The “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets sported by Christians of every denomination?
That’s fine, if you identify with Jesus. However, when it comes to anti-racism efforts, white Christians might do better to identify with Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a wealthy 1st century Jewish uber-tax collector considered a traitor by his people because he worked for their Roman oppressors. But when the ultra-Jewish Jesus who was known for castigating wrong-doers passed through Zacchaeus’ hometown, this short guy actually climbed a tree to get a better look at him. Jesus called Zacchaeus down from his perch and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home.
Overwhelmed that such a holy man should claim his acquaintance, Zacchaeus repented on the spot – and put his money where his mouth was:
“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” -Luke 19: 8
In her book “Dear White Christians,” activist Jennifer Harvey challenges the church to follow Zach’s lead in addressing the bloody wounds of systemic racism. She suggests a model of confession followed by reparation as a pathway to genuine reconciliation.
Her model is inspired in part by an event that rocked American steeples in 1969.
On May 14, 1969, black activist James Forman interrupted the services of Riverside Church, NY to read his Black Manifesto document demanding monetary restitution for the crimes inflicted upon all black Americans:
“For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world. We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world.
We are therefore demanding of the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues which are part and parcel of the system of capitalism, that they begin to pay reparations to black people in this country. We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues…”
The pastor, choir, and most of the congregation walked out but some Jesus followers stayed to listen, and the reparations movement was born.
The Black Manifesto charged, in part, that white churches and synagogues were part of the same corrupt system that victimized and exploited blacks.
But that wasn’t the reason it was first read aloud in a church.
It was read in church because church is supposed to be a place – maybe the only place – where great wrongs may be confessed, repented, redressed and reconciled through Christ. But before reconciliation, comes reparation.
#Black Lives Matter has not called for monetary restitution. However, white Christians may find that, regardless of what others choose to do, we need to restore a part of what we have taken.
It has happened before in the United Church of Christ.
It is happening now in the United Church of Canada.
So what would Zach preach if he climbed into our lofty white pulpits today?
I think he would tell us to climb down. Repent. Repay.
Eat with Jesus. And hear him say “For today salvation has come to this house…”
-Luke 19: 9