When Did We See You, Lord?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:31, 34-40 [1]


Pero[1] The George Zimmerman “Not Guilty” verdict of July 13th, 2013, in Sanford, Florida, triggered what might be a watershed moment in the history of race relations in the US. Will we use this opportunity to expose, explore, and exorcize our racial problems or continue to pretend that we live in a “post-racial” society, in a state of denial? This article will struggle with Luther’s critical catechetical question that emerges from the Martin/Zimmerman situation: What does this mean? I will also struggle to answer the question: What does this not mean?

I Am Trayvon

[2] “I Am Trayvon” because, irrespective of the differences in our ages, genders, education, vocation, cultural heritage, and geographical location, I share with Trayvon Martin and many others in this culture one characteristic that overshadows all the differences: I am identified as an African American. As a consequence, I am most likely to be prejudged “Guilty” in controversial or questionable circumstances. I am most likely to be perceived as “lacking” (= inferior) in many ways. I am most likely to be charged with “playing the race card” when I publicly challenge implicit European American domination (that is, white supremacy and white privilege) and its implications. I am most likely to be invisible and overlooked in the life of the ELCA as a professional leader even with a PhD in New Testament. Dialogue is most likely to grind to a screeching halt when I enter a conversation.[2]

[3] What happened in Sanford, Florida, on February 26th, 2012?[3] The circumstances were shaped by unequal access to power and force. At approximately 7:15 pm, George Zimmerman, a concealed-weapon carrying 28-year old white Hispanic male, out on an errand, killed Trayvon, an unarmed 17-year old Black male walking back to the condominium where he was staying with his father in the gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes. Zimmerman profiled a hooded young Black man (he was hooded because it was raining) based on previous experiences of vandalism in his gated community. On June 10th, 2013, over a year after the incident, he was brought to trial. With the exception of two persons, one juror and the defendant himself, all of those involved in the trial were white:

  • Zimmerman’s defense team, committed to getting him acquitted;
  • The state’s attorneys, the prosecution, originating outside Sanford, legally committed to defending the rights of a dead African American teenager;
  • The judge presiding at the trial; and
  • The five members of the six-woman jury.

Ultimately, the jury’s verdict of “Not Guilty” was announced after about 30 hours of deliberation.

[4] I, like many who continue to be involved in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice in the US, was disappointed by the jury’s verdict, but not surprised. Many have observed that the criminal justice system is the well-trained legal acolyte of white supremacy and white privilege.[4] As Lutheran Christians we are taught that God allows rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45) and we are called to address the bad with the good, the bitter with the sweet. We are called to eradicate, to exorcize, those behaviors that do not reflect how God would have us treat one another. This watershed moment has opened our collective eyes. God calls us to reform injustice in our society in our particular corners of the world, to strive for “justice in the gates” as Amos (5:15) called it. And when the institutions with which we participate perpetuate unjust practices, God calls us to work towards their reformation.

[5] “Race” is a contrived social construct that emerged in the West in the late 16th century accompanied by the corollary concept of the inherent inferiority/superiority of other races. It was developed in order to define entire groups of people by particular exclusive characteristics. An academic understanding of racism is: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”[5] Sociology understands racism as a composite. Racial prejudice is the baseline where one’s attitudes result in (sometimes unreasonable) prejudices. When the denial of equal access to goods, services, and resources within the society is added to racial prejudice, the result is racial discrimination. When an entire societal system (in this discussion, the justice system) exercises the power to protect the actions of institutions that racially discriminate against entire groups in the society, the result is racism.[6]

[6] Another consequence of the emerging of the concept of race is the issue of racial profiling that has received a lot of attention recently. Many of us were taught, “Never judge a book by its cover.” Yet the proliferation or more consistent documentation of "hate crimes"[7] based on racial[8] profiling seems to have increased in all of our states and in all of our synods. Racial profiling classifies an entire group of people according to certain traits and/or capabilities and allows one to make pre-judgments about others based on the other’s racial label. Racial profiling, then, is a method by which the power of societal institutions supports the unequal treatment of entire groups in the society through pre-judgments. The results of racial profiling (and cultural profiling as well), are usually detrimental to the other, regardless of the intentions. In this essay, racial profiling and cultural profiling are analogous.

Biblical Models: What Does God Expect/Require From Us?

[7] Racial/cultural profiling is not a new social phenomenon. Social science hermeneutics explains this type of profiling as stereotyping: pre-judging others based on pre-knowledge and/or prejudice. It was the norm in the first-century Mediterranean world to pre-judge others by virtue of their communities and/or families of origin. We see this very clearly in the reluctance of Peter to interact with Gentiles in Acts 10. The “collectivist personality”[9] defined who first-century people were by virtue of their origins; this type of information about others was spread through and fueled by the “gossip network.”[10] There was little room for individualism or self-expression in the society. One’s community of origin defined its members’ function, ambition, and role in the life of the community. To break out of the dyadic community caused one to become identified as a social deviant, isolated from the community, considered and treated as if dead.

[8] Two Biblical examples of profiling occur in the Gospel of John, both within the Judean community. In John 1:45-49, we see an example of the stereotype that occurs because of geographical origins. Jesus is recruiting his final two followers, a new fictive kin group. He finds Philip who, in turn, finds Nathanael. Philip tells Nathanael that he has found Messiah, the one about whom Moses spoke and the prophets wrote: “Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael asks Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael greets the good news about Jesus with geographical profiling. But the encounter does not end there. Jesus frees Nathanael from his enslavement to stereotypical judgments by demonstrating through conversation and teaching that he was indeed Messiah. Nathanael sees that something very, very good, “good news,” has come out of Nazareth.

[9] The second example is John 4:1-30, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well. This example has some historical stereotyping passed down for generations. In John 4:9 the Gospel writer tells his audience in a narrative aside: “(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” There is a whole lot of information in that brief sentence, the most significant of which concerns itself with ritual purity. John acknowledges that historical antecedents caused the separation between Judeans and Samaritans.[11] Judeans considered Samaritans impure because of their separate worship practices and historical intermarriage with non-Judeans. Jewish purity laws prohibited Samaritans and Judeans from sharing anything in common. But Jesus again surprises John’s audience and brings the Samaritan woman into a new fictive kinship group because of his unconventional interaction with her. What she has experienced with Jesus is such very, very good, “good news,” that she shares it with everyone she runs into.

[10] The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Leviticus 19:3-4, 11-13, Deuteronomy 5:6-22) admonished our ancestors in the faith (and us today too!) to behave in ways that honor God and, because of that very relationship with God, to behave in ways that honor our neighbor. Other Old Testament directives that we have inherited are intended to guide social action and behavior, both then and now. Injunctions on what God expects/requires appear in:

  • Leviticus 11:44-45: For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature that moves on the earth. For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. Strive to be holy because God is holy. This command explains the overwhelming preoccupation of the Jewish people with achieving and maintaining ritual purity.[12]
  • Deuteronomy 4:13: He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets. Observe the Ten Commandments (or the Ten Words) and fear God; teach them to your children.
  • Deuteronomy 10:12-13: See now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I command you for your own well-being. This summarizes what we read in the previous two texts.

[11] Synoptic Gospel citations, consistent with the Hebrew Scripture references, allow us to overhear the temple authorities’ interpretation through their verbal interactions with Jesus. They challenge Jesus, who helps them to remember God’s requirements in their own comprehending of the Ten Commandments, namely, loving God and loving one’s neighbor! Matthew 22:34-40,[13] Mark 12:28-34,[14] and Luke 10:25-28[15] each points to the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments as loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Paul, too, echoes Hebrew Scripture in his reminders of God’s requirements to young churches in Galatia and in Rome.

  • Galatians 5:13-14: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • Romans 13:8-10: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

There is great continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures about what God requires.

[12] But then, Paul advances his argument then he reminds the young communities of faith that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has changed their social realities in radical relational ways. In Galatians 3:28, Paul encourages those who are struggling with the issues of profiling and insider acceptability. After reminding them that they have been baptized into a new life with Christ, he invites them to see the world with new eyes and to interact with others differently: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In Colossians 3:11, a follower of Paul offers the same advice to those who have been made new in their baptisms into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection: In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! Another disciple of Paul offers even more encouragement to the fledgling church in Ephesus whose members are struggling to follow Jesus in “the way.” The author reminds the Ephesians that they are one; they have been baptized into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; they are a new community (here indicated by underlines) joined together by the grace of God, with responsibility for one another and for future generations:

  • Ephesians 2:19-20 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone
  • Ephesians 4:4-6 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
  • Ephesians 4:25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.

What Does This Mean For Twenty-First Century CE Christians?

[13] The prophet Micah, an eyewitness to the fall of Samaria and a witness to the beginning of the fall of Jerusalem, articulates most clearly what God expects of God’s people in all ages: to practice justice, to love mercy/kindness, and to walk humbly with one’s God (Micah 6:8). European American domination stands as an impediment to achieving Micah’s pronouncement of what God requires. White superiority and white privilege are similar in so far as they both use one lens, the European American one, to interpret all life experiences. If something, anything, does not measure up to European American standards, it is under suspicion. European Americans values and standards of acceptability have become the way, the truth, and the life; white supremacy and white privilege are the tools! Justice, mercy, and humility have become the spoken and written platitudes that European Americans use to seduce those from other cultures into becoming part of the colonized multitudes.[16]

[14] White superiority assumes, projects and protects European American values, standards of acceptability, and experiences as the norm. Theology and biblical interpretation, music and literature, psychology and history, communication skills and religious expression, for example, are all described as “Classical.” As a result, African, Arab/Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin/Central American, and American Indian/Alaska Native cultural contributions to civilization are viewed as non-Classical, inferior, marginal, peripheral, mediocre, to be ignored, second-rate. White superiority sets-up European American culture(s) as normative. Most importantly, all in the church and society risk worshipping at the altar of European American culture when normative values and standards of acceptability are dominated by European Americans[17]. These values run counter to what Paul describes as the character traits of Christians who live and thrive in community, more commonly identified as the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

[15] White privilege blinds the eyes of those who benefit from European American dominance. If European Americans have not had an experience of injustice, for example, the experience is disputed as a figment of the other’s imagination or the interpretation is judged as absolutely wrong. It ignores and denies the experiences of others. It measures the opportunities and successes of others through the lens of European Americans. White privilege does not realize that its view and interpretation of life is limited, compromised by blinders that are automatically attached to their lenses at birth by white supremacy. White supremacy and white privilege prevent many from seeing, analyzing, and understanding the racial dynamics in the Sanford, Florida, incident.

[16] What this means for twenty-first century Christians is that there is a need to address white supremacy and white privilege directly and honestly. There is a need to confess that expressions of superiority are enjoyable and that there is systemic, systematic complicity in perpetuating these systems. There is a need to beg God for forgiveness and ask for the courage to work to exorcize these demons from our individual and collective lives, from our church and society. There is a need to “walk our talk:” to receive others joyfully as sisters and brothers created by God in God’s image (first article of the creed), redeemed by Jesus Christ (second article of the creed), and set apart (sanctified) by the Holy Spirit (third article of the creed).

[17] What this does not mean is that our church and society become color blind, in denial of the wholeness and goodness and variety of God’s creation. There needs to be an acknowledgement that others receive their heritages from rich cultures that we celebrate, simply because they are gifts from God and without them we are incomplete. There needs to be a description of God’s variety of people other than as part of a mixed salad, a mosaic, or a melting pot. As beautiful as these images might be, they still interpret the creative action of God from a particular cultural perspective. There needs to be an acknowledgement that our church can no longer be part of a silent majority, sitting quietly and observing incidents of injustice, mercilessness, and hubris that oppress our sisters and brothers without speaking truth to power. There needs to be an acknowledgement that our church can no longer allow the demonic, in the guise of conformity and European American rubrics, to prevent our sisters and brothers from becoming what God has called them to be.

Conclusion: When Did We See You, Lord?

[18] A contemporary conclusion to Matthew’s ‘in-as-much’ passage might read something like this:

  • I needed you to see me, but to you I was invisible.
  • I needed your support and you undermined me. 
    I needed your advocacy and you became my adversary.
  • I needed to be included and you worked to exclude me.
  • I needed your unconditional love and you set up conditions.
  • I needed you to help build my self-confidence and you eroded it.
  • I needed to make my contribution and you told me: “Take back your gift!”
  • I needed your commitment and you gave me clichés.
  • ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you…, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ [18] (Matthew 25:44-45)

The killing of Trayvon Martin is a watershed moment in our history and provides a powerful symbol of the state of race relations in the United States today. As with the church in Ephesus, we are not fighting against flesh and blood as much as we are waged in a cosmic war with demonic powers and principalities, i.e., white supremacy, white privilege, and racial profiling, in high spiritual places (Ephesians 6:12). We, too, are Trayvon!

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero presently serves as the Director of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr., Multicultural Center at LSTC.



[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all of the italicized Biblical quotes are from the NRSV.

[2] Cf., Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter, New York: Harper Collins, 1984.

[3] A web search of “Trayvon Martin” garners many responses written from a variety of perspectives. A lengthy but objective report of the entire situation may be found at the Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Trayvon_Martin. There is a certain degree of rage, fear and paranoia that persons of color in the US carry with them, particularly in the South, where Jim Crow still seems to be the law of the land. TM, a Black teenager, was not exempt from those feelings. Keep this in mind, or put yourself in the shoes of TM. Feeling that he was being stalked, perhaps TM decided that his best defense was a strong offense, a subscript taught in the US social narrative. Instead of engaging in an old fashioned fistfight, which would have been fairer, GM ended the encounter by using a gun to kill TM. But, issues surrounding the ownership and use of guns are another topic that JLE might take on in the future.

[4] CF Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, reviewed by Dawn Jeglum Bartusch in the July/ August 2013 edition of JLE.

[5] See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

[6] The classic sociological definition is: racism = prejudice + power.

[7] A web search of “Hate Crimes” provides a link to the FBI report for 2012. The “Southern Poverty Law Center’s” website has a number of articles that address the rise of hate crimes.

[8] The same case can be made for profiling based on gender, or sexual orientation, or age, or body type, etc.

[9] Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998, 163-165.

[10] Malina and Rohrbaugh, 103-104.

[11] Samaritans were part of the northern kingdom of Israel during the time of the divided monarchy. King Omri established their capital city as Samaria and their worship center on Mount Gerizim. Their worship of YHWH was based in the Pentateuch. The Assyrians conquered Israel in 772 BCE and Samaria was razed. The inhabitants were deported and those who remained intermarried with a variety of local peoples, including those whom the Assyrians relocated in the northern kingdom of Israel.

[12] Malina and Rohrbaugh, 94-95.

[13] When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

[14] One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

[15] Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

[16] In other disciplines, this is understood as internalized oppression, colorization, and/or colonization.

[17] In the opinion of this author, chief among these values are those that lean towards rationalism, individualism, and ethnocentrism.

[18] Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:41-46

© October 2013
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 13, Issue 6