Drawing the Wrong Lines

It was a moment like this. Angry and urgent. The shouting made it hard to think. That, and her weeping. They had scratched a line between his God and the woman sobbing at his feet, and lines have two sides. He had to choose one or the other.

The next time was different. They came quietly, respectfully. Carefully, they baited the trap, and then hung on his words, ready to pounce on whichever answer he gave. A line had been drawn between God and Caesar, and he would have to choose.

If there is a predominant intellectual sin today, it might be the one the Pharisees used. We draw lines in the wrong places and make people choose sides.

When a line is drawn in the right place, there is clarity. We are, for example, largely symmetrical creatures, living in a largely symmetrical world, and the truth of this is apparent if you draw the right line. Any other line turns clarity into chaos.

And what we have today is chaos because we are drawing the wrong line. We know this. You can learn no more about a man’s heart by the color of his skin than by the color of his toothbrush, but we’re drawing a line between races. Again.

It’s a stupid line, but also ancient, used on this continent and over much of the earth before there was an America. Our nation did not draw the line and our citizens have spilled an ocean of their own blood trying to erase it, in places like Gettysburg and Normandy and Selma.

It’s a stupid and destructive line, and we’re drawing it again.

Take the Brees family. Drew is a famous athlete and famously good guy. On Wednesday, he honored the American flag, apparently forgetting the flag is on the wrong side of the line On Thursday, he tried to get back on the right side of the line by accusing America of “systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality”, and claimed that respect for the American flag was “not an issue about the American flag” and “has never been”.

His wife tried even harder, confessing that “loving one another as God loves us” and raising their children “to love, be unbiased and with no prejudice” is part of what makes white people like them “the problem”. Instead, they should be “actively looking for racial prejudice” and repenting of “our preconceived notions of what that flag means to us”.

They tried so very hard to get back on the right side of the line. They took a knee, seemingly admitting that Christianity is not good enough and America is not good enough. In the brutality of this moment, nothing seems good enough.

So, imagine a nation without systemic injustice, where the same laws applied to everyone, regardless of race. A nation where anyone could rise to the highest positions of leadership or success, regardless of race. A nation where economic help was available during times of need, regardless of race. Oddly enough, you might be imagining America, a nation that has suffered to erase the stupid line between races.

And yet, here we are, a nation in flames.

When the woman was dragged weeping to Jesus’ feet, or when the Pharisees slyly inquired if Jesus would pay taxes, they were not looking for solutions. They drew their line carefully and dared him to cross it, anxious to light the fireworks they had prepared for the occasion. Instead, Jesus put out the fire by moving the line — away from their loud, controlling, judgmental system and back to the everyday choices of real people.

We will remain in flames until we do the same. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” is not a religious cliché, it is the only possible foundation for civil society. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is still the best way to erase the stupid line between races and most other injuries we do to one another.

ML King believed all this and looked forward to a day when children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. His dream has gone suddenly out of fashion, but it’s still the right dream.

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