Divine Strangers

Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama 1963

By Tommy Airey, a sermon on Genesis 18:1-15. For Storydwelling, a local community of belonging, ritual and resistance in Central Oregon (June 14, 2020).

“Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.’”—Genesis 18:2-3

For some context: Abraham and Sarah are a very wealthy couple who cannot get pregnant. They try and try, year after year, decade after decade. Nothing. Late in life, God promises that they will have a child. Ten years pass. Still nothing—so Sarah gives Abraham her slave Hagar as a surrogate wife to bear their child. Hagar is Egyptian. She is a Black woman. When Hagar gets pregnant and gives birth to their son Ishmael, Sarah gets resentful and violently abuses her. This was the original version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Hagar flees to the wilderness where God shows up to protect her. For white folks, one experiences the spiritual wilderness when God is distant. For Black folks, the wilderness experience is when God shows up to strengthen and protect—to make a way out of no way. This makes sense. In America, Black folks are not served and protected by what claims to serve and protect.  

In the wilderness, Hagar becomes the only character in the entire Bible to name God. She calls the divine El-Roi—The God Of Seeing. Hagar proclaims, “Have I really seen the One who sees me and lived to tell about it?” This is remarkable. Because later in the Exodus narrative, the text specifically says that no one can see God and live to tell about it. Yet Hagar the Black woman does. In Genesis 18, with Abraham, the divine gets back to disguising itself again. 
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In the Gospels, Jesus animates an apocalyptic scene. At the end of the age, strangers from all over the world flock to a heavenly feast. Father Abraham sits at the head of the table. Jesus wasn’t just making that story up. He was riffing off this episode in Genesis. God is mediated to Abraham in the form of three strangers. Abraham—a very wealthy and privileged man—does something sacred and subversive. The one who was used to being waited on becomes the waiter. Abraham flips the script. He drops everything to serve the three strangers. He bows down and pays them homage. He bestows dignity and honor upon them. He celebrates them. He takes his cues from them.

We read this episode together in a disorienting season—when God is being revealed to us through three strangers: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The evidence for this divine revelation is what is stirring in our souls. And that we are saying their names. In the last few weeks, folks have been talking about an awakening, an enlightenment, a conversion. God is speaking. And I propose that the posture and practice of Father Abraham as a humble servant is a model for how we might move forward as middle-class people and/or white people.

Our dear friend Rev. Nick Peterson was interviewed on a podcast a few days ago and he commented about the widespread “call to action” in our culture and how social anxiety motivates us to respond in these rare moments of collective shock and awe. We are desperately supposed to do something—so we attend protests and prayer vigils and post to social media and support Black businesses and organizations. There is pressure for folks to do the right thing—or just do something. This call to action is particularly prescient for white people who are motivated by social anxiety and guilt relief.

These moments tend to turn the marathon of racial justice into a sprint. Nick challenged listeners to take a step back from the immediacy—the awkward urgency—that comes with our anxiety. He proposed that faith calls us to press the pause button in order to “problematize our entire position within society.” The lynchings of these three strangers is the rule, not the exception. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have been joined by Rayshard Brooks and Robert Fuller and others in recent days. Anti-Blackness happens everyday, everywhere—both institutionally and inter-personally. Protests and prayer vigils and social media posting are fine, but what this moment is perhaps most calling for is to start paying attention to what is going on right where we are. Instead of asking what we should we do, perhaps we should be asking what might we become—so that we can participate in this struggle for the long haul.

For those of us living in a context like Bend, Oregon (which is 92% white), stepping back means taking inventory of the ways that segregation has inevitably limited our own humanity and has distorted our vision. Intentionally stepping back can allow us to stop being desensitized to the white supremacy that surrounds us. For me, stepping back means that I must examine the ways that being white (and male and cis) has malformed me. I have been incessantly centered. So I must problematize my entire entitled positioning–which has made me perfectionistic, controlling, defensive, fragile and oblivious to the pain and suffering of strangers in Bend and all over the world.

In the second part of the episode in Genesis, the divine strangers promise Abraham and Sarah the conception and birth of something entirely new. They give it a timeline: one year. What if we committed one full year to conceiving and birthing an anti-racist spirituality? One year and then see what happens. A timeline is significant because it creates space to radically respond to Nick’s challenge to step back and problematize our position. One year also keeps us accountable to live from our convictions, instead of what is trending in dominant culture. And we know—from US history—that anti-racism will not be trending in America for much longer.

In 1963, white people all over the US were shocked to watch on TV from their living rooms police in Birmingham, Alabama unleashing violence and hatred on Black protesters with firehoses, attack dogs and Billy clubs. 57 years ago. In middle-class America, the shock wears off quickly. So I say, with these divine strangers, let’s commit to a whole year and see what happens. Let’s problematize our position in society. Let’s disrupt what dominant culture says is divine. Let’s bow down to the Black experience. Let’s learn the difference between loving Black culture and loving Black people. And there is a huge difference. Let’s keep listening to these divine strangers who are naming a new future–not as a prediction, but as a hope.

We are rooted in the prophetic biblical faith tradition. We have access to a powerful theological concept called repentance. In the Greek the word is metanoia, which was a term used in war when someone switched sides in a battle. In ancient wars, the person who repented was a traitor. Today, the person who pledges to shift their posture and perspective away from dominant narratives towards Blackness is repenting. We are simply responding to God speaking—through Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. We say their names. We switch sides. For the rest of our lives.

*Note: as my wife-partner Lindsay points out, this text demands to be disrupted. Abraham flipped the script with the divine strangers, but he consistently fails (in this episode and others) to flip the script in his own household with his spouse and servants. How often is it the case where oppression—whether patriarchy, racism, homophobia or classism—continues at home in private while hierarchies are flipped in public? A reminder that much of what passes as “anti-oppression” is often performative.
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Tommy Airey is a former high school teacher and Evangelical pastor. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).

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