Belief, Behavior, and Belonging
September 6, Proper 18:
Draft Text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
You may have seen this sign around on the internet that says: “your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.”
Behavior almost always trumps belief.
You can certainly behave morally with no religious beliefs.
On the other hand, if you claim to be religious, you should act according to those beliefs.
That’s sort of what James is saying today.
Being a Christian is more about how we live and move and act in the world than what we profess to believe on Sunday morning.
Not that beliefs are unimportant, it’s just that as, a contemporary theologian puts it, “the important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’
but rather ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ [Verna Dozier]
Behavior always trumps belief.
But we almost always act out our beliefs, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Beliefs are where behavior often begins.
But sometimes those beliefs are so far down—subterranean almost—we’re not aware of them.
This is what James is getting at in this epistle.
James sees some people behaving badly and immediately begins to question the beliefs that are driving it…
“Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” He asks, or is there something else at work?
You say you believe but you’re treating people differently…
Being nice to the wealthy…and dismissive to the poor…
Not because you believe in Jesus but because…you believe rich expect preferential treatment?
Because you believe they deserve to be treated better?
And you treat the poor that way because…you believe they expect to be treated that way?
Because you believe they deserve to be treated that way?
You say you believe one thing, (and maybe you do) but there’s a deeper belief that your behavior comes from.
Maybe it’s not even a consciously held belief…maybe it’s more like a cultural norm…it’s just the way we do things here…
Maybe you’re just trying to fit in with everyone else.
Trying to belong…
Belonging is something that is hardwired into us.
Scholar Brene Brown, in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection writes: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children.
We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.
“When those needs are not met,” she says, “we don’t function as we were meant to.
We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick…
…the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.”
The need to belong is so deep…
And when it’s not fulfilled it creates this narrative (this false) belief…
“I’m not worthy”…
“I’m not enough”…
“I don’t belong…”
That makes us act in these ways that are contrary to the other things we say we believe…
We we try so hard to achieve belonging by seeking approval… fawning over those whom we aspire to be like…and by shunning those whom we fear we are like…by trying desperately to fit in.
But fitting in, says Brown, is not the same as belonging.
“Fitting in, is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted.
“Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
Fitting in is assimilation.
Brene Brown calls it a “hollow substitute”…a barrier to real belonging.
James calls this sin.
I’ve been thinking about fitting in and belonging in terms of race and the sin of racism lately.
And particularly this week when our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies invite us to join in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—the one devastated by the murder of 9 of their members at Mother Emmanuel in Charleston earlier this summer— and join in Confessing, Repenting, and Committing to End Racism. A copy of the Presiding Bishop’s letter is in your bulletin.
All this summer I’ve watched and listened as the “black lives matter” movement grew, and got pushback.
As colleagues and friends got arrested in the anniversary protests in Ferguson, MO.
As the Confederate battle flag came down, and the chants of “white power” rose up at rallies for certain presidential candidates.
I’ve watched and listened and wondered what can I as a white person do?
Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, of the AME Church acknowledges that legislation alone will not end racism. “It will also require a change of heart and thinking,” he says.
A change of beliefs and a reconfiguration of belonging.
James points out that we behave differently around rich and poor people…(it’s still true today).
But he might also point out that we behave differently around people with different skin color.
Not because we necessarily believe that there is an inherent difference (most of us probably don’t), but simply because we live in a culture that encodes race in a particular and systemic way and we want to fit in.
The trouble is; for people of color “fitting in” is a means of survival, but for most whites “fitting in” doesn’t feel like “fitting in,” it feels like belonging.
There are very few places in the US where I can go and not feel like I belong there.
And the places I feel like I don’t belong, I tend to not go there.
I have that choice.
Most people of color don’t. They must live in a world where they must “fit in,” but not really belong.
We may “believe” that it’s best to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, but we live in a culture where messages of white superiority are ubiquitous and it’s very hard—or impossible—to not internalize them and occasionally act out of them.
It makes talking about race with my fellow white people very difficult, because most of us genuinely want to dismantle racism—want to interrupt it wherever we can…but we also want to belong…to fit in.
Because we live in a white dominant system, challenging whites on systemic racism feels like challenging our sense of belonging, which is a challenge to that deep need we all have.
But not actively working to interrupt racism is fitting in to the system.
“Fitting in, is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted”—it’s perpetuating the system…a hollow substitute.
If we believe that we are to love our neighbors as our self we have to somehow we have to understand that behaving in ways that fit in to a structured system of racial bias is part of the problem…we have to learn how to behave in different ways…we have to learn how to belong.
How to truly belong.
“Belonging, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”
And allow others to be who they are.
We need to learn how to belong.
And we need to learn how to allow others to belong along side us without insisting that they fit in…assimilate…accommodate themselves to our needs.
As always, Jesus provides us with an excellent example.
Jesus doesn’t expect anyone to fit in.
Healing stories are always at some level about wholeness…about belonging…and Jesus doesn’t require that anyone change who they are…
Jesus wants us to become who we are.
The Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus with a plea, and his initial response is the response of his internalized system of cultural norms, and unequal power dynamics, complete with a very rude ethnic slur.
“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Yet she refuses the hollow substitute of “fitting in.”
She wants to belong.
“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And with that her daughter is healed…made whole.
She doesn’t change.
She remains the Syrophoenician woman…
Jesus doesn’t insist that she change the way she worships, or the way she dresses,or the way she interacts with the world, or any of her beliefs.
She remains who she is…
Neither she nor her daughter fit in, but they belong.
I think I can catch echoes of this incredible woman every time I hear someone remind us that “black lives matter.”
12 step groups remind us that the first step to recovery is to admit that we have a problem.
We have a problem with race in this country. We know that. We believe that.
I pray that I can be opened—that we all can continue to be opened—to the reality of structural racism so that we can learn the difference between fitting in and belonging.
So that loving our neighbor as ourself—belonging to one another—belonging to God—becomes not a high-minded ideal that we assent to, but the deepest core belief of our being. The one we always act on and from which all our behavior flows.