As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
The Bible says she was caught “in the act” of adultery.
That’s an odd detail. I don’t entirely understand it. Were the Pharisees running some sort of sting operation? Hiding under the bed and behind the curtains until their plant had sealed the deal?
In any case, it adds an important lens to everything that follows: The Pharisees were right.
It was indisputable. The woman had broken one of the big, capital “C” commandments, handed down to Moses by God Himself. Jewish children learned these commandments the way you and I learn multiplication tables. She was condemned to die. Some might say she had been asking for it.
And so here sits Jesus, next to a woman who had broken a law that warranted the Jewish death penalty. And here are a group of men whose case is airtight.
Had she been killed, and some sort of first century grand jury convened to investigate her death, the Pharisees would have been cleared.
It is only through that blessed tilt of history that we see the woman as a victim of an unjust system, Jesus as a steely revolutionary and the Pharisees as hypocritical predators. At the time, the Pharisees certainly seemed to have the facts, the law and Scripture itself on their side. Jesus seemed like a half-cocked universalist with a flair for the dramatic. And the woman was guilty as sin.
* * *
The Bible is not about me.
That’s not to say it’s not written to me. That’s not to say it’s not vital for me. It’s simply a fact. It was not written about me.
There are over 300 verses directed towards poor. Nearly 100 towards the oppressed. And as tempting as it might be for me to read myself into such verses—to see “Tyler” in “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” or “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.”—it’s wishful thinking.
There is no possible interpretation of that that applies to me.
* * *
There were a lot of feelings about the #crimingwhilewhite hashtag that grew from the fertile social media soil cast in the wake of Eric Garner’s death and the subsequent failure to indict the officer who killed him.
In short, white Twitter users began sharing stories of breaking the law and getting off with a hand slap. Most of the stories involved underage teenagers getting caught with booze or driving recklessly. In these stories, cops responded with discretion and moderation. Twitter users tagged these stories with #crimingwhilewhite.
The implication was that a black person in a similar situation would have been treated with less respect.
That’s a difficult implication to prove but, then, there are numbers to reckon with. In New York City, 80% of traffic stops and 85% of stop-and-frisks made are blacks or Latinos. Blacks are 33% more likely to be detained. In 2010, blacks received 10% longer sentences than whites for committing the same crimes.
A number of people have noted that #crimingwhilewhite rather uncomfortably shifts the narrative of racial oppression off of minorities and back onto white people, and that’s true.
But there is value in recognizing privilege, if only for one reason: If you know who has privilege, you know who doesn’t have privilege.
And if you know who doesn’t have privilege, you know who the Bible is talking to when it addresses the oppressed.
The Bible is about a lot of things.
And this is definitely one of them.
* * *
Perhaps I misspoke when I said the Bible isn’t about me. It can be, just not in the ways I would like it to be.
I want to identify with the Bible’s cast of penniless rogues; the downtrodden but kindhearted ruffians who made up Jesus’ band of merry disciples.
But let’s talk sense. I was born, against all odds, as a white man in America. That affords me more opportunities than any winning lottery number.
I’m not one of the Bible’s poor, needy and oppressed.
Many people today are. But I am not.
From a purely socioeconomic perspective, my nearest matches in the Bible are the rich and powerful.
There’s no shame in that, but the sooner I start figuring out how to get this camel through the eye of a needle, the better.
* * *
So if I am to take the Bible seriously when it says “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” I’m left with an odd reality. Being neither poor nor needy, my cause is not being upheld or secured here.
And if I am to take the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery seriously, I am left to conclude that Jesus goes toe-to-toe for those who are condemned by the justice system, facts be damned.
And if I am to take the plainest meaning of James 5 where it says “You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter,” then I’d best watch my step.
The Bible is about a lot of things.
And that is definitely one of them.
If the Bible’s verses about the poor and oppressed aren’t about exactly this sort of situation, then what on earth are they about?
* * *
So then, what is my move? I, who was born with the winning socioeconomic lottery ticket that just so happens to land me on some sort of spiritual high wire act?
It’s not for me to take comfort in the Bible’s encouragements to the poor, oppressed and needy.
But I can them as solemn injunctions about whose side I should be on.
Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Mike Brown. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Dante Parker. Kimani Gray. Amadou Diallo. Darrien Hunt. Kajieme Powell. Akai Gurley. Tanisha Anderson. Rekia Boyd. Vonderrit Myers. Kelly Thomas.
The list could go on. All members of a minority culture on whose oppression remains part of our legacy. All dead.
In many cases, their deaths came as the result of breaking the law—or, at least, allegedly breaking the law. The facts condemned them and it is easy, so easy, to blame their deaths on this. They may have resisted arrest. They may have antagonized police. They should have kept a cooler head.
Some of them were caught in the very act of breaking the law.
And the law says to stone them. But what do you say?
This, friends, is what the Bible is about.
God has made it clear which side He is on.
Which side will I take?
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Note: Many of these observations came from this interview I conducted with LA rapper Propaganda, whose excellent words you should read and excellent music you should listen to.