Another Saturday morning, another vile stream of racist and/or misogynistic tweets from the President. This past Saturday, Trump turned his attention toward Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland. I suppose that it was entirely predictable that this would happen eventually. Rep. Cummings chairs the important House Oversight Committee that has all sorts of things in its sights that the President would just as soon we ignore, Cummings has been a frequent and vocal critic of the tragedies that continue to unfold on our southern border, and—of course—Elijah Cummings is a person of color. It was only a matter of time.
Trump’s tweets focused not only on Cummings, but also on Cummings’ district, whgich includes portions of the city of Baltimore. Some lowlights [capitalization, grammar, and punctuation courtesy of Donald J. Trump]:
Rep. Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA . . .
Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place
Why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States. No human being would want to live there . . .
Cummings’ district is populated predominantly by people of color, people who, according to Donald Trump, apparently are closer to rats and rodents than human beings (since no human being would want to live there). A chilling choice of words for anyone who knows anything about how certain people were described in 1930s Germany. But not at all unusual for this President.
During an Oval Office conversation about immigration in January 2018, the President in frustration referred to Haiti and African countries as “shithole” countries, wanting to know why we would want to have more immigrants from such places rather than seeking to attract more people from non-shithole countries like Norway. Outrage and analysis of his comments ensued over the next several days—what struck me as a moment of synchronicity is when I noted later in the day what was on tap the following Sunday in the lectionary gospel reading.
In the first chapter of John, the author provides some vignettes of how Jesus attracted his first followers during the early days of his ministry. One of his new followers, Philip, immediately goes to tell his friend Nathaniel about the charismatic Jesus:
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets write, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I was by no means the first to notice this connection; it was all over social media within hours after Trump’s vulgarities were reported. My friend Mitch, rector of the Episcopal church I attend, noted at the beginning of his Sunday homily that the three-year cycle of liturgical readings were set in place more than two decades ago, yet if one were to select the most appropriate gospel text in response to the racist, elitist, and xenophobic comments on full display the previous week, this passage from John 1 would have been the one. “It’s the Holy Spirit at work,” Mitch said. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
In current vernacular, Nathaniel is doubting that anything good, let alone the promised Messiah, could possibly come from a “shithole” town like Nazareth. Nazareth, in the first century, was a minuscule town of only 200 to 400 people, where people lived in small stone houses; archaeologists tell us that garbage was dumped in its alleyways. Nazareth was a nowhere town in the middle of a comparatively nowhere part of the eastern Roman empire. Nathaniel’s prejudice and preconceptions tell him that Nazareth was the lowest of the low, just as the President’s comments revealed a similar prejudice concerning countries largely populated by people with dark skin as well as with different priorities and concerns than those he shares with his base.
Bottom line, the gospel stories tell us over and over again that Jesus was born in “shithole” circumstances surrounded by animals and, once he returned with his family from Egypt where they had fled for their lives as refugees, made his home in a “shithole” town that never produced anything worthwhile. God, in other words, came from a “shithole” place. And during his time on earth, he pointedly asked us to welcome him wherever and whenever he appeared as a stranger, or as one of our “least” brothers and sisters. Just about the only thing that the God of love presented in the gospels hates is when we ignore those persons who are easily dismissed as unimportant or even dangerous with a vulgar word, phrase, or worse.
Philip’s answer to Nathaniel’s dismissive prejudice is the most effective response possible: “Come and see.” Set your preconceptions and what you think you “know” aside for a moment and just take a look at what’s actually going on. And within a handful of verses, Nathaniel is all in. Real life evidence and experience has a tendency to do just that—dissolve even our deepest prejudices with the acid of the truth. To those contemporary persons elected to fashion humane policies concerning immigration reform, it’s worth remembering that somewhere in each of our family trees is someone, usually dozens of people, who came from exactly the sort of “shithole” places that the President and Nathaniel want nothing to do with. Our collective national history and our greatest accomplishments are due in large part to the efforts of those no one else wanted. It is also worth remembering that Jesus himself was one of “the least of these” from a “shithole” town. And look how that turned out.