I’ve been reading a book this week as part of my Lenten disciplines, called: ‘How to be Less Stupid about Race’, by Crystal M. Fleming. In it, she describes the process by which she, a black queer bisexual associate professor educated at Harvard finally tuned into the meaning and implications of racism. She records her dawning horror as she began to recognise her own privilege and entitlement accrued through her education, study and position while being treated as ‘special’ by the white powerful people around her. Over time she has completely changed her understanding of what white supremacy means to her life and the lives of all black people around the world as she shares this wisdom with those who are interested. It is an extraordinary book to read.
My reason for starting my reflection with this introduction is because we are exploring the Gospel text Mark 8:31-38, which comes after Jesus had been recognised and acknowledged as the Messiah by Peter and the other disciples in the preceding verses Mark 8:27-30.
It is clear Jesus’ disciples have not yet understood what it is to be one of Jesus’ followers rather than simply a disciple or student learning from an impressive teacher. At this point in Mark’s gospel, these are disciples who still do not understand and who may not accept Jesus’ way of living in God in the world. They do not understand the implications of God’s will being done on earth, made clear and real in the actual presence of the Son of Man, as it is in heaven, with God’s justice, peace and love.
All of which takes Jesus inevitably to a cruel, suffering death on a cross at the hands of his community. So predictable was this outcome given the state of the world’s powers and principalities and their response to any resistance by anyone to their worldview, it meant Jesus was able to give a very good description of what was going to happen to him.
For the disciples at this point, the idea the Son of Man, the Messiah, would suffer and die brutally at the hands of the religious and political leaders was in complete contrast to the Jewish expectations of God’s Messiah which were about triumph, power and authority. They anticipated with hope, the violence, revenge and punishment which would be inflicted on those who had cruelly oppressed the Jewish people. A not unreasonable desire you might think, particularly if you are in the same situation of oppression as are many around the world at the moment.
We too frequently ignore the consequences of being non-violent and loving, this implication of personal suffering and death being our lot. Rather, we seem to choose selfishly out of greed and fear, our preference for violence, punishment and scapegoating to triumph, conquer, kill and overcome.
I wonder if our inability to focus, accept and practice Jesus’ way of life means we focus instead on Jesus’ sufferings and death, once and for all, precisely so we won’t have to live in the same way. We look to spread the load and let Jesus carry us all as his cross and by hanging on the cross for us we can slide through life taking the easy path and not making the different choices we would if we truly followed Jesus.
The constant focus on the suffering of Jesus alone has the capacity to exclude the suffering of others from our view, and it lets us off the hook. The text also speaks to a current theological problem in Christianity: the so-called prosperity gospel which is a deliberate misleading of God’s good news which is appalling.
However, I am adamant about this. I am jumping up and down and waving to get your attention on this matter. The suffering of the whole world and choosing to reframe it to suit our current privileged understanding of justice with kindly generosity does not change anything for our neighbours or for us.
In Australia and around the world, we continue to agree to the deliberate wiping out of individuals, their stories and lives. We disappear them from view in our world; we take them out of our lives as we reflect and give thanks for our blessings from God as a privileged few. This is a really sad way to live and is not life-giving in God’s kingdom.
In our unquestioning acceptance of our privilege, our refusal to change our perspectives and the continued creation of a comfortable white, nationalistic God through which we accept our society as better than other countries, the acceptance of the world’s misfortunes and feeding our own sense of powerlessness, means we have successfully removed the need for us to do anything differently.
We’ve removed our responsibility as Christians to see more clearly what is happening to others suffering as we focus on protecting ourselves. Just listen to Peter, who:
Took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:32-33)
The word ‘rebuke’ is the same word Jesus uses when dealing with the demons and evil spirits. It is the harshest criticism Jesus gives to his disciples and Peter. We should be in no doubt about Jesus’ frustration. At this point I think we stand with Peter and the disciples, wondering if we are simply disciples or are we truly followers; do we want to go where Jesus is going and live like Jesus is living?
Unless we are prepared to discard all our notions of the world and our view of what is right and wrong, socially, economically and politically, we will continue to be disciples, following our ways, not Jesus’ way.
If we have not understood Jesus’ message or experienced the shock of realisation at what we contribute to and collude in with our privilege and entitlement, our particular demands of others to meet our needs and standards will always break those less fortunate than ourselves. We will always find ourselves refusing them full, unequivocal entry, affirmation and welcome into our world. They will never be visible, wanted and loved.
Jesus said (Mark 8:34-38):
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words …of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Jesus reminds us while we might refuse entry to those who don’t fit our world view, let us be very clear, this is what will be the consequence of our choices when it comes to God’s kingdom if we have not understood what it is to be a follower and have continued to take the worldly path for gain in this world.
Our willingness to listen and learn, be engaged with God and our neighbours is our Lenten journey and our Easter celebration.
The Lord be with you.