Repairers of the World

When I was a kid, probably no more than six or seven, we had a makeshift baseball diamond in the neighbor’s yard. There was a knot on a railroad tie that represented home plate, and a crack on the retaining wall opposite that served as second base. Our summers used to be filled with games in that yard, from shortly after chores were finished to the fading glimmers of sunset – well after what would have been our school-year bedtimes. Scraped knees were a regular occurrence on slide attempts into the sidewalk that marked third base, and a buddy of mine had a flat spot on his forehead for quite a while after a diving attempt into the cement home run fence, but there wasn’t a lot of property damage to worry about.

Until Scottie came to play with us one day. Scottie was one of the older kids in the neighborhood, about six years older than me, and his early adolescent strength turned my weak ground balls into towering home runs. That fateful summer day, one of those long fly balls turned into a shattered window on another neighbor’s house. We were all stunned, partly because we had never thought of that happening, but mostly because none of us could hit the ball that hard. I have always admired a lot of things about Scottie, and one of those things is his integrity. I don’t know if he was the man of integrity he is today at twelve years old or if there were just too many witnesses to keep it a secret, but it didn’t take long for parents to be involved with covering the window and checking the price for repairs. Scottie took responsibility for the mishap, but as a twelve year old, I can’t imagine he had a huge stack of cash to cover the fix. He spent part of the rest of the summer working it off with an extra-long chore list, but he made sure to make things right, beyond just an apology and a fresh start.

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This is a re-creation of the scene. This is not Scottie. Scottie is much more handsome in real life.

There is a phrase that Rabbis often use that translates to “Repairers of the World”, taken from Isaiah 58. It signifies the partnership between God and humans as working together to show glimpses of what it looks like when the intended life of the devout bumps up against the fallen systems and broken relationships of the world. For example, when the ideas of Jubilee and gleaning laws – the intended economy – contrast with the scarcity mentality and hoarding that often accompanies today’s economy, the devout are called  to be Repairers of the World and offer the world glimpses of a “better way” as they practiced what God had called them to. God casts the vision and outlines the plan, and then empowers his people to act it out in a way that brings dignity to the marginalized and helps repair the world.

I had the chance to hear Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil preach last week at a conference, which I assumed was going to be largely about her recent book The Roadmap to Reconciliation. I had read the book already and my pastor had already preached on it for a couple of months, so I was pretty familiar with the topic. While I really appreciated the book and it’s themes, my critique at the time was that it didn’t feel like reconciliation was “done” at the end of the roadmap. It seemed a little bit too accommodating, and I wish it had concluded with some harder truths. In many ways, it felt like how a lot of white folks talk about racial tensions. If every white person is just nice to every black or brown person, racism will be over. If we can just forget about the past, we can start fresh from right now and put everything else behind us.

That might work for a couple of kids who got in a fight, or in a relationship between folks of equal status. But that doesn’t describe racial reconciliation in the least bit. A simple apology and a “forgive and forget” mentality doesn’t really begin to make things right.

The US has endured 400 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow segregation, and 70 years of racially restrictive housing discrimination. Not to mention a candidate for president that has normalized and mainstreamed a white supremacy fueled backlash against the first person of color to ever preside over the Oval Office. But in contrast to the #NeverForget theme of 9/11, people of color are just told to get over it.

Starting over fresh often doesn’t make things right. Where is the church as we follow our calling to repair the world?

You know, the idea of reparations comes from the same word. As Dr. Brenda said in her speech, what “reparations” really means is to repair what is broken. You know something that is broken? The way that the United States has mistreated its black population from the moment that first slave ship landed in the colonies. So yes, of course I’m in favor of reparations. But writing a check isn’t going to solve all the problems. I’m talking about the hard and painful work of actually repairing what is broken.

In the City of Chicago, the median wage gap is $10. That basically means that the average black employee makes $10 less than the average white employee per hour. Over the course of a 40 hour work week, that is $400, over the course of a year more than $20,000. No wonder many minority families are working twice as long and just as hard as their average white counterpart. The national median family wealth gap is absurd: for white families over $125,000, while black families have less than $12,000. I know this dispels some of the Welfare Queen myths that Reaganites like to trumpet, but what can you say to someone who works two jobs at minimum wage and still qualifies for nutrition assistance. Where is the church as we follow our calling to repair the world?

We don’t always know what to do, but we can’t do nothing. If the church is to have any credibility in the world, we have to get over our Christendom-era entitlement and stop siding on the side of the oppressors. Jesus talks about how hard it is for the rich to get into heaven, but the largest churches in the country are filled with them. They refuse to talk about the things that Jesus talked about the most in favor of a cheapened and pathetically dichotomized gospel that talks a lot about souls going to heaven but very little about how radical our lives are supposed to look here on earth. We have surrendered our birthright for a bowl of soup, our prophetic uniqueness for the riches of this world. Jacob knows who comes out ahead in that trade, but why don’t we?

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