Purebred bulls and scrub bulls. One hundred years ago, cattle were led into courtrooms, and trials were held in an effort to sort them out.
In one case, the defendant’s name was “Mr. Scrub Bull.” According to Duke Magazine, he was escorted by policemen into a makeshift courtroom in Pickens County, South Carolina, in October 1922. He stood on four legs in front of Magistrate James McElroy Jameson, while a court officer read the bill of indictments.
“The defendant works in a very underhand way,” the officer declared, “stealing the profits from every dairyman and butcher who has common cows, robbing the unsuspecting, the careless, and the ignorant alike, causing their innocent children to suffer for milk and working men to be in want of meat.”
And what was the charge being leveled at Mr. Scrub Bull? Genetic impurity. He was not a purebred bull, an animal believed to produce more food than a runty-looking scrub. This “Court of Bovine Justice” was designed to convince farmers that they should choose only purebred bulls when they were looking for an animal to breed with their cows.
Such trials were strange, for sure. But they were endorsed by the United States Department of Agriculture, and they became quite popular. Across the country, cattle were routinely put on trial in front of crowds that could number in the thousands. The trials had real judges and real lawyers, witnesses and jurors, and verdicts were issued about whether an animal was fit to breed. The judge might conclude that the animal was an “unworthy father,” one whose very existence was “detrimental to the progress and prosperity of the public at large.”
In the end, the convicted bull would be led away, shot, and then used as barbecue meat. The poor scrub bull would become lunch.
These bizarre cattle courts occurred alongside a darker moment in American history. About the same time, a eugenics movement was on the rise, one that aimed to limit the reproduction of people who were deemed unfit. According to Mother Jones magazine, “historians estimate that more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized in the decades leading up to the Second World War, with many more persecuted under racist immigration laws and marriage restrictions.”
Sixty thousand Americans — let that number sink in. All were declared to be scrub bulls, unfit for reproduction. And this was not a fringe movement. An Ohio State University psychologist argued that some people are “scrubs” who should not receive higher education.
Purebreds and scrubs. Unfortunately, the division involves people as well as animals, and it has been going on for a long time.
Go back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after a time of exile. Ezra the priest rejected marriages between Israelites and foreigners, saying to the people, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel … separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10-11). In other words, separate yourselves from the scrubs!
This concern for purity was found in the New Testament as well – as we mentioned last week. When the apostle Peter was on a journey, he went up on a roof to pray, and there he became hungry. He had a vision of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (Acts 10:12). Scrub bulls!
Then a voice said, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (vv. 13-14). For a religious man like Peter, only purebred food would do.
But then the divine voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v. 15). What a game-changing insight. Suddenly, all the Courts of Bovine Justice were disbanded, and Peter realized that he could have relationships with people beyond the nation of Israel. He met with a God-fearing Gentile named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and came to the conclusion that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-35).
Purebreds and scrubs. Suddenly, by the power of God, there was no distinction between the two.
Just a short time later, the apostle Paul was traveling with Timothy and Silas through the area that is modern-day Turkey and Greece. One night, Paul had a vision: He saw a man who was a scrub bull of sorts from Macedonia, one who begged Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).
Come over to Macedonia? To a Roman colony run by a bunch of Gentiles who have little respect for the laws and traditions of Israel? In Macedonia, you have unscrupulous businessmen and slave-girls, along with Roman magistrates who can easily arrest the followers of Jesus, flog them, and throw them in prison.
To which, Paul said, “Let’s go.” Acts tells us that Paul, Timothy and Silas “immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them” (v. 10).
When it comes to preaching good news, there are no scrub bulls of Macedonia.
The three men hopped on a ship and sailed from Troas to Samothrace, and then to Neapolis, and finally to Philippi, which was a leading city of Macedonia. They stayed in the city for several days, and then went down to the river to pray. They talked with a group of women who were gathered there, following the example of Jesus in always showing respect and honor to women.
One of them was a successful businesswoman named Lydia, and Acts tells us that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (v. 14). She accepted the good news that Paul was sharing, and both she and her household were baptized. Then she offered them hospitality, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home” (v. 15). And they accepted.
Lydia became the very first European convert to Christianity. She was received into the Christian faith with no concern about genetic purity.
So, when do we fall into the trap of separating people into purebreds and scrubs?
In many congregations, the welcoming of strangers from foreign lands and unfamiliar cultures is a challenge. Across America today, immigrants are coming to church, just as they always have. But where previous waves of immigrants were largely European, these new arrivals are coming from non-Western countries with cultures and skin colors more alien to white Americans than that of Europeans.
Sometimes, these newcomers rattle established churches by introducing new worship styles and beliefs. This is not always well received. Said one church member after witnessing a spirited service from a different culture in the church she had attended since 1955, “If they want to worship that way, fine with me. But don’t bring it into my sanctuary.” She saw the newcomers as scrubs.
The first step in overcoming this challenge is to expand our outreach to people of different races and cultures, based on the understanding that everyone is made “in the image of God,” according to the book of Genesis (1:27). “When you meet another person,” says author and pastor John Pavlovitz, “you are coming face-to-face with a once-in-history, never-to-be-repeated reflection of the image of God. … If God is God, there’s no other option: they are each made of God stuff. … Every single day you encounter thousands of breathing, animated thumbnails of the Divine.”
Whether black, white, Asian, European, African, Latino or Native American, a person is made of “God stuff.” In the eyes of God, everyone is purebred.
Next, we need to practice true Christian hospitality, showing the same kind of welcome that Jesus showed the people of his day. We do this by sitting down with folks on the margins of society, just as Jesus broke bread with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:10) — the scrub bulls of first-century Israel. Such a welcome requires a commitment to embrace all people as God has embraced us in Christ. It involves a willingness to see everyone as a child of God, a sinner for whom Christ died, a person bearing the image of God — no matter how obscured that image might be through personal sinfulness or societal prejudice.
Church will be a “Court of Bovine Justice” until we make a serious commitment to embrace all people with God’s love and grace. This means training ourselves to receive and include strangers into the life of the church. It requires crafting worship in such a way that it moves people to invite their friends and neighbors to services. True hospitality is practiced when we learn to offer meals in which people can gather around tables for conversations, leading to the development of relationships. And a true welcome is experienced when newcomers join small groups where they can grow in faith and in deep-spirited friendships.
Purebreds and scrubs. The distinction broke down for the apostle Paul in Philippi, and it can break down for us, too.