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Not Knowing Any Better

Not Knowing Any Better

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 — — Week of Proper 13, Year Two

Dominic, Priest and Friar, 1221

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 979)

Psalms 119:97-120 (morning) 81, 82 (evening)

Judges 7:19 – 8:12

Acts 3:12-26

John 1:29-42

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” Acts 3:17

Peter has just responded to a crowd’s questioning. How did you heal the lame beggar by the Beautiful Gate? By faith in the name of Jesus, he tells them. The same Jesus “whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate… You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” Peter’s words are a strong accusation.

But, Peter makes accommodation for them. They didn’t know any better. “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”

Recently Desmond Tutu was giving and interview in Hawaii. He was asked this question: “Looking back on Nelson Mandela’s incredible life and your common struggle against apartheid, what would you say is the greatest lesson you learned about that painful time?”

Bishop Tutu began his answer with this: “First, I do not know what kind of person I might have turned out to be had I been subjected to the same conditions as the racists. So I have learned to say thankfully, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.'”

We are all products of our environments. As I watch the Olympics I cheer for the USA simply because that is my home. I find myself passionately for or against these wonderful athletes only based on my own geography that has formed my loyalties. If I were from China, I would support the Chinese competitors.

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. We inherited traditions and customs that were our norms. When others, many of them outsiders, challenged our norms, most of my neighbors defended our traditions. We had been raised racists, but for the most part, we didn’t understand that. The kind of change that we were being challenged with seemed radical and threatening to most. It made many white Southerners afraid. I knew those people. They were good people. They went to church and prayed to God. They raised families and were faithful to their jobs and to their community. Some had been raised by beloved black servants in their homes. They knew and loved individual black people. But they had been so convinced of the inferiority of black people as a whole, that they couldn’t imagine a society where black people had equal power. Some believed that the racial order was part of the natural and divine structure of reality. Imagining a different order felt profoundly threatening.

Different people are pre-disposed toward change. Some change easily. Some do not. There were some Southern whites who were early adopters of the notion of equal rights. They found it resonated with their religious and their political values even if it was foreign to their experience. But equality was too big a change for most. The vast majority of Southern whites were deeply formed by their own culture and too threatened by such a fundamental change. A shift of privilege and power was asked, and it is hard to give up privilege and power.

How long do you make accommodation for a big cultural change? Peter tells his listeners, “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance,” but now it is time to repent and turn to God “so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” I think Peter expected that once they knew better, people should change.

Some individuals can turn on a dime. Cultures change over time. There are now more black elected officials in Mississippi per capita than in any state in the union. Public facilities are entirely integrated. But there is also a network of white private academies. Churches are mostly either black or white. And racism is still prevalent. The animosity toward President Obama is palpable; it’s not just politics.

At the General Convention one deputy whom I dearly love spoke of the proposal to endorse a rite of blessing for same-sex couples as “turning on a dime.” Slow down, she begged. This is all so sudden. She told a story of a large barge that tried to turn too quickly and hit a local bridge. You are trying to turn a big barge too quickly, she said. Present in the audience were a few who had worked for decades before the church passed the first legislation acknowledging that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” That passed in 1976, over thirty years ago. It feels like a lifetime to many.

We live with these tensions of environments and paradigms. Peter offers us the example of being courageous witnesses to the new possibility while understanding the powerful influence of culture. But, whenever we are given an invitation to change in order to move toward greater healing, wholeness, compassion, and love, it is time to repent and turn to God “so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

Even at that, it was hard for Peter. He and Paul fought bitterly when Peter backed away from table fellowship with Gentile Christians. It’s not easy. Instincts and early formation are powerful. As Bishop Tutu says, “I do not know what kind of person I might have turned out to be had I been subjected to the same conditions as the racists. So I have learned to say thankfully, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.'”

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