The Two Witnesses, Jan Richardson.jpg

Dismantling Racism:
Lessons from the Womb

May 13, 2018
Scripture References: 
Genesis 25:19-27, Genesis 27:30-40,
Romans 9:9-13, Matthew 15:21-28
Reverend Derrick W. McQueen, Ph.D.
serving as pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church, Harlem, NYC

     About 3 months ago, I was contacted by my friends at LabShul, they are a nomadic, Jewish, progressive congregation. I’ve preached at their services, Rabbi Lau-Lavie has preached at St. James, and we’ve had quite wonderful experiences.. In this phone call they said “our Bar and Bat Mitzvah young people want to come to St. James and have a conversation with you, and they want to bring a playwright with them.” This playwright would be commissioned to write a play about the one year anniversary of the shooting in Charleston. He was charged to write this play using ‘this text.’ So, it was he, a white Jewish man, and a black/African-American/Baptist man who played these two brothers, in the womb, as it were. Being in conversation with these young people I realized that this text is so deep, and so rich, and has so much for us to learn from. Very often when we hear our Old Testament texts we get stuck in the fact that these texts are what they are; that we must emulate what is happening in these texts; that we must separate forever Jacob and Esau, and claim one over the other rather than asking what are the lessons that we need to be learning from this particular text.

     These twins were in the womb of Rebecca who cursed her own life because they were struggling so much in the womb. These twins are living together in this womb for nine months. The most incredible thing I found out about this text is when you have these struggling twins in the womb, they aren’t fighting each other, they are helping each to take care of other. One may be weaker, one may be stronger, but it doesn’t matter because what they are trying to do is take care of one another.  So, it says that Esau came out of the womb and he was red. He was red because he had been helping his brother, he had been helping Jacob to live into fruition. So much so that when they came out of the womb Jacob grabs his heels to help him come out and breathe his first breath of life. And yet, we don’t talk about the fact that these two brothers, in the womb, help each other to live, to breathe, and to see the light of day. We focus on Rebecca complaining, and Rebecca’s prayer to the Lord asking what is going on inside of me?! Then, when God answers her and says, there are two nations or two peoples in your womb, we hear this pronouncement from God that only Rebecca hears, mind you. They shall be divided, one shall be stronger than the other, and the elder shall serve the younger. This appeasement of the mother in order to say keep it cool, it’s all gonna be alright in the end, gets fashioned in the language between Rebecca, and Isaac, and Jacob and Esau. Where Rebecca decides that she is going to help God out. That God isn’t able to do what God said God was going to do in the first place, and that she is going to help God get it right. So, she places Jacob in places of favor, and she pushes Esau out to be the huntsman and Jacob sits under her in the household, her favorite son. And anytime there is an opportunity to get favor from their father, Isaac, she makes sure that Esau isn’t around and she places Jacob in the space of favor, doing what she thinks is necessary to be done because she wants to edge her bet, that what God said is true will be true. And so, she does this all throughout his life and Jacob ends up taking the birthright from his brother. He takes his birthright from him for a mere bowl of soup. And now, here we are with Isaac at the end of his life. Isaac whose eyes are dim, who only knows his son Esau by the feel of his hairy arms. Who only knows his son Jacob by the feel of his smooth skin and the smell of the household. And it is Rebecca who says while your brother is out hunting to make this meal for a blessing, I’m going to cook up your father’s favorite meal. Go find, and kill a goat and put that on so he will feel hair and you will smell, as my great Aunt used to say,  you’re gonna smell  “right outdoorsy” and he will know that it is supposed to be Esau that he blesses. And you go in there and you get what’s yours.

There is only one problem that I find with this text. The problem that I have with this text is that here we are in one womb, coming from one mother, and rather than hear the words of God saying that one shall be stronger, and that one must serve the other, we hear that word serve and we think that one must be on top of the other. We think that there is some type of hierarchy that is planned by God for those who have and those who should not have. And, very often what we end up doing, and since we’re talking about dismantling racism in this period, what we’re talking about is that very often we feel that God has placed the favorite to be favored and those who are not favorites, well, tough luck. But, that’s not the case. The case is when we serve one another – we help one another. We lift one another up. We give one other life blood! That’s what we do. That’s what happened in the womb. This is the lesson for us to learn – about what are we called to do as a people? What are we to do in the womb that we call America?!! If this is our one mother womb, this country called America, why are separating one another instead of taking care of one another? That is the question! How can we learn from this text and not emulate this text? Because what ends up happening as we move forward in the text, as we move forward even into the New Testament, even Paul quotes Malachi and says that ‘God loves Jacob and hates Esau.’ This is a re-characterization of what is going on in this text that is no way, shape, or form based in this personal relationship that these two brothers, who look different, who sound different, who smell different. These two brothers from the same womb – one is made out to be evil and the other one is made out to be a saint. Well, I remind you that in verses 12 and 18 of this very same text in Genesis, right before you hear the descendants of Isaac, you hear about the descendants of Ishmael. Ishmael, Isaac’s brother, is also lifted up in this Genesis text. He is not forgotten. He is not forgotten in this text either. So, this separation that we keep trying to figure out; it’s so much easier to sort of separate out than it is for us to mix together and see the blessings of one another, what we have to offer one another, it’s so much easier to rip each other apart.

     Well, I don’t think God calls us to do the easy work.  I think God calls us to do the hard work, of doing what Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the hard work y’all! It’s hard to love someone who is different from you. It’s hard to love someone who has come from a different place, a different space, a different mindset, until you remember that we all come from the same womb. The same womb. That’s who we are. Yes, that’s who we are.  And when we claim that legacy, of coming from the same womb, it gets a little bit easier to dismantle what we call racism. It becomes a little bit easier to dismantle this hatred that is festering in this country.

     You know, that saying on your bulletin, when we were having a conversation, ‘children have to be taught how to hate.’ Rodgers & Hammerstein didn’t write that for no reason when they wrote South Pacific. They were talking about what happens when we look at one other when we come outside of the womb. All of a sudden, we are taught how to hate. I posit with you today that Jacob and Esau were carefully taught by Isaac and Rebecca that there needed to be a break between these two, that God only had one blessing. Are you serious? God only has one blessing? Is that what we are holding onto when we hold on to our racist ways? When we hold on to our ways of the poor versus the rich? Are we really holding on to that notion, that is in this Genesis text, that God has only one blessing? If you think that God only has one blessing, you got some serious praying to do. God will lift that veil from your eyes and you will see blessings around you everywhere you look! Everywhere you turn! No, God does not have just one blessing!  Why does it say so here in this text?

Do you remember what happened to Isaac? You remember his  father took him to a mountain top and strapped him to an altar? You really think that didn’t mess him up? Do really think that he didn’t come to say ‘this is some crazy stuff. I don’t even know what happened to my brother.” For all he knows, his brother is out there in the desert dead somewhere. If my father can do that to me… We got to deal with this facts that these are very human emotions and very human realities that we are talking about in this text. We’re talking about Isaac, this broken man, who is very ineffectual in his relationship with Rebecca as is pointed out by many commentators. Because she pushes the ball forward and in motion.

There is only one blessing. I think not. And even Jacob, Jacob’s self, learns from his mistake because how many sons did Jacob have? And he blessed all twelve. He decided not to follow through with what had been done with his father, and his mother, and he blessed every one of his twelve sons. There is more than one blessing that abounds. And, when we claim the fact the we serve and love a God that has more than one blessing, then you can’t help but pull your brother and sisters around you and say I don’t care if you’re black, I don’t care if you’re white, from Central America or I don’t care if you’re from Iceland. It does not matter. Stand with me and let’s count our blessings one by one. Let’s count our blessings and see what God has done. When we stand up with one another and count our blessings, with one another, the world sees you standing up to truth, and power, and all the that stuff trying to keep us separated. When we stand together, they can’t separate us. Nothing can separate us when we claim the love, and power, of Jesus Christ.  And you know there is something else here in this beautiful text when we talk about the relationship between Jacob and Esau. We know, after this, they are separated for many, many, many years. And Jacob, still, had a hard time learning his lessons and learning how not to be deceitful until he wrestles with what, that angel. What does he say to the angel, this one that is already blessed and highly favored? I am not letting go of you until I receive a blessing!

So when Jacob and Esau, this is a beautiful, beautiful Midrashic text, from the Midrash Rabbah. When Jacob and Esau, we find out when they come together Esau has an army of 400 that is approaching Jacob. So what does Jacob do? He sends his entire household, all his children, all his wives, and every out in front of him. And as Esau gets closer and closer they see one another and start to run toward one another. But, in this Midrashic text, it says that with every step that Esau took he started to remember everything that Jacob had done to him. All of the blessings and the birthright he had stolen from him. All of the hardship that…that…that he had caused for him. And when he started running to him, to hug him, instead his anger and his ire welled up inside of him. He ran to his brother and rather than hug him the Midrash says he went to bite him on his neck. But God stepped in and turned his neck to stone. And Jacob and Esau wept; Jacob for his neck. Esau for his teeth. God interceded and said ‘your love is more important than your anger and your hate. I’m going to heal this moment.’

So, here is another lesson we learn from Rebecca. Even when we don’t understand why we don’t like one another, why we are afraid of one another, and this is what it boils down to, even when we don’t understand why – God can still intervene, if we just ask God.

     We don’t Dismantle Racism.  We ask God to help us to dismantle racism. To give us the tools to bless our spirits. To make our hearts soft – so that we don’t destroy each other but we want to break down this hatred and pain we cause one another.

See, what you are doing here, on this corner, is much more important than you think. Because it’s not just about you. It’s about showing a witness to the world. You are showing the world if you address it head on, with the love of God, and the love of Christ, that hearts can change. That minds can change. That systems can be dismantled. That’s what you’re doing here today.

     Let me just remind you of something else – I asked you to read another text… I put another text in here and it’s the text where Jesus is talking to someone who is “the other.” Jesus is sitting with a woman who is the Canaanite. The other. She looks different than him. She sounds different than him. She worships a God different from his. But she comes begging for her daughter to be healed. The Disciples cast her away. But, she still has the tenacity to say to Jesus “if you but will it my daughter can be healed.” Then, Jesus said “I came for the people of Israel not for Gentiles.” Jesus said, “We don’t throw scraps to dogs, woman.” But, her response to Jesus she says, “But yes, but those dogs would eat the scraps Jesus!” That dismantled the racism that Jesus had because he was carefully taught to hate Canaanites. And Jesus, in an instant, dismantles three to four thousand years of hatred and oppression – from when his people crossed over the Jordan and took the land away from the Canaanites. Jesus took that notion that was drilled into him, his human self and said but that’s not the God in me. The God in me says woman go, your daughter will be healed. Your faith is stronger than that of even my own disciples. Even of Paul, who the book before said Jesus let me walk out to you on the water, and when he got half way out there he sunk because he lost his faith. And yet, this woman, this other, had faith and she was able to help Jesus dismantle his own sense of disdain for the other.

     So, my question for you today is If Jesus could do it, and if Jesus showed us the way to do, for sure, you can. If you are willing to take up the mantle of Jesus. And if you’re willing, if you are willing, the load will be lighter because racism is heavy. Racism is hard to bear. Love is so much lighter. It makes you feel light when you love. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t make you feel like your feet are on air when you love? When you’re in love, when you love, it can be a rainy day and the sun is shining. And when you love nothing is insurmountable.  All the systems of hatred, the systems of oppression, you look at and you don’t see the oppression. You see a way out! And, a way through. That’s what love does.

So, this building block of dismantling racism has to start with love. It has to start with the lessons that we from the womb. You have to be carefully taught how to hate and that does not happen in the womb. So, we have to hold on to these lessons we learned in the womb. Even though Elizabeth got her lesson from the womb when Mary came and the baby leaped in her belly. Womb to Womb.

And I’ll tell you and end this with a very personal story. There were two boys, brothers. And when one brother found out the younger brother they were not birthed of the same father there was separation in the household even though they shared the same mother. And, as much as the world outside, who already knew the big secret—you can’t keep secrets, it’s like a soap opera it keeps the drama going—but when they found out what these two brothers did was say we’re not going to give into that because we’re from the same womb. Their relationship grew stronger and better, and has stood the test of time. While family members have fallen apart and argued with one another but these two brothers have looked at the story of Jacob and Esau and said “not us.” We are not going to let that happen to us. I’m going to send this message and Facebook video to my brother to let him know that our love has stood the test of time. As much as people tried to push us apart my brother and I are stronger than anyone would have ever thought. Because we learned the lessons from the womb and refused, we refused to be cast as Jacob and Esau. Instead we are brothers, together, who love one another despite our differences. Brothers and sisters its hard doing that we have to do, dismantling racism. It’s hard work but its blessed work, it’s blessed work. Its honorable work and it’s the work that actually changes the world.

It changes the whole shift of the cosmos when you have a people that are dedicated to dismantling racism and all the “isms” with God’s love.

Can you do it?
Can you do it?
Can God do it?
Can Jesus do it?
Can the Holy Spirit do it?

Keep on learning your lessons from the womb.


Copyright © 2018 by Derrick McQueen
All rights reserved.