Faith like a seed of a mustard
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”—Matthew 17:14-20
This is a story of faith to cast out evil. Jesus is frustrated that his disciples cannot cast out the demon that is leading to this man’s epilepsy. He’s disappointed that they can’t heal this man. And he names them among an entire generation of faithless people whom he also names as perverse. Jesus calls the boy to him and immediately rebukes the demon and it leaves the boy and he is healed.
His disciples ask him why they failed at healing the boy, at casting out the demon. He says they lack faith. But they just need a little bit of faith to cast out the demon. In fact, faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move a mountain. If they just scratch the surface of faith they move an entire mountain; imagine what they could do with even more faith.
Faith needs hope and conviction
The writer of Hebrews says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It involves both our hope – or our desire – and our conviction about those things that we do not see yet. I love this image because it deeply draws on the work of antiracism. White supremacy can be seen as a disease that infects our bodies, or as a demon that must be exorcised. To be antiracist – to exorcise the demon of white supremacy – we need to believe that a world without is possible and we need to truly desire a world without it.
Faith and hope that white supremacy can be overcome is something that a lot of its victims need. I know I do. I have been impacted so thoroughly by the demons of white supremacy, even among well-meaning white people who fancy themselves as antiracist, that I wonder if a world without racism is possible. It is so woven into our society, into the United States, into our bodies, that I often need hope that we can defeat it. I think we do need faith from God to remove white supremacy and racism from our institutions because the force of white supremacy seems too intractable to how our society is composed. We need an outside force to disrupt the power of white supremacy. We need a transformation, and we need to believe that transformation is possible. That is hard work for people of color but white people can help.
The next part of that verse shows us how. We need conviction about what we don’t see, as much as we need hope. That means white folks need to have the conviction that white supremacy and racism are real problems that need to be addressed. Believing the experiences of BIPOC who have been harmed is essential for white people. The consistent questioning and suspicion of the stories and experiences of people of color by white folks do not demonstrate the conviction, or the courage, to confront white supremacy. And frankly, witnessed by people of color, it diminishes our hope.
The defensiveness and the centering of white discomfort displace our pain and push us out of the room, out of dialogue. We’re told to be kinder, to call in, to be patient. But eventually, the pain is too great, and we need to say something. When people of color, fed up, finally make their voice known, as opposed to sharing in their passion and self-determination, white people without conviction can belittle them as merely angry or collecting people, or not being kind enough. That diminishes hope and faith for our struggle against white supremacy. It can destroy a mustard seed of faith, one that can move mountains. It can lead us to not being able to heal ourselves, our bodies, and our churches and organizations, from the demon of white supremacy.
How do we develop hope and courage? Two different paths.
What shall we do about this? The work is going to be unique for white people and for people of color, first of all. Do not assume it is the same and do not conflate our struggles. They are real, but different.
For the hopeless, spend time in the Bible and in prayer, asking for the spirit to give you hope. Read stories of when liberation happened, even in impossible circumstances. Encourage one another that the work is long, but that we can do it. People of color and their white allies can hold one another together in the Spirit of God as we face the impossible force of white supremacy. Create groups of solidarity and strategy. The demon of white supremacy wants to keep us apart. The demon of white supremacy infects Christianity insofar as it tries to make us postracial before we are. So resist the idea that all we need are relationships to overcome the demon of racism, we need hope against, which can come from racial solidarity.
For those without conviction, believe people of color among you. Surround yourself with them and submit to their voices and leadership. Remember that it will be painful and difficult to do this work, but don’t center your pain, try to displace it for the sake of the other. Remember that we will likely lose people in the process – that is OK, and to be expected. Some people fall away from following Jesus too. The Good Shepherd will go after the lost sheep, it is up to us to stay with the flock. Further, if you are feeling defensive, or reactive, talk to a white friend who can help you through this. Try not to burden people of color that you haven’t made an agreement with ahead of time with your frustration. Some of us are available but try to work with white folks first, who may be able to endure it more easily.
In this work, we will face backlash, persecution, and cynicism. Despair is the enemy of faith. We need to keep hope alive, we need to stay brave and courageous.
When we fail at making our organizations antiracist (and we will fail), let’s go back to Hebrews 11:1. Let’s keep developing hope and building conviction together. The demon of white supremacy requires faith to overcome, but we just need a mustard seed to overcome it. Pray for one another in this work, pray that we can have the faith to cast out this wicked demon.