While they were still married, my parents’ financial circumstances rose and fell.
At times, we lived in some real dumps. For instance, we once called half of a shabby duplex home. You could see the ground through a hole in the kitchen floor.
When my mom got a job at a local manufacturing plant, things started to look up. We rented an entire house. It backed up to a junkyard, had ancient peeling paint, lacked central heat, and featured a worn dirt track for a driveway. Still, it was a house we didn’t share with another family.
For a while, my parents even hired a woman to clean and cook a couple of times a week. An African-American woman named Susie. Even at the age of eight or nine, I called this adult person Susie.
On one of her days cleaning for us, I asked my father if I could ride along to take her home. When he said yes, I scrambled out to our old purple Dodge Rambler and dove into the back seat. When he and Susie got to the car, she pulled up short. My father said evenly, “Son, get in the front seat.”
I asked him why and immediately regretted it. With a controlled flatness in his voice, he slowly repeated in a lower register, “Son, get in the front seat.” I climbed up front and Susie slid in back.
The word “shack” suggests a rustic quaintness that belies the dilapidated state of Susie’s house. All the homes in this section of town were relegated to black families. Their wooden frames rested on what looked like cinder blocks.
Sun and weather had long ago stripped whatever paint had once coated the outside. Not only the windows, but the roofs and the walls provided unreliable barriers to wind and rain. Most of those houses seemed to be sagging in toward the middle or tilting off to one side.
Sitting in the front seat while a grown woman sat in back had left me unsettled. But the message my father intended to convey was clear: That’s where she belonged.
These kinds of houses were where black people belonged. And a white boy like me could call a black woman by her first name and never have the first clue about what her last name was. It would take me years to recognize the conditions that drove a woman to work for the kind of wages that working poor white people would offer.
To question any of this would have infuriated my father. In his mind, we might be poor, but we were better than black people. His own sense of dignity and worth hinged on being better than somebody. Better than some group or class of people.
He was not alone in this. And the desire to be better than someone else did not die with his generation. It persists in myriad forms.
Women hesitate—sometimes for years—to report sexual assault, knowing that their stories will be doubted and that their character will be attacked.
In Strangers in their own Land, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild describes a narrative she heard time and again from white people.
They don’t hate black people. It’s fine if blacks improve their financial situation. These white folks just don’t want black folks breaking in line in front of them. It’s fair for everybody to move forward, so long as people toward the back stay in their relative place in line.
We organize the human world into higher and lower, inside and outside, winners and losers. We assign greatness to people on the basis of their achievements, their possessions, their position of privilege, and even their looks. That same logic creates also-rans and nobodies.
In the Kingdom of God, by contrast, each human being is an infinitely valuable somebody. Everyone is equally worthy of respect as a child of God.
Jesus recognized that the road from the world we inhabit to the Kingdom envisioned by God is long and arduous. He came to show us the way with his own life, death, and resurrection. To show us the way of love.
So, when he heard his closest friends arguing among themselves about who would be the greatest, Jesus recognized the human world at work in them. In response, Jesus taught them that God does not measure greatness by what we achieve or what we accumulate. Love is God’s sole criterion for greatness.
We love by seeking the well-being and guarding the dignity of every human being. Period. Black, brown or white. Gay or straight. Regardless of where they may have been born, the language they speak, or the creed the profess or deny.
In our personal lives, we offer acceptance and friendship, encouragement and nurture to our neighbor. And where we see that the world is stacked against groups because of their gender or their sexual orientation, their ethnicity or their creed, we refuse to remain silent. To echo Eli Wiesel, our silence aids the oppressor and abandons the oppressed.
For followers of Jesus, nobody belongs in the back seat.