Off-Script

Which is the bigger miracle?

I remember listening wide-eyed as a teenager in a Bible study as another teen told about his experience of dramatic physical healing. Confusingly, I heard that this same young man would go on to live a rather ordinary life for a white person in rural upstate New York – including, one assumes, its usual set of prejudices (Google searches indicate that western New York is among the most racist areas of the country)His miracle did not mean that his life “jumped the tracks,” as it were.

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You may also recall a famous story of ten lepers receiving miraculous divine healing. Afterwards, nine of them returned to normal life. If there were a script for what kind of people they were supposed to be [1], they were happy to return to it. They were Jews of their time and place, and so presumably got back on track with despising Samaritans. Maybe later in life one of them could have hired a Samaritan employee – but he followed the script and rejected the application (Samaritans are lazy). Maybe another of these former lepers taught in high school and, staying on script, didn’t encourage a Samaritan student to apply to college (Samaritans are not smart). Maybe a third one of these divinely healed men sat on a jury for the trial of a Samaritan burglar. He recommended that the Samaritan get the maximum possible sentence (since Samaritans are violent and should be kept off the streets). The lepers were healed, but their lives played out as one might otherwise expect from men of their race and region.

But I have also seen people undergo repentance such that they spend their lives acting off-script. I know an old white pastor who grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s. His cultural script told him how to think about and behave towards black people. But he was changed – not least through listening to Dr. Martin Luther King,  Jr. on the radio. He came to accept that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has claimed us as children, and that this identity outranks all the others society gives to us. [2] This belief propelled him into a life of ministry spent in addressing racial injustice. He pastors a multiracial church and preaches boldly about how white people’s inherited cultural thinking usually drives our behavior much more than our identity in Jesus Christ – the same identity we share with our black and brown neighbors loved by God.

This is not how an old white man from Mississippi is supposed to act! – not at all the script given to him. 

I don’t know which is the bigger miracle: the dramatic healing or an old white man living off-script. But I will tell you which is more convincing to me that a new day is dawning; that there is something different and supernatural afoot – and which I want to be a part of. To take up Paul’s words, I would rather have love than the gift of prophesy or faith that can move mountains (1 Cor 13:2). I would rather try to reach out in a weird and countercultural fashion to people I am societally trained to disregard and dismiss and despise – than have powers and experiences that are impressive and memorable but that leave me acting in conformity to my worldly white script.   

[1] What James Cone calls a “social a priori” or a “mental grid” (God of the Oppressed, p  48).

[2] “We are not defined by our bank account or gender or sexual orientation or racial classification. We are defined as daughters and sons of God” (Nibs Stroupe, Where We Once Feared Enemies: Inclusive Membership, Prophetic Vision, and the American Church, p 27).

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