Text: Luke 4:14-30
Last week, I shared a term that I picked up from a blog by Pastor Erna Kim Hackett: “Disney Princess theology.” This phenomenon refers to our tendency to read scripture as if it’s directed toward us as “the good guys;” we identify with the faithful disciples in the stories, or with the ones who are healed or freed from bondage. When we read the stories of the Bible (or tell our own stories), we almost never cast ourselves in the role of the villain or oppressor. I imagine this is a very human tendency. And I imagine this is what happened among the listeners in that synagogue in Nazareth on the day that Jesus came back to his hometown.
He had made a name for himself, this wandering rabbi who had taught, healed and performed other miracles in the towns along the Sea of Galilee, and now he had returned to the town in which he grew up. Coming to worship on the Sabbath, and coming forward to read scripture, Jesus drew the attention of all, and they were in great expectation. What would he read? What would he say? What would he do?
As he read the familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah, the people smiled and nodded in recognition. Ah, yes: the proclamation of justice, good news, healing, release, freedom. Words of such comfort. And the listeners, in “Disney princess” fashion, settled in to hear more about how God loved them and was on their side.
They had a good case for this. They were living under a brutal occupation, and not for the first time. Their people had experienced one oppression after another, for centuries. Their identity was tied up in those stories of oppression and liberation. And surely this time, with this world-dominating Roman power on their necks, surely this time God was listening, and God, who was on the side of the oppressed, surely God desired their healing and release. That this hometown boy might actually say, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” was a thrill to hear.
But they had scarcely begun to write the script in their head that started, “I knew that boy before he became famous!” when Jesus opened his mouth again, effecting the removal of the Disney princess glasses. You might not have immediately recognized “Zarephath in Sidon” as Gentile territory, but I’ll bet that Syria caught your attention — and you would be right. And Naaman was a military leader, a special “enemy” of the Jews, to boot. So in recalling these well-known stories from the lives of the prophets, Jesus was making a point his “homies” did not want to hear him make: that their comfortable notions of who was deserving of healing and redemption, of grace and privilege, were not in line with God’s wider vision of healing and justice for the whole world.
I pointed out to Albert, after he read this passage for our recording, that this was Jesus’ first sermon, according to Luke. He was stunned, and remarked, “Wow! With a first sermon reception like that, it’s amazing that Jesus kept going!”
It has frequently been said that Jesus came “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” That is not only true of his reception during his time on earth; it is also true of his message today. And those listeners in Nazareth are not the only ones who have sometimes been surprised to find the tables turned on them, discovering that their neat categories might not really be as they have long imagined them.
Some of us have only recently become acquainted with the terms white privilege and white fragility. We are coming to grips with realities and statistics that are shocking when they first strike home. White fragility, a term coined by lecturer and author Robin DiAngelo, is a reflection of the fact that most of us who are white are shielded from the reality of racism; we’ve been led to believe that we are now part of a “colorblind” society. Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, it has become largely unacceptable to practice the more overt, hostile forms of racism. But racism hasn’t gone away; it’s merely gone “underground,” subverted into more subtle expressions that have largely gone unnoticed by the general white populace. When its pervasiveness is brought to our attention, DiAngelo says, the reaction among white people — particularly “progressive” folks who think of themselves as “good people” — follows a predictable pattern. This is white fragility: a protective self-defensiveness born out of a desire to look like a “good” person, because racists are “bad people.” We’re so afraid of being “outed,” of being labelled “bad,” that we are unwilling to acknowledge that we have benefitted from undeserved “breaks” and “opportunities” and “benefits of a doubt,” and we go to extraordinary lengths to deny this. These behaviors, in turn, reinforce structural racism and further disempower our Black and Brown brothers and sisters.
White fragility is the reaction that happens when we get our Disney princess glasses knocked off our faces. We find ourselves profoundly, almost unbearably, uncomfortable.
But if racism and white supremacy are to lose their power over our society, and over us, we must be willing to lean into discomfort. We must become willing to look at hard truths. We must develop a tougher skin, stop behaving as if we are being attacked, learn the practices of lament and listening. We must investigate and interrogate our history. We must learn to stand up and use our power to resist and interrupt racism and injustice where we see it in action. And we must be willing to risk the vulnerability of building new relationships committed to different power dynamics, unafraid of what we might lose, and hopeful of what we might gain in the process.
Jesus had a way of making those who were comfortable quite uncomfortable. His words and his teaching will still do that, especially if we listen in a spirit of humility instead of self-centeredness. Fortunately, Jesus is big enough to handle our discomfort. Just as he was able to calmly walk unharmed through that angry crowd on the hill of Nazareth, he will not be hurt by our discomfort and our pain. In fact, he can lead us through those rioting emotions, and show us a better way — a way that will lead to greater wholeness — for ourselves, and for our neighbors.
Over the coming weeks, we will be dipping into scripture and self-reflection, both in our worship time and in small group discussion opportunities. Even if you are unable to join any of the Zoom group sessions, I hope you’ll take some time for individual study and reflection, as we have curated an extensive and growing list of books, readings, videos and exercises which will be available for everyone to access and add to.
It’s going to be a journey toward our growing edges — and while I don’t think we’ll be able to say we’ve “arrived” at any point, my hope is we might go a bit deeper, and come away with a resolve to be part of solutions instead of contributing to problems. So let’s take off those “Disney princess” glasses and strive for a clearer view of God’s kingdom. Amen.