You Shall Be Holy
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
by Meghan Florian
February 23, 2014
Today’s passage from Leviticus, sometimes called a “Holiness code,” provides some pretty clear mandates for how to be in the world as God’s faithful, holy people. You shall, you shall not. Economics, agriculture, justice — you name it, there’s probably an aspect of this moral law that applies. Here is how to live together.
There is one particular part of the text that I have carried around in my head all week. Verse 16 has haunted me: “…you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”
A Christian Century blog post this week noted that this is the one shot Jesus’ command from the gospel text to “love your enemies” gets in five years due to the quirks of the Lectionary. The implication was that this week’s sermon had basically been handed to me, but I’m pretty sure I’ve preached that sermon before.
Instead, the question I want us to consider instead is how it is that we can talk about loving our enemies, when we have not yet learned to love our neighbors? “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin,” Leviticus says. Let’s take the beginning of the passage as our guide, with the command, “You shall be holy.” Reading over what the law lays out, what holiness entails, it seems like our entire way of life in the United States is built on precisely the opposite of this kind of holiness.
Our way of life depends on the blood of our neighbors.
Here, we could talk about war. We could talk about capitalism. We could talk about immigration. And all of that would be true.
But the blood I cannot deny — the blood on our hands — belongs to Jordan Davis.
It would be easier, of course, to have read the articles detailing the death of yet another black boy last week and lament the actions of one person, the man who pulled the trigger. And pulled it again and again. But Michael Dunn does not exist in a vacuum. I am part of the same society that produced him.
Jordan Davis doesn’t make me think about loving our enemies; his death highlights, rather, blindness to our neighbors, and blindness to a fear that runs so deeply most of us have never known, may in fact despair of ever knowing, a world without it.
“…racism in America,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last week, “is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.” This is our American heritage, yes, but it is also a religious one.
In Brazil a few years ago, with one of my seminary professors, I visited a market in Salvador with a group of students. We went down a small, winding staircase, and we saw where slave ships would have been unloaded. An inverse baptism, Dr. Carter called it — the African who entered the ship a human, and after being dragged through those waters, emerged a slave. That’s our religious heritage.
If holiness is about a kind of separation from the world, then holiness also risks being “holier than thou,” sometimes, like the smug liberalism that preaches about justice while complicit in systemic oppression. And as one of those good white liberals, it’s tempting to believe the lie that by checking my privilege, by voting democratic, by electing a black president even, we’ve got this one covered. We can sit in an ivory tower and judge those other white people, the racist ones. We can separate ourselves.
But this week I was forced once again to confront the fact that simply living in the United States as a white person today is to profit by my neighbors’ blood, by my heritage.
“Law and legacy are at war,” Coates wrote last week. “Legacy is winning. Legacy will always win…and blessed is the black man who lives to learn other ways, who lives to see other worlds, who lives to bear witness before the changes.” Coates grew up; Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis will not. That is their legacy, reflective of ours.
Leviticus commands us not to lie, and in keeping with Matthew’s sermon last week, perhaps there’s a thread running between the texts. In this case, a call to bear witness to the truth of everything that has not changed, and the ways we are complicit in that.
The truth is, I’ve been taught fear since the day I was born. When I was old enough to stay out after dark, I was taught that I nonetheless needed a nice boy — a nice white boy — to walk me home. I was taught who I was supposed to trust, and who was supposed to protect me. I was taught who I was — a fragile, precious object — and whose I was, as well.
Never mind that it was those supposed “protectors” the young white women I was mostly surrounded by should probably have been wary of, if anyone. Part of our heritage is, after all, the way that gendered violence takes place within this racial world — such that John Howard Yoder, or Woody Allen, or the frat boy next door, can do what they wish, and get away with it. Boys like Jordan Davis can do nothing, and still be punished.
My friend Emma recently wrote about the divide between white womanhood and Blackness, in response to some critiques of Michelle Obama’s feminism, and I think her point is useful here. She writes:
[White feminists want] to rob Michelle of the privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries by mocking [her], saying: “She essentially became the English lady of the manor, Tory Party, circa 1830s.” Being the “lady of a manor” is a privilege many white women have enjoyed for centuries, and when a Black woman has a chance to represent the role of the “lady” public, she is chided. It reminds me of the poem by Sojourner Truth … when she said: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”…White women were allowed to be the pure, cherished and adored women whereas Black women were discarded; our bodies were used and not seen.
I am supposed to be the “lady” — often when I have not wanted to be, but even that not wanting, that rejection of the role, is a product of privilege. It doesn’t change the things my body means, the value placed on white women’s flesh, and black bodies so easily discarded.
Emma’s point matters when talking about the death of a black boy, because in order to have any conversation about the sin of racism in the United States we have to talk about masculinity, which means we have to talk about the ways that women have been alternately possesed and protected, or used and abused, along very clear racial lines — and what does the loss of that ability to possess and protect mean? What does it have to do with the fear, the loss of control, that drives men like Michael Dunn? When men “stand their ground,” who and what are they protecting? What separation do they seek to enforce?
This is not the separation Leviticus speaks of; this is a fruitless search for a “purity” born of violence.
We are people who organize our lives around the commands of the bible, around holiness, rather than the constitution, the laws that govern American society. So, what about the law, in Leviticus?
Christians tend to struggle with the law. It’s one of many reasons one might jump to focus on the gospel passage this week — Jesus, after all, is the fulfilling of the law. His commands echo Leviticus. Fulfilling the law does not abolish it. There’s a call to be holy, not for any clearly justified reason, but because God is holy, and commands us to be so as well. We are to be holy not because it’s merely good for us, but because our holiness is for something — it is for God, and for our neighbors. Our kin, as we are all grafted in. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself,” Leviticus says. We have a responsibility to one another.
So much of Leviticus is about what can and cannot be mixed, and indeed in a way Jesus mixes us up as well when our enemies are suddenly brought into the fold with our neighbors, the people we are to love. It would be too easy to move here toward something called “racial reconciliation,” but I am not really sure what that term means anymore. Reading the text in that way seems like it reinforces more problems than it solves.
No, separation, as I am reading it onto our context, is not the separation of white and black, but the separation I think it is tempting to make between ourselves, as a predominantly white congregation, and those other white people — the Michael Dunns of our world, all those crazies down in Florida. To do so is to deny my inheritance: the legacy of fear I was taught as a girl, that I have spent years trying to unlearn as a woman; but also the fear of being that person, the person who challenges other white folks when they say “This isn’t racist, but…” And, most certainly, fear of getting it wrong, of doing more harm than good, of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way because I’m just a Nice White Lady, and maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.
This week I have been re-reading Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, by Eula Biss. Her collection of essays is about race, as any book that calls itself “American” probably ought to be. She names that legacy, that inheritance, in her title. She is so intent on unlearning the same kinds of fear I carry, including, I think, the fear of getting it wrong or making people mad, and she stubbornly keeps interrogating her existence with others, and what it all means.
The first essay in her book is about telephone poles, and the ways in which we are all connected, as well as the way that the very things that connect us, divide us. For telephone poles — a key part of modern connection and communication — were also used to hang black men.
The essay details lynchings and riots alongside the gradual acceptance of the telephone pole as part of the modern landscape. In closing, I’d like to read you an excerpt:
When I was young, I believed that the arc and swoop of telephone wires along the roadways was beautiful. I believed that the telephone poles, with their transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious. I believed my father when he said, “My dad could raise a pole by himself.” And I believed the telephone itself was a miracle.
Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.
One summer, heavy rains fell in Nebraska and some green telephone poles grew small, leafy branches. (Eula Biss, “Time and Distance Overcome,” Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, Minneapolis, MN: Greywolf Press, 2009).