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Pharisees and Ferguson


The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto – His statement about what is important to Him in the Kingdom of God. Of course it is important that the concept of the law would be central to what Jesus has to say. However Jesus says something that we would not expect – especially after telling everyone how much respect He has for the law that they have known. “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20) But what is the righteousness of the Pharisees? We see it in the next group of verses (Matt 5:21-37)The righteousness of the Pharisees is empty rule-keeping. Hence the next section of scripture is Jesus juxtaposing what the crowd has heard said to them and what Jesus is saying instead. It is loyalty to the law, but expansion to the spirit of the law. The Pharisees are concerned with whether you murder. Jesus is concerned that you control you anger. The Pharisees are concerned that you not commit adultery. Jesus is concerned with controlling your lust. Dispelling the notion of empty rule-keeping, or checking of the boxes of right behavior for their own sake, was important to Jesus. He comes back to it towards the end of Matthew in even more strident language. In Matt 23:23, 24 Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” The righteousness of the Pharisees says look how good I can be, look how many of the right boxes I can check off. You should respect me and hold me in high esteem because I have done these things.

As I reflected on the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, some of the rhetoric surrounding his death, even from Black people, sounded pharisaical to me. It echoed of the rhetoric that surrounded the death of Trayvon Martin as well. In the response to Brown’s death there are a lot of people who wanted to talk about how many of the negative stereotypes, or even the positive attributes that Brown displayed. Did Brown have two parents? He smoked weed! He stole cigarillos! Why was he in the middle of the street? He was a gangster rapper! He was going to college the next Monday! All of this smacks of respectability politics. The idea that if Black people just act more respectable, then racism would dissipate. But what is the problem with respectability politics? Shouldn’t Black boys want to pull their pants up and get an education? I guess so. But what does any of that have to do with being unarmed and getting gunned down and left in the street like a dog? What does shoplifting have to do with that either? What does Trayvon’s hoodie have to do with him being dead on a sidewalk? When we focus on respectability, either positive or negative, we distract ourselves from the reality that needs to be addressed.

It is unfortunate that 50 years after the legislative successes of the Civil Rights Movement we still live in a society permeated with racism and racist tendencies – so much so that you do not have to actively be a racist to perpetuate it, and you can be the most proper Black person alive and still be affected by it. When we talk about the clothes young Black men wear, or the way they talk, or where they’re walking, we only serve to buy into the very framework that places added stipulations on people of color simply because they are not White. Rather than focusing on those things, we should be talking about what it is about White police officers, and people in general, that causes skin color to be a permit for suspicion and justified aggression. We should be asking why we still live in segregated communities reinforced by government policy, and why we still have segregated churches. We should be asking why the people of God, of every color, have been so silent in society about some of these matters.

Unfortunately, the same respectability politics we see in society can also be seen in some churches (and the SDA church in particular). We are creating Mike Browns in our own house. While we don’t kill people physically, how many people have we subjected to character assassination because they don’t check off all the right boxes? They don’t dress the right way, say the right things, and believe all the doctrine just the way we think it should be believed. And that’s where Jesus’ criticism in Matt 23 becomes so moving to me. Whether you are sticking to everything in the rules does not seem as important to Jesus as whether there is justice, mercy, and faithfulness. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect the law, or that we don’t follow it. But Jesus does call mercy, justice, and faithfulness the “weightier provisions of the law.” So the question for us as Christians today is – Have we created an environment in our churches where people can come in and find mercy, the fairness and equality that comes from true justice, and where their own faithfulness is encouraged? Or have they found a place where the slightest faults are exaggerated, where they are treated as something less than because they don’t fit the criteria or a place where their ability to be faithful is hindered by our crushing spirit?

There is also another interesting commonality between the issue of racism in this country and our callous treatment of people in the church with respect to the law. It seems to me that we get the prime cause out of order. Respectability politics says that if we are respectable as Black people then that is what will help things be better racially. We also assume in our churches, most times without saying it that the pharisaical following of the rules is what will make us better people (more holy). Both of those ideas are wrong. It might just be true that if our society treated people of color equally that we would be more respectable. (I only state this as conjecture because our society has never done this so I have no incontrovertible evidence that it is true.) Similarly, I know that I am not a better person because I keep the rules. Instead it is Jesus’ righteousness that has saved me and my ability to keep the rules only comes from him.

We are right to be outraged at the senseless loss of life, and we should join others in a call for justice not only in Ferguson but across our nation. At the same time, let’s make sure we’re not fostering the same environment we criticize in our own churches.


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