You’ve Got To Be Taught

Matthew  15:10-28

In 1953, the year I was born, during the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, a Broadway musical touring in Atlanta got the people of Georgia so upset that some state legislators introduced a bill to outlaw any entertainment having, in their words, “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”  What really got them going was one particular song in the musical.  State Representative David C. Jones said that a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.  Oscar Hammerstein replied wryly that he was surprised by the idea that “anything kind and humane must necessarily originate from Moscow.” 

The musical that caused such a fuss was Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the song that ignited such political and social anger was You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

When I was about 10 or so my aunt and uncle adopted a mixed race baby boy.  This was a highly unusual thing for a white couple to do in the early 1960s, especially in the kind of rural areas where my uncle and aunt served as Pastor and Church Organist.  

That baby, Jon, was a truly beautiful child with café-au-lait skin, curly brown hair tinged with blond, and the most unusual blue-green eyes.  I remember, though, that at the big family summer gatherings some of my mom’s and my aunt’s cousins would act a little differently around him—not exactly hostile, but a little stiff and stand-offish.  I wondered if it might be because he was adopted, but my little sister was adopted, too, and nobody treated her like that.  Nobody gave her sidelong glances and muttered little comments when they thought my mom and dad weren’t looking or close enough to hear.  

Then one day one of my second cousins, one of the kids my age, cleared up mystery.  A bunch of us were playing by the barn and Jon wasn’t with us.  I don’t remember exactly why.  What I do remember is that my second cousin said some pretty ugly things about Jon and “his” kind of people.  I remember him using the “N” word to talk about Jon.  Our cousin.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

“Listen and understand,” said Jesus.  “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions… These are what defile a person.”

And when those things come out of someone’s mouth, they tend to go right into someone’s ears.  Like, say, a child’s.

What is it about the human mind that makes it so easy to absorb negative, awful, malicious, even untrue things, and so hard to purge those things when you learn better?  Why is it so easy to pick up biases and prejudices and bigotries and so hard to unlearn them?

When my second cousin used that ugly, racist word to describe our other cousin it was there in his vocabulary with all the hideous ideas behind it because he had learned it somewhere.  It was a word he had heard his dad use while talking to other Kansas farmers.

Kurt Stroh, a K-4 teacher and librarian from Grand Rapids wrote in his blog a few years ago about something he observed on a trip to the movies:

“My wife and I decided to go to see The Greatest Showman. It was an afternoon showing and there were quite a few kids in the theater. In fact, there was a lady with her two kids, who looked to be 8-10 years old, sitting right next to us. As always, there were previews prior to the movie. In one of the previews, the teenage boy character was coming out to his parents. The family on the screen was having a loving, understanding conversation. The lady next to us loudly ordered her kids, ‘plug your ears…now!’ The kids looked confused, but did as they were told. Sadly, it didn’t end there. A minute or so later, when it looked as if the boy character might kiss another boy character, the lady actually reached over and covered her kids’ eyes. Ears plugged, eyes covered, she was bound and determined to make sure that her kids did not witness this preview…and quite honestly, make sure those around her knew exactly how she felt.

   As the feature movie started, I couldn’t help but notice that the eyes and ears of the children were not covered during violence. They were not covered during hatred. They were not covered during infidelity. In addition to being angry, my heart broke for these kids. They were being taught to be judgmental …carefully taught to hate.”

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

It’s so hard to unlearn the hate, especially when it doesn’t feel like hate, when you just grew up with it, when it’s part of your culture, the way of your people.  

It’s a constant struggle to silence the vocabulary, those ugly words that float up in your mind, those words you wish you had never heard in the first place, those unkind names for all those other people who are “those other people.”  

It’s a constant internal cleansing to flush out all those insidious bigoted ideas that infested your thinking before you were old enough and smart enough to prevent them.

It’s work. 

It’s work worth doing.  It’s work that makes you healthier and makes the world a healthier place.  But it’s still work.  You have to think about what you’re saying.  You have to think about what you’re thinking.  You have to think about how you’re thinking.

And sometimes, when you’re tired or distracted or both, you forget to do that thinking.  You forget to do the work.  And that’s when your culture, the unedited voices in your head and heart, the voices you grew up with, might suddenly pop up and do the talking for you.

I suspect that maybe something like that is what’s happening with Jesus when the Canaanite woman comes to him and begs him to heal her daughter.

He’s tired from travelling.  He’s in foreign territory.  She keeps shouting and won’t go away.  When he finally does respond to her, he’s abrupt and more than a little rude:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

For a moment he’s not the Jesus we’re used to.  For a moment he’s not the Jesus who feeds multitudes, heals everyone within reach, chastises Pharisees for their rigid piety, and welcomes all comers.  

For a moment he’s just another Jewish man talking down to a Canaanite woman, one culture and gender speaking disdainfully to the other.  

“What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”  He had forgotten his own words.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she knows he’s better than this.  She knows she deserves better than this.

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It takes work to change the heart.  Sometimes it even takes confrontation.   Sometimes someone has to hold a mirror up to you if you won’t hold it up to yourself.

Sometimes you need to be reminded of your own words. 

It takes work to flush out the bigotry we grow up with and replace it with a broader love and understanding.  It takes work to see the ways the world around us is trying to normalize the ugliness and division and keep us from making our own hearts more expansive.  We may not always get it right.  We may have lapses.  But it’s work worth doing.

After all, what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.  In Jesus’ name.