The word racism is so bandied about in this current climate that I am even hearing it come out of the mouths of my young children. I’m not sure where they picked it up, but I occasionally hear them accuse each other of racism, in a joking way, or, when commenting on the color of something–say a car, or the sky–hear some small voice admonish, ‘don’t be racist.’ I plan, as a good mother, to delve into the source of this knowledge and inquire what sort of conversations they are having with their friends, or what they might have heard me say, and what they think the word really means. And I will, when I can have a calm, collected moment and the children are really paying attention–such time should surely arise before the apocalypse, shouldn’t it?
Truly, though, I find racism the most boring of all idolatries. It’s so facile, so cruelly obvious to write somebody off, to deny his humanity because of what he looks like. Why not try for some more subtle bigotry? Although, of course, this one has sent its roots down so deep that if you want nuance, you will eventually find it.
The accusation of racism is so current, so in the air, so much a part of the fabric of social discourse, that, as I was mulling over to myself the relationship between Cain and Abel I muttered aloud, ‘that was the most racist.’ Matt overheard me and said he thought not. But how is it different really?
Because Cain hated his brother Abel. Hated him. Hated him enough to kill him. And why? Abel was leaving well enough alone, tending his own flock, carrying on with his own life. But there was something twisted and bitter inside of Cain–something so ugly, so perverse that instead of hating himself he turned outward, the reverse one might say, of the outflowing work of agape, and hated his brother. It was the second sin. The first, of course, being that his father Adam woke up to feel that he didn’t need a life with God. It follows naturally that his son would believe that he didn’t need a life with other people.
Hatred, the projection of the twisted and marred and ugly self onto another, is anti-agape. Agape is the free gift of the self for the good of another. Jesus is, in himself, in his Person, agape. Not only does it define what he did, but who he is.
So it follows that everybody had to hate him. Especially for drawing to the light, and then condemning, this peculiar inclination to project the sin of the self onto others. ‘Why are you worrying about what you’re going to eat?’ he asks the gathered throngs. ‘Don’t you know that it’s what comes out of you that’s corrupting and vile, not what goes in?’ You are the problem, not the food, not everyone else. So of course they had to kill him, much like Cain picked up his rock to kill Abel.But unlike the death of Abel, which was futile, unjust, hateful, accomplishing nothing except many more generations of bloodshed, Jesus’ death re-subverted the subversion of agape. Adam and Cain took God’s agape and turned it over upside down to make it into its opposite, but then Jesus came and put it back the right way up again.
Not very many people noticed, of course, at the time. Just like not very many people notice when true Christians–people who find their hateful hearts overturned by grace, by mercy, by this same agape–gather together over bleak urns of coffee and stale donuts and try to carry each other along, constantly looking past the obvious boring differences of race, ethnicity, and class to get to the deep subtleties of personal insecurity, trauma, disappointment, bitterness, generations deep dysfunction and loss. You stand there, chatting vaguely, enumerating your own list of problems over to yourself, only to find that the person you’re talking to has revealed some great unhappiness. And then you don’t know what to do, so you offer to pray. Maybe you pray right there over the vegetable platter. And the God who made you both hears, and goes into that dark place.
Because, funnily enough, there is one thing that matters if it goes in. It’s not the day old, sick inducing glutinous donuts, nor the locally sourced, ethical chocolate. It’s Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. He can go into that dark villainous place and come out again through your mouth, through the actions of your heart, not into the futility of the gutter, the ground, the rubbish bin of historical hatreds, but as a re-enactment of the very work of the cross, the overturning of the hatred and sin of the world.
And, while nobody on the news or on Twitter might see this great reversal, this overturning of that second, ugly sin, it will not go completely unnoticed. Indeed, the only One who matters sees. God himself sees it all, every speck, every grain of belief, every moment of turning away from the self and towards the other. Nothing escapes his perfect gaze.
So why not face down the body of his believers today, go struggle along with all the other people who, no matter what they look like, in the center of the self, are just like you…sinful, corrupt, wrong, but entirely and catastrophically forgiven.