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The following passage from both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels require a lot of context:
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23)
Anyone taking this passage out of its context in and applying it to just any cause or work that they may be involved with is overreaching and assuming too much of themselves, their work, and the actions and attitudes of others. We must also add to our discussion here what these passages might mean for a non-Christian humanist to hear Jesus (and the Christians who speak for him now) say “You’re either with me or against me.” I think it is a mistake for Christians today to characterize non-Christians as necessarily being “against Jesus” just because they may disagree on the subjects of cosmology, ontology, religion, and practice. This may sound out of step with what has been typical of Christians throughout history. But I don’t believe one has to embrace a 1st Century worldview, as Jesus had, to find much in Jesus’ teachings from his own time and place that can inform our work in our own contexts today. Christians and non-Christians alike are working toward humanity’s survival, holistic ways of resisting oppression, liberation of those who are being subjugated and marginalized, concrete, material restoration of and reparation toward peoples who have systemically had everything taken from them, and the transformation of our world into a safer, just, and more compassionate world for us. (For a history of how secularists and certain tolerant “believers” have worked together in pioneering societal reforms in America’s past see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.) A person may find their own goals and even their methods have much in common with the Jewish Jesus of long ago, and yet they may not answer the larger more philosophical and religious questions the way many Christians around them do today. I think it would be very sad for Christians and non-Christians both to hear this passage in an excluding, religious context rather than a societally transformative, liberating one.
Is there a context in which the above statement could be a true statement?
I want to offer just such an example. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the now-famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter was written after King had been jailed in response to the Birmingham campaign which had begun on April 3, 1963. The Birmingham campaign was a series of marches and sit-ins Birmingham, Alabama. On April 10 a Circuit Judge in Birmingham (Jenkins) ordered all “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” to be illegal. In the spirit of nonviolent noncooperation and resistance, King and the other leaders of the campaign refused to obey. King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth on April 12.
In Rieder’s Gospel of Freedom, in the chapter titled Meet Me in Galilee Rieder states, ”King was placed alone in a dark cell, with no mattress, and denied a phone call. Was Connor’s aim, as some thought, to break him?” Also on April 12, “A Call for Unity” was published in a local newspaper by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The Letter from Birmingham Jail is King’s response.
While the whole letter is very much worth your contemplation, there is a section that is applicable to this week’s saying:
“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Remember, in the context of our passage, Jesus has been accused of being evil while all along he is actually engaged in the work of both personal and social liberation for the oppressed. (See Luke 4.18-19.) He has just been accused of being a conduit of Beelzubul. How many today are working for social or societal justice while being accused by certain Christians of being “of the devil?” The work of ending the suffering for so many is being labeled as dangerous and of “the satan” in an effort to prevent certain people’s position of power and privilege within their society from being threatened. This would have been a perfectly appropriate context for a first-century Jewish liberation rabbi of the people to make the above statement.
Today, I hear comments such as, “I simply want to stay neutral. I don’t want to take sides.” And certainly, there are cases where that would be acceptable. But in the case of oppression, where the status quo empowers injustice, neutrality IS taking a side. It’s taking the side of oppression. Robert McAfee Brown, in his book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes, quotes Desmond Tutu as saying, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (p.19) Tutu’s statement reminds me of the title of Howard Zinn’s 2002 book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times. We fail to realize that neutrality is an illusion when one is already complicit and benefiting from systems of injustice. Jesus, in this week’s saying, is forcing those in possessions of power and privilege to actively pick a side. The deception that one can just stay neutral in matters of injustice is a lie.
In all both texts above, this statement comes in the context Jesus efforts toward the liberation of the oppressed within his society and the religious leaders of his day claiming that he was actually an agency of evil. Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil to be something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. From a desire to preserve the status quo, this same dynamic has been repeated over and over again, especially within the history of very vocal sectors of Christianity here in America
I want to emphasize that this is only within sectors of Christianity. Those Christians who are typically in a position of societal power and privilege are the ones we see this dynamic repeated in. An example is in the white Bible belt of the South. White Christianity fought hard against the civil rights movement. Christian schools began, their history is rooted in, an attempt at an alternative education choice to avoid having to embrace integration. The history of Christian education in the south is deeply mired in attempts by White Christians to not have to have their white children going to school alongside of Black children. The Black Christian tradition, on the other hand, was on the receiving end of this bigotry. So I want to be careful to state, typically in prominent sectors of Christianity specifically sectors where we find those who are in positions of power and benefit, it is these sectors that we have witnessed this dynamic most often.
Whether it be:
- White Christians resisting social change for black lives,
- Male Christians, both black and white, resisting social change for women,
- White Female Christians resisting change for black men and women,
- Upper-class Christians resisting change of the lower economic classes,
- Or Straight, Cisgender Christians resisting change for those whose sexuality is fluid and who identify as being gender nonconforming.
This history has been repeated over and over again.
Over the past few months, I again have been overwhelmed with White Christian critiques of those working for social justice today. I have also been amazed by those who repeatedly remain silent in the wake of injustice. This silence is compounded by that fact that these same voices typically choose to put their voices to something when it finally concerns themselves. We desire to follow a Jesus who taught the universal golden rule of treating others the way we would like to be treated. Speaking out when it only concerns oneself is a wholly unrecognizable practice from the Jesus we desire to follow. I will admit that these practices are usually made by Christians within the context of gross ignorance of the actual injustice and suffering that is actually be stood up against. They come from a demographic who don’t have a sweet clue what it’s like to live on this planet as anyone other than a person just like themselves. They haven’t stopped to listen to what it’s like to experience life for those they have in their hearts, minds, speech, and actions, othered.
Again, it is one thing to be deceived and mistake something that is actually evil to be something good. We’ve all made that mistake. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, and accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many.
It is in contexts such as these that even moderate neutrality is opposition. It is in contexts such as these that one’s silence is complicity. It is in contexts such as these that calls for nonviolence can themselves be violent. It is in contexts such as these that calls for unity are simply veiled attempts at maintaining a status quo.