Teachers from the Margins
Recently I went back to Washington, DC to attend the funeral of my great aunt, Flossie Johnson, a member of her Baptist Church for over 65 years. The eulogist was a retired judge who is also a lay preacher. He is 68 years old and my great aunt was his mother’s best friend. In fact, my great aunt was there when he came home as a newborn from the hospital.
Judge Williams told stories about my great aunt’s life in rural South Carolina. He told us about a woman born years before the Great Depression, who picked cotton as a child, and who did domestic work nearly all of her life. Josie (my grandmother), her only child, Loetta (my mother), and Flossie, Josie’s baby sister, were part of the Great Migration, moving from South Carolina to Washington, DC. They all worked as domestics at one time or another for white people. In 1946, Aunt Flossie met a man on a streetcar in DC, fell in love, and stayed married to Clifton Johnson for 65 years until he died in 2011.
I imagined the mess these women had to face—much that I’ll never really know or understand. I can only imagine the verbal abuse they took, and the segregation that they faced, and the humiliation of having to clean up other people’s mess, and the thankless task of cooking other people’s meals and caring for other people’s children. Then on top of that, to have to cook, clean, and care for their own families! I can only imagine the burden these women carried for years and years.
But Aunt Flossie had a rare gift: joy. She lived through mess and craziness, but always had a spot at the table for anyone. She was not only an amazing cook—something everyone who knew her talked about—she also had a gift for making people feel at home. Aunt Flossie lived a life of love and everyone at her funeral affirmed it.
Despite the racist, sexist, patriarchal world in which she had to maneuver, because of her faith in Jesus, she chose to love. The preacher made it clear that Flossie Johnson lived the Golden Rule: doing unto others, as she would have them do to her. And the preacher challenged us all to go and do likewise.
My Aunt Flossie—and many people like her—are examples of people on the margins who show the way of Jesus despite suffering and alienation. They are not only people to be celebrated, but people who can teach us.
Our power-obsessed society, which includes evangelical Christians, rarely has room to learn from those on the margins; we might pity them, but do not see them as leaders in our spiritual development. Our heroes are apparently those with big bank accounts, big buildings, big crowds of followers, and big mouths. Consequently, we Christians are missing out on what it means to follow the way of Jesus, because the way of Jesus comes from the margins. Our failure to learn from those on the margins puts our spiritual progress in jeopardy. Perhaps one reason we do not listen to marginalized voices is that we have selective memories of the past.
Good Old Days?
Genius Stevie Wonder has a great line in his song, “Pastime Paradise.” He sings of people who’ve “been wasting most their lives glorifying days long gone behind.” I can’t help but to think of that song during the current election season. In our politicized climate, the rhetoric during the campaign can be ridiculous, over-the-top, and sometimes downright inaccurate, and we typically hear voices saying things like, “we have to take America back.”
Apparently, to some people, the ones who pine for the “good old days,” such political rhetoric fuels their enthusiasm. Yet for others—like me—talk about going backwards sounds threatening! I still can’t figure out what the good old days were. Do they mean the days when my people were slaves? Or when people like my great aunt faced the horrors of Jim Crow segregation?
The Illusion of Control
I realize that white Christians in the West have long enjoyed a certain social hegemony. Recently, I have been attending a book discussion group for pastors and in one book the author bemoaned the loss of clout that white evangelicals had, being part of the dominant culture. The book centers on Daniel, the biblical character forced to grapple with his status as an exile in Babylon.
The author writes, “I wonder what would have happened if we’d had the wisdom of Daniel when we were in control?” That sentence sure got my attention! Who is “we,” according to the author? And what does he mean by “in control?”
I am old enough to know that white Christians had political influence in our country. For example, during my nearly 18 years of ministry in Washington, DC, I regularly passed by or visited 100 Maryland Avenue, NE, the address of The Methodist Building, the only non-government building on Capitol Hill. Many years ago, the Methodist Church bought the property, which is along the same street as the Supreme Court building, across from the US Capitol, in order to lobby for the prohibition of alcohol. And we know how that experiment turned out. It is an illusion to think that Christians have control. Yet what we can have is influence.
Christian Influence in our Pluralistic World
Marginal voices—including the earliest Christian believers, African American Christians, and fellow believers in the non-Western world—are able to teach us something about influencing society. Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his work, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, addresses the context in which early Christians tried to impact the world:
For those familiar with the early history of the Christian church—and for careful observers of young and vibrant Christian communities in the non-Western world—there is something odd about the present sense of crisis in the West. The early Christian communities were not major social players at all! They were not even among the cheering or booing spectators. Slandered, discriminated against, and even persecuted minorities, they were at most a bit of a thorn in society’s flesh. Yet, notwithstanding their marginality, early Christian communities celebrated hope in God and proclaimed joyfully the resurrected Lord as they endeavored to walk in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. (p. 78).
Volf’s description of the early Christians is apropos of those who first received the New Testament letter called 1 Peter. Peter writes to exiles of the diaspora (1 Pet 1:1-2), admonishing that, as aliens, you must “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet 2:11-12). Peter’s readers had no control in their world. But they could have influence. Peter goes on to say: For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people” (1 Pet 2:15).
African American Christians can relate well to the situation of Peter’s readers. African American Christians came to faith in Jesus despite the evils of slavery and American Christianity’s ambiguous attitude toward slavery. The world has been profoundly impacted by the tenacious faith of African American Christians who persevered through centuries of hatred, discrimination, and alienation. Some of the heroes we know, like Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Representative John Lewis—people motivated by faith along with a hunger and thirst for justice. But there are innumerable heroes from the margins who will be forever nameless on this side of Glory. And these heroes follow in the way of Jesus. Those marginalized voices speak to how we can live powerfully influential lives even if we do not have political clout or control. Are white evangelicals willing to learn from those on the margins? And I’ll do my best not to answer that question based on the latest polls regarding the presidential candidates.