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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 2, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 5:11-21 and Psalm 51:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a seminary professor who thought that the church’s mission was summed up in our reading from 2 Corinthians.  He said that the church’s mission is summed up in the line about how God was in Christ, reconciling the world with God, and now God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.  The church’s job, this professor said, can be summed up like this:  we are to be a vehicle of reconciling the world with God.

While I think the universal church’s job does include reconciling humanity and God, I think there is an additional task:  Reconciling humanity with itself.  Of course, since I don’t believe creation and God are all the separable, the act of some aspect of creation coming back into right relationship with itself is a form of that aspect of creation being reconciled with God.  So, maybe I’m not disagreeing with my professor all that much.  I’ll stop there, before I get lost in some theological esoterica, saying this:  the church’s mission includes, and perhaps should even be focused on, reconciliation.

The full passage we heard from this letter to the Christians in Corinth is about Jesus changing lives.  Here’s my paraphrase of the reading (remember that Paul is writing):
Knowing God revealed in Jesus has changed us.  Sure, to some people we now seem a little nuts – but that’s because God has changed us.  And if we don’t seem nuts to you, that’s because God is changing you, too.  Our priorities have changed.  How we view the world has changed.  How we view you has changed.  We used to live in the world in a way that separated us from God and from people.  No more.  Now we’re reconciled with God.  Nothing stands in the way of our relationship with God.  And now we are helping people find that change in their own lives.

When I take a metaphoric look at the stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people metaphorically, I see Jesus doing exactly what Paul says Jesus was doing.  Jesus was bringing people back into right relationship with God and with their communities.  And when I look at what Jesus said, as recorded in the gospels, he was calling communities to get into right relationship with God and all their people.

I think the act of reconciliation is salvific.  And that, John claims, is what Jesus was all about:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV).  But reconciliation isn’t easy.  If you’ve ever experienced a betrayal in a relationship with someone you love, you know how difficult reconciliation is.  Salvation isn’t easy.  Jesuit John Harriott wrote, “Salvation is not comfortable.  Salvation is not a gentle application of Vaseline to a small cut, but the breaking and resetting of ill-set bones.  We discover our need when we are faced with situations over which we have no control, and in which we have no hope.”[1]

A demand of reconciliation is change.  And change is hard.  A result of salvation is change.  And change is hard.  But Jesus was about transforming lives.  And that hard, painful work is exactly what it’s going to take if we are going to be about the work of ending racism.

The rest of the sermon is primarily for the white people in the congregation (including myself).  That is because I have come to realize that racism is a white person’s disease and it is only if we white people do our work that it can finally be banished.

Being able to claim a “white” identity in the United States comes with certain social, cultural, and economic advantages, from getting a call back for a job interview, to finding an apartment, to getting a booking an Airbnb.  I’ve explored in the previous sermons in this series how this privilege has deep historic roots in our culture.  But acknowledging it, this privilege, is not intended to induce guilt.  Rather, acknowledging it helps us build a sense of responsibility.[2]

If you have any doubts about the reality of white privilege, I encourage you to read the essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh.[3]  In it, she rattles off over two dozen simple ways white folk experience privilege without even realizing it in day-to-day life.  These privileges were born out of a culture of white supremacy – a reality I’ve explored over the past few weeks.

Two professors at Calvin College have pointed out that the denial of the reality of white privilege is actually born out of that same white supremacy.  “If you deny white privilege, if society is indeed meritocratic and the game is essentially fair, it is difficult to avoid assumptions about who tends to win and who tends to lose.  If the white population is not privileged in some way, how else does one explain the discrepancies between them and people of color?  What’s left is assuming that white people are just smarter, more moral, work harder, or have a stronger culture.”[4]

Peggy McIntosh says, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that white folk walk around with without even realizing it.  We even open the knapsack and take out those resources from time to time without even realizing it.  Waking up to the reality that we are doing it, waking up to the reality of this privilege is the first step in the transformation of white people, the first step that is needed to end racism.

You see, this is very much a gospel activity.  Racism is a sin.  And Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation is a ministry of repentance, of turning from sin and toward the beloved community.  But it’s hard work, because white supremacy is an idol, and if you ever want to see someone get mad, really mad, threaten their idol.  And just to remind you, an idol is anything we hold onto more tightly than God, anything we worship and honor and value more highly than God.  An idol is any power that holds more sway in our lives than God.  And power, Richard Rohr points out, “never surrenders without a fight.”[5]

“If your entire life has been to live unquestioned in your position of power – a power that was culturally given to you but you think you earned – there is almost no way you will give it up without major failure, suffering, humiliation, or defeat.”[6]  That’s why a growing awareness of white privilege can hurt so much.

Which brings us to the second step in the transformation Jesus wants to work on us white people.  The Calvin College professors advise, “Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry.  It is so easy to medicate with avoidance, delusion, and quick tears.  Repentance requires real sorrow and grief.  It is a sorrow that acknowledges that we have missed the mark, that we have fallen so very short.”[7]

Heather Caliri suggests we can find a model in the story of King Josiah in 2 Kings.  “In 2 Kings 22, Josiah starts restoring the temple after his father and grandfather neglected it.  In the midst of construction, Josiah’s high priest finds the book of the Law and reads it in front of the king.  Upon hearing it, Josiah tears his clothes in grief.…

“Before Josiah’s reign, two generations of Judeans neglected to teach the law.  Josiah and his subjects literally didn’t know any better.  “God still holds them responsible for the sins of their fathers.  To our Western ears, that might sound unfair, even if generational sin is a constant Biblical theme.  Like Josiah, we inherited [the] sin [of racism] not of our own making.  Yet it’s very much our problem.

“Saying things are better now is no excuse.  Josiah could have said the same – after all, he was trying to restore the temple before he discovered the Law.  God required hard repentance anyway.

“Josiah, grieved by his discovery, sent for [the Prophet] Huldah and listened as she blasted him with more bad news.  Josiah could have tuned out her negativity – especially when the sins didn’t happen on his watch, and he’d already done so much to change things.  Instead, he listened.”[8]

To be honest, that’s mostly what I’ve been doing in this sermon series.  I’ve been reading and researching our history and discovering things I’d never been taught.  I’ve sought out articles by and stories from people of color to better understand how they experience this culture.  I have tried, with some success, to open my eyes to the horror of slavery and its brutal legacy, and to the near genocide of the first peoples who lived on this land.  In that process, I have worked on recognizing my prejudices and biases.  This has not been easy work, but if we take Josiah’s story seriously, we must do as he did and patiently listen.  Then, and only then, will we be ready to take action.

“Once Josiah hears [the Prophet] Huldah’s words, he acts.  He burns Asherah poles, deposes priests and dismantles idolatry for 20 years.  Josiah demolishes a complex, idolatrous system.

“Systems span generations.  When our ancestors set up a sinful system, we carry on sinning unless someone dismantles it with tireless energy.  That’s why holding children accountable for the sins of their fathers makes sense.

“Josiah also teaches us who should dismantle systems.  Josiah confronted a system that, as king, benefited him enormously.  But his leadership was crucial – how can anything change unless those with power take action?

“In our own country, black people and other people of color largely lead the way on racial justice, even though they’ve historically had little institutional power.  Though some people and some white institutions have taken brave steps, we have not, as a people, stepped up as Josiah did.  [Since] white people created racist systems, God tasks us with the primary responsibility for challenging them.”[9]

So, here are a few concrete things white people can do to start the process of dismantling racism:

  1. Don’t ask African-American to forget what their ancestors went through as slaves in this country, or ask them to ignore how that impacts them daily.
  2. Don’t detach ourselves from what our ancestors or people that look like us have created, maintained, and have benefited from—and that we continue to benefit from.
  3. Remember that we were born into a system of white supremacy that we did not create, but must actively help to dismantle.
  4. Don’t be afraid to have the ugly conversations with people who look like us, and don’t be afraid to listen to and learn from the people who don’t look like us.
  5. Shut up while people of color tell their own stories, in their own ways, and to their own ends.
  6. Accept the truths and experiences of racial injustice shared by people of color as valid.
  7. Listen to people of color, advocate for people of color, sympathize with people of color, fight alongside people of color, and raise our voices to match the outcries being made by people of color.
  8. Be an ally by standing up against racial injustice, celebrating racial diversity, and taking on this fight as our own.[10]

“Josiah’s story is ultimately a tragedy.  When he dies, his own son goes right back to the idolatrous systems Josiah worked to eradicate.

“I once assumed that the Civil Rights movement had taken care of the sins of previous generations.  Josiah’s failure reveals my naiveté.  Between slavery and [the latest] versions of Jim Crow, we’ve experienced nearly [400] years of state-supported racism in America.  Josiah, in contrast, inherited a fairly new problem:  His father and grandfather wreaked havoc for only 57 years.  Yet 20 years of Josiah’s sustained effort wasn’t enough.  If Josiah couldn’t accomplish change in one generation, how can we assume we did [or we will]?”[11]

This will be a long struggle.  It is a multi-generational struggle.  White people have a lot to confess, and turning the whole system around in an act of societal repentance is a very big ask.  But it is the transformational ministry Jesus is doing in us individually and in us as a church.  And it is the transformational ministry, this ministry of reconciliation, Jesus has given to us.

Amen.

[1] John Harriott, SJ, quoted by Ryan Dowell Baum on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/revryandb/posts/1725011814455430 (posted and accessed 29 March 2017).

[2] Joseph Kuilema and Christina Edmondson, “Confronting White Privilege,” The Banner, http://thebanner.org/features/2017/01/confronting-white-privilege (posted 20 January 2017; accessed 27 March 2017).

[3] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” The National SEED Project, https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack (copyright 1989).

[4] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[5] Romal J. Tune, “Richard Rohr on White Privilege,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/richard-rohr-white-privilege (posted 19 January 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[8] Heather Caliri, “Repenting of Systemic Racism,” Relevant, http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/current/repenting-systemic-racism (posted 7 September 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).  I’ve done some re-setting of her paragraphs.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This is taken from one of my own Facebook posts from 24 February 2016.

[11] Caliri, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-16
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I’m sure you’ve all been there, in a gathering of some sort – a meeting, a class, a club – and the leader asks you to go around the room and introduce yourselves.  Sometimes the leader will ask for some specific information:  “Tell us your name, your favorite color, and your shoe size.”  “Tell us why you joined the club and what you hope to accomplish here.”

Sometimes the invitation to introduce yourself is very open ended.  “Let’s go around the room and tell us something about yourself.”  What would you say?  What would you say to introduce yourself to a group who didn’t know you or knew you only a little bit?

We were invited to do the second sort of introduction, the open ended introduction, in my Introduction to Pastoral Counseling class way back when I was in seminary.  We went around and introduced ourselves.  Then the professor reflected on what we said.  She noted that about two-thirds of the students included in their introductions something about themselves in terms of their relationships (I’m a mother of two) and about one-third introduced themselves in terms of what they did (I was a history major in undergraduate and I’m currently doing my field work at First United Methodist Church).

My professor’s point was that our sense of identity is an important factor of who we are and how we are in the world.  Then she noted that men and women typically have a different sense of identity (at least in the United States – and I’m not sure if they holds up across racial and ethnic groups).  The two-thirds of the students who introduced themselves relationally were the women in the classroom; the one-third who introduced themselves in terms of “what they do” were men.  I don’t remember if we talked about that difference coming from biology, psychology, or enculturation, (or a combination of the three), but I do remember how stark the difference was.

And since then, I’ve reflected on how true it is that our sense of identity impacts, maybe even dictates, who we are and how we are in the world.

We are now four days into the forty days of Lent (Sunday’s don’t count, so Wednesday to Saturday is four days).  The forty days of Lent are traditionally connected to Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert when he wrestled with temptation.  There’s mention of this in Mark’s gospel and the story is much more detailed in Matthew and Luke.  Jesus is tempted with turning stones into bread to easy his hunger, with political power, and with testing God’s trustworthiness.

I think that to understand these temptations, one needs to think about what happens right before.  Right before Jesus sojourns in the wilderness, he goes to the Jordan River and is baptized by John.  As he comes out of the water, he hears God say that he is God’s child, God’s beloved.

I think the temptation is Jesus wrestling with what it means to be God’s child, God’s beloved.  He’s wrestling with his identity.  The temptations he faces are all about his relationship with God and who he is in that relationship.  So, it seems appropriate to being Lent by thinking about identity.

mount-of-beatitudes-and-sea-of-galilee-tbs75369303-bibleplacesWe’re going to spend Lent looking at the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel and is the core of Jesus’ teaching, at least as Matthew presents it.  Let’s start by putting ourselves there.  “Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum.  Flocks of birds circle and land.  Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcroppings.  The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

“A small group of disciples circles around a … man who appears to be about thirty.  He is sitting, as rabbis in this time and culture normally do.  Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what he is teaching them.  This is the day they’ve been waiting for.  This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the heart of his message.”[1]

Jesus begins.  He begins with the lesson we heard today.  But what a strange beginning.  Jesus begins by offering a benediction.  Jesus begins by offering a blessing.  In a sense, he’s beginning with his conclusion.  And his conclusion is so contrary to conventional wisdom.  Conventional wisdom really hasn’t changed all that much.

Conventional wisdom said then and still says:
“Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.”[2]

That’s not where Jesus is going and not where he’s inviting us.
The poor and those who are in solidarity with them – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss – they are the ones who are blessed.
The nonviolent and gentle – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo – they are the ones who are blessed.
The merciful and compassionate – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and integrity – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who work for peace and reconciliation – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed – they are the ones who are blessed.

In just two or three minutes, Jesus has flipped things over.  Jesus has identified a new kind of hero.  “Not warriors, corporate executives, or politicians, but brave and determined activists for preemptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.”[3]

Jesus begins with the benediction.  “If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society.  We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.”[4]

And there it is:  If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we must choose a new identity with a new set of values.

Jesus goes on to say that this new identity “will give us a very important role in the world.  As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change.  Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society.  Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay.  Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness, and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us.  Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light.”[5]

For years, part of my identity has been “justice seeker.”  I’ve seen myself as someone who works for peace and justice.  Be it working against wars or be it working against domestic violence, I’ve seen myself as someone who works for peace.  Be it working for sentencing reform and immigration policy reform or be it working with individual juvenile delinquents, I’ve seen myself as someone who works for justice.  Part of that identity has included seeing myself as someone working to end racism.

Well, I spent my days off last week at an anti-racism training and my eyes were opened.  I may be working toward being a non-racist, but I’m a long way from being an anti-racist.  The difference between the two deserves a sermon of its own, so this is an over simplification.  Non-racism works to overcome individual racial prejudice; anti-racism works of transform systems that have racism baked into them from their formation.

This cartoon may explain more simply than I can what I mean by having the racism baked into the system.[6]

a-concise-history-of-black-white-relations-in-the-united-states

Racism has three powers.  It has the power over people of color – which we see, for instance, in the legal system and the banking system.  It has the power for white people – which is typically invisible to the people who benefit from it.

And it has the power to take from us our identity as children of God.  For people of color, this is when racism gets (consciously or unconsciously) internalized.  For white people, this is when racial superiority gets (consciously or unconsciously) internalized.

It is this third power of racism, the power to take from us our identity as children of God, that makes me wonder if I’m really salty enough.  If I’m really going to take on this identity as a disciple of Jesus, if I’m really going to conform my life to the values of the beatitudes, I need to become anti-racist.  I need to recognize the power of racism within me and within the institutions and systems around me (including this one right here).  And then I need to work to transform that power.  You see, if I really accept this new identity that Jesus offers, everything changes for me.

So here’s the invitation.  In this time of quiet, imagine darkness and into that darkness imagine light coming – from a candle, a sunrise, a moonrise, a fire, a flashlight.
Hold these questions open before God:
Which is more fragile and which is more powerful, light or darkness?
How can my life become like light?

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 127.
[2] Ibid, 127-128.
[3] Ibid, 128.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 129.
[6] “A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the U.S.A.” copied from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/10/history-of-black-white-relations on 13 February 2016.

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