A friend recently asked me this question via social media:
“Are you going to call these people ‘thugs’ now, Paul? Or are you in favor of looting and rioting?”
The question reminded of the biblical story known as “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” That story should be called “The Religious Men Who Tried to Trap Jesus” for in it Jesus was similarly asked a question meant to trap him into the choice of legalistic hard-heartedness towards the woman or unrighteous softness on bad behavior.
“As you know, Jesus, adultery is a sin against our very culture,” the angry Pharisee likely opined that day to Jesus, his face shriveled in anger. “It’s financial robbery of her family and husband’s dowry. By the law of Moses any good rabbi would surely rule she must be hit with stones until dead.”
“Wouldn’t you agree, Jesus?” another would jump in, with feigned sincerity. The story tells us Jesus didn’t answer, instead he began to write in the dirt.
The religious leaders might have smirked and thought they had Jesus right where they wanted him.
“He’s writing her sins in the dirt, as is our tradition.”
He wasn’t listing her sins, however, he was listing theirs. We don’t know exactly what he wrote but somehow his writings highlighted that their religious and cultural system had taken away the woman’s value, and any ability to sustain herself outside of sexual exploitation.
“Promote the welfare of your city. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”
Perhaps Jesus wrote a passage in the dirt, like this one from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, that reminded the religious of God’s requirement to care about justice for all people, not just the privileged few.
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As Jesus continued to write, the rocks began to fall to the ground and the accusers walked away. Jesus had made his point – God was more concerned with how these “followers of God” were withholding grace from those badly in need of it. He showed the need for these men to humble and check themselves first before asking others to change their behavior.
In the end, Jesus never answered their question.
“Paul, are you for law and order? Or riots and looting? Now, will you call them ‘thugs?’”
My friend’s question, intentionally or not, had a specific purpose. It was a common attempt to point at the behavior of others in order to avoid looking at our own culpability in a cultural system. That failing, we then try to label those of a differing opinion in order to invalidate their message. What my friend missed is that the God of the Christian Bible is not a harsh fisted, “law and order” God, but is, instead, a God that first cares deeply about people. Then out of his care for us, God demands we care about justice for all, about the shalom (well-being) of our city and region. I dramatically demonstrated this in my novel Joseph Comes to Town: When the Religious Right Goes Religiously Wrong:
“What do you see in this picture, Saul?”
Joseph directed Pastor Saul to a painting of the woman caught in adultery story in the building’s gold-gilded foyer. The painting was huge, probably four feet in height, but still was swallowed up in this large entryway and would be missed if one wasn’t intentional to study it.
“Do you see in this picture a God who is harsh and into law and order?” Saul looked at the picture. It depicted Jesus squatting in front of the terrified woman, writing in the dust. She was desperately looking at Jesus, as if understanding he was her only chance to be saved from the death she was due by the law of the religious leaders. You couldn’t see the faces of the men surrounding them in a circle, only their feet and the bottoms of their fine robes. Saul could see Jesus was looking at the woman even as his finger was engaging the dirt. He had a look of caring and safety in his eyes.
“Well, I guess I don’t see a harsh God,” Saul finally answered awkwardly. “I mean, Jesus is going to chase away her condemners.”
“But didn’t she sin?” asked Joseph with a hint of a mocking tone.
“Well, yes. She did sin.”
“Then why is he letting her get away with it? Why isn’t he calling her a sinner and demanding she get her just due under the law?” Joseph asked, tilting his head slightly to the right as he seemed to ponder his own question. “That’s what other ‘good’ rabbis would do.”
“He’s not letting her get away with it,” insisted Pastor Saul. “Jesus is going to tell her to ‘go and sin no more.’”
“Yes, after putting his own reputation – his very life on the line for her – and he’s totally forgiven her actions when nobody else would,” Joseph said as he pivoted from the painting to Saul and raised his finger to make his point. “That’s your ‘harsh’ God. Not only does he forgive, as he did this woman, but he puts his life on the line in place of those who actually deserve any punishment. Doesn’t sound like a very harsh God to me, Saul.”
Saul didn’t answer. He looked back at the depiction of Jesus in the painting. Saul could see the artist had mastered painting depth into those eyes. Looking at Joseph, Saul witnessed those same eyes.
“Saul, which group are you?” Joseph asked, again gesturing to the portrait. “The rock throwers? The name callers? The ‘law and order’ crowd? Or are you with Jesus? Willing to kneel down and hear the woman’s plea in order to help give her access to life without a religious beat down?”
Today, Christians and people of privilege have a similar opportunity to decide if we focus on the bad behavior of “those people” or if we’re willing to humble ourselves, like Jesus, and take on the responsibility to change the system of our culture. That conversation might be difficult. People may write things in the dust that are hard for us to hear. Some of us may want to drop our rocks and just walk away. Others might linger a bit longer, yet hoping for permission to cast the first stone.
It goes without saying that none of us are for people destroying and looting businesses, but this moment give us a very distinct opportunity to risk leaving our comfort zone. Otherwise, we’re just striving to get through this incident and get back to some form of uncomfortable normality – until the next horrifying incident of racial injustice occurs.
Systemic racism is real. It’s not contained in any one interaction between any two people, it’s contained in years and generations of choices and opportunities unoffered and cries unheard. Jesus chased away the woman’s condemners and assured her he understood her pain and, in that process, he earned the right to ask her to think about how she lived. Until we – the Christian, the privileged, the higher economic/political class – are willing to kneel down and hear the stories of the marginalized, then only our hard hearts will make us demand they change before we do.
How will history read us, in this moment? Are we sure we’re on the righteous side when our desire is to see the conversation squashed with riot gear and the American military? Let’s not miss this opportunity to portray Jesus to the world as we graciously invite our friends of color to share their stories of injustice and receive the opportunity for all of us to be freed to live well together.