Reflection: Go Back

by | Jul 22, 2019

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.         

Philemon 15-16

It seems to me that we Americans are more frequently running into what I’d call “parallel universe” experiences.  As social and traditional media prove and amplify the impact of particular actions and statements, we are becoming more aware of experiences of different groups in our communities—experiences that in the past were largely unknown.

One early example of this came out of the O.J. Simpson trial some years back, when the question of unfair police treatment of African-Americans came up.  That may have been the first time the general press discussed the disparity between how police were seen by dominant culture communities and communities of color, especially African-Americans.  This has been expanded in recent months by the plethora of reports of people calling the police against innocent people who are “living while black.”  In December 2018, a list was compiled of times in 2018 alone when police were called on African-Americans, including:

Unlocking the door to his own business
Golfing too slowly
Waiting for a friend at Starbucks
Barbecuing at a park
Working out at a gym
Campaigning for elected office door to door (she won!)
Moving into an apartment
Shopping for clothes for the prom
Taking a nap in a university common room (as a registered student)
Asking for directions
Not waving while leaving an Airbnb
Redeeming a coupon
Driving his white grandmother home from church
Babysitting two white children
Working as a home inspector
Working as a firefighter
Delivering newspapers
Swimming in a pool
Shopping while pregnant
And many more . . .

As I was editing this list (to shorten it), I noticed that even when blacks were with whites, this added to the problem—for instance, it was assumed that the young man driving with his white grandmother was robbing her.  (A sad footnote is that the person who alerted the police in this instance was also black—studies have shown that all of us have absorbed racial stereotypes, even against ourselves.)

These situations seem so outrageous that past reports were not believed.  It’s only because people can now use their phones to record videos of the incidents (and post them on social media) that this phenomenon is being exposed.  I remember being in seminary over 20 years ago, when a black student heard a “thud” in his neighbor’s apartment in student housing—he went to her door to make sure she was okay, and she called the police on him.

Another “parallel universe” experience came with the rise of the “Me Too” movement, when reports of various kinds of sexual harassment and violence were made known.  I was surprised to hear men express their shock and surprise that these incidents occurred, because I would guess that just about every woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment—men exposing themselves, making sexually suggestive and sometimes coercive remarks, touching or kissing inappropriately and without permission, and far worse.

And now, people are reacting to the words “go back where you came from.”  As people discussed this phrase, I noticed how it touched an old and deep wound within me.  I noticed how commentators thought the phrase has been attributed only to recent immigrants, or conversely how it can be used more locally, like when New Yorkers move south, or Californians move north.  I realized that dominant culture folks didn’t know how pervasively that phrase (or its variations, such as “go back to Africa” or “where are you really from?”) has been used to tell people of color and non-Christians that we do not belong, that we will never be seen as fully American, no matter how long our people have been here.  The New York Times asked on its website to share times they were told this, and almost instantaneously, they got over 16,000 responses—from African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others.

In the years after Jesus came to be one of us, some of his followers lived out their faith in amazing ways.  In a highly segregated, classist society, the early Christian church received Gentiles and Jews, women and men, slaves and slave owners, poor and wealthy, illiterate and educated, and people with varied levels of citizenship status.  I think we need to emulate the apostle Paul, who by his own account was Jewish, well-educated, a Roman citizen, self-employed, and a sinful persecutor of Christians, and used his own background to reach out to those whose inclusion in the early church was resisted.  In his letter to Philemon, Paul very delicately appeals to a slave owner to receive back his escaped slave not as a slave, but as a beloved brother.  What a bold appeal!  Philemon could have affirmed that the slave Onesimus broke the law, and even if freed legally, the class difference is undeniable—yet Paul urges that the past be erased, and that Philemon now see Onesimus as a peer, a family member, forever.

Too often we Presbyterians find ourselves disrespecting fellow members as not Presbyterian enough, or as new Christians, and unconsciously we make these judgments based on race, immigrant status, or education level.  May we follow our Biblical tradition and see the new creation that Jesus brings out in each of us, and love one another as family—whether or not they look like us, agree with us, or have known us for decades.  And as we receive each other as family, may we listen to each others’ stories, and care for each others’ hurts, that together we may be the loving, vulnerable, and persevering body of Christ we are called to be.

Over the next two weeks, you will not see much of me, as I am trying to take some time off, and then will be going to the Big Tent in Baltimore.  I should be back starting August 7.  And over the next few months, I have invited our Presbytery staff to write their own reflections on their ministries among us, to give you better perspective on the work they do on our behalf.  I look forward to our growing understanding of the ways we can serve Christ and Christ’s people as individuals, churches, and the Presbytery of San Gabriel.

In Christ,