Refiner’s fire 2: racism

It is almost commonplace now to say that there are two viruses in our midst today – the coronavirus and the virus of racism. I contend that there is a third virus as well – the virus of authoritarianism. I call these three the viruses of power, plague and prejudice. They are an unholy trinity that mocks our triune God.

But I believe that in this time of turmoil and fear, God is using these viruses to refine us by fire. God is calling us to turn away from our racist, power-mad, and plague-prone ways, and turn toward a God-shaped life.

I spoke about power last week and had originally intended to address plague today. But events of the last week, and the focus we have seen on the subject, have convinced me that today I must speak about prejudice and about racism.

I don’t want to talk about this. You don’t want me to talk about this. Those are two good reasons that I must talk about this.

The last time I preached about racism to a white congregation I thought I might be lynched. Years later, when I was leaving that appointment, one person said to me: “I’ve always appreciated your sermons – except for that one, of course.”

White fragility and white resentment are two of the main reasons we have never had a genuine conversation about race in this country. It is simply too hard. Again, that is why it is necessary. We are never going to get through this nightmare until we talk about it openly and plainly.

Racism is commonly called America’s original sin. It’s our national birth defect, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says. It’s a crack in our national foundation that threatens to bring the whole house down.

More than 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission investigating the 1967 riots came to this conclusion: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

That was more than half a century ago. It’s time for a change of direction. As Jesus warned us, a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25).

Here is a standard dictionary definition of racism: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

That’s a good start, but it’s missing a major dimension of the problem. Only last week, the editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced that they will revise their definition to include systemic oppression.

You see, racism has two dimensions: the personal and the systemic. Each of us may with some degree of honesty say, “I’m not racist” – at least not overtly so. But our society is thoroughly racist. Racism is more than personal prejudice. As my friend and former seminary professor Tex Sample says, “Racism is prejudice plus power.”

Let’s try to dismantle this evil cultural edifice piece by piece.

First, white supremacy. That lie was created centuries ago to justify enslaving black people. The simple truth is, as Genesis 1:26 attests, all people are created in the image of God. That implies not only equality but special status. We’re all God’s beloved children. The writers of the New Testament proclaim four times, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6.9). As we say again and again, all means all. All God’s children are beloved.

Though our Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal, our Constitution backed way off from that vision of equality. It made a black person worth only three-fifths of a white person when counted for representation in Congress – though, of course, unable to vote or exercise any other rights.

White supremacy is enforced through violence and terror and through a system of special treatment called white privilege. Basically it means that because you are white, you get privileges that are denied to people who aren’t white. W.E.B. Du Boise called it “the wages of whiteness.”

We white folks don’t understand it because it’s a systemic thing. It’s invisible. You can’t see it or touch it, but it governs all our lives. Let me give you three simple examples.

First, suppose that I go to the bank to request a loan for a new house or for a new business. Now suppose that a black person whose credit rating and income are the same as mine goes to the same bank to request a similar loan. Guess which one of us is more likely to get the loan? The system is not color blind. Color blindness is a myth.

Here’s another example. In mid-May, heavily armed demonstrators invaded the Michigan state Senate. They even stood in the Senate gallery overlooking lawmakers while holding rapid-fire rifles. They were all white. What do you suppose would have happened if they’d been black? Do you think they’d had a chance of getting away with what they did?

Jane Elliott is a white anti-racism educator and activist. When she addresses white audiences about racism, she asks, “If you are willing to be treated the way black people are treated, please stand.” No one ever stands.

White privilege is something you were born with and you carry with you always. You can’t shed it like a coat. What you might be able to do with it is use it to help empower others who don’t have it.

Racism is built into our culture. It’s a structure of inter-related and interlocking policies and customs and silent agreements that systematically works against people of color. It affects everything.

Here’s how it typically works. If you’re black, racial discrimination will determine where you live. Zoning laws and redlining practices and other financial practices will mean that you live in a segregated, impoverished neighborhood.

You live in poor housing that will cost more to maintain than it’s worth and will raise your health risks because of lead paint and other problems, including where it’s located – always in an environmentally risky area.

Because of where you live, you will have to travel farther to your job, using public transportation that is inadequate and costly, if it exists at all. You will live in a food desert, meaning there is no place nearby where you can buy healthy food, only the junk food you can get at the quickie mart. Your job and the lifestyle imposed on you will likely expose you disproportionally to heart disease, diabetes and to the coronavirus.

Your children will attend separate and unequal schools – this despite the landmark Brown vs Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954, 66 years ago, that separate and unequal school systems are illegal. The future of your kids will be dimmed by poor education and constant exposure to illegal drug and gang activity.

The police are powerless to curb such illegal activity, but they do have the power to make your life miserable. You can be harassed or arrested or killed for driving while black, jogging while black, birdwatching while black,  taking out the trash at night while black, moving furniture out of your house at night while black, sleeping while black – doing anything any human being ought to be able to do but you are not able to do because you are black.

The mental and emotional and physical and spiritual toll is great. Stress, anxiety and poor health are the inevitable result. And when things like the George Floyd murder happen, you can’t hold it in anymore.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. said. He was not offering an excuse for rioting. He was simply explaining the phenomenon.

Because of systemic racism, it is clear that in America black lives don’t matter. That’s why the slogan Black Lives Matter is so important. It’s true that all lives matter. And it’s not that black lives matter more than white lives. But to turn around this tide of racism, we have to declare that black lives do matter, and we have to prove it by our actions.

Inevitably, there is a backlash. Some of it is defiantly racist and some of it is simply lack of understanding. White resentment is a huge factor. Some whites just don’t get it. They don’t understand white privilege, so when they see a black person receiving any kind of treatment they themselves didn’t receive, they see it in terms of that black person cutting in line ahead of them. They see it in terms of personal affront. And that resentment boils over into grievance politics. Grievance politics is part of what is tearing us apart as a nation.

Your social location says a lot about who you are, how you view the world, and whether you can see the invisible privilege you were born with. It’s easy to think you deserve what you’ve got. It is said that many rich people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. Then there are those who are born on third base and think they hit a home run but got called back to third, and they are angered by the injustice of it all.

That’s the kind of thinking we’ve gotten from the White House for three and a half years, and it is corrosive to national unity and national identity.

When we white people hear black people complain about racial profiling, we can’t understand because it doesn’t happen to us; it’s not part of our personal experience. But in truth, racial profiling happens to us, too. We are profiled as white, and we benefit from it. It’s time we stopped the negative profiling of anyone.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King said in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Last Sunday was Peace With Justice Sunday in United Methodist churches. I mentioned it ahead of time, but in our worship time itself, I’m sorry to say that I got so tied up in other things that failed to say anything about it. Peace and justice are intimately connected.

In Isaiah 59.8, God tells the prophet that the way of peace is the way of justice. There can be no peace until there is justice. In our churches, too, there can be no genuine worship until we turn away from injustice. In Amos 5:23-24, God tells the prophet: “Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (CEB).

So that’s a sketch of the problem. You may ask, what can I do about it? Here are several things.

First, don’t be frozen by guilt. You can’t undo the past, and you don’t have to feel guilty about a system you did not create. But you can work for change, and you must.

To begin, learn more about racism and how to combat it. In coming weeks I’ll be sharing resources you can use to educate yourself and arm yourself for action.

Then, listen. In an interview last week, Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said that his parents taught him to “have large ears” and to use them to listen. I love that. We all need large ears to hear the pain of our brothers and sisters.

You can’t hear them if you don’t encounter them, so the third thing you can do is engage your black neighbors in conversation and dialogue. Around here, most of your black neighbors are going to be somewhat distant geographically, but that doesn’t mean you can’t meet them.

Of course, you don’t just walk up to somebody and say, “Tell me about your pain.” You have to establish a relationship, get to know each other well, before that kind of dialogue can happen. So engagement means expanding our circle of friendship.

Along the way, we should be doing two other things. We need to be in continuous and intensive prayer. We need to open our hearts to God and ask for a miracle of peace and righteousness and justice in the heart of America and in our individual hearts as well.

That is, we also need to repent of our own racism. Even if we’ve rarely or never expressed it outwardly, we still feel it inwardly because it’s part of our social structure. We’re like fish in water, and we swim in racism every day. We know that the first thing you need to do to solve a problem is to admit that you have a problem, so to rid your spirit of this deadly virus, you have to confess it and then repent of it.

Finally, when you witness acts of racism, or recognize ways that you benefit unfairly from it, you should realize that silence is agreement, so you should speak up and act to stop it. That is one of our baptismal vows that we take whenever we are baptized and we renew whenever someone else is baptized. We vow to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” to us.

It is time, as some have said, to replace indifference with compassion and apathy with empathy. This is not a peripheral issue. This is a gospel issue. This is who we are as God’s people. We affirm that all people are God’s children, and God loves each of us, and none of us deserves to be, or should be, privileged in ways that others are not.

And so in this time of three viruses, pandemic, prejudice and abuse of power, we pledge ourselves to God’s purpose.

Would you pray with me?

O Lord our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we confess today our complicity in the crime of racial injustice. We beg your forgiveness for this sin and humbly ask you to cleanse our hearts of this and all unrighteousness. Empower us to act to show our love to all people, and work in every heart and every mind of every person in our nation and in other nations around the world confronting this same sin. Make us one, Lord, with you, and with one another. We give ourselves to your keeping and dedicate ourselves to your purpose in our lives. In the name of Jesus, we pray – Amen.

This message was delivered outdoors at Edgerton United Methodist Church on June 14, 2020, the Second Sunday After Pentecost.             

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