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Forsaking the 'Whiteness' of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9)

02/09/2015 09:40 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

We asked a random group of people: Who do you talk to?

Sparked by the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, the subsequent deaths at the hands of law enforcement of Eric Garner in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, protests under the banners of #ferguson, #icantbreathe and #blacklivesmatter have spread around the country and a passionate conversation about the role of race in America has been rejoined. These protests, along with coverage by news media and the voices of social commentators and faith leaders -- as well as the well-timed critical success of the movie Selma -- have moved matters of race to the fore of our cultural consciousness and conversation in a way rarely seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

And yet, despite this heightened awareness about the experience of people of color, there remains a great distance and disconnect between white and minority communities regarding not only the actions of law enforcement, but also the varied manifestations of systemic and institutional racism. Indeed, the very real troubles experienced by communities of color are largely invisible to many whites. In Ferguson itself, many whites prior to the death of Mike Brown reported being unaware of the tension between African-American community and law enforcement. Nationwide, whites and African-Americans had very different perspectives. Whereas 80 percent of African Americans said Mike Brown's shooting raised issues about race, only 37 percent of whites said the same.

In a time when renewed engagement is desperately needed, it is difficult to have dialogue when a vast majority of whites cannot empathize with the experience of communities of color, or, in some cases, acknowledge that there is a problem at all.

Our Homogeneous Social Networks

One reason for this disconnect may be that our social networks are largely homogeneous. Following the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, The Public Religion Research Institute reported that among white Americans 91 percent of people in their social networks are white, among black Americans 83 percent are black, and among Hispanic 64 percent are Hispanic. Further, 75 percent of white Americans say that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white. For blacks, 65 percent of that network is entirely black, and for Hispanics, it is 46 percent Hispanic.

In part, because of the homogenous composition of our social networks, we have become disconnected from each other's realities. When we only relate and engage important questions with people similar to us, it reinforces our perspective rather than expanding it. Today perhaps more than ever we must diversify our networks and move beyond our racial or socio-economic enclaves.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie has warned of the danger of seeing the world through a single lens, or, as she has said, a single story. She says that when we only know or tell one story about a person, place, or community, we miss the complexities of those people and their reality. She says, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

Let Us Build Three Dwelling Places

In the story of Transfiguration in the Gospel of Mark we find Jesus and three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, on a high mountaintop. There, Jesus is transfigured -- changed in appearance, becoming, Mark writes, "dazzlingly white" The great lawgiver, Moses, and prophet Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. The disciples are overwhelmed by this vision. Not knowing what to do or say, they blurt out a suggestion that they build three dwelling places. Let's stay here, they say, and memorialize this moment.

As soon as they propose this, the vision ends, God declares Jesus to be God's beloved Son, instructs them to listen to him, and they head back down the mountain.

The disciples' response to Jesus' transfiguration was completely understandable. Who could blame them for wanting to linger on the mountaintop after such a revelation? There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people building monuments and altars at places of divine encounter. But perhaps there is more to it than that. Perhaps they wanted to stay on the mountain, at least in part, to retreat from the clamoring crowds down below. Before ascending the mountain they had been present to Jesus' healing and teaching, his stilling a storm, raising a little girl from the dead, feeding thousands, and walking on water. It's not hard to imagine that the Transfiguration -- which would have been far more amazing and miraculous than all of those -- was the seeming culmination of those saving acts and the reward for wading through the endless human brokenness and need. At the very least, it was a respite from the heartbreaking human longing that awaited them back down the mountain.

Here, I think, the disciples reflect our own instinct withdrawal from the world in the face of its seemingly unquenchable need and news of terrorism, natural disaster, and racial strife. (Though it should be noted that it is only those with privilege who can do so.) As part of that instinct, we can also draw back into our familiar and seemingly safe ethnic enclaves, making it even more difficult to understand and appreciate the plight of our neighbors.

And sure enough, when Jesus and the disciples trudged back down the mountain, they found a world in turmoil: scribes arguing, an anxious crowd surging toward him, and a mother presenting her possessed son for healing.

However, this main problem with the disciples' desire to stay: they misunderstood and mistook the Transfiguration for the definitive revelation of God in Jesus. This was a great moment to be sure, one of the inflection points in story of Jesus, but the God's ultimate revelation was still to come -- in Jesus' suffering and death on the cross. That is where God's love and power would be fully on display -- not in self-preservation or self-aggrandizement, not in glory or dazzling whiteness, but self-emptying, in solidary with the oppressed and the suffering. Perhaps this is why the only thing Jesus says in this entire text is an instruction to the disciples not to tell anyone about the mountaintop event until after his resurrection -- so that others wouldn't make the same mistake.

And Jesus wastes no time getting there. After his transfiguration, he quickly heads down the mountain and to the cross. In doing so, Jesus rejects the "whiteness" of the Transfiguration and presses into the sea of human need -- humanity in all its diversity and fullness -- by descending the mountain and setting his face toward the Jerusalem. Jesus constantly refuses the way of privilege, even though he was entitled to every possible privilege as God's beloved Son. And he nailed that privilege to the cross for the sake of the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, for us all.

Jesus may have transfigured on the mountain, but he and the disciples and the crowds were transformed in the valley, redeemed by the suffering on the cross, and finally triumphant over sin and death.

Jesus' call to follow him is a call to, like Lazarus, come out of our racial enclaves that appear to us as safe havens, but are in actuality only tombs. He calls us to be with our neighbors, to listen, and to show mercy. Jesus calls the privileged to follow his example -- to lay down that privilege for the sake of our neighbors and for the good of the world.

This is the Jesus of whom God says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

Study Questions:

1. Reflect on the composition of your own digital and face-to-face social. Are they rich with diverse people and stories? If not, how might you expand your networks?

2. Having witnessed Jesus' transfiguration, the disciples wanted to stay up on the mountain. Have you ever found yourself wanting to escape reality? What has motivated you to climb back down the mountain and engage with the brokenness of the world?

3. What are the ways you can divest of the privilege of "dazzling whiteness?"

Recommended Reading

Cornel West, Race Matters

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