On a hot summer Sunday in August of 2023, the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost in the sacred season known as Ordinary Time, I was blessed to visit both Rosa Parks’ Montgomery church, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Montgomery church, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, making the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost anything but ordinary time. 

My work with Together for Hope had taken me to worship at St. Paul. While I was near Dexter Avenue, I decided to make a brief visit. 

Not surprisingly, for someone who grew up in the 1960s in Macon, Georgia, to walk into Rosa Parks’ and Dr. King’s churches on the same Sunday was a tender pilgrimage.

It resurrected painful heart memories of the racially stratified world of my childhood: the segregated waiting rooms at the pediatrician’s office, the “White” and “Colored” water fountains at the J.C.Penney store on Hillcrest Avenue, the black woman who stood on the city bus while all us white folks sat, and the reactions on the bus when a six-year-old boy, not knowing why I shouldn’t and she couldn’t, invited her to take the empty seat next to me. 

All of that, and more, was resurrected in me while sitting in Rosa Parks’ pew and standing in Dr. King’s pulpit. 

It was one of those tender moments when I once again wanted to say, “I’m sorry. Sorry for the injustices and inequities, the slights and suspicions, the lynchings, the bombings, the beatings, the burnings and countless other acts of terror perpetuated by people who look like me. I’m sorry for the sin of white supremacy, which festers and flames yet and still.” 

People sometimes dismiss such confessions as “white guilt.” I hear their point, but I don’t share their judgment. 

While I cannot speak for anyone else, as for me, I never use the language of “white guilt” and its close cousins in the popular lexicon of diversion, “political correctness,” “wokism” or “virtue signaling.”

When I see someone speaking the truth about white supremacy and working as an ally on the journey to a more just world, I assume they are acting from basic goodness, not white guilt. 

When people work to put in place public policy which helps create a more equitable and welcoming society for all persons, I don’t call that “wokism.” I call it baptism. 

When someone sits down with and stands up for those who are excluded and derided, stigmatized, marginalized and ostracized, I assume they are living their faith, not signaling their virtue. 

If I had been born into some family other than the one into which I was born, I might have found a life of empathy and solidarity primarily in the teachings and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam or Sikhism. But because I was born to the Pooles in Macon, I find that life lived in the Jesus of the four gospels, the Jesus who, when asked what matters most, replied that we love God with all that is in us and love our neighbor as we wish to be loved. 

To see what that “neighbor love” looks like, we can follow Jesus around in the four gospels and watch while, time after time, he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger and embraces those who are marginalized, ostracized, slighted and shunned. I call this “the cumulative weight of the gospels” because Jesus’ life of empathy for and solidarity with those who are most voiceless and vulnerable is not limited to a verse here and there. 

The cumulative weight of the gospels draws us to a life of empathy for, and solidarity with, those who are most vulnerable and voiceless.   This way of being in the world is guided by what I call “the Jesus gene.” 

If we read the four gospels often enough, prayerfully enough, that old Jesus gene will, eventually, leave us walking with a little Jesus lean. So, for example, when we face truthfully the generational sin of white supremacy and work for a more just world, that isn’t white guilt. That’s living out the Jesus gene. 

When we stand with those on the margins by standing against the policies that keep them there, that isn’t being “woke.” That’s walking with a Jesus lean. 

It isn’t progressive politics when we call on policymakers to expand Medicaid. That is gospel solidarity. Closing the healthcare coverage gap is a right and true thing, not a red or blue thing. 

There is no shortage of mystery when it comes to matters of faith. How did God create the universe? 

How will the world as we know it come to its close? 

Where do providence and free will intersect? How should we think of the mystery of Holy Communion? 

What happens when we die? 

The list is long, and in the face of such mysteries, we should be careful not to say more than we know. It is not helpful to claim clarity in the face of mystery. 

But, neither is it helpful to claim mystery in the face of clarity. We may not have the answers, for example, to all the logistical questions around Medicaid expansion, but if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, we know that Jesus would want all persons to have access to healthcare. 

We may not have a public policy answer for every question about immigration. But if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, we know that Jesus, himself the child of border crossing, asylum-seeking immigrant parents (Matthew 2:13-23), would want us to find a way to welcome those who are fleeing desperation and danger.

If the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, we don’t have to wring our hands in bewildered uncertainty concerning what Jesus would say about the proliferation of assault weapons on our streets. 

If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are reliable snapshots of the life and love of Jesus, we don’t have to wonder whether or not Jesus would embrace and include all persons without regard for their sexual orientation or any other human difference.

If the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, we don’t have to wonder what Jesus would do because we already know what Jesus did. 

This is why, when the most prayerful, Spirit-filled people I know, in the face of every social justice issue, seem always to land on the side of empathy for, and solidarity with, those who are most in need of help and hope, welcome and inclusion, I never assume that it is because they are trying to be woke, progressive or politically correct.

Rather, I assume they have finally accumulated so much of that old Jesus gene that they can no longer walk without a little Jesus lean. 

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