Letting go of the traditions of race

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of the disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.  (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)  So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’  He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain they do worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine.’  You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”  Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother’; and ‘Whosoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’  But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)– then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.  And you do many things like this.”

~ Mark 7.1-13, NRSV (emphasis added)

As a southerner, I was raised both to respect my elders and to honor tradition.  But, as I have grown older, I have learned that gray hair is not an indication that one is wise and a bent back does not support the thought that one is honorable.  I still listen and answer them, “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am.”  But, I am not so quick to take heed to their counsel or to do what has always been done as it is often born of old wounds, miseducation or outright ignorance.

I used to believe everything that the elders told me as we were instructed not to think of them as or call them liars.  It was comparable to swearing at them and the punishment for such a crime was unthinkable.  Consequently, I wrongly believed that they were always right so I didn’t question what was being told to me, taught to me, handed to me, passed down to me.

I surmised that because they were older, they knew better.  This thought was certainly reinforced in my family, community and church.  Their words seemed to suggest that my age prevented me from attaining the knowledge that they possessed.  I had not “lived long enough” they would say and they were right about that.  So, what they knew would be out of my reach so long as they lived.

But, when they began to die and I, now older, realized that they were not all- knowing or all- seeing.  People don’t speak well of the dead for long and their well- kept secrets were exposed.  Their lives became illustrations for the teaching of those younger than me and then, I saw it: the cycle.

Today, there seems to be an endless supply of old fools.  If my parents would come clean, I am sure that there were no shortage of these creatures when I was growing up.  An old fool is one of the saddest appearances, to observe someone that has not learned from their mistakes or who continues to repeat the same bad habits that have resulted in their present condition is difficult.  They have not learned self- discipline or self- correction and have found ways to justify their poor decisions and actions.

Still, they retain their position as elder and are allowed to carry on with their duties despite the fact that they don’t meet the qualifications.  They pass down traditions that have grown out of their personal experiences, their family’s history or the stories of persons that they have met along the way.  And we are simply to practice them; no questions asked.

 We “do many things like this.”  But, what happens when those traditions call for us to go against the commandments of Christ, to do the very opposite of what our faith calls for?  What are we to make of our traditions of hating, segregating and prejudging when they make void the Word of God?

With all due respect to our elders and our collective history, I suggest that we reexamine why we do what we do, why we are who we are and consider letting go of the traditions of race.

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Seeking to lead words and people to their highest and most authentic expression, I am the principal architect of a race/less world.

6 thoughts on “Letting go of the traditions of race

  1. Rev. McNeill, are there any “race” traditions from your elders that you have let go of? How did you determine those traditions contradicted the Way? (of course, also thinking about how Jesus figured these things out…)
    When I think about it, I believe that the legacy of slavery is so deep and that our society is still so segregated that most of our “race” traditions are so subtly left unsaid but ever so deeply ingrained and passed on.
    But I can think of one tradition in my own life. In my college years, one of my elders said it was wrong to go to any church other than an African Methodist Episcopal Church (after I joyfully shared a church program from a predominately black American Baptist Church). I had already broken the rule and knew the sky wasn’t going to fall on my head. So I didn’t fear this rule that much. But admittedly, opening myself up to other institutions of worship is difficult, namely worship that is more inclusive of other races.

    Another line of questions — What would your elders think of you being race-less now? And of more interest to me is this: Think of your elders who have gone to heaven, and perhaps, seen the foolishness of any of the ways they might have had. What advice would they/do they have for you now?

    1. Brother Tobias, these are all great questions. “Race- mixing”, that is dating persons of other socially constructed races, is a big one. Ironically, however, it is the lighter skinned members of the family that are praised for their appearance and described as beautiful. Darker skin is despised though the majority of my family members would fall into this category. The language that is used to describe members of our family who have darker skin is indicative of a deeper self- hatred. The prejudicial perspective that is often employed, the we are better than them mindset, is also a traditional way of thinking that I despise as it stunts my own spiritual growth. For me to determine if these traditions are contradictory, I need only to check my rationale for the thought or action… and my understanding of Christ’s call to love because so much of race requires hatred.

      The ones that mattered are all gone now, dying before I had reached this conclusion. They were not well- educated, having only completed some portion of grade school but I would hope that they would have listened to my perspective if they were alive. The advise that I would have for them now is simple: forgive.

      1. To forgive, I think, would be rather challenging because of the fear behind it all. Race requires hatred because hate is our covering over our fear. I discovered this concept from Whitney Young’s father who explained this to his son in urging him to never to hate others (Independent Lens).
        My “tradition” is just the opposite. We darker skinned people in my family tend to dislike lighter-skinned people because they represent privilege. The deep fear is that light-skinned people will use their privilege in selfish ways to help themselves and hurt us — in professions and in relationships. The deep irony of this fear is that it is self-fulfilling. I could rationally point to specific instances where this fear is evidentially justified to keep this “tradition” going. It is “safer” to stay away from lighter skinned people, according to the “tradition”.

        Here is my question: How did you realize that your “traditions” stunted your spiritual growth? Who told you that you were stunted? (lol!)

      2. The realization came by revelation. I couldn’t have come to these conclusions, developed this mindset a part from what God has revealed to me about myself. I have also invested heavily in resources as it relates to the spiritual life and by comparing these early spiritual writers’ ways of thinking and being in the world, I was able to surmise that I had not gone deep/wide/high enough in my faith experience. There is so much more to God than race will allow us to see.

        Thank you for sharing your experience and I agree wholeheartedly with regard to the fear and the self- fulfilling nature of it all.

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