Come Down: An Invitation to White Christians
This article, written by Chris Neilson, first appeared on the Flannel Pilgrims website. You can find the original, and more great content here.
This summer, I’m leading a group of college students and recent alumni in a set of Bible studies, and on Tuesday we studied the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Digging into the passage with the help of Kenneth Bailey’s excellent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, I found a story rich in nuance that I believe speaks to where we find ourselves today.
At the end of Luke 18, Jesus entered Jericho on a mission. He is on the way to Jerusalem, heading towards His execution, and has no perceived intent to pause in the city. There are two reasons the scriptural witness tells us He chooses to stop – to heal a blind beggar and to interact with Zacchaeus. And the two could not have been more different.
The unnamed (in Luke’s account) beggar is the oppressed of his time. As a blind man, he had no utility in society and was forced to beg for food to survive. Bailey points out that during this time era, the lame were seen not as fellow image bearers, but as theaters in which the rich could demonstrate their largess and prove their worthiness to God. When the beggar calls out to Jesus, the crowd marginalizes him and his request for mercy – but when Jesus intervenes and the the beggar is healed, they rejoice in what He has done. God heard and saw the oppressed and healed him.
Zacchaeus is at the opposite end of that spectrum. There are three important character traits we learn about him right away. First, he is the chief tax collector, and thus a Roman collaborator and an oppressor of the people. Second, he wants to see Jesus, and third, that he is short.
Bailey points out that in this time Zacchaeus should have been able to make his way to the front of the line – as an elder and a local official, the denizens of the city should have honored him and created a way for Zacchaeus to see Jesus without using extreme measures. However, Zacheus is so hated (and entering the crowd risks assassination) that he breaks all cultural norms to see Jesus – choosing both to run and climb a sycamore tree outside Jericho.
Grace over Condemnation
Bailey at this point adds some extra details to the story that are implied, but not necessarily present in the text. As the crowd exits the city and follows Jesus, we can assume that they would see Zacchaeus in the tree – and think about what the response must have been! The man who stole from your family and made himself rich on your back and is enforcing the rule of Rome is up a tree, and can’t do anything to respond to whatever you say.
The stage is set. The Messiah, who the crowd hopes has come to overthrow the Romans, has been presented with a perfect opportunity to condemn their local, corrupt, oppressive representative. Jesus could have reminded Zacchaeus of all that he had done wrong – he could have reminded him that he had broken the law or how he had abdicated his responsibilities to God and betrayed his (and His) people. He could have called down curses as He did on the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Instead, He invited Himself over for dinner.
Jesus’s move towards the oppressor was not condemnation, but an invitation to the restoration Zacchaeus so desperately needed – a restored relationship with God and the community – and Jesus paid the price for that relationship to be restored when he lost social standing with the crowd.
This passage has taken on particular relevance when I got home from that Bible study, logged onto Facebook, and saw Alton Sterling’s name trending. Since then, we also saw the death of Philandro Castile broadcast on social media. And as I’ve reflected on this passage, and what it means for me and us, my white brothers and sisters, my fear is that we are Zacchaeus, up a tree and wanting to see God, but cut off from His fullness because of our sin and legacy of oppression.
I realize at this point some of you may be checking out, so I ask for your charity. We live in a country that historically and presently honors the image of God in those of us identified as white more than in our brothers and sisters of other skin tones and cultures.
We see this in reconstruction and lynching and redlining, in broken treaties and reservations and boarding schools, in the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind and the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Mexican Repatriation Act. We see it in the present disparities in employment, wealth, incarceration, education and the videos and stories that are filling our social media newsfeeds.
We benefit (to different degrees) from this historical and present reality. Our ancestors have broken relationship with our brothers and sisters, and often we, through our action and inaction, maintain that state of brokenness. And if it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge this, remember that this denial of the image of God in our brothers and sisters is literally killing them.
Missing the Fullness of God
Our position, however, also blinds us to the damage it does in our understanding of and our relationship to God. James Cone in his seminal book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree highlights how the vicious sin of white supremacy corrupted the theology of white churches throughout the North and South after the Civil War – how they ignored the destruction of black bodies for the sake of white souls.
As a white Evangelical, I would argue that our individualism, our weak theology of justice, our inability to lament in the face of sin, and our glorification of our nation are rooted in theological errors caused by a similar alliance in our time. In this, we miss the fullness of who God is – the God who entered the world as a part of an oppressed people group and chose to die an innocent victim of state violence, the God who does not desire that the wicked would die, the God who calls His people to pursue justice and includes lament as a valid form of prayer and worship.
This God is standing at the base of our sycamore, inviting us to come down, to lay down a burden we were never meant to bear – our preconceived notions and our ideas of what is right and our privileges and our shame. In exchange, we get a restored relationship with Him, for the sake of His Gospel and the well-being of our family. And He’s not inviting us down in a spirit of condemnation or highlighting all that we have done wrong – he’s inviting us in a spirit of love, having already paid the price of our sin through His death and guaranteed our restoration through His resurrection.
That kind of grace has a funny way of transforming us. After Zacchaeus comes out of the tree and hosts Jesus, he pledges half of what he possesses to the poor and to repay anyone he has defrauded four times what he took. Bailey makes the point that everyone knew Zacchaeus would never be able to do this – but the extremity of the oath, and unknown it introduces into his life, shows the sincerity of his conversion. Zacchaeus is so moved by God’s love for him, expressed through Jesus, that He goes above and beyond what the law demands – and in that, he finds a restoration he would not have found otherwise. Salvation enters his house.
So what does this look like for us to follow Zacchaeus’s example? As a white person, I have found that my culture and upbringing taught me two things about the world: that I am right in my perception of it and that I have the power to change how it operates for the better. I think that part of leaving the sycamore means leaving those things behind.
First, I have had to learn how to listen and honor the stories of my brothers and sisters that are different from me – their experiences of this country, their family stories, and their present concerns are equally valid to my own. One of the best ways to start in this, I have found, is to read – and there is a lengthy list of books and authors that can be recommended.
You may want to start with Divided by Faith, a sociological look at why the church is as segregated as it is. But we cannot stop there. We also need to form relationships with our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us, and learn how to listen well to their stories by accepting them and not invalidating their experiences. Books are a good starting point, but a poor substitute for the relationships we were created for.
Second, I have had to learn how to lament and repent. Lament requires me to acknowledge the brokenness of the world – that there is sin and death and injustice and has been and will be until the Second Coming.
Repentance requires me to acknowledge that I cannot fix it. In fact, I often make it worse. This puts me in a place of dependence, where I have to remember that Jesus is the one who brings wholeness and healing; I don’t. I’m only called to bear witness to what that healing can look like.
Third, I have had to begin the process of learning how to partner well with my brothers and sisters and God in what He is doing in the world. Instead of leading with my ideas of how we fix the problems of systemic injustice and racism, my response and my actions are formed by the stories and experiences of my friends and directed by people that don’t look like me and the spirit of God that moves me.
This is my equivalent of giving half to the poor and repaying anyone I wronged four times. I find it really hard to let go of my belief that I am the one that can fix things. It’s easy for me to “create space” that I still control. It is hard for me to follow the leadership of my non-white brothers and sisters, to listen to their stories long enough before I move, and not revert to my culturally given position of authority as a white male. This is leading me into an unknown, much like Zacchaeus in his time. But I’m also thoroughly convinced this way is also the path where salvation enters into my household.
I believe Jesus is doing this for all of us – that He is standing at the base of our sycamore inviting us down and into a deeper relationship with him. Sisters and brothers, let’s go. We aren’t meant to live in a tree. Our family and our God is waiting for us on the ground.
God, help us to hold tight to the truest truth of doctrine while trying to rectify this mess the church has made for ourselves. Please hold back the sword of government for a little longer as you open the eyes of the leaders of your church; the only true hope of heart change.