Colossians 1: 3-14
In an exchange of text messages relating to an up-coming vacation and reunion with my best friends from college, I explained to the host of our festivities that I had written and re-written our order of worship (not even mentioning the drafts of this sermon) three times already. My friend, a pediatric emergency room physician in a downtown children’s hospital on the east coast, which is to say, a woman who is no stranger to violence and tragedy, replied to me, “That is not a good commentary on life.”
It was only Thursday.
So far in our collective week in this country Alton Sterling, a 37 year old black man, had been shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as had Philando Castile, a 32 year old black man, just over in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Peaceful demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement had been taking place at the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, the school at which Mr. Castile worked, and around the country.
What not yet happened was the ambush on an otherwise peaceful demonstration in Dallas in which a sniper, by his own declaration *not* a part of the Black Lives Matter, which left five police officers dead and seven other officers and two civilians wounded.
It was, I think we can all agree, a horrible week in our country.
Last summer, during the second full week of my sabbatical, nine black lives were ended inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church by a shooter who first joined his targets in Bible study.
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance
Clementa C. Pinckney
Some people who saw me that week would say, “I bet you’re glad you don’t have to preach this week,” alluding to the difficulty of finding the words the Holy Spirit would have a preacher say in light of such horrific, racist tragedy. Others, upon understanding how strange it was for a preacher to not have a pulpit in such a time so ripe for the Word of God, would say, “Don’t worry. I don’t think this is the last time we’ll need to hear a sermon on racism and violence.”
It pains me that the comments from the latter are true.
So here we go. Together. You and me. Here we go into the uncomfortable, largely unnavigated, at least in our church, a reality granted us by the privilege of our white-ness, waters of talking about racism, and privilege, and personal responsibility. Here we go, talking about what it means to witness to faith in Christ Jesus, to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, to lead lives worthy of the Lord in a world where race still divides, where violence still disproportionately affects people of color, where black people are crying out for justice and equal treatment, and to be treated with human dignity. Here we go, talking about our own racism, or at the very least my own racism, because whether or not you agree with that the events of this last week are symptomatic of deep systemic racism in this country, I hope and pray we can all agree that racism is still alive and kicking – even killing – in this country. I hope and pray we can open our minds and bear our souls enough to see that racism is still a part of our own lives, even our lives, today. Here. We. Go.
The Rev. Denise Anderson, one of the newly elected co-moderators of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a black Presbyterian pastor in Temple Hills, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., put out the call to all of us this week.
Okay, white family. Let me talk to you right quick…
For those of you who ask “How long?” or “How many times must this happen?” I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop. It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness/white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color). To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness. As necessary as this is for the well-being of society, it is also an uncomfortable undertaking and there is literally nothing forcing white people to do it. White people, then, will likely have to create the force.
White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is. To not do this would put you in danger of being yet another well-intentioned racist, convinced of their own goodness and living a life wholly unexamined and unaccountable to anyone. We don’t need any more of those. It’s confession time.
Already I am imagining what many of us are thinking and feeling. Or, to take Rev. Anderson’s advice, let me not imagine your thoughts and feelings; let me just tell you how I felt when I didn’t see myself as racist.
“I’m not racist,” I said, probably in my head more than out loud when confronted with the statement, not hurled in a nasty way, but offered as a matter of fact. I’m not racist. I’ve never used the awful word for another person. I’ve never lobbed insults at a person because of the color of their skin. I’ve never hurt a black person. I wasn’t a slave owner. I didn’t participate in lynchings. I’ve never refused a hire someone who is black. I’ve never refused to pray with some who is black. I’ve never changed my seat because it was located near someone who is black. I’m not racist.
But all those defensive thoughts really do is reveal how I completely I misunderstood racism. I thought racism only meant terrible, violent physical or verbal attacks. I thought it was limited to blatant “I hate” statements, unfair hiring or admission practices. I thought it was deliberate action or inaction based on the color of someone’s skin. And while racism is those things, it is not *only* those things. Racism is prejudice with power.
This week as I’ve talked to other white people about what has been happening this week around our country I have pleasantly(?) surprised that people are willing and able to admit they have prejudices. I have prejudices. Recognizing them now, I hate them, but I have been raised with them. As a child I laughed at racist nicknames for the bus that carried black children to my mostly white neighborhood school. When I rode my own bus to my own neighborhood, I didn’t have to worry about having the experience one of my classmates did, when he and his brother were put on the “black bus” because of their race, despite the fact that they lived in the neighborhood next to mine.
The prejudices I have held have surrounded me and taken root in me. They have been reinforced by stereotypes on TV. They have shaped the music that I listen to, the neighborhoods I will drive through, the schools I will send my kids to. They have caused me to hold my purse closer in certain parts of the city. They have led me to assume college classmates were on scholarship because certainly they couldn’t afford or be admitted to the same school I was on their own. I have had, and regrettably still have, prejudices. When I see someone, I prejudge them, and the color of someone’s skin is part of that prejudgment. Against my own better wishes for myself, I am prejudiced.
And my prejudice, because of my whiteness, makes me racist, because white people have power. Racism is prejudice with power. I can try to say I didn’t create my power or I didn’t ask for it. I can say I don’t feel like I have power because there are many people with more power than I have. But I still have power. Culturally, systemically, in our legal system and education system, in our government and my workplace, even in the church, because I am a white person I have more influence, I receive more respect, I have more power than people of color.
I’ve been given that power from decades upon decades of that violent horrific kind of racism that I like to say I personally was never a part of, but even that statement of personal innocence is a display of my power, because black people aren’t given that luxury of individual consideration. Writer John Metta, a black man, said it this way in a sermon among to an all white congregation at the Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in White Salmon, Washington on Sunday, June 28, 2015, less than two weeks after the shooting in Charleston last year:
Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us — right here, right now.
Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.
White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.”
We white people get to assume that people know murderer Dylann Roof did not speak for us when he killed nine victims in Charleston. We enjoy the privilege of individual identity. Black people and people of other non-white races and ethnicities do not enjoy that privilege. They are called to denounce every violent attack or unlawful action. They are assumed to agree with it until (and sometimes even after) they declare that they are not “that kind of” black person, or Muslim, or Mexican. I am me. They are one of them. This individualism is a part of our white privilege, and it is one source of our power.
I also have power because while I may not individually have participated in the better-known violent racism of our United States history, I am collectively still benefiting today from the fact that it existed and that fact that racism still exists today. I have power because others were and are oppressed by the system that included buying and selling and enslaving black people. I have power have benefited from a culture that included Jim Crow laws, legally segregated schools, the consideration of black people as 3/5 human. I have power and privilege as a white person, even as a woman whose rights were not always guaranteed, not to think about and remember a time when I didn’t have voting rights, when my name came from my owner not my family, when the very day of my freedom was kept a secret from me.
I have prejudices and I have power. I am racist.
Knowing this, I have wrestled for some time, but certainly not long enough, with what I am supposed to do. I have wanted to know desperately how to live a life worthy of the calling to which we all are called as followers of, let’s face it, a brown-skinned man who was executed by the state. Like many others I have asked for and hoped that my black family in the church will tell me what to do. As if it is their job. As if they are responsible for fixing my problem. That’s just one more way I try to rely on my power, my privilege. And it’s wholly unnecessary because black people and people of all colors have been trying to tell me for ages what to do, what to read, what to listen to. They have been crying out about injustices in the criminal system, the housing market, and the schools. They have been talking about mistreatment in jobs, in stores, and on the streets. It’s not that they haven’t been talking; it’s that I haven’t been listening. I imagine many of us aren’t listening, because frankly we don’t have to in order to ensure a happy, comfortable life.
But, people of faith, children of God, we’ve got to start listening to lead lives worthy of the calling of Christ. We’ve got to start paying attention to what is going on in this country and in our own neighborhoods. We’ve got to ask why we can say “but I don’t know any black people in Hudson,” but the county jail down the street has an overwhelmingly black inmate population. We’ve got to start talking about our experiences and our fears and our prejudices and our privileges. We’ve got to correct each other in love and righteousness when we hear people say something racist. We’ve got to talk about race in our families at home and our family at church. We’ve got to confess before God and one another that we have fallen prey to the sin of racism, and we’ve got to commit to do better as we go forward today. Amen.