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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 26, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 5:1-20 and “Kids Who Die,” by Langston Hughes
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Today’s gospel lesson is a wonderful, dramatic story. Jesus has been teaching by the Sea of Galilee. That night, he and his disciples get in a boat to cross the sea. While Jesus sleeps, a storm kicks up, severely scaring the disciples. They wake Jesus and he stills the storm.
They get to the other side of the sea, in the country of the Gerasenes, an area where Gentiles live. They step out of the boat and are met by a madman who has made his home in the cemetery. I’ve always pictured Jesus coming ashore and wandering directly into the cemetery, though that’s not exactly what the scripture says. I’ve also pictured the man as naked and unbathed, with matted hair and beard. The story doesn’t say that either, though later, when he’s been saved by Jesus, there is a line about him being clothed.
There is no question but that the man is tormented. He has lost his own voice to what torments him; all he does is howl. When words come out of this mouth, that the words of the demons that we hear. He injures himself because he is in so much pain. The demons that torment him have stripped away his humanity – completely. Only the demons speak, and when they do, they recognize who Jesus is and the threat Jesus poses.
The story is rich with symbolism. In the Hebrew scriptures, the sea represents chaos. In the story right before this one, Jesus show he is master over chaos when he calms the chaotic, life-threatening storm on the sea. The man who meets them when they come ashore is the personification of chaos. They come ashore in the land of the unclean (the Gentiles), in an area that is unclean (a cemetery), and are confronted by someone who is unclean (the man who is possessed).
If there is any person who is less than fully human, it’s this guy. If there is anyone who is less worthy, of less value, it’s this guy. This man is “other” on so many levels. And Jesus sees right through this “otherness,” seeing the man’s true humanity.
When I picked this lesson for this sermon, I thought about the “otherness” of the man possessed. I thought about how racism “others” people of color. Racism says that whiteness is normal and people who aren’t white are abnormal, not fully human, less than, other. I looked at how Jesus saw through that “otherness” and heard a call to go and do likewise.
But as I reflected on this scripture this past week, I came to see society in the man possessed. Society is possessed by the demon of racism. And racism has a legion of faces.
“My son was about 2 years old,” writes Kelly Brown Douglas. “I had taken him to the park to play in a Flintstones-like car that was in the park’s playground. This particular park was next door to an elementary school. After being in the park for about 15 minutes, what appeared to be a class of first graders recessed into the park. Two little boys, one blonde-haired the other redheaded, ran down to the car where my son was playing. Seeing them coming, my son immediately jumped out. Soon the two little boys began fighting over who was going to play in the car. My son looked on with the fascination of a 2-year-old. The little redheaded boy, who seemed to be winning the battle for the car, saw my son looking. He suddenly stopped fighting for the car and turned toward my son. With all the venom that a 7- or 8-year-old boy could muster, he pointed his finger at my son and said, ‘You better stop looking at us, before I put you in jail where you belong.’ This little white boy was angry. A black boy had intruded upon his space. My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.
“I was horrified. Before I could say anything to the offending boy the white teacher, who was in earshot, approached. She clearly heard what the little boy said to my son. I expected her to have a conversation with the little boy and to make him apologize. Instead, she looked at my 2-year-old son as if he were the perpetrator of some crime, and said to the little boys, ‘Come on with me, before there is trouble.’ At that moment, I was seething with anger. I took my son and left the park.
“As we walked away, I felt an unspeakable sadness and pain. At 2 years old, my son was already viewed as a criminal. At 7 or 8 years old the link between a black boy’s body and a criminal had already been forged in the mind of a little white boy. If at 2 years old, a white teacher already regarded my son as a troublemaker, I feared what the future might bring.”
That is one of the legion of faces of racism today; there are many others. I asked a group of friends who live in the Tri-Cities to share with me their experiences with racism. I tried to get a cross-section of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and I was blessed with several responses, especially given how quick a response I had asked for in my request. Here’s just a sample.
One friend is a Muslim woman. She and her husband are immigrants from Pakistan. They have three children. She told me that their eldest has pale skin and, when little, was often mistaken for a Caucasian. His experience was quite different from that of his little brother. The younger brother tans easily and has a mole on his forehead. From early elementary school, he was teased. In Middle School, he was called names like “Zit Face,” “terrorist,” “Gandhi dot,” and “sand monkey” – to mention just a few of the names that his mother is aware of.
A European-American shared some incidents she witnessed or learned about in her neighborhood. In Union City, after an off-campus shooting, the Union City police pulled together suspected gang members and their friends, all of whom were African American, for questioning. She wonders what role racism played in that roundup.
Her neighbor reported his car tagged with a gang symbol. Some of the responding police suggested the perpetrators were wannabe gang members and called them “grease monkeys” and “welfare cases.”
Another friend, a middle-aged woman from south Asia, immigrated in 1978 and became a citizen in 1986. She shared how for the first twenty-plus years she lived in the United States, she volunteered in her children’s schools, in Girl Scouts, in camps, in sports programs, and on the boards of several non-profit organizations. Then came the attacks on September 11, 2001. “It is painful to be labeled as terrorist,” she told me, “because of the 9/11 tragedy, [especially] after being a part of the American fabric for over 20 years and serving and trying to make America a better nation for all. Our loyalties are questioned every day since that tragedy by asking us to condemn those or any other terrorists acts since then, no matter who is responsible and where it happens.”
This is a woman with a deeply compassionate heart, and she told me about another incident that happened to a young Latina who worked in Starbucks. One day, my friend saw that the barista was upset and asked her what had happened. Earlier that day, a customer had asked the barista a question about school. The barista proudly told the customer that she had just graduated from high school. The customer responded, “So this is it for you because your kind do not go to college, you will get pregnant and have babies.” The barista was too stunned to respond, even though she could have said that she had a full scholarship to attend a university that fall.
These stories I’ve shared are about just one form of power that Racism takes. You know the old expression, “It’s only the tip of the iceberg.” It refers to the fact that the vast majority of an iceberg is underwater. It applies here. These overt acts of racism are the portion of the iceberg we can easily see. Below the surface there are other powers at work.
The first power we see is “Power Against” or “Power Over.” This is the power I’ve talked about so far, the power that works against people of color. When racism wields this power, it tells the shop clerk to follow that African-American kids through the store because she is suspect, that it’s okay for a cop to label a Latino kid a “grease monkey,” and that the future for a 2-year-old black boy is jail.
The second power of racism is often harder to see. It is the “Power For” people who are white. This is the power that allows me to assume I will be treated justly in the court system, or to assume that I will get a job interview based solely on the fact that my name “sounds” white. This is the power that gets me a bank loan when an equally qualified person of color doesn’t get it. It is the power that allows me to assume that I will be shown the apartment if it’s available, as assumption people of color cannot always make.
One of the people who I asked to share stories of racism told me one about a time her daughter got caught shoplifting. The mom threatened to “let them” have her arrested, and that this would ruin her chances to get into college, and there would be all kinds of consequences for her stupid actions, and (as the mom put it) “blah, blah, blah.” The mom talked about grounding, severe consequences at home that hadn’t yet been imagined. She said to the child that you need to apologize, assure the store person that you will never do anything like this again. This went on until the store person said to the mom, “Obviously, you will make sure this doesn’t happen again. Your child’s name will be kept on our records and isn’t allowed back in here.” No police report filed. No jail time. No criminal record. The daughter got to go home, got go to college. The mom points out that she and her daughter are white.
This is racism’s Power For white people at work.
So is the fact that the GI Bill made home loans available to white GIs after World War II, but not to black GIs.
One of my friends pointed out that white people general don’t acknowledge that their families have benefited from access to college educations, home loans, inherited wealth, job preferences, networking, safe travel, white-biased testing, financial and social training, etc. All this is racism’s Power For white people.
And then there’s the third power of racism, the Power that Distorts the truth: that we are each and all made in the image of God. This is the power of racism that gets deeply and perhaps I should say demonically internalized. Any time I feel better than, more than, scared of someone of darker hue, this is the result of this third power of racism distorting the truth in me.
A white friend shared with me about dating an African-American man. My friend said, “Watching women clutch their purses or actually cross the street when they walked by my beautiful and gentle boyfriend was shocking to me. Overhearing a family ask to move their seats away from our vicinity in a Black Angus restaurant was an eye-opener.” This is racism’s Power that Distorts at work. Racism distorted these strangers’ views of my friend’s boyfriend.
It is the same Power of racism at work in a friend who is of several races. He shared with me how through his adolescence he tried so hard to be white. He said, “I desperately wanted to be accepted by the White community. I wanted to be as white as possible, forsaking the color of my skin, my heritage, and my culture,” this despite the fact that his white friends often bullied him, calling him “half-breed.” Racism distorted my friend’s sense of his own full humanity and it has taken a lot of personal work to reclaim it.
Being aware of these Powers racism has is a start, but it is not enough. Some of the work that we need to do is very personal, and I’ll talk about that next week. The other work is communal work. Obviously, standing up to overt acts of racial prejudice is one way we can address racism’s Power Against. Working on policy change so that racism’s Power Against and Power For are rooted out is another activity we can engage in. For instance, we could work for criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration. And we as a congregation could develop partnerships with faith communities whose members are predominantly people of color.
The past sermons in this series have shown just how deeply racism runs in our culture and country. We are not going to get rid of it easily. But the more we are aware of racism’s powers, the more likely we will find ways to cast out this demonic legion that possesses us.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, “The Stories That Matter from a Black Mother to Her Son,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/faith-action/stories-matter-black-mother-her-son (posted and accessed 20 March 2017).
 Fremont, Newark, and Union City are called the “Tri-Cities” here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
 See, for instance, http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/After-the-War-Blacks-and-the-GI-Bill.pdf and http://www.demos.org/blog/11/11/13/how-gi-bill-left-out-african-americans.