My dad was born and raised in rural South Carolina. He and his four brothers and one sister were raised on a farm outside of Woodford, South Carolina. After college he joined the army, met my mother at a USO dance in Texas while training for combat, fell in love and married her, went off to serve in WWII, then moved to Texas, never to live in South Carolina again. He was the only one who didn’t return to the area; which made him the prodigal son who never came home. Which, naturally, made my mother the evil daughter in law and my sister and I less known and accepted by my grandparents than the other 16 grandchildren. After all, we were Texan and they thought of Texas as primitive and barbaric country. I remember my grandmother asking me once when we were watching a Bonanza episode together and a Chevrolet commercial came on…the one where a Chevy Impala races through the cactus filled desert…”Is that what it’s like in Texas?”
Every other year we would pack up the car and drive across the country to South Carolina to visit the kin folks. By this time, my grandparents had made the move from the farm to the small town of Woodford and owned the only gas station/store in town that was located at the only light, a blinking light in town. They lived in a little two bedroom, one bath, with a sleeping porch that was attached behind the store. It was such an exotic place to visit. Having access to candy and Yahoos was about the coolest thing ever. And there were always tons of cousins around. Cousins that talked funny. They made a three syllable word out of my name. Ja- ay- n.
My grandfather was an imposing presence, a big man with a big laugh. And, I think, a big heart. And, definitely, a mischievous streak. He only shaved once a week, and he loved to pick me up and rub his whiskers on my face. I hated that and was a little afraid of him in general. He was a strict Southern man and had raised his children in this manner. Everyone in the town knew him, and respected him. Most likely feared him a bit. Having the only store and gas station in town brought him a position of power. The town was mostly African American, but back in the early 60’s the word I would hear was Negro, or Colored. Everyone got along, because everyone knew their place. I write that not because I’m proud of it, but because that was the way it was. My grandfather greeted all who entered his store in a friendly manner, calling each by his or her first name. And each of the African Americans who frequented the store called my grandfather, Mr. Livingston. My grandfather was a kind man, but he was also a man conditioned by his upbringing and his environment. Because of this he was conditionally ignorant. In using the word ignorant I don’t mean stupid or unintelligent. What I mean is uninformed of, unenlightened about, unaware of. A product of his time, place, and circumstances, my grandfather was uninformed about and unaware of the inherent value of humanity, regardless of the color of one’s skin. And because of this he lived his life with prejudice. I still remember the signs on the restroom doors….men, women, colored. I didn’t understand it because in Lubbock I lived in an all white neighborhood, went to an all white school, and saw nothing but all white people ever. What I would learn later is that there were other neighborhoods….on the other side of town. I was living in my own conditioned ignorance.
But South Carolina was where I was first confronted with racial tensions. I remember, and I think I was 8 at the time, walking around the block with my sister and cousins after dinner and coming upon a group of African American children who were standing on the opposite corner from us. We were strangers meeting on the street. Children. Children who typically never meet a stranger. Children are always friendly to one another, right? But, already, both groups had been conditioned. Instead of meeting and greeting one another and gathering together to look for fireflies or June bugs, we stood on opposite corners and began to taunt one another. The children across the street from my cousins and me began to call us white chickens, which I’m sure was an accurate description because we had been conditioned to fear what was different. I was one of the youngest in the group, but was always a little too mouthy for my own good and, not wanting to be bested, I remember shouting out. “Oh yea? Well y’all are black roosters!” My shrill blurt was met with scowls from my cousins and hoots of laughter from the kids across the street. I mean, who wouldn’t rather be a black rooster than a silly white chicken. We were products of our environment, already developing the prejudices of our culture.
What I didn’t know as a child in the early 60’s was that things needed to change, things must change, were going to change on a larger scale. I was in the middle of a brewing storm on that street corner but my eight year old mind couldn’t yet understand.
When I was in Junior High we experienced forced busing in our school. And overnight things ignited and tensions increased as 100’s of African American children were pulled out of their neighborhood schools and bussed into the white kids’ school where they would be met with fear and contempt. It was polarizing for the adult population and excruciating for the children. In my experience there was no adult in place to help us all understand what was happening. No adult to introduce us to one another. No adult to help us learn what establishing community with one another could look like. No adult to show us the gift or opportunity of this moment. My guess is that the adults had no one to move them past their own conditioned ignorance.
It wasn’t until high school that things began to change ever so slightly. I won’t pretend that we all became one big happy family. But, things got better and we began to know each other as…fellow teenagers struggling in bodies and minds we didn’t understand. There was one young woman who stood out. She was African American and she embodied joy, and friendliness. She crossed those boundaries of prejudice in such a beautiful manner that she was voted most popular our senior year. And for high school seniors at that school, well, that was the ultimate compliment. I have no idea where she is now but I imagine that she is a positive life force wherever she is.
Decades have passed since these childhood memories were made. I wish I could say that racial, or any other kind of prejudice no longer exists. I wish I could say that we, that I, consistently treat all others as the living breathing reflection of the One who created us all. But I’d be lying, and reinforcing my own ignorance to pretend that the tensions no longer exist. We still have racial tensions, and we have a lot of other tensions too. Religious. Gender. Ethnic. Economic. Sexuality. Culture. We keep finding more ways to separate ourselves from one another, even as the need to connect with each other increases. It seems to me that, for the very survival of our planet and for humanity, we’re going to have to find a way to move past this conditioned ignorance to a place of acceptance and connection. I probably sound naive but I think we can do it. I really do. Otherwise why would Jesus have said that the most important thing was to love God and to love neighbor.
Perhaps one of the most encouraging passages I’ve come across lately in Scripture is the story of Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman in the book of Mark. Jesus, a Jew, has gone into Gentile territory, where a gentile woman throws herself at his feet and begs him to heal her daughter of demon possession. She’s out of her mind. This woman I mean. She’s a gentile (an outsider) woman (someone of lesser value) talking to a Jewish teacher. This is risky business for sure. But we do desperate things out of love don’t we. Crazy, desperate, courageous things out of love. Jesus doesn’t respond the way I thought he would. In fact, it appears that Jesus initially reacts rather than responds. He basically calls her a dog (Which was not a good thing in those days. We’re not talking about pets here.) and retorts that his power is meant for the insiders, the Jews, the chosen. Now, a lot of commentaries by people much smarter than me have found ways to look at this so that Jesus’ words are not so harsh. That he didn’t really mean it the way it came across. That he knew all along he was going to heal the woman’s daughter. That this was a “teaching” moment. And maybe it was. But it’s hard to get around the harshness of his words to this poor woman. Other people, people smarter than me, have noticed this as well.
So, here’s the encouraging part. The woman doesn’t stop begging at Jesus’ retort. She pleads with him that even the dogs get crumbs under the table. And that does it! Jesus says that because she has said that her daughter is already healed. Just like that he makes a 180 and heals her daughter. Now, of course, it is understandable the woman would not take no for an answer when it came to the well being of her child. I don’t know any mother who would do less. But the real encouragement to me here is that Jesus actually listened to her and move beyond his first reaction to a loving, healing, life-giving response.
If we truly believe that Jesus was not only fully Divine, but also fully human, then isn’t it worth considering the possibility that he would also suffer, as we do, from conditioned ignorance which occasionally blinds us to the inherent value of one another? For some I guess this would be blaspheme but for me it is so encouraging to think that even Jesus’ mind and heart could expand in the understanding of God’s love. He was a Jewish boy anticipating a Jewish messiah. He was a man living in a particular time and circumstance and would, as a fully human being, be conditionally bound by those circumstances. Until he wasn’t! Until he listened and allowed something (the Holy Spirit!) to pull him forward in his understanding of God’s love meant for all. Jesus seems unafraid to learn more. He seems less concerned with being right and more concerned with making us whole. The Syrophoenician woman was the adult I wish I had had in Junior High who showed the bridge of connection to a young rabbi, the Rabbi who would take that Love all the way to the cross. Wow!
In Jesus’ willingness to expand his understanding of God’s love for all I find hope that I too, we too, can be expanded in our minds and hearts. That I/we too can be pulled forward in our understanding that God’s Love is meant for all regardless of what divisions our conditioned ignorance establishes. We don’t have to keep killing each other. We don’t have to keep declaring each other inferior. We don’t have to keep ranting. We can actually stop and listen to one another. We, as Jesus did, can move past our conditioned ignorance into insight. We can seek out, and even be, the adults who will show each other the bridge. The way to connect with one another. Isn’t that what living in the power of the Holy Spirit makes possible? Could it be this is what Jesus was getting at when he prayed, “May it be on earth as it is in heaven?”
It’s something to chew on…