From the Rector
Pride and Prejudice: Epiphany 2
This weekend our nation will once again remember and celebrate the great 20th century martyr and saint, Martin Luther King, Jr. I consider it a great gift to our nation that we preserve a day every year to acknowledge his moral leadership as our nation convulsed around racial and economic justice in the 1950s and 60s. It is one of my customs to reread the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” every year on MLK Day, because it helps bring him down from the dusty shelf of history to speak to me afresh. There remains a stubborn residue of prejudice in our society, even 50 years after his death, which means he has much to teach us about the nature of a truly just and righteous nation.
I am reminded of something President Johnson once said in an interview to Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” President Johnson knew, just as the Rev. Dr. King did, that there is energy that comes from looking down on people. The ability to disdain others masks the brokenness of your own life, and it has the capacity to cover all sorts of personal failings. Some leaders stoke this disdain for others as a tool to gain power, but it is an unholy power derived from sin, not God. Contempt for others may you feel big, and it may even enable you to dominate others for a time, but it is actually diminishing your eternal soul.
This weekend we’ll hear the story of Jesus meeting Nathanael and Philip, which happens early in his active ministry. Apparently, Philip was impressed by Jesus upon meeting him, but Nathanael remained seriously doubtful. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks, but it’s a question to which he already knows the answer: of course not! How could anyone of note, let alone the messiah, come from such a pathetic place as that? Prejudice, it seems, can mask us from being able to even see the presence of Christ.
In a very real sense, the whole life of Jesus is a cautionary tale to be careful about our assumptions and resist our prejudices. We cannot make assumptions about people based on where they come from, who their parents are, or the story of their birth. Neither can we use skin color, or nationality, or political party affiliation to make judgments. It is no accident that Jesus hails from a tiny backwater, but a purposeful part of God’s plan of salvation. And when we act like Nathanael, when we expect the worst from people based on our prejudices, we set ourselves up to miss God’s presence right before our eyes.
You may have heard by now of the President’s comments about the undesirability of immigrants from certain “s***hole countries,” and these words deserve clear rebuke. They are wrong from a moral and diplomatic standpoint, and they are clearly derived from bigotry and prejudice. But before we spiral fully into old, comfortable places of judgment and outrage, before we heap contempt upon someone else for their sinful prejudice, let us not forget to consider the prejudice that lingers in us. How does the attitude of Nathanael – of dismissiveness and contempt – flare up in your own life? Who do you look down upon, and how does that attitude prevent you from seeing Christ truly in all others? It is easy to hide behind contempt of others, but we will only begin to meet Christ in the world – and in the faces of all of his beloved children – when we allow that same Christ to heal us from the pride and prejudice that poisons our souls.