Linda Gehman Peachey is a freelance writer living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has an M.Div. from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, and a D.Min. from Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Theological Seminary. Previously, Linda worked for Mennonite Central Committee on women’s concerns and also served with her husband, Titus, as co-director of Peace and Justice Ministries. She and Titus have two adult daughters and enjoy visiting them in Chicago and Guatemala. She is a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church and serves on the steering committee for MC USA’s office of Women in Leadership.
I never thought I had much in common with Zacchaeus. After all, he was a corrupt agent of the Roman Empire, enriching himself at the expense of his neighbors — not someone I wanted to identify with at all.
Yet, in reading Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ I Bring the Voices of my People over the past few weeks, I have been deeply convicted about how much I too am complicit in an unjust, immoral system. Although I did not choose this, I benefit from white supremacy, a truly destructive way of life designed to benefit me and those who look like me, at great cost to others and the earth. Whether I like it or not, I reap the rewards of all the unjust laws, policies and practices created to give me and my race special treatment, special privileges.
I have especially been pondering her powerful question to people like me: What does it do to a person to know that a system is wrong and participate in it anyway?
How does it distort my sense of right and wrong, my moral compass? What have I lost and who do I become if I am not actively resisting such a system or seeking a better way?
Over the years, I have struggled with the reality of living in the midst of a proud military empire which daily exerts its will around the world. Having lived in the country of Laos, I saw firsthand the ongoing effects of U.S. bombing on that small, vulnerable country. But it has taken me longer to see that white supremacy functions in similar destructive ways at home. Here too, it visits death, poverty and hunger on people it views as disposable and of lesser value.
In the end, I have to admit I am more like Zacchaeus than I care to think. He made a good living for himself by participating in the Roman tax collection system. And I would guess his friends and colleagues saw nothing wrong with this. It was the way things were done. He just happened to benefit from this arrangement, rather than bear its terrible effects.
Yet, he knew something was wrong. He had his wealth but little respect and few positive connections in the larger community. When he wanted to see Jesus, he knew no one would help him get to the front of the crowd. No, if he wanted to see Jesus, he would have to find another way. So, he ran out of town ahead of the procession to climb a tree and watch from the safety of its branches. What a sad picture of this lonely man!
But Jesus did not allow him to stay hidden. Jesus called him out of the tree, and invited him to change his life. Rather than continue using his privilege for himself, Jesus urged him to join himself to his neighbors, to see that his salvation was bound up with theirs. Indeed, William Herzog argues that as Jesus encouraged his people toward more life-sustaining practices in their communities, he intentionally reached out to tax collectors like Zacchaeus. He sought to recruit them to become partners with their exploited neighbors and thereby help offset some of the tax burdens which caused so much debt, dispossession and hunger (from Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God, 2000, p. 223).
Amazingly, Zacchaeus accepted the challenge! One wonders what his family thought as he pledged to share half his wealth. Or what his colleagues said to him as his actions put pressure on them to also act more justly. Indeed, was he able to keep his job as a tax collector, or did he have to give that up? And how did his relationships in the community change? Since he is remembered in the gospel tradition, it seems likely he kept his word and became part of the Jesus movement in that community. While likely a difficult process, I imagine he also found new joy and purpose in his life as he became more deeply invested in the wellbeing of his neighbors.
What does this mean for me? In response to being part of the U.S. military empire, my husband and I have resisted paying war taxes nearly all our working years. While this certainly does not absolve us of responsibility for ongoing U.S. military actions, it has been one way we have tried to live out our faith community’s emphasis on peace, simple living, service and nonconformity to the surrounding culture.
Unfortunately, I have felt less prepared for how to resist white supremacy and become a helpful ally with people of color. I am still learning what it means to repent and turn away from these unjust systems. I am still learning what steps I need to take.
I do know that one crucial step is to listen carefully to women of color and accept their leadership. They are the ones in our society who see the world most clearly and at its worst. They know what needs to change and how. Celie, the main character in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, states this well, declaring that if God (or those who claim to speak for god) “ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you” (1982, p. 175).
Walker-Barnes likewise argues that the process of repentance begins with hearing the truth — about the world and about myself. This means learning to listen carefully and with enough stamina, humility and awareness not to direct the conversation back to myself and my needs (p. 150-155). It also means working to make reparations for the harm done, and joining in solidarity with others to build a more just and whole community (p. 187).
Such a journey is not easy. Yet, if we can embrace this call to repentance and conversion, the world would be a better place for all of us. I think we would find, as Zacchaeus did, that salvation has finally come to our house.
Women in Leadership invited people to read the book I Bring the Voices of My People by Chanequa Walker-Barnes in winter 2020. Learn more about Women in Leadership at mennoniteusa.org/wil.