week, I was out having ice cream with my family, and there must have been about eight other people in the store. A white couple started to walk in, but the man stopped suddenly, turned to the woman and said loudly, “Let’s get out of here, there’s a bunch of foreigners in here.” I looked around the store, and I saw African Americans, a Japanese couple and Latinos. I guess he meant that since there were no white people there, we were all foreigners. These occurrences and worse have become a new “normal” for people of color across the country.
I ask myself, where are the Christians? Why are white people who are witnessing the events keeping quiet?
I see people willing to videotape incidents or call the police (which is not always helpful) but choose not to intervene in the moment. When I hear stories about how people attack children and the elderly, while others stand there and watch or walk away, it breaks my heart.
These micro and macro aggressions take a mental toll on people of color. Last month when I went to my doctor for a checkup, she asked how I was doing. I stopped and thought, and instead of giving my normal reply, “I am doing fine,” I explained that I had no energy and how at times, I felt sadness overcome me, and how I’ve been experiencing panic attacks. She sat down next to me and told me she knew exactly how I felt. You see my doctor is from India, and she told me 80-90 percent of her patients that are people of color are coming in with similar symptoms. The daily assault on black lives, immigrants, brown people, native people, and anyone not identified as “white” is impacting people’s health and lives. In December, I went off Facebook for the month, curtailed watching the news and stayed home, because I felt my mental health was at risk.
According to my wonderful grandson, I’m not the hippest person in the world, but I try to keep up with what artist and musicians are doing as a commentary of what’s going in our country. I ran across a music video directed by Spike Lee for the song Land of the Free by The Killers, an alternative rock group from Las Vegas. Here are a few verses:
When I go out in my car, I don’t think twice
But if you’re the wrong color skin (I’m standing, crying)
You grow up looking over both your shoulders
In the land of the free
And we got more people locked up than the rest of the world
Right here in red, white and blue (I’m standing, crying)
Incarceration’s become big business
It’s harvest time out on the avenue
Down at the border, they’re gonna put up a wall
Concrete and Rebar Steel beams (I’m standing crying)
High enough to keep all those filthy hands off
Of our hopes and our dreams (I’m standing crying)
People who just want the same things we do
In the land of the free
This song spoke to me for several reasons, but the second verse about the border wall hit me. I told my doctor that I hadn’t slept for a few days, because I could not get the image of the children, nearing the border entrance, being gassed by tear gas out of my mind. My doctor suggested I quit my job; explaining that maybe I’m too exposed to this ugliness. And you know, I have thought about quitting and living in a cabin up in the mountains. Then I think about Jesus. What if, on his way to Jerusalem, he had decided this messy world is for the birds. What if he’d decided, I’m out of here? Where would we be?
The rich man made a choice. We all have a choice as to whether we are committed to radical discipleship, knowing we will make mistakes or not. Will we work together toward redemption in a country that desperately needs to be redeemed?
The work seems overwhelming, but we are not alone in this work. Remember Jesus says in Matthew, “For mortals, it is impossible [to be saved], but for God all things are possible.” Yes alone we can’t redeem the soul of America, but with God it is possible.
As a Christian, I must ask myself where my hope lies. My hope lies in Jesus Christ. In the story of the rich man, people were redeemed when they chose to follow Jesus in radical discipleship. Change is scary. Giving up something, whether it’s riches, whiteness or privilege we depend on may seem impossible unless we fully put our faith and hope in Jesus. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. knew our hope was not dependent on reason, political strategies or moral courage but ultimately in God.
Let me leave you with these words from Dr. King in an article entitled Pilgrimage to Non-Violence, that he wrote in 1958.
Granted that we face a world crisis which often leaves us standing amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark, confused world, the Spirit of God may yet reign supreme.
We do have a choice, and I pray we are bold enough to choose to follow Jesus no matter the cost.
May there be more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word.