The Persecuted

Hidden Figures, the last movie in our Beatitudes Go to the Movies worship series, came out in 2016. It’s about the human computers of NASA who helped put American men in space and eventually on the moon. Not just any humans, but black women.

The movie has a double-meaning. Hidden Figures being the unknown mathematical figures we had to figure out to put men in orbit and get them back down, but also hidden figures of these women’s stories. Katherine Johnson, a math genius who calculated flight trajectories. Dorothy Vaughan a NASA supervisor who later ran the IBM mainframe. And Mary Jackson, the first black woman engineer at NASA.

Their stories weren’t told. They should have been, long before 2016. Each of these women’s names should be household names. Here’s the hard part about preaching on this subject: there’s a fine line between being honest and sounding critical. It is my belief that we should be honest in the telling of our stories. Warts and all. It could be my college journalism training. It could be that Jesus states, “I am the way, the truth and the light.” So when we tell the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear, Jesus is there. When things are brought to light, no matter how hard they are to learn, Jesus is there.

Jesus felt the full range of human emotion, all the triumphs and tragedies. He bore the full weight of the cross. All that suffering. All the shame we could throw at him. And he didn’t say too many words. Save for “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Save for “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” Save for “It is finished.”

When we get to Jesus’ beatitude “blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of God” we want to put ourselves in the persecuted place. It’s a natural thing to want to be blessed. It’s an honest thing to want to talk about all the slights and injuries and injustices we have suffered.

But I wonder if we can talk about the times when we were the persecutor. Can we name those sins against our neighbor? Do those spring to mind? I say this, not to give us a guilt trip as we’re in the business of grace not guilt, but I’m honestly wondering.

My mind… I’ll talk about mine in hopes that you’ll relate… My mind fixates on things. Sometimes when I see someone, my brain recalls a weird thing I said to them maybe three years ago. I’ve spent my life slowly forgiving myself for awkward interactions. Or words that I said that didn’t reflect my true meaning.

Maybe you’re the same. Or maybe you always have a right word and know how to shut up and be still. Can we name our individual faults? Can we name the time where we’ve missed the mark and persecuted someone?

I also have a mind that likes to put things in categories. My brain likes labels. I see this a lot in our society, too. Our 24-hour News cycle loves labels. They label everything. Right, left. Liberal, conservative. It’s very binary. White vs black. Male vs female. There’s these culture wars happening, and they’ve been raging for a while. What this is doing is creating something called work avoidance.

Instead of trying to find a solution to the problems we face and then working toward the common good, we’re mired in blame. We’re angry and looking for a scapegoat. Anger is a secondary emotion, it’s usually masking the true feeling. So we’ve become stuck as a society. Stuck in the blame game.

Leadership expert Ronald Heifetz points out that “if you’re part of the system, you’re part of the problem.”[1] There is no “one side” to blame, we’re all to blame. I think that’s what Hidden Figures does so well. It walks the tight rope of showing you just enough of the persecution the women are facing because of their gender and skin color, yet it gives you hope that since they overcame, we just might as well.

There’s this great scene. Katherine Johnson has to use the bathroom. But there are no colored restrooms in her building. So she has about a mile round trip just to go to the colored restroom. When her boss complains, “Why are you never where I need you?” She lets loose.

“There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.”

The boss Harrison then marches over to west campus, bashes the colored bathroom sign down with a sledgehammer, and declares, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!”

Screenwriter Allison Schroder explains, “I worried people would think this was the craziest story line, but for me it represented both racism and being a woman. Because of course the guys don’t realize what’s going on. [The boss] not an outright villain, he’s just oblivious, and it would never occur to him in a million years that she didn’t have a ladies’ room.”[2]

As the poet Maya Angelou stated, “When we know better, we do better.” But sometimes we don’t. Not all the time. Recently the bust of a confederate soldier was removed from the Tennessee statehouse. It was a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest who you might remember is the man Forrest Gump is named after. He was the founder of the KKK.

Now some will call this cancel culture and be against it. Others will celebrate it. But this is playing into the culture war. The division. I want to ask more questions. Why was that there? Who put it there? When was it put there? For what purpose?

Turns out it was placed there in 1978. 78! Listen… right or left is too puny for what we’re facing. This is not about left or right, it’s about right or wrong. This was wrong. There are pieces of sin… generational sin that we haven’t ever faced. Problems that have never been dealt with and we need the truth-tellers and moral dissenters and folks who will take a stand to say, “this detracts from our goal, from the common good, this is not in keeping a more perfect union.” Putting the founder of the KKK’s bust in a statehouse that’s for ALL people in Tennessee is not a message I want to send or endorse.

Katherine Johnson’s boss saw how segregation was not serving the goal to put men in space. It was hurting the goal. To form a more perfect union, he did something about it. I wonder why we won’t do the same as a society. We have become locked into fabricated fights to keep us from fixing the problem. We defend regressive policies in the name of history that no longer serve nor have ever served us as a people.

What I like about Hidden Figures is that it puts a face on these problems because that’s the only way we can turn other people’s hearts.

Jesus told us to reach out to every nation. The church isn’t just here with us, it’s global. All races, classes, backgrounds. The Good News is global. It’s on every continent. Yet the fullness of the kingdom is not yet here. We have a foretaste. We have moments of it. But it’s not fully here just yet.

The fullness of the kingdom is not here yet because we’re so scandalized by the gospels. I hope that this worship series has shown just how radical the Beatitudes actually are. And then when we get to this last one… yeah.. here’s a goal. Here’s one to live into. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

I once heard that we were the church that “let anyone in.” It was said in great scorn. I took that as a positive. It means we’re inching our way toward the kingdom. We’re seeing more and more of the fuller picture.

We welcome, love, and serve all nations, since all nations is the goal anyway. We’ll be that warm place that prays well with others. We’ll join in working towards the common good with our neighboring churches. Anyone who wants to build a house with us. Feed the hungry.

Could we be like the boss, who when we know better we do better? To stand beside the persecuted and learn the full story. Ask more questions. Why is this happening? Who made this rule, who is funding this and for what reason?

And while I’m asking questions, one occurs to me that the AME Pastor William Watley once asked. “What ever happened to Mrs. Potiphar?”

She had to have been around. Joseph survived her little plot. He was an ethnic minority persecuted for a crime he didn’t commit. It happened then as it happens now. She had the power, he had nothing but his ethics. Rev. Watley describes how Mrs. Potiphar are those who have set themselves up as adversaries, whose purpose in life is to make other people miserable. He said, The Mrs. Potiphar is the one who, no matter what happens, will vote against you, will tell you the reason why you can’t do something, will wipe the smile off your face by just showing up.”[3] Mrs Potiphar is used to her power and so when other stories are added to hers, she reacts. She regards equality as a threat.

Whatever happened to her? Joseph stuck to his ethics. Cleared his good name. Rose to power and became second only after the Pharoah. They had to be in the same social circles. At the Pharoah’s social events. Even at work. What happened to her? Well, Joseph learned how to forgive and not get eaten up by remorse or bitterness or anger. And Mrs Potiphar had to learn how to let go, not abuse power, and not fear that Joseph would try to do what she tried to do to him. She’s never mentioned again in scripture. Joseph is.

Joseph put her in the past where she belongs. He moved forward. He lived to see his great-grandchildren. He was in a new place. He cared for others and worked for the common good. He kept Mrs. Potiphar in the mental, historic, and the emotional past.

We can do the same. We’re caught up in a system that labels some better than others, some more worthy than others. Part of the labeling is based on the amount of melanin in your skin. It’s a really dumb idea that does not serve the common good, but it’s part of our system. It’s a part that belongs in the past. The way out of this is not in heaping more blame. I believe it’s in telling the story, warts and all. Then rooting out that sort of Mrs Potiphar thinking within our common life, law, and society. It’s a big job. Yet it is not our job to finish nor abandon the work. When I feel overwhelmed, I try to stick to my values. I think our values in this case could be the words that Jesus said on the cross.

When we learn of such stories that harm, stories of persecution because of a label like gender, race, creed or anything else, we can use Jesus’ words on the cross as a guide. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Once we’ve learned the story, we can ask forgiveness.  “Forgive us, for we know not what we’ve done.”

We can reconcile. We can put in place ways to remember and ensure something similar doesn’t take root in us again. That way we can fully save and believe, “It is finished.” And then move into a brighter, blessed future.

Then we shall see the kingdom of heaven not just when we die, but in our daily lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] See his book Leadership on the Line for this concept and more. Most approachable book of his important work.



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