By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon at Storydwelling, a community of belonging, ritual and resistance in Bend, Oregon
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.”–John 3:11
Nicodemus, like most powerful men, knows how to conduct a covert operation. He was a Pharisee from Jerusalem with a lot to lose if others saw him associating with Jesus of Nazareth, the radical Galilean rabbi. Nicodemus’ night call would be like the President of the United States secretly meeting with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s, when Dr. King’s approval rating hovered around 25% in white America.
Dr. King was hated and feared by white folks because he said things like “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” He proclaimed this to a virtually all-white audience just three weeks before he was assassinated. At the time, we now know, powerful white men were offering a bounty of more than a hundred thousand dollars for anyone who would take out Dr. King. Just like Jesus, he was killed because his vision of justice and humanity for all threatened visions of tranquility and the status quo for a few.
Jesus said the same kinds of scandalous things that Dr. King did: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Yes. It’s true. Jesus really said stuff like that. To powerful religious leaders like Nicodemus. He said it because what they preached and practiced made it clear that they cared far more about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. Jesus diagnosed that this lack of empathy and solidarity with those who suffer was rooted in a popular myth that God’s love was scarce and conditional and that those who were in dire straits somehow deserved their misery.
Let’s be clear: Nicodemus and Jesus were both dark-skinned Palestinian Jews, colonized by the Roman empire. This is important because the words “the Jews” comes up 67 times in John’s Gospel—a book of the Bible that has a long history of being abused by white-skinned Christians to justify anti-Semitism. However, in the Gospel, written more than 50 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, “the Jews” actually refers to the establishment Jewish leaders in Jerusalem who persecuted the poor, oppressed Galilean “Jews for Jesus” movement that had steadily grown in popularity. Jerusalem Jews like Nicodemus considered the Galileans a threat to their powerful Temple-based religion built on sacrifices and financial offerings.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again if he was going to save his soul. But here’s the rub: Jesus was not talking about what Nicodemus needed to do in order to go to heaven when he died. He was talking about what Nicodemus needed to do in order to keep others from catching hell on earth right now. Like Indigenous peoples and wounded healers like Gandhi, Carl Jung and Brene Brown, Jesus believed that the soul is the connective tissue that binds us to each other, to nature, to the eternal. Dr. King called this “the interrelated structure of reality.” Jesus told Nicodemus that the key to spirituality was to be reborn of this soul force, a Spirit that blows wherever She wants.
Jesus connected the dots for Nicodemus by making a personal plea, Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. Jesus is the leader of a band of Galilean peasants who are being devastated by Roman imperial policies and the official religion that sanctifies it all in the name of God. He is pleading to someone with real power: “when are you going to start prioritizing us.”
In recent months, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard, in one form or another, those who are excluded or exploited echoing this same sentiment of Jesus. I have heard it from Black folks. I have heard it from Native American mothers. I have heard it from former students who are undocumented. I have heard it from homeless residents of Bend who are about to be removed from Juniper Ridge. I have heard it from working class and middle-class families here who are being displaced by rising housing costs.
What Jesus wanted from Nicodemus is what the excluded and exploited want from us: to listen to and learn from their testimony and then take action. To connect with soul force and change society. Jesus wasn’t shaming and blaming. He didn’t come to condemn people. He was a prophet who came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Jesus was inviting both the comfortable and the afflicted to experience what he called eternal life. Eternity, according to Jesus, starts now—not when we die. Eternity, according to Jesus, starts when we make it a daily practice to prioritize the testimony of the excluded and exploited.
This is the key to our spiritual rebirth. Soul force is not about what we are against, but who we are for. For folks like me who grew up in white Christian fundamentalism, the testimony of the excluded and exploited is also the key for understanding how to read the Bible in a way that it was originally intended. The Bible is not error-free and self-evident. It is a collection of competing texts—an ongoing debate about how to connect with soul force. Many biblical stories prop up power arrangements. For this kind of flag-waving faith, a triumphant male God is in control, all the time. But there is also a minority report, in the Bible, about a divinity that does not sit on a throne, but hangs on a cross, always in solidarity with those who are suffering. This whistle-blowing faith cultivates a completely different spiritual posture and practice.
In his classic book Jesus and the Disinherited, the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman explained that centuries ago, enslaved Christians “undertook the redemption of a religion that their master had profaned in [their] midst.” They didn’t cast off Christianity. They composted it. The Black slaves gathered in secret, outside of the church building, down by the riverside—where they synthesized the biblical stories with the liberating creation spirituality that they brought with them across the Atlantic Ocean.
I grew up understanding concepts like “born again” and “eternal life” in the same spiritualized, futurized and individualized ways that white slaveholders did. Today, these words have been composted for me by perspectives that are not white and not male and not American. This morning, as we move into the season of Lent, I propose that we resist leaving Black History Month behind. Let’s commit to Black History Year or Black History Decade.
This practice is pertinent for people of faith and conscience in Oregon. Our souls yearn for a Black history extension because we live in the only U.S. state to have Black exclusion written into the state constitution. True, Oregon was an anti-slavery state. It was also an anti-Black state too. A lot of Black folks originally came to Oregon while working on the railroad. However, if these folks chose to stay in Oregon, according to state law, they would receive 39 lashes from a whip. This was going down long before we arrived on the scene, but it is a policy that still shapes this place and our souls. I believe that prioritizing the testimony of Black voices is one way that Bend can be born again.
Our community concluded this reflection with a song inspired by Ella Baker, a brilliant leader in the Black Southern Freedom struggle who most Americans have never heard of. In 1964, she helped recruit thousands of college students to travel to the South to register Black voters. During that summer, 67 Black churches, stores and home were bombed and Black leaders were murdered and thrown in swamps. When she was asked to comment on the violence this is what she said: Until the killing of a black mother’s son becomes as important as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
Tommy Airey is a retired high school teacher and once-upon-a-time Evangelical pastor.
He and his wife, Lindsay, are blending a vocation of “soul accompaniment:” one part
pastoral-counseling, one part spiritual-directing, one part advocating-for-the-most-
marginalized. Tommy’s articles have appeared in The Christian Century, Sojourners
Magazine, The Mennonite and Geez Magazine. He is the co-curator of
RadicalDiscipleship.Net, book review editor for Geez Magazine and author of
Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).