Remember what we did in worship the first Sunday in January? It was Epiphany, the day we tell the story of magi following a star to Bethlehem and finding a babe lying in a manger. On that day, we each received at random a paper star with a word on it. (Terri) The invitation was to allow that word to guide us through the year. (If you weren’t here that Sunday and would like a star word to guide you the next three months, there are some on the table.)
Some of us liked our words immediately. Some of us did NOT. Humility. That was my word. I did NOT want humility to be my guide through the year. What about discernment or transformation or, my spouse’s word, joy? No. I had to get humility. Epiphany night, at the choir party, I was hounded. “What was your word? What was your word?” I told them I was too embarrassed to tell them…at which point, Cara piped up: “Humility!” Thanks, Cara.
The parable Jesus tells “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” is the quintessential story of humility in Scripture.
Two people go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God he’s not like thieves or rogues or adulterers. And he’s sure not like that tax collector over there! He fasts twice a week and tithes to the temple. The Pharisee–if you ask the Pharisee–is a very righteous person.
The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off, out of earshot. So aware is he of his failings, the tax collector can’t even look up to heaven. He simply asks God for mercy.
Jesus commends the tax collector–assumed to be a sinner by the “holy” people– as the one who went home justified. The Pharisee–who took pride in his righteousness– did not.
Humility. What is it? And what role might it play in our Just Peace efforts?
The Rule of St. Benedict includes 12 steps–yes, 12 steps–of humility. I would not recommend reading the original version of those steps. Humility looked a lot different 1500 years ago than it does now. Instead, I would commend to you Sr. Joan Chittister’s current day interpretation of Benedict’s take on humility.
Sr. Joan notes that “Benedict tells us that true humility is simply a measure of the self that is taken without exaggerated approval or exaggerated guilt.” A lot of times, when we hear “humility,” we think “humiliation.” In her description of humility, Sr. Joan makes clear the distinction. She says that true humility isn’t demeaning or shaming. True humility is knowing our place in the universe, or as poet Mary Oliver says, “knowing our place in the family of things.” The truly humble person doesn’t inflate their personality. Neither do they deflate it. True humility happens when we are simply ourselves.
Which seems to be what’s going on in today’s parable. The Pharisee’s prayer isn’t a prayer at all. He uses the prayer as an opportunity to convince others, God, maybe even himself, that he’s a righteous person. The Pharisee thinks of himself as greater than he actually is…probably out of fear that he is less than he actually is. His inability simply to be himself prevents him from attaining the true righteousness he so desires.
The tax collector uses his time of prayer to come clean. He is as honest as he knows how to be about who he is and what he’s done. It’s in facing himself as honestly as he can that the tax collector experiences true redemption. It is he who goes home justified.
We often think about humility in terms of individual spirituality, which is appropriate. If we aren’t honest about who we are, how can we grow, spiritually or otherwise?
But it’s also important to remember that we don’t live in a vacuum. We live our lives in the context of the rest of the universe. As Sr. Joan says: “Humility is the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth, and even our way of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn, without put-downs, without disdain, without self-centeredness. The more we know ourselves, the gentler we will be with others,” (98).
Humility being my star word, I’ve looked at just about everything through that lens this year. Because the preacher told me to. Taking up the tin whistle and starting to play in the Irish Music Session in Black Mountain…has been a very humbling experience for someone who’s already a musician. I’m finding, though, that I make more progress when I’m honest about my actual skill level than when I try to pretend I know more than I do. If I try to play tunes I don’t actually know, the results are, well, humiliating.
Another place I’ve been thinking about humility is in relation to white supremacy. For those of us with white skin, reckoning with our whiteness is, perhaps, the hardest thing we’ve ever done. I suspect it might be even harder for those of us from the South. To wake up to the fact that life is much easier for us because we are white? That many of the advantages we have in life aren’t due solely to our own hard work, but also because the deck is stacked in our favor? That recognition–especially for those of us who are committed to social justice–can be devastating. Even humiliating.
Several of us gathered here Friday before last to watch “13th,” a documentary by Ava Duvernay that follows the unbroken progression from slavery, through convict leasing during Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, to the current plague of mass incarceration of people of color. All 16 of us there Friday night are white.
After the film, I asked how people felt. The first response was, “sick.” One person said they felt physically ill. Another person said they felt “foolish” for not having known about the racist actions of our government in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that led to mass incarceration. One person said they felt ashamed. Many admitted to feeling angry.
I asked the question about feelings Friday night because it’s not one I often hear in conversations about white supremacy with white people. In fact, in most conversations around race, the feelings of white people often are discounted and dismissed….or labeled as “fragile.” A meeting I attended earlier this year is a case in point.
In a gathering of white and black folks to talk together about racism and white supremacy, a white person made a passing reference to being afraid. An older black woman spoke up. “Don’t tell me about being afraid. I’ve been afraid all my life!” The white person shut down. All of us white people shut down. We shut down because we knew that African American woman was exactly right. Walking through the world in her skin, she’s experienced far more fear than those of us with white skin will ever experience or understand.
I hear that woman’s words. I believe them. I want to do everything I can to make the world a place where people don’t have to be afraid to walk through the world as themselves. But what’s becoming clear to me is that white people ignoring our feelings of shame isn’t helping to dismantle white supremacy. In fact, ignoring our feelings, shoving them down, or allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by them—and this next statement might get my liberal card revoked—but if we white people don’t face our feelings of shame, white supremacy will only get stronger.
…Because dismantling white supremacy requires true, heart-deep transformation. How can we experience heart-deep transformation if we aren’t completely honest about who we are? The tax collector went home justified—transformed—because he faced up completely to who he was and what he had done. The Pharisee denied his true feelings, he covered over his feelings with literal self-righteousness…and left the temple in exactly the same state as he’d entered it. No social system in which he participated got changed by the Pharisee’s trip to the temple. Because of his transformation, though, the tax collector was prepared to change the unjust system in which he participated.
Dismantling white supremacy requires active work…the work of relationship-building, of legislative action, of intentional reform efforts in relation to every social system we have—criminal justice, economic, housing…all of it. We must engage in actions that will lead to racial justice in our community, our country, the world. I’m not denying that. At all.
What I am suggesting—and what today’s story of the tax collector and the Pharisee suggests—is that we’ll be better partners in that work, we’ll be able to engage more skillfully in those actions, if we’ve first confessed—fully—who we are and what we’ve done. If we are to deal with the shame of racism in our world, we must first face the shame of our own whiteness.
And the best place to do that confessing…is right here in worship. Until recently, we haven’t been consistent on having an actual confession each week. Confession has only happened some Sundays. I realize now that I’ve been remiss in omitting the Confession some weeks. Why deprive us of the chance to confess fully who we are—all we’ve done—and leave here with our hearts transformed?
If our hearts are transformed, won’t we then be better able to do the justice work that’s so desperately needed in the world? If our hearts are transformed, won’t we feel freer to create just peace in our community? If our hearts are transformed, won’t we then be better equipped to make God’s dreams for the world come true?
I want to end with a confession of my own. (Get guitar) A first step in my own struggle to deal with my participation in white supremacy as a white Southerner is to acknowledge my own family’s practice of enslaving other human beings. (Sing, “Who Built this House?”)