By Rev. Cynthia Simmons
It was not easy being a Jew in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The glory days of Israel, a strong nation ruled by King David and then King Solomon, were long past – about 1,000 years – and the intervening centuries had not been kind. The land was invaded and the people swallowed up by one foreign empire after another: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Persians again (briefly), and finally the Romans. Yet, through all of this, the people once called Israel held onto their faith.
By the time Rome took over, the area was now called Palestine and the Romans had the Jews firmly under their imperial thumb. Politicians bribed their way into office in order to gain influence and line their pockets at the expense of the people. It was common for Roman appointees to collect more in taxes than was actually due, and then keep the difference. And in addition to outright graft, the Romans had numerous petty but pointed ways to remind the Jews they lived in an occupied land and should not entertain any illusions about regaining their independence.And it was to people with this history and living in this environment that Jesus said, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Now, I imagine the first part of Jesus’ words were very appealing: Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying burdens, and I will give you rest. Who wouldn’t accept that offer? After all, these were people who knew that at any moment, a Roman soldier could order them to carry his gear for a mile. So, yes – it would be wonderful to hear someone recognize that you were burdened and promise you rest. But if the people were already burdened by Roman oppression, why does Jesus seem to ask them to take on another burden when he says, Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. How can a yoke be easy and its burden light? Isn’t a yoke something that is placed on a slave or on an ox? Why would a Jew want to assume another yoke when their culture had been under the yoke of foreign dominance for over 700 years?
And on top of this, Jesus has just been instructing his disciples about the difficulties they can expect when they go out into the world on his behalf. He has said that he is sending them out like sheep among wolves and to expect to be harassed and perhaps even persecuted. He has warned them to expect family conflicts, and that just as people are ready to criticize and reject him, so will they criticize and reject the disciples. So given the circumstances of Jewish life under Rome and the additional challenges people will face if they choose to become followers of Jesus, the promise of a yoke that is easy to bear seems rather hollow.
But what we don’t realize from our standpoint is that when Jesus used the word yoke, it had two meanings. Yes, a yoke was indeed something used to pull or carry a heavy load and so it did symbolize a burden. But yoke was also used by the rabbis to refer to the discipline of learning and practicing the Torah – the Law of Moses. In Jewish thought, orienting your life around the Torah was a yoke you chose to take upon yourself, a burden willingly and even joyfully assumed. So when Jesus invites his followers to put on his yoke and learn from him, he is inviting them to put on the way of life that he embodies. Jesus knows that his people are burdened and that following him will bring more challenges, but he invites them to be yoked with him nonetheless, for his is a yoke not of oppression, but of compassion.
When I agreed to fill in for J.C. Austin today as your preacher, I was struck by the image of a yoke in today’s reading from Matthew since it seems fitting in light of the commitment our congregation has made to antiracism – beginning with examining our own lives. Now, in terms of our social status, those of us who are white have much more in common with the Romans than the Jews of Jesus time. If we are struggling with financial concerns or serious illness, we may rightly feel ourselves to be burdened. But we are not additionally burdened by our race – that is a yoke that is laid only on Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
But we can choose to share this yoke, share this burden, when we take upon ourselves the mission of becoming antiracists – those who educate ourselves about white supremacy, the ways in which we perpetuate racism without even realizing it, and learn new ways of acting in a unjust society. We can learn to pull our own weight in the fight against racism so that we can be effective when we yoke ourselves to those who are already fighting it.
Jesus called people to take his yoke upon themselves, a yoke summed up in the phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Antiracism recognizes how narrowly we have defined who is our neighbor, how many voices have been silenced, how many stories have been ignored or suppressed because they don’t fit the dominant narrative of our country.
So, let’s look at the story we tell every year on the 4th of July. We call this holiday Independence Day, a celebration of liberty when the American colonies threw off the yoke of British rule. It’s a great story and one worth repeating each year – but is it the whole story? Who was truly freed from tyranny by the Revolutionary War? Yes, white men of property no longer paid taxes to the British and were free to create a new form of government. But what about everyone else? Enslaved persons were still enslaved; Native Americans were still seen as savages; free women still gave up all autonomy when they married; and only men who owned property were allowed to vote. Given the number of people who enjoyed no more liberty after the Revolution than before, it is not surprising that when Frederick Douglass received an invitation in 1852 from the Rochester [N.Y.] Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association to speak at their July Fourth Independence Day Celebration, he refused.
Frederick Douglass’ refusal to speak on July Fourth spoke volumes itself – but he did agree to speak on July 5 and his address lasted for over an hour. You can read the full text of his speech online, but here are some excerpts:
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.
I wonder how many people in the audience noticed the pronouns that Frederick Douglass used:“your National Independence” and “your political freedom.” But even if they did notice and begin to shift a bit uncomfortably in their seats, they probably relaxed as Douglass went on to extoll the great men of the Revolution and their courageous deeds. But then Douglass begins to speak of current events and his tone changes:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
I imagine some – and perhaps many – of those in the audience was offended by Frederick Douglass’s words (and they got even sharper the longer he spoke), but what were they thinking when they invited Douglass to speak? Yes, they were abolitionists opposed to the institution of slavery, but did none of them recognize the cruel irony of asking a Black man, a former enslaved person, to speak at a celebration of an event that did nothing to bring liberty to those in slavery?
The people at that convention were very proud of their heritage as inheritors of the American Revolution – but they were oblivious to the way in which their story was not Frederick Douglass’ story. And even today we often, with the best of intentions, inflict pain on Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color because we assume our story – our white story – is everyone’s story. History is always written by those in power, which means many stories never get told – stories that are vital to understanding the whole truth of our history, stories we need to learn and to tell.
One of my favorite museums is the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, a museum that takes as its motto: “You don’t know the half of it” and makes that motto clear in the way it tells the story of the birth of our nation The museum takes us into the lives of the men we all learned about in our American history classes – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams et al. – but it also takes us into the lives of working men, of women, of enslaved persons, and of Native Americans. And these overlooked stories are told not as supplements to standard history, but interwoven with the stories we have heard before. It was here that I learned about Crispus Attucks – a 47-year-old sailor who was African and Native American. He was the first person killed during the Boston Massacre fighting against the British, so he was the first patriot to die fighting for America’s freedom. We all know about Paul Revere crying “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Why don’t we know about Crispus Attucks?
Now, of course, these days we are not visiting museums in person; but because of the coronavirus, museums – which often had great educational material on their websites even before the pandemic – have stepped up their online offerings. For example, although I’ve never visited Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts where the Mayflower landed, I have learned much from their website and discovered that the story we tell every year of “The First Thanksgiving” is much more nuanced than the Hallmark picture of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to dinner together.
In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian museums now include the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, both of which have wonderful online educational information. And if we really want to experience the cost of racism and the cost of antiracism., the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta is the place to visit. And on a smaller scale, the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum website will tell you the story of the Greenwood section of Tulsa, a thriving African American business district and neighborhood known as the “Black Wall Street” until June of 1921 when it was attacked by a mob of white people who burned it down and killed as many as 300 people. I didn’t learn this in my American history classes, and I imagine you didn’t, either.
And it’s not just museums that can teach us the stories we have never heard. My understanding of the burden of race has been greatly enhanced by some of the books my book club has been reading: books like Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates, There, There by Cheyenne-Arapaho writer Tommy Orange, or The Yellow House, a memoir by Sarah Broom of growing up in East New Orleans, a Black section of town that even many New Orleanians don’t know about – a section that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
So, realizing how incomplete our understanding of American history has been, how do we celebrate the Fourth of July? Well, if you were to drive past our house today, you would see red-white-and-blue bunting out front because for all of its inadequacies, all of its incompleteness, I believe the American Revolution is still something to celebrate not only because of what it accomplished but because of what it set in motion. The American Revolution championed the idea of citizens instead of subjects, and while they had a narrow understanding of what was meant by the phrase “All men are created equal…”, the men who met in Independence Hall did put into place a framework that eventually made it possible to free slaves and grant everyone the right to vote.
Now, the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, but the revolution is not over if we are serious about forming that “more perfect union” of which our Constitution speaks. So while I love to celebrate the Fourth of July – Independence Day; I would also love to see our whole nation celebrate a second Independence Day called Juneteenth, a conflation of June and nineteenth, that commemorates the day in 1865 that Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas to inform its enslaved people that the Civil War was over and they were free.
Of course I still admire the courage of the people who set sail from England in 1620 on the Mayflower and endured terrific hardships in their new land, but I have to recognize also the tunnel vision of these settlers and I can’t ignore the terrible hardships that European immigrants imposed upon Native Americans and the discrimination still faced by Native Americans today. And when a doctor I met recently told me his story of coming to this country from Colombia, I was reminded of how we as a nation have been enriched by those who have come from every corner of the earth – the stories they have to tell, the gifts they have to share, if we will still allow them to come here.
Jesus invited his followers to take his yoke upon themselves – to embrace the life he embodied. So, if we want to love our neighbors as fully as Jesus intends, we need to take upon ourselves the burden of race and the yoke of antiracism. And if we want to yoke ourselves to people of color in the fight against racism, we need to be sure we are able to pull our own weight because we have done the hard work of educating ourselves to the history and the current experiences of those who have so often been left out of the American Dream.
But isn’t that what the Fourth of July is supposed to be all about? We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men [all people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Making those words more than a noble sentiment is a huge task, and it may seem burdensome at times. But I hope we are all ready to assume the yoke of that burden, pull our weight, and make American beautiful for all who live here.