It is seriously just one step above money and a package changing hands under a flickering light in an otherwise dark parking lot. It was clearly happening before the internet, but the web made it that much easier. The source was overseas traffickers, of course, but once it was in the US, copies were made on VHS and eventually DVD, this illicit video, packages with handwritten labels, and the mere mention on Facebook making tempers flare and bringing racist trolls out from under the bridges.
It is “Song of the South,” a 1946 Disney film I mentioned early in the summer, one that combined live action and animation, Uncle Remus telling tales. It was based on the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, originally published in seven volumes during late Reconstruction. Some would call it cultural misappropriation, for the stories belong to the African-American tradition, and Harris learned them down on the plantation during his childhood. To borrow from another Disney film, they are tales as old as time, with analogs in African folktale.
“Song of the South” is actually a sweet film with memorable music, but it is now rightly seen as problematic. Race, that usual bogey man lurking in the American sub-conscious, is the issue here, for Harris’ stories and Disney’s film are part of a false narrative that understands Black folk as happiest when they were down on the plantation under the benevolent guidance of White folk. “Mistah” may have replaced “Mastah,” but not much really changed for the folk portrayed in “Song of the South.” Black folks did the hard work, white folk pocketed the coin.
Disney has wisely avoided this minefield, has not released the video in the US, though it was once released on VHS overseas. Not that they have completely abandoned the franchise. For thrillseekers like me, every trip to the Magic Kingdom includes a ride on Splash Mountain, themed with the characters and music of “Song of the South.” Zippity-do-dah, zippity-ay…
We must discard the racist framing structure of Uncle Remus, the old pappy who is a little nappy and clearly happy with his position in society, Mr. Bluebird on his shoulder, but there is a harvest to be found in those inner folktales, and I remain convinced that someone with more brains than I’ve got can reclaim and reconstruct that frame so we can celebrate that ancient wisdom.
And what is within is the universal battle between brain and brawn, between power and cleverness. Br’er Fox, a sort of hapless Wile E. Coyote character, with the not-so-able assistance of Br’er Bear, tries to catch and cook Br’er Rabbit. And the story would be mighty short if all it did was pit a fox and a bear against a poor little bunny, but this is not your average bunny. This bunny is very smart. And smart is understood as good here, is celebrated, for the oppressed always celebrate craftiness. Folktales and children’s literature use characters as embodiments of traits and personalities. You might think of Hermione Granger from the world of Harry Potter as an embodiment of smart, but she is just part of the trio of heroes, reminding us that body, mind and spirit must be balanced, that none can triumph alone. Though I’m thinking a little more respect for smarts could do a country good these days.
Br’er Rabbit is not just smart, not just clever. He, like Jacob, son of Isaac and brother of Esau, is the Trickster, an archetype so old that it even plays into the creation myths of several cultures. But here’s the problem. The Trickster is clever, but she or he is no saint. The Trickster is cleverness incarnate, but uses that cleverness to lie and steal, to cheat. Jacob, Hebrew patriarch, is a liar, a thief, a cheat.
Before today’s reading, Rebekah gave birth to twin sons, very different boys. The firstborn, Esau, is ruddy and outdoorsy, all rough and tumble. If the Trickster is an embodiment of cleverness, Esau is an embodiment of action. He probably couldn’t sit still, would have never made it through third grade without being medicated. Jacob, on the other hand and using the language of an earlier age, a momma’s boy. We are meant to understand this through the lens of ancient gender roles. We are meant to prefer Esau.
Then, in today’s reading, Jacob, acting on Rebekah’s instruction, steals Esau’s blessing. He has already conned Esau out of his birthright.
To fearful materialists, the birthright is the part that actually matters, it is all of the property, the herds and the slaves, rightfully Esau’s for it was all to go to the firstborn son, and Esau, always impatient, came out first. Security for the tribe required that the estate remain intact, passed from father to oldest son to oldest son, so it wasn’t going to be split, 857 goats for you, 857 goats for me. Esau gets it all. Except he doesn’t. Hungry Esau has bad impulse control. Madison Avenue would say “Have a Snickers.” It proved a very expensive serving of lentil stew.
Yet, it says something about Hebrew values that the stolen birthright gets only five verses, using our modern system of dividing the text, while the stolen blessing gets more than forty. In the story, the spiritual wealth is more important than the material wealth, the transmission of blessing is what matters. Remember that Jacob and Esau’s grandfather is called out of Ur by God. Their father is the result of miraculous birth. This is a God-touched family. Though sometimes they look like they are touched in that old Southern way.
The ancients did not censor out the ugly bits. Just like his father before him, Jacob receives what rightfully belongs to his older brother. For all of their toxic exceptionalism, the Hebrew people are not above admitting that they are the descendants of a thief, and there is no pretext, as there is in that earlier myth, that God approves, explicitly or tacitly. With the struggle between Ishmael and Isaac, God at least appears to mitigate the damage. Here, it is all human manipulation, and Jacob has to flee.
You know what they say about karma, something Jacob will experience when he holds the bloody coat of many colors and mourns for the son he thinks is dead, but we are a long way from Joseph in Egypt.
Hebrew identity is completely relational, none of the atomistic individualism celebrated by the cult of Ayn Rand. Those people over there are distant cousins through Lot, and those folks from my Uncle Ishmael and that angry looking guy with his own family, flocks, and servants is my brother Esau, and these are my sons and they are God-touched because I am the child of the promise that God made to my grandfather.
The sons of Jacob will all be God-touched, will become the twelve tribes, will encompass all it means to be Hebrew, stories that are still told, every Passover a recitation of the work of God to liberate the descendants of Jacob, Joseph and the brothers he invited to Egypt during a time of famine. We will see reconciliation in that story, even as we see reconciliation between Esau and his trickster brother. Reconciliation is at the heart of our faith. We understand who we are only in the context of a mesh of relationships, though all too often, as we keep seeing in the biblical narrative, rather than reconciling, we change the borders and declare those who do not further our interests to be outside of relationship. Married someone from another culture while we were in Babylon? You’re out. Declaring that someone is outside the lines of identity is meaningless, for they remain children of our Creator, remain entangled with us, but it is meaningless and deadly.
We, the God-touched, are called to help the next generation find their location in relation to our location, understand themselves in this entangled mesh, in a sea of stories, remembering where we have been, even as we head off in new directions, across the Jordan, to the Promised Land, to Golgotha, to Rome. The people of God have never been still. Story is the tie that binds, the stories we tell, even difficult stories.
This story of Jacob as the only blessed one is tainted, is tribal, in all of the worst ways. It is the story the Hebrew people told themselves to justify competition and conflict with their neighbors. God chose us. We are the children of the promise. And so we are justified in acts of brutality, in ethnic cleansing and genocide, in acts of greed. There are those who still believe that the Creator of all that is loves one animal more than all others, one tribe of that animal above all other tribes, one family from that tribe above all other families.
The story operates with the assumption that blessing is finite and easily stolen. Blessing would be big enough for all twelve sons of Jacob. How could it not take in Esau?
Give me the story of Jacob’s vision, the wrestling with the divine in the night, but do not ask me to cast out Esau, to declare that this man, impulsive and active, is outside of our story, outside of holy love. If there are lines, if there are insiders and outsiders, it cannot be blessing. Blessing never draws lines.
Are we to admire Rebekah’s favoritism and project that on to our God? Are we to believe that God runs out of blessing like Isaac who cries that there is no more, that it is gone? Worse still, are we to believe that blessing is a transaction, quid pro quo? Go hunt some game and bring me a meal, and I will give you blessing? Be willing to place your son on an altar, and I will love you?
Maybe the best we can do is to admit that God is bigger than this very human story in which we find ourselves, then choose to stretch ourselves and our story out beyond, in utter dependance on our generous God, to be blessing and to give blessing.
And we have blessing to give. We have the blessing of presence, for when you hold the hand of a friend as their body fails, you are God-with-them. And they, as they fail, as they push through into the unknown, are God-with-you.
We can give the blessing of our cleverness and our action as we feed those who are hungry and care for others, as so many of you do, as we seek better ways to do mission that empowers and lifts up rather than holds down and humiliates. We give blessing when we mobilize for healthcare for all, when we call and picket, when we work to build God’s just and caring realm, the one spoken of by the prophets, by that rabbi from Nazareth. Heal the sick. Clothe the poor. Do justice. Love kindness.
We give blessing when we look at the world in which we live, in which so many are floundering, hurt and angry, and we offer them the good news that God is love and loves them, that they are touched by the holy. We give blessing when we see Christ in our neighbor, when we touch the leper, wash dirty feet, when we face those who hate and do harm and choose to repeat the words of Jesus: forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.
We give blessing when we choose humility over hubris, confession over conquest.
We give blessing when we put on our own oxygen mask and spend time in prayer, time with scripture, time marveling at the miraculous quotidian, so that we are prepared, rested and ready to turn outward once again. We give blessing when we come to this locker room of faith and learn new tools for discipleship in the world.
We do not need to play the trickster, to lie and to steal blessing, for blessing is here and it is now, and we are called to deepen our faith that we might be blessing.
We give blessing when we, a people who find comfort and hope in the good news of Jesus, share that good news with those we love who find themselves soul-sick. We give blessing when we make new disciples.
We give blessing when we give the gift of our faith, a candle in a dark time.
We, one animal among many animals on a hunk of rock circling one star among countless stars may be finite, may have limited years and hours and energy. But blessing is not finite. God is not finite. Love is not finite.
You do not need to steal blessing like Jacob the Liar. It is there, as free as air, yours to receive and to give. Accept blessing. Give blessing. Be a blessing, child of God, to the children of God.