My husband Phillip would probably tell you that I would make a good housewife (to the extent that such a term really means anything anymore)! For various reasons—which I am not going to get into right now—I’ve always had an appreciation for “domestic” matters, ranging from cooking to shopping to paying attention to the thread counts in sheets. So I tend to spend a certain amount of my time in grocery stores. And when we need the basics, like milk, eggs or butter, I often go to our local Acme store. Over the past few years, I’ve tended to develop certain preferences for food items, particularly butter! When possible, I always go for Land-O-Lakes. I experience just a little shot of nostalgia whenever I pluck the package from the dairy case. One of the things I remember about my childhood is that my mother always bought Land-O-Lakes butter. Now, I’ll admit, butter is butter. We weren’t really a “big butter” family: my mother wasn’t a baker or anything. But for some reason, that particular product brings me a bit of comfort. It’s that comfort which has probably permitted me to overlook the fact that for years I have been purchasing a product with a racist picture on the label. You may know it: A young indigenous woman in a caricatured costume, including a single feather in her hair, proudly holding a stick of butter. From time to time, I have found myself wondering why the company continues to use such a stereotypical image, but it didn’t stop me from actually buying the product.
Our attachment to particular images or symbols often grows from a certain degree of nostalgia—a kind of idealization of the past. Recently, I was reading about how a number of food companies are moving to “retire” product images which have come to be seen as racist. (Really? It took them this long?) I never developed the same attachment to pancake syrup, but I do remember usually having Aunt Jemimah Syrup in the pantry. I can also remember the evolution of the image on the bottle—from a larger “mammy” looking like she had stepped out of Gone With the Wind—to a more contemporary and “stylish” woman who looks like a black June Clever, complete with a single strand of pearls. Commentators have noted that these images evolved in an effort to provide a kind of domestic comfort to consumers, perhaps reassuring white Americans that black women were quite content and fulfilled in their roles as slaves and, later, domestics. But the racist vibe is undeniable, including a reinforcement of the notion of a place for everyone and everyone in their place. These product images are vestiges of a time when America was strictly organized according to the expectations imposed by race and class, and though these structures have been formally relaxed, they remain imbedded with many of the ways we think and act in our society.
Among everything else that has been happening lately, there has been a renewed energy around taking down (or pulling down) public monuments perceived as racist, changing names of buildings and military bases and retiring state flags. Of course, this has emerged at the epicenter of the so-called “culture wars,” with the usual suspects claiming their turf. In thinking about the protests and efforts to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus just a few blocks from St. Peter’s, I can summon a sense of those who might—perhaps nostalgically—hold on to this image as a source of pride and achievement. But over time, we have become more and more aware that symbols and memorials which may be heroic for some are often heinous for others.
I am astonished at how long it took me to become even marginally aware of the true story of the founding and establishment of what we now know as America. The sanitized stories in the history books I read as a child and the museum dioramas I saw in museums depicting the happy relationships between Native Americans and Pilgrims or the splendor of Plantation life became lodged in my head, and years of further formal education—including Seminary—never went anywhere near to exploring the truth. It has probably only in the past ten years or so that I have been confronted by the levels of overt and covert racism which are part of the American myth of exceptionalism and my ongoing complicity with a more comfortable, nostalgic worldview.
Which brings me to today’s gospel from Matthew. The image of “children” is being used in two very different ways. The children who are shouting at each other in the marketplace actually sound a little nasty, which can be true of children, as anyone who is in or has been in Middle School knows. Jesus seems to be speaking about those who seem never satisfied with him or his messengers, those who are childish in their stubbornness and self-centered perspective. Then he digs at the “establishment,” the so-called “learned and the clever.” Later on, he gives thanks to God for what has been revealed to the “youngest children” who are most certainly the simple followers of Jesus, the children in faith, who have little power or standing. This is all part of an ongoing thread of the Gospels where Jesus speaks of the upheaval of structures, social order and the status-quo. I’m reminded of the many protesters who individually have little power but have found a voice to speak for those who have been ignored or abused. I also think of many younger people who have called me to task for my more traditional presumptions. It is humbling to realize that even after learning much, there is still so much to learn. And who wouldn’t rather be an insider rather than one who is on the outside. Yet we should always remember that Christianity was originally a cult of outsiders, until after a couple of centuries when it became popular among the powerful. We have been having trouble with full inclusion ever since.
If I were to try and distill the core message of Jesus to his followers, I would sum it up as a charge to grow up. We might aspire to the innocence and openness of children, but not cling to our infantile and sentimental attachments and behaviors. In our society now we are being challenged to grow up and face a variety of inconvenient truths about how we have tried to preserve power and maintain ignorance about the experience of those who have often been marginalized, brutalized and erased. We are called to “put on our big boy pants” and recognize what we have been doing to our environment. We are called to look forward, not backward through a lens of nostalgia and shallow pride.
The gospel passage ends with a statement from Jesus which seems paradoxical. Come to me, all who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders…for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Somehow, the burdens of the present age seem anything but “light.” The paradox is that when we accept responsibility, the weight might be lifted from our shoulders a bit. Jesus is offering more than relief, God is offering true freedom, a freedom which comes from a clear-eyed acceptance of life as it is. God’s freedom is not about imposing more rules and oppressive structures, it is rather the liberation from the phony contrivances which weigh down so many people.
This weekend, we celebrate American freedom. Few other holidays are as ripe for extremes of nostalgia and the only partial telling of the story of our country. For various reasons, this year’s celebrations are somewhat muted, which may be appropriate. We need to mourn and repent even as we regain our footing and move forward. And let there be both pride and gratitude, provided that these are what we seek to increase in others who have been pushed aside.
They have changed the packaging on “Land-O Lakes” butter. The caricatured figure is gone. Above the vista of a placid lake, there is a simple open space and a bright sun. May this be a symbol of our movement toward the future.
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