Mobs and Prejudice

Friday, July 29, 2011 — — Week of Proper 12, Year One

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 976)

Psalms 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 (morning) 73 (evening)

2 Samuel 5:1-12

Acts 17:1-15

Mark 7:24-37

I’ve been reading recently about the events of my childhood as we begin to reach the fifty year mark since the days of the civil rights movement. Newspapers and some television stations are doing retrospectives now about the Freedom Riders of 1961. In that year, white and black volunteers rode interstate busses into the South to challenge the Jim Crow segregationist laws. The 1960 Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia struck down discriminatory laws in restrooms, waiting rooms and restaurants in bus terminals serving interstate travelers. The court’s ruling was ignored in much of the South.

In May, 1961, the Freedom Riders left Washington, D. C. on Greyhound and Trailways busses to challenge the Jim Crow practices. In many places, particularly in Alabama, local law officials allowed mobs to attack and beat the riders. A bus was burned and its riders nearly lynched in Anniston, Alabama. Violence against them in Birmingham was organized by the Ku Klux Klan, with the particular leadership of Police Sergeant Tom Cook, a Klan member, and the infamous police Commissioner Bull Conner. The Riders were terribly beaten in Birmingham, and one with a serious head wound was refused admission to a Methodist hospital.

New Riders replaced those who had been injured. The beatings continued in Montgomery. In Jackson, Mississippi, law officers protected the Riders from mob threats, but arrested them by the bus-full. Some 300 Riders were arrested in Mississippi and then treated with multiple indignities in jail, especially in the state’s penitentiary in Parchman. The Freedom Rides continued throughout the South, but especially into Jackson, until the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued an order that would enforce the court ruling in November, 1961.

People were shocked by the disorder, violence, and racial animosity that was stirred up by the Freedom Riders. Much of the criticism was directed toward the Riders, not only in the South, but also in the North. Popular opinion often supported the local law enforcement’s actions to uphold their laws and frowned on outside agitators whose only purpose seemed to be to stir up trouble and to break laws. Even the national press often portrayed the Riders negatively.

Some of these stories came to mind as I read today’s New Testament passages. Paul and his companions invoked violent reactions in their own travels across Macedonia. In the port city of Thessalonica a mob attacked the church house of Jason and dragged some of the Christians before the authorities accusing them of treason. In the night, Paul and Silas escaped to the south west to Beroea, where things went well, until some from Thessalonica heard about them, and stirred up threatening crowds there. Paul’s “Freedom Riders” provoked violent reactions from the local synagogues, not only because they proclaimed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, but also because they invited Gentile “godfearers” into their fellowship without the Biblical requirement of circumcision and kosher observation. The Gentiles were often generous contributors to the synagogue, and their loss would be a significant economic threat.

In our reading from Mark, we see Jesus traveling outside his home country, leaving Israel for the region of Tyre. There a Gentile woman — an unclean woman — begged Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus’ response seems to be a response of cultural conditioning, Biblical language, if you will. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In Jesus’ home and village, Gentiles would have been called “dogs.” There are many passages in scripture where the word “dog” is used as an epithet to call another unclean or low. (I can remember the “N-word” being used in common conversation, without passion, without express insult.)

But something about the woman’s response — “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” — changed everything. Maybe it was her humility, or her cleverness. Whatever it was, Jesus immediately shed any vestige of cultural conditioning and healed her child. From that moment on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gave to Gentiles the same gifts of healing and feeding that he gave to his own people.

Where do we see these things today? Maybe in our cultural attitudes and even our legal discriminations against immigrants. The anti-Muslim fever of some. Discriminatory laws and even violence against gay people and transgendered people. And we still have so far to go to realize the hopes for racial equality that motivated the Freedom Riders. Blacks in America still suffer from so many forms of overt and subtle racism, and carry heavy weight from the effects of past oppression.

We grow up inheriting the values and opinions of our culture. It was a great gift to me to grow up in a culture that was so wrong about something important as the South was wrong about segregation. I think that experience has made me suspicious of other things that look like prejudice and discrimination. I hope so.

In every generation there are those who would incite mobs to violence. They believe they do so in defense of something good that is threatened. Often, they are wrong.

In every generation there are dogs who only get the crumbs falling from the children’s tables. Who are they? How can we recognize their full humanity?

In 2061, fifty years, what will we be embarrassed and ashamed about? How can we choose rightly, now?

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