The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.

 

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