Scripture: MARK 10:35-45
It’s a little late now—I probably should have mentioned this earlier—but I’m wondering if Emily and Pete Godenschwager really want their daughter Josie to be baptized. And to be honest, I’m wondering if we all really wanted to approach the new font today and to affirm our baptisms.
Baptism, for us, is such a fun event. We rightly make a big deal of it, with baptismal gowns and parties and sometimes godparents. It marks a special moment in our lives, a chance for families to gather, and a celebration of the undying love God shows for us all. What’s not to like?
And then the cold water gets thrown into our face. When James and John ask Jesus for special favors, and for ultimate recognition when Jesus ascends into glory, Jesus is gentle with them. He doesn’t jump down their throats, even though it would seem justifiable if he did. It’s clear, though, that they have failed yet again to grasp who Jesus is. Jesus has told the disciples several times that he’s going to die and that being a disciple is going to be extraordinarily demanding. And they keep totally misunderstanding him and evading the implications of what he’s asking. They think discipleship is all about achieving a special status. And Jesus relentlessly keeps insisting that it’s not at all about that. It’s about putting others first. It’s about letting go of privilege. It’s about serving people and the earth. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” asks Jesus. Are you able to “be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). Meaning: are you ready to embark on the rugged road of discipleship, a road that leads to suffering, selfless service, and death to self?
Which is why I wonder, if any of us had known this earlier, whether we would still want to be baptized. In what possible world does this sound appealing? In what universe would we choose such a challenging and frankly unappetizing journey?
As is so often the case—and it’s especially apparent if you’ve been worshiping with us over the last several weeks—Jesus throws a huge monkey wrench into our ideas of what human life ought properly to be about. He makes a shambles of our notions of what matters most, of how we should spend our energy, of what our goals should be.
If we’re tempted to think we’re far superior to the James and John who ask Jesus for special status, maybe we should think again. Who of us doesn’t want to be set apart? Who of us wouldn’t want to be celebrated as awesome? I suspect most of us would like to be acknowledged as a stellar employee or recognized as an incredible parent or grandparent. Wouldn’t we love a plaque that marks us as a notable citizen or fantastic neighbor or astounding athlete or unsurpassed gardener or unexcelled scholar? I’m guessing a place of honor seems pretty tempting for most of us.
And Jesus, oh so gently and firmly, says to us: that’s not what I’m about. If that’s where your priorities are, you’ve missed the boat. Mary and I have a print in our house of a work by the artist Corita Kent. It says, “Let it be your privilege to have no privilege.” This, I think, is some of what Jesus is getting at in his correction of James and John. Odd as it may seem in this culture, our greatest privilege in life, says Jesus, is to have no privilege. It’s to have the same standing as everyone else.
And this is true not just in these sorts of personal ways, but also, in ways we may not as easily perceive, in so many of the societal habits we practice. The pursuit and protection of privilege can seep into nearly every dimension of life. When I was a child, maybe twelve or fourteen, I wrote a paper or a book report for what we then called “social studies.” I wrote about the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. I can still vividly remember my sense of awe at who he was. He seemed a man of dignity. Hadn’t he honorably conceded to Union General Ulysses S. Grant? Hadn’t the Union soldiers saluted him as he left Appomattox Court House? Wasn’t he someone who commanded the utmost respect from friend and foe alike? Hadn’t President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Lee one of the four greatest Americans, along with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln? An astoundingly gracious and honorable man—that’s what I wrote about. That’s what I believed.
And then, in more recent years, a deeper truth emerged. It was a pretty simple and straightforward rebuttal, but one that had never occurred to me, or been presented to me, in my grade school years: whatever other traits he had, this was also the general who commanded the troops who fought passionately to maintain the patently vile institution of slavery. Could any habit or practice more fully embody the notion of privilege than the institution of slavery—white people accumulating wealth and comfort on the backs, literally, of Black people who were granted little or no freedom? Could anything more vividly bring to life James and John’s odious request for privilege? This was a war fought, in truth, to preserve an exalted white status. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). And how Jesus must have wept.
But I didn’t know that. I had to be taught it. I had to have my mind and heart opened. I had to learn that power and privilege are the unstated goal of so much of both personal and corporate life. I learned some of that in later schooling. And I’ve learned a great deal about this through paying attention to Jesus in my life in the church. When we look at the contemporary world through this lens, this lens of privilege-seeking, we see it played out in countless ways. We see Volkswagen, several years ago, cheating on emissions tests so they could sell more vehicles. We see Facebook now accused of putting profits over the protection of vulnerable young people. We see First Energy bribing Ohio public officials to secure an enormous bailout. And what do they have in common? They’re all seeking an advantage, a kind of privilege. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
And how would we know about any of this unless we were taught it, unless someone helped us see beneath the surface to a truth that would otherwise be elusive? Without dogged reporters who uncover public corruption? Without devoted church leaders who expose long-suppressed power imbalances? Without scholars who tell the story of history again in ways that reveal dynamics of which we were previously unaware? To put it simply: how would I know the truth about Robert E. Lee if others hadn’t unfolded layers about which I otherwise would have had not the slightest clue?
All of which is to say that education is never the purveying of a morally neutral truth. All education, all formation, conveys a moral perspective. I know some would like to eliminate what they call “politics” from the schoolroom. They’d like to “get back to the basics”—reading, writing, and arithmetic. They’d like not to tear down but to build up.
And all that may sound appealing on one level: do we have to fight about everything? Is nothing sacred? Do I really have to totally rethink who Robert E. Lee was, to take him down from the pedestal on which I had held him for all those decades?
It may be that all of us have some degree of that hope for a simpler world in which what we’ve held to be sacrosanct won’t be undone. We’ve hoped that the systems and perspectives in which we’ve found comfort might be preserved. At the same time, though, today’s story about Jesus helps us to see through to a more profound and crucial core. The dismantling of privilege beckons in ways that simply will not be thwarted by our pleading and wildly off-center demand: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
And education is one of the primary places that rethinking, that exposure to new perspectives, happens. I received an email the other day from the university where I attended graduate school. In it, the school’s commitment to excellence was underlined. And then it repeated its stated mission. The school’s mission, said the email, is to “improv[e] the world” (https://president.yale.edu/president/statements/progress-building-stronger-and-more-inclusive-yale?utm_source=YaleToday&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=YT_Yale%20Today%20Alum%20no%20Parents_10-15-2021). I suspect a noticeable part of improving the world has to do with questioning privilege gained at the expense of others.
We might wish that education could just neutrally present “the basics.” The truth, though, is that all education is slanted in some way or other, and, as Christians, we might dare to hope that the education of our children is, among other things, slanted in the direction of uncovering such unexpressed privilege.
Think about the education most of us have received. It may be that some subjects can be taught with little or no attention paid to such issues as privilege. Algebra and calculus can perhaps be taught in ways that are almost entirely free of societal encumbrances.
Math, though, is likely the exception rather than the rule. Any course on American history, for example, is going to run into the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, which declared that the U.S. Constitution didn’t guarantee citizenship for people of African descent. From an entirely different angle, it’s going to run into Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 decision which ruled that state laws that legitimate segregation are unconstitutional. It’s going to run into the Selma march and the Tulsa massacre and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s going to run into Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were harvested without her consent. It’s going to run into the politics and cruelty of Jim Crow. It’s going to run into the fundamental question of whether the Civil War was fought over states’ rights or slavery. And all of those issues have shaped who we are today, and who we hope to be. We can’t not engage the question of how those events intersect with today’s world. And it’s so often a question privilege.
It’s not just history, either. In an English course, how can you teach To Kill a Mockingbird without confronting what many have called “America’s original sin,” the odious racism that apparently stalks us at every turn. And does it not seem the case that an education in today’s world is incomplete if it doesn’t include works of more women, and of Black and Muslim and Native American authors? Again, these are questions of privilege: who belongs; whose voice matters?
Nor is that all. In addition to predominantly white classical and folk and country music, needn’t a music course expose students to predominantly black blues and jazz and hip hop? In addition to the works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh and Picasso, needn’t an art course explore the silhouettes of Kara Walker and the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner? Needn’t it view landscapes of Georgia O’Keefe, who strikingly said that if she couldn’t live the life she wanted to live, she was going to paint the way she wanted to paint?
Nor is that all. We might be tempted to think the sciences would be free of such social issues. Are they, though? Marie Curie, the scientist who won two Nobel prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry, was astoundingly denied a place in the Academy of Sciences. Needn’t we reflect, in this world, on the biology and psychology of sex and gender? Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the Black female scientists at the center of the movie Hidden Figures had to overcome gargantuan prejudice. These stories belong in the study of science.
The Black scientist Percy Julian was a tremendously distinguished chemist who did groundbreaking work in the study of soybeans. He and his spouse Anna Johnson Julian were members of the Congregational church in Oak Park, IL, that my grandfather served as minister in the 1950s. When the Julians first came to the church, they were confined to the balcony, only later, at church leaders’ insistence, being invited to sit wherever they wanted to. How is that possible!? All because so many white people thought it was their privilege, and theirs alone, to sit wherever they wanted to. And this in the living memory of many in this country and in this church. Is such an incident—an incident rooted in identifying who’s privileged—not part of the story of chemistry?
A member of the Ohio State Board of Education was quoted this week as saying that “he believes education should focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful” (Plain Dealer, Oct. 16, 2021, p. A3). And while on one level that may sound appealing, the truth is that that sort of approach is something of a mirage. We who follow Christ see life always through the cross. We know that life is tragic and prone to suffering, and that to ignore the places of brokenness is tantamount to letting that brokenness have its way. To disregard injustice is the equivalent of saying those bruising but alterable inequities should be allowed to stand. It’s to say that privilege should remain unchallenged.
So when some people say the schools shouldn’t be a place where our children are exposed to the difficult and challenging dimensions of human life, the question might well be asked: how can the schools not do that? Education isn’t about absorbing as many facts as possible, as though the job of schools is just to just fill otherwise empty heads with information about reading, writing and arithmetic and then send the children home without their minds and hearts being at all troubled. No. Education is about being formed as full human beings. It’s about grasping the context of the world in which we live. In the words of Chagrin Falls Schools Superintendent, Jennifer Penczarski, it’s about “develop[ing] the whole child” (email to the district, Oct. 25, 2021). Or in the words of my university, it’s about “improving the world.”
Whether we like it or not, education is about formation. We can be formed, badly, as dull automatons. We can be formed, incompletely, as citizens who never question the status quo. We can be formed, inadequately, as people who assume their privilege is some kind of natural right, and certainly never to be questioned.
Or we can follow the lead of Jesus and remember that privilege is anathema, that our proper privilege is really to have no privilege, and especially that service of each other is at the core of human life. Is that the baptism with which we are willing to be baptized? I pray that it is, because the riches of such a life of service are unimaginable. May we follow Jesus.