I go to church with a lot of people who have bad teeth.
It is one of the reasons I love the church where I get to preach. That may sound odd, but if you don’t go to a church that is filled with cavities or dentures, I think something may be wrong with your church.
A couple of years ago, there was an article in the New York Times written by Sarah Smarsh-Aeon called The shame of poor teeth in a rich world in which Mrs. Aeon describes growing up in Southern poverty, and the stigmas that she saw, and that still exist. It was a fascinating essay to me, because I also grew up in the South, below the poverty line, and around the same kinds of people that Mrs. Aeon was describing.
My dad has had false teeth since I can remember, and I knew almost no one who went to the dentist. As a result, I grew up with a lot of people who had bad or missing teeth, some who lived in a lot of pain, and dreamed about the day when they could have their teeth pulled.
A few weeks ago, I saw someone who I hadn’t seen for a while at the church where I preach. As we were catching up, I asked her how she was doing, and what was going on in her life. Then she began to tell me that the reason she hadn’t been to church is because she had recently had all of her teeth pulled, and was too embarrassed to come to church without any teeth. When she finally had her dentures, it took her a while before she could talk without them moving, or her whistling through them and drawing more unwanted attention to them.
I would imagine that is not a problem that most of the people reading this right now have ever had, but it is one I have heard several times in my life. I once heard Oprah say that when we meet new people, we size each other up based on two or three initial impressions, things like wardrobe and skin color, and teeth. One of the first things that we use to evaluate new people in our lives, are their teeth. This is why that NY Times article resonated with me so much, because I know a lot of people who don’t smile because they are ashamed of what they look like. And before you start thinking about this being their fault, remember this isn’t just the product of eating too many sweets and not flossing enough, the poor rarely have access to dental health care. And then we judge them for it. And we do judge them.
Here is the way Aeon says it:
It’s become less acceptable in recent decades to make racist or sexist statements, but blatant classism generally goes unchecked. See the hugely successful blog People of Walmart that, through submitted photographs, viciously ridicules people who look like contemporary US poverty: the elastic waistbands and jutting stomachs of diabetic obesity, the wheelchairs and oxygen tanks of gout and emphysema … Poor teeth, I knew, beget not just shame but more poorness: people with bad teeth have a harder time getting jobs and other opportunities.
This is the reason my friend didn’t want to come to church until she had adjusted enough to her dentures so that you couldn’t tell they were dentures. It is why she was embarrassed every time a slight whistle escaped while she was talking; because she was ashamed of her teeth, or the lack thereof.
A few years ago, I read a great little book called Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes, where two missionaries talk about what they learned about how to read the Bible while living in Asia. It is a great book, and I highly recommend it, but I especially latched onto one thing the authors just mentioned in passing. They were talking about what Jesus would have looked like, and how we American Christians have pictured him like a white male movie star. But they pointed out:
In antiquity, no one brushed their teeth. Wisdom teeth were a gift from the Lord because by the time they came in, you needed them! (Wisdom teeth became a problem only in the last century when we began to keep all our teeth.) But think about it: Can you imagine a Jesus who doesn’t have all his teeth? It seems like heresy to suggest otherwise … Weight control and oral hygiene are Western virtues, not ancient ones — nor, arguably, biblical ones.
Over the past few years, I can’t tell you how many of my brothers and sisters living below the poverty line and with teeth in poor conditions I’ve shared that with.
Jesus doesn’t look like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. There is a very good chance that the Son of God, by the time He started his ministry, didn’t have teeth.
At Highland, the past couple of years, we’ve partnered with area dentists to host a free weekend of dental services for those who can’t afford dental care. And each year, hundreds of people line up to have teeth pulled, cavities filled, and smiles restored. If you are a dentist reading this, may God bless you and your work. I hope you find great satisfaction in what you do. I also hope that you would consider donating a sizeable portion of your time to serving people who could never afford your services.
I am obviously not against dental care, but I am against a church culture that so mirrors the culture around her, that she makes people who can’t afford it feel ashamed to show up.
Because, if we don’t have a place for people with poor teeth, then we wouldn’t have a place for Jesus.