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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.
There was so much ground to cover in today’s sermon that I just couldn’t cover everything. One thing I didn’t talk about was the racist tweet from Congressman Steve King of Iowa, posted on March 12.
As you can see, King’s tweet is in support of his fellow anti-immigrant demagogue Geert Wilders (who is seeking to become the next Dutch prime minister), praising him as one who “understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
The “our” of “our destiny” is White people. Since he’s tweeting about someone in Europe, one could assume that this isn’t just about White America, but it is about something bigger. And, sure enough, it is.
Asked by New Day host Chris Cuomo to defend the comments on March 13, King doubled down on his view that “western civilization” must be defended. Pressed on whether he believes “a Muslim American, an Italian American, Jewish American, [are] all equal, all the same thing,” King hesitated.
“They contribute differently to our culture and civilization,” the Iowa Republican responded. “Individuals will contribute differently, not equally to this civilization and society. Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will.” Watch the video.
When King talks about “the American civilization” and “the American culture,” he’s talking about White, Anglo-Saxon-based culture. And when he talks about “assimilation,” he’s talking about stripping non-Whites of their culture so the White-supremacist culture of controlling the United States doesn’t have to change. I have no doubt that Congressman King believes that the racist, Anglo-Saxon-based culture that has held power in the United States is supreme to all other cultures. It is a racist belief.
The Southern Poverty Law Center points out that this racist belief is based on lies.
It’s a lie, for example, that immigrants don’t want to learn English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 56% of first-generation immigrants speak English “well” or “very well,” and the demand for English instruction actually far outstrips supply.
It’s a lie that immigrants are violent or criminal. According to a new report by The Sentencing Project, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. Higher levels of immigration may even have contributed to the historic drop in crime rates, researchers say.
In the run-up to both of President Trump’s Muslim bans, perhaps the most widely circulated lie has been that refugees are not screened before entering the country, that banning them will keep the U.S. safe from terror. This is patently false. Refugees undergo more rigorous screenings than any other individuals the government allows in the U.S., and we know that no deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to people from the countries covered by either executive order in the last 30 years.
All of these lies, however far-fetched, are based on the same dangerous falsehood: that immigrants and refugees are somehow not like us: that they’re not students in search of an education; that they’re not families trying to make ends meet; that as “somebody else’s babies,” they don’t belong here.
The truth is that immigrants are our neighbors and our friends. They are Americans.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 19, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 John 4:18-21 and Deuteronomy 24:14-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
It might be helpful if I being with a little glossary. Refugees are people fleeing civil unrest, war, famine, or persecution, sometimes a combination. They are leaving everything they have known to start over in a place they believe is safe. Not all people who flee civil unrest, war, famine, or persecution end up fleeing to another country. Some simply move to another part of their country – and are called “internally displaced.” But when they move to another country, they are considered “refugees.”
We are probably more aware of the refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq than other refugees. However, because of famine that is looming in four countries, I suspect we will be seeing more refugee crises.
In addition to the four countries mentioned in that video, the United Nations has identified Kenya as another country facing a food crisis, where more than 2.7 million people are food insecure, and that this number could reach four million by April.
When we talk about U.S. immigration policy, we’re talking about refugees, yes. But more likely, we’re talking about immigrants. Immigrants are people moving from one country to another primarily for economic or educational opportunities, or for family reunification. Immigrants can follow a process defined in law and go to a new country legally, or they can go to a new country without following the process defined in law and go to the new country illegally. Immigrants who come to the United States legally often, but not always, have a specific opportunity identified – a job lined up or a college admission. Immigrants who come to the United States illegally rarely have a specific opportunity identified.
When my great-great-great-great – actually, I don’t remember how many greats it is – grandparents moved to this continent, they didn’t have visas. The people who lived here at the time didn’t issue visas. John and Priscilla were on a boat called Mayflower and they thought that the permission of the English government to establish a colony was all the permission they needed.
150 years later, their descendants (at least some of them) decided it was time to declare their independence from Great Britain. Thirteen years later, the founding fathers got around to putting together the nuts and bolts of the new nation and its government, and when the first Congress convened in 1790, one of the first acts they passed was a naturalization act. This law “provided the first rules to be followed by the United States in the granting of national citizenship. This law limited naturalization to aliens who were ‘free white persons’ and thus left out indentured servants, slaves, free blacks, and later Asians, as well as women.”
It would be anachronistic to call this restriction “racist” (or “sexist”). Notions of race weren’t really developed for another hundred years or so. Still, as I’ve talked about in previous sermons in this series, this attitude that white Anglo-Saxons are better than other humans weaved the patterns of racism into the fabric of our nation.
Immigration into this new nation came from two places initially. The bulk of the immigration was from Western Europe. There was also, until 1804, the importation of Africans to serve as slaves. (After 1804, the slave population continued to grow because the child of a slave was a slave.) The Western Europeans were sufficiently like the Anglo-Saxon founders of the nation and they assimilated rather smoothly. The Africans were held in bondage and so were not seen as a threat to the Anglo-Saxon-American way of life. But that started to change in the 1800s.
If you’re like me, you were taught that the Irish potato famine was caused by a fungal blight that wiped out the potato crop in Ireland. “While the blight did strike and take down most of Ireland’s potatoes, the truth is that Ireland was exporting more than enough food to feed everyone at the same time as the famine was happening. Run as a colony of the vast British Empire, Ireland was a colonial food-producing operation, much like India and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, but locals were not allowed to eat the very food they were producing.
“In other words, a million Irish starved for no reason other than greed.” But this is a sermon on immigration policy, not economic policy, so we’ll save that line of thought for another day.
Not only did a million of Irish starve, but about two million emigrated, most (about three-quarters) coming to the United States. They faced suspicion upon their arrival here. They weren’t WASPs, and this bothered those who were in power. As with other non-WASP immigrants, they faced a “nativist” backlash. Catholics, Jews, and people speaking anything other than English were the favored targets of nativism. Technically speaking, “Nativism is the political position of supporting a favored status for the native majority of a nation while targeting and threatening newcomers or immigrants.” In the United States, “native majority” had nothing to do with Native Americans. It meant – and still means – English-speaking, white people.
Also in the middle of the 1800s, gold was discovered in California. Not only did this mean that east coasters came to the west coast, but people from all around the world came to the west coast – even from China. “There is a rich an interesting history of the conflicts that developed between the Chinese immigrants and the Americans who had migrated from the eastern United States. Riots and violence were regularly recurring features. A generation of populist politicians built their careers by stirring up hysteria against the yellow peril. Finally, agitation reached a level sufficient to persuade congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act” in 1882. Not only did the Chinese Exclusion Act keep new immigrants from China out of the country, it also “affected the Chinese who had already settled in the United States. Any Chinese who left the United States had to obtain certifications for reentry, and the Act made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens by excluding them from U.S. citizenship.”
“When the US entered World War I, about one in four US residents were not native born. Tension between the new arrivals and the nativists was chronically high. Following the war this resulted in an effort to shut down immigration. This was codified in the Immigration Act of 1924. Also know as the Johnson-Reed Act, it “limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890…. The law was aimed at further restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans who were immigrating in large numbers starting in the 1890s, as well as prohibiting the immigration of East Asians and Asian Indians.”
My maternal grandmother got caught by this act. There were so few Swiss in the United States in 1890, the number allowed in during the mid and late 1920s was very small, and she repeatedly didn’t make the quota. I need to do a little family archeology to find out how she eventually made it into the United States.
If we’re surveying U.S. immigration policy, we can’t skip over the so-called “Mexican Repatriation” – a blot on our country’s history that I never learned about in school. “The Mexican Repatriation refers to a forced migration that took place between 1929 and 1939, when as many as one million people [estimates vary from hundreds of thousands to two million people] of Mexican descent were forced or pressured to leave the US. The term ‘Repatriation,’ though commonly used, is inaccurate, since approximately 60% of those driven out were U.S. citizens.” Because the forced movement was based on race while it ignored citizenship, one might wonder if this effort meets the modern standards to label it an incident of ethnic cleansing.
As we did following World War I, after World War II, the United States tightened immigration rules. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 organized the various rules and laws into one act. On the surface, it looked like the law moved away from racism. “The Act abolished racial restrictions found in United States immigration and naturalization statutes going back to the Naturalization Act of 1790.” However, these restrictions were replaced with nation-of-origin quotas. But if you allow 51,227 people to immigrate from Germany but only 512 from the Belgian Congo – well, maybe you just have racial restrictions by another name.
The nation-of-origin quotas actually only applied to one class of immigrant, topping the number of these regular immigrants at 270,000 per year. This did not include those with special skills for employment or who had relatives who were U.S. citizens; they were exempt from the quota. And it did not include refugees, who could apply for immigration under a procedure set following World War II though international agreement.
The last significant immigration act was passed in 1965. This act “abolished the national origins quota system that had structured American immigration policy since the 1920s, replacing it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or residents of the U.S. Numerical restrictions on visas were set at 170,000 per year, not including immediate relatives of U.S. citizens,” and some other rarified cases. While this was a step in the right direction, vestiges of racism remain in the practice of administering immigration law. Officially, Congress ended the national-origins quotas to create a policy that was “equal.” But “equal” means that every country has the same cap, and this was actually done to limit legal immigration from Mexico and countries in Asia. A 1986 law included extra visas for nationals from 36 countries, most of which are in Europe. The Diversity Visa program launched by the 1990 immigration reform bill was established to favor Europeans.
This brings us to today. Today, we live in a country of about 320 million people. About 300 million of them are citizens. Of the remaining roughly 20 million, about half are legal immigrants and the other half are in the country illegally. The immigrants who are here without documentation either came without documents or overstayed the permission they had to be here. It has been the policy of the United States to deport the people who are here without documentation. Poking around trying to find numbers, I discovered that definitions have changed. It looks to me like administrations didn’t classify removals of people who had just illegally crossed the border as deportations until the Obama administration (and it’s not clear to me when the Obama administration started calling them deportations). So President Obama may or may not have deported more people than any other President (at least so far) – it’s unclear.
Two things are clear:
- Deportations are continuing under the Trump administration – though according to the USA Today, “The first major immigration raid under President Trump shows a clear shift in the federal government’s deportation strategy, focusing more on undocumented immigrants without criminal records than under President Obama.”
- The levels of anxiety in families where one or more of the parents is here without documentation is skyrocketing as they fear that their families may be torn apart by a deportation.
Meanwhile, President Trump has tried yet again to ban travel from Syria, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia – at least temporarily. (Yes, the last two countries on that list are facing famine.) The order also bans all refugees from entering the country for at least 120 days. While the ban has been halted by federal judges, it is clear what the President wants to do.
I don’t want to argue the constitutionality of order – I’ll let the lawyers and judges hash that out. What I want to talk about is how this legacy of racism in our immigration policies goes against the gospel of Jesus Christ. When our policies say – directly or indirectly – that you are more or less worthy because of your race (in this case, worthy or unworthy to become part of our country), that goes against the truth that we are all created in the image of God, that we are all precious in the heart of God, that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
Heck, it goes against one of the strongest through line in scripture. Listen to this.
Listen again to these words from our lesson from 1 John: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
So, how do we as a church address this legacy of racism in our immigration policy? I’ve got a couple ideas. We could investigate becoming a sanctuary congregation. We could volunteer to sponsor a refugee family. A contingent of our congregation could participate in a border immersion program and report back to the congregation. And if you want to do something personally, you can volunteer at an immigrants’ rights organization.
Since we are a non-creedal church, we generally don’t recite creeds. I know I’m resistant to reciting creeds because I want to go through them with a pen so I can cross out things that I don’t believe or that I think are too easily open to misinterpretation. Still, I’m going to invite you to join me in reciting a creed today – not as a statement of belief, but as a statement of hope.
I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus, the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, the God of foreigners and immigrants.
I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean, who was born away from his people and his home, who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger. When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power. Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us, who speaks all languages, lives in all countries, and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home for foreigners and for all believers. I believe that the communion of saints begins when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity. I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God, and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.
I believe that in the Resurrection God will unite us as one people in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner but all will be citizens of the kingdom where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.
 “UN aid chief urges global action as starvation, famine loom for 20 million across four countries,” UN News Centre, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56339#.WM4hgxiZOH1 (posted 10 March 2017; accessed 15 March 2017).
 I think it’s something like 13 or 14 “greats” between John Alden and Priscilla Mullins (they married once they were in the Americas) and me.
 Ocean Malandra, “EarthRx: The Irish Potato Famine Was Caused by Capitalism, Not a Fungus,” Paste, https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/03/earthrx-the-irish-potato-famine-was-caused-by-capi.html (posted 13 March 2016; accessed 17 March 2017).
 Lyon, op. cit.
 Wikipedia, “Chinese Exclusion Act,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Exclusion_Act (accessed 18 March 2017).
 Lyon, op. cit.
 Wikipedia, “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952 (accessed 18 March 2017).
 These are sample numbers shared with my by Jim Peck.
 Students at the University of Washington-Bothell, “1965 Immigration and Nationality Act …” U.S. Immigration Legislation Online, http://library.uwb.edu/Static/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html (accessed 18 March 2017).
 David Cook-Martin and David Scott FitzGerald, “How Legacies of Racism Persist in U.S. Immigration Policy,” Scholars Strategy Network, http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/how-legacies-racism-persist-us-immigration-policy (posted June 2014; accessed 18 March 2017).
 “Population Distribution by Citizenship Status,” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-by-citizenship-status/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D (accessed 18 March 2017).
 Alan Gomez, “Trump immigration raids show greater focus on non-criminals,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/02/16/president-trump-immigration-raids-target-fewer-criminals/97988770/ (posted 16 February 2017, accessed 19 March 2017).
 See, for instance, Andrew Gumbel, “Doctors see a new condition among immigrant children: fear of Trump,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/25/donald-trump-immigration-deportation-children-doctors (posted 25 November 2016; accessed 18 March 2017).
 Written by José Luis Casal, now director of Presbyterian World Mission, prepared it for a worship service for the Assembly of APCE in Chicago around 1998 or 1999.
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 12, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Galatians 3:23-39 and Daniel 1:1-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
“Despite bitter cold, wind, rain and hail,” the PBS Newshour reports, “hundreds of members of Native American tribes and supporters from around the country turned out Friday to march on the White House, in an effort to turn the momentum of the Standing Rock protests [against the building of a oil pipeline through and near reservation land] into a more sustained movement for native rights.
“The march and a rally in Lafayette Square across from the White House came after four days of protest, prayer and lobbying on Capitol Hill, where Native communities called for the protection of natural resources and demanded the new administration honor treaties with indigenous peoples.”
Five and a quarter centuries after the Doctrine of Discovery emboldened Europeans to come to the Americas and claim them, five and a quarter centuries after the people living on America’s soil were first enslaved or killed with the blessing of the church, the descendants of those first nations are still fighting for their rights and their sovereignty.
If you’re wondering how it is possible that the Doctrine of Discovery is still active in our society, the answer is easy: It’s in our cultural DNA. Let me explain what I mean.
Last week, I talked about how the church is responsible for creating the Doctrine of Discovery and blessing the colonial expansion of Christian nations, which of course meant European countries. Thanks to the Doctrine, by the 1600s, Spain had established colonies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and what is now Florida. Likewise, the Portuguese had established a foothold in South American.
England had gained military power and started establishing colonies in North America. The Doctrine of Discovery gave the justification for the English to do this. Back in 1497, just a few years after Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas, a English-financed explorer planted the English flag in what is now Newfoundland, so they felt they could claim they had “discovered” the land. In 1607, they founded Jamestown, and in 1621 the Plymouth colony was established by English Pilgrims.
In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims set out to establish their utopia, a Dutch ship arrived in Jamestown that would have repercussions for the next four hundred years. The ship carried Africans, but they were not passengers. They were the cargo. While they may have been the first slaves brought to an English colony as cargo, they were hardly the first slave brought from Africa to the Americas. “By 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves.”
The African slave trade was justified the same way the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement or murder of the native peoples living there was justified: the Doctrine of Discovery. Successive Popes had said that European kings should “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue … all Saracens and Pagans and all enemies of Christ … to reduce their persons in perpetual slavery … and to take away all of their possessions and property” (to quote the 1452 Papal Bull Dum Diversas). Historian Howard Zinn notes, “By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world.”
A century and a half after the English started establishing colonies in North America and importing Africans to work as slaves, the colonists decided it was time to break ties with the king. And so they fought a war and managed to win, declaring their independence with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, when they said “all men,” they didn’t mean all people. They meant all property-owning, white, males.
Although this new nation was founded on freedom from tyranny, the idea that white people and Christians had certain divine rights was nevertheless ingrained in our nation’s cultural DNA and quite literally into our policies. As someone raised in New England and whose family goes back to the Mayflower, I like to think of myself as coming from a people who opposed the evils of slavery. But New Englanders profited directly and indirectly from the slave trade and the three-fifths compromise in our constitution was pushed by the Yankees. They didn’t want Blacks counted as people when it came to deciding how many Representatives southern states received. And nobody wanted the Indians counted. Thus, it was compromised that the population of the states would be set by “adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years [that is, indentured servants], and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” Well, the only other people who were left were slaves of African ancestry.
Another way this supremacy of the white people because part of our policies and cultural DNA was through the court. The 1823 Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh is a key example. While the decision is often framed as “private citizens could not purchase lands from Native Americans,” what it really said is that Indians really didn’t own the property in the first place. The decision “begins with a lengthy discussion of history of the European discovery of the Americas and the legal foundations of the American Colonies. In particular, [the decision] focuses on the manner in which each European power acquired land from the indigenous occupants. Synthesizing the law of nations, [it] traces the outlines of the ‘discovery doctrine’ – namely, that a European power gains radical title (also known as sovereignty) to the land it discovers. As a corollary, the discovering power gains the exclusive right to extinguish the ‘right of occupancy’ of the indigenous occupants, which otherwise survived the assumption of sovereignty.”
Then the decision says that when the United States “declared independence from Great Britain, the United States government inherited the British right of preemption over Native American lands. The legal result is that the only Native American conveyances of land which can create valid title are sales of land to the federal government.” The decision literally calls the Native peoples “heathens” in justifying this decision.
For Native Americans, this decision foreshadowed the Trail of Tears and almost two hundred years of forced removals, violence, and broken treaties. The very things the Standing Rock Sioux were protesting this weekend are a direct legacy of these attitudes and this decision.
In 1845, the political leader and prominent editor named John L. O’Sullivan gave the Doctrine of Discovery a uniquely American flavor when he coined the term “Manifest Destiny” to defend U.S. expansion and claims of new territory to the west. It furthered the sense among U.S. citizens of an inevitable or natural right to expand the nation and to spread “freedom and democracy” (though only to those deemed capable of self-government, which certainly did not include Blacks or Native Americans). Of course, Johnson v. M’Intosh gave the legal cover for simply taking the land from the inhabitants as our nation pushed west.
Our denominations are not immune from the racism of the Doctrine of Discovery and the United States’ spin on it, Manifest Destiny. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was complicit in white American exceptionalism. The denomination’s founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, were 19th century men. As white, free, land-owning, educated, males, they acquired great privilege. There is little wonder they adopted, most likely without any conscious thought, the American power construct.
Campbell was an immigrant from Scotland. Immigrants choose to live in a land different from their birth, and Campbell had a deep desire for his chosen nation to be the best. Fully adopting the social concept of manifest destiny, adding a touch of Protestant superiority, mixing in some white superiority, and Campbell developed a social construct for Disciples. Writing “The Destiny of Our Country” in the August 1852 edition of the Millennial Harbinger, Campbell pronounced, “In our countries [sic] destiny is involved the destiny of Protestantism, and in its destiny the destiny of all the nations of the world. God has given, in awful charge, to Protestant England and Protestant America – the Anglo-Saxon race – the fortunes, not of Christendom only, but of all the world.”
As the issue of slavery took on a greater and greater importance in the United States, Campbell wrote, “Much as I may sympathize with a black man, I love the white man more,” thus endorsing a church system that places white folk first and theologically supported Aquinas’ argument of soul layering (which I talked about last week), placing the white soul a notch higher than the soul of a person of color.
After the Civil War, during the initial months of his administration, President Ulysses S. Grant decided he needed to address the so-called “Indian Problem.” Disciples pastor David Bell points out, “five years earlier the United States had ended a war to ensure only one nation would occupy the land from sea to shining sea. However, once the Civil War was over, the reality that years of treaty making between the U.S. and American Tribes had created multiple independent Indian nations across the American landscape confronted the Grant administration. The question before the Grant administration was how to eliminate the Indian nations – thus the Grant Peace policy.
“To eliminate Tribal sovereignty and nationhood the U.S. had to first ‘abrogate’ existing treaties. A rider on the March 3, 1871 Indian appropriation bill made it a reality that, ‘no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty’ [U.S. Statutes at Large, 16:566]. This radical congressional action of dismantling Tribal identity and structure changed the U.S. government’s opinion of American Tribes from that of sovereign nations to that of designated ‘wards.’”
Now that Native Americans were considered wards, the United States initiated a program to do away with Indian identity. In 1870, Congress passed an appropriation for Indian education. This allowed the government to recruit a wide variety of Christian denominations to establish Indian mission school with the goal of converting and civilizing the Indians. Attendance at these mission schools was made mandatory on many reservations for all native children aged six through sixteen. I’m not sure if the Disciples of Christ actually ran such a school on the Yakama Reservation in Washington, but I do know that the DOC has had a mission on the reservation since about this time, a mission that still functions today.
The good news is that how the mission functions has changed in many ways since it was founded. Just this year, they have supported the call for Native rights at the Standing Rock demonstrations and at Oak Flats, and they will be working with the Inter-Tribal coalition of the Diné, Ute Mountain, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute to bring awareness and support for the Bears Ears National Monument. The Yakama Christian Mission has gone from a tool of white supremacy to a vehicle of protection of “the North American Landscape and her Indigenous People.”
The United Church of Christ is also complicit in white supremacy. The Congregationalists (one of the predecessor denominations of the UCC) sent missionaries out into the world – that is, out to the heathens who just happened to be non-whites – to bring them Christianity and civilization. One of the places they went was Hawaii. The Congregationalist missionaries and perhaps moreso their children were complicit in the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani.
As the UCC said in their 1993 apology to the Hawaiian people, “Some of these [missionary] men and women … sometimes confused the ways of the West with the ways of the Christ. Assumptions of cultural and racial superiority and alien economic understanding led some of them and those who followed them to discount or undervalue the strengths of the mature society they encountered. Therefore, the rich indigenous values of na Kanaka Maoli, their language, their spirituality, and their regard for the land, were denigrated. The resulting social, political, and economic implications of these harmful attitudes contributed to the suffering of na Kanaka Maoli in that time and into the present.” The United Church of Christ’s apology came with some money for restitution, too.
Apologies and restitution are a start. Changing behavior to demonstrate a new attitude is a start. But what else can we as a church do to overcome how deeply ingrained racism is not just in our society, but in the churches as well?
If we really believe what Paul wrote to the Galatians, that distinctions of ethnicity and distinctions of economic and societal status and even distinctions of gender do not matter, for we are all one in Christ, then we need to do our best to remove racism from our cultural DNA.
The culture that Daniel and his friends were forced into wanted them to violate their consciences. The Babylonians wanted them to do things that went against their values, but they held fast and made a way of conscience when one might of thought there could be no way. My hope is that we can do the same – that we will hold fast to our values of equality and community even when the culture around us continues to allow white supremacy to function.
Last year, the General Board of the Disciples of Christ received a report from the “Racist Language Audit Task Force.” The report goes through the official documents of the denomination – the bylaws (called the “Design”), the standing rules for meetings, denominational policies, and other such documents – and makes specific recommendations of how these documents can be changed to be less racist. In essence, they made recommendations for how the General Ministries of the DOC can work to remove some of the racism from the denomination’s DNA.
As you know, during this sermon series, I am making a suggestion of a possible action we as a congregation or we as individuals can take to respond to some aspect of racism. My suggestion for this week is that we create our own Racist Language Audit Task Force to recommend how our bylaws, policies, and meeting rules (and even our Strategic Plan, if it’s needed) could be less racist.
That’s one concrete example of something we can do to be less racist. I want to offer one more concrete example of something some other people did. I’m not sure how we can apply it to our congregation, but it is a story that gives me hope.
About five weeks ago, a Native American man told Diana Butler Bass a story about something that had happened at the Standing Rock protests in the preceding months. She wrote about this story: “At the height of the prayer protest, there was also great violence. At one point, a white man stood up and called out, ‘Everyone here who is white, come to the front! We will form a shield that the security forces must shoot us first!’ And they did so. All the white folks who had gathered at Standing Rock surrounded all the native people, all holding hands, and stood between the water protectors and the guns.
“The native man told me this story with tears in his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘terrible things are happening. But never in my life – never in the history of my tribe – did white people stand between us and the bullets. Terrible things are happening. And beautiful, brave things as well.’”
May we all find beautiful, brave things to do. Amen.
 Elizabeth Flock and Iman Smith, “Strengthened by Standing Rock, Native Americans march on D.C. What’s next for the movement?” PBS Newshour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/strengthened-standing-rock-native-americans-march-d-c-whats-next-movement/ (posted and accessed 10 March 2017).
 Howard Zinn, “Drawing the Color Line,” History Is a Weapon, http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinncolorline.html (accessed 10 March 2017).
 The Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 2.
 Alexander Campbell, quoted by David B. Bell, “Disciples Unified Destiny,” Landscape Mending, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 20 July 2011; accessed 10 March 2017).
 David B. Bell, “An 1870 Faith Based Initiative,” Landscape Mending, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 20 July 2011; accessed 10 March 2017). Verb tenses changed to fit the past tense voice of the sermon.
 Diana Butler Bass, in a Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154589452273500 on 11 February 2017 (accessed most recently on 10 March 2017).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 5, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
My mother, it turns out, was right. I was in ninth grade when I announced that I wanted to become a minister when I grew up. While my parents thought this was just the latest in a string of professions I wanted to pursue (in third grade, I wanted to be a forest ranger), my mother took full advantage of the announcement.
The public high school I went to was large enough and well funded enough that it offered several options and several levels for classes in many subjects. Several languages were taught at various levels. Everything from math basics to second year calculus were taught by the math department. The social studies department offered several choices of subjects.
I was taking World Civilizations I in ninth grade and had no desire to take World Civilizations II in tenth grade – too much reading and writing. But my mother said that if I wanted to be a minister, I needed to know my history so I needed to take World Civ II in tenth grade.
That’s right: my mom knew how to take advantage of whatever resources were at hand to get her kids to do what she wanted. And, yes, she was right: Understanding history is important for doing theology.
Today, we’re going to do a little history because it’s a necessary part of understanding the church’s role in normalizing racism in the United States. Oh, but the history we learn versus the history that actually happened …
For instance, in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And what is Columbus famous for? Well, I was taught that Columbus discovered America. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We actually need to start before Jesus. We need to start back with Aristotle. Aristotle thought that all living things (plants, animals, humans) have a structure. Plants have a vegetative structure that is primarily about taking in nutrients, reproducing, and such. Animals have this structure plus a sensitive structure that interacts via the sense with the environment and that creates desire. Humans add to this a rational structure – which, according to Aristotle, makes us unique. Thus, Aristotle thought there was a hierarchy of living things, with humans at the pinnacle.
Saint Augustine of Hippo took Aristotle’s argument and restructured it into a theological construct. In his famous Confessions, Augustine held “… a perfect man to be in Christ – not the body of a man only, nor, in the body, an animal soul without a rational one as well, but a true man. And this man I held to be superior to all others, not only because he was a form of the Truth, but also because of the great excellence and perfection of his human nature, due to his participation in wisdom.”
If I’m reading this correctly, Augustine held that humans were superior to other creatures because of our connection to and our participation in wisdom. That is, humans are special because of our rationality. And I think he may also be suggesting (or at least he could be interpreted to be suggesting) that Christians (that is, those who are in Christ) are more connected to rationality than other humans.
“Thomas Aquinas furthers Augustine’s work of setting the ‘rational soul’ of humans against that of the ‘animal soul.’ Aquinas holds much of creation has a soul, yet there is clearly a difference between the rational soul of humans and [the soul] of, say, a dog. This standpoint places the rational human soul as better than and therefore above all other created souls. Thus, Aquinas argues for soul layering where the human rational soul is above all other created souls. This soul layering argument allowed Christianity to create a structure of belief where not only does the animal soul reside at a level lower than that of the rational human soul, but also, those humans who are not rational have a soul that resides somewhere between that of the rational person and that of a dog.”
A couple hundred years before Aquinas, “in 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict – the Papal Bull Terra Nullius (meaning empty land). It gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to ‘discover’ or claim land in non-Christian areas. This policy was extended in 1452 [a couple hundred years after Aquinas] when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and used this idea to justify war, colonization, and even slavery.
“By the time Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. When he reached the Americas, Columbus performed a ceremony to ‘take possession’ of all lands ‘discovered,’ meaning all territory not occupied by Christians. Upon his return to Europe in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Cetera, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had already ‘discovered’ and all lands that it might come upon in the future. This decree also expressed the Pope’s wish to convert the natives of these lands to Catholicism in order to strengthen the ‘Christian Empire.’”
Keep in mind that all of this is happening before the Reformation. So this is action by our direct spiritual ancestors. And I can’t escape a connection to this Doctrine by saying that I’m a Mayflower descendant, not a descendant of the Spanish. You see, the Doctrine of Discovery is baked into our United States culture (and I’ll get into that next week).
No, this Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed European kings and princes to send armies into non-Christian lands (that is non-European lands), allowed Europeans to come to the Americas and subjugate the peoples already living here, for they were judged to be insufficiently rational to be equal to the European conquerors.
I find this philosophy that allowed Christians to come and kill people just because they were not Christian to be directly contradicted by the brief section of the Sermon on the Mount we heard today. When Jesus said, “Love you enemies,” I don’t think he meant we should kill them, or enslave them, or commit genocide against them. Yet that is what Christians did when they “discovered” the Americas.
But maybe that’s too easy, too glib a biblical response to this history of ours. The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman invites us to a little more nuance, in part because the story is troubling. The story is troubling because Jesus comes across as a bit of a jerk. A desperate woman with a seriously sick child comes to Jesus seeking help, and Jesus response is an ethnic slur. No theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls this unnamed woman a dog, and that’s an ethnic slur. And though the modern concept of “race” had not yet been developed, this ethnic slur is pretty close to being a racial slur.
“To be clear,” writes David Henson, “while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus [racial] prejudice equals racism.”
When faced with the complexities of the sin of personal and systemic racism, it is much easier to think of Jesus as transcending them all and loving all peoples regardless of skin color or culture of origin. We want Jesus to be the simple, easy answer to all our problems and to all of society’s problems. Jesus loves the little children of the world, and their little dogs, too.
In truth, at least in Mark’s gospel, rather than being part of the solution to ethnic prejudice, Jesus seems to be very much part of the problem, according to this story. When confronted with the gentile pagan in this story, he explains that his message and ministry are for Israelites only, a comment of ethnic exclusion and prejudice that calls to mind a similar refrain from a more modern time – whites only – that reverberated throughout our country not too long ago, and seems to be echoing still. It wouldn’t be fair, Jesus explains, to take the banquet prepared for his people – the children, the humans – and give it to gentiles – the dogs, the less than human.
If it does nothing else, the story of the Syrophoenician woman teaches us the dynamics of power and prejudice, of how even the best of humanity (I’m talking Jesus here) can get caught up in systems of oppression, in a culture of supremacy. Just as we are today in our culture, Jesus was reared into the prejudiced worldview of his culture. He could not easily escape it. And neither can we.
“But being caught in such evil, however, does not make one an overt racist. It is what happens in the moments afterwards that makes that determination. How we respond, when confronted with the narratives of the oppressed or the Other, reveals who we truly are. Do we continue to ignore or deny these realities of oppression? Mock them? Continue to brush them aside with dismissive prejudice as dogs?
“Or do we, like Jesus, do the miraculous and listen to them, be changed by the power of the truth they are speaking?
“When this woman, in boldness, confronts Jesus and his ethnic slur, Jesus listens. And he hears.
“[I think] it is the only time recorded in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind.
“‘But even the dogs get table scraps,’ she replies, a subtle calling out of his dehumanizing language.
“Jesus is astounded, the holy wind knocked out of him. A moment before, she was but a dog to him. In the next, the scales fall from his eyes as he listens to her and sees her for what she truly is, a woman of great faith.
“Jesus does the most difficult thing for those of us born into prejudice and power.
“He listens. And allows himself to be fundamentally changed.
“When it happens, when we finally have ears to hear, we will never be the same, will never be able to listen to the lies of the dominant oppressors the same way again.”
The movie The Mission (a movie that connects to the sin of the Doctrine of Discovery deeply) ends with the slaughter of a group of native peoples in South America by European “discoverers.” Then, in the penultimate scene, Señor Hontar, the governor of the Portuguese-claimed territories and the Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano are together in a room when they get news of the slaughter.
The Cardinal corrects him: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world.
The Christian church, through the Doctrine of Discovery, has made this corner of the world racist. So what do we do about it?
My goal in this sermon series is to give you something concrete you can do individually or we can do as a congregation to address some aspect of racism. Here’s what I have in mind this week. Because the church has normalized the sin of racism by espousing the Doctrine of Discovery, it seems to me that the first thing we can do it to repudiate the Doctrine.
And we actually have an opportunity to do this as a congregation. The Disciples of Christ will hold their General Assembly this summer and one of the resolutions that will be voted on will be a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. We can, as a congregation, endorse this resolution formally and send word to the General Assembly of our action. Copies of the resolution are in the fellowship hall, I believe on the snack table.
I think that, if we are to endorse the resolution, endorsement should be done by a formal vote of the congregation, and there are three ways we can do that:
- One or more of you can request that the Cabinet call a Special Congregational Meeting, which could be held in April, for the purpose of voting on endorsement.
- One or more of you can ask the Cabinet to put endorsement of the resolution on the Annual Meeting agenda (which will be held on May 7).
- Or, if it’s not on the Annual Meeting agenda, one of you can make a motion at the Annual Meeting that we endorse the resolution.
How we proceed – if we proceed – is really up to you.
 John G. Messerly, “Summary of Aristotle’s Theory of Human Nature,” Reason and Meaning, http://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/10/17/theories-of-human-nature-chapter-9-aristotle-part-1/ (posted 17 October 2014; accessed 4 March 2017).
 Quoted by David B. Bell, “When Reason Becomes Faith,” Bent Grass: DoD and DOC History, https://landscapemending.wordpress.com/bent-grass-a-breif-history-of-cdod-and-doc/ (posted 2 July 2011; accessed 4 March 2017).
 Bell, “When Reason Becomes Faith,” op. cit.
 “Lewis and Clark: The Unheard Voices,” Anti-Defamation League, http://archive.adl.org/education/curriculum_connections/doctrine_of_discovery.html (posted 2005; accessed 4 March 2017).
 David R. Henson, “Crumbs: Jesus and the Ethnic Slur,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2015/09/crumbs-jesus-and-the-ethnic-slur-lectionary-reflection-mark-724-37/ (posted 2 September 2015; accessed 4 March 2017).
A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.
I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?
I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author includes this advice:
- Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.
This author also suggests:
- Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
- Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
- Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
- Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
- Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
- Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”
It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.
Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”
As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.
While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year, that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.
The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking. It will take action.
And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.
So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”
Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”
I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently. This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.
And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.
Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year, but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.
If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,” it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.
Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.
Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.
I did not do so well with these three resolutions.
But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.
And here he is in context.
Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.
He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.
I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.
I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.
 Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.
 Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).
 Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).
 Camacho, op. cit.
 “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).
 Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).
By now, you’ve probably heard about a simple act that many are taking to show others that they are safe: wearing a safety pin. I’m not sure if it started in Australia or was inspired by the #illridewithyou movement in Australia. In any event, it took root in Great Britain after the Brexit vote. People wore empty safety pins after the vote by the UK to leave the European Union to let people who might be targeted with harassment after the vote (especially immigrants) know that the person wearing the pin was safe, was an ally, would stand with the vulnerable person to support them.
After the election of Donald Trump (I’m assuming the Electoral College will actually elect him on December 19), many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. People who walk through life with privilege (men, whites, etc.) are recognizing that they can leverage this privilege to help create safe space for vulnerable people. The safety pin is a sign of this. I should quickly add that people with less privilege than me are also wearing safety pins.
I was initially jazzed by the idea of wearing the pin. And then I started to read articles and blogs offering some push-back (for instance, this piece written by a white male). As my friend and colleague Sandhya Jha said in a Facebook post, “I have a mild concern that people are drawn to these safety pins as a form of absolution: ‘I’m ok. I’m not THAT kind of white person. I am not to blame.’ I also have a mild concern that it is less about learning the skills to put one’s body on the line for another (and there are skills to practice) than about getting credit for being a good white person for publicly announcing one’s ally status. As my LGBTQ+ activist friends helpfully remind me, I don’t get a cookie for being an ally. That’s just being a decent human being, and that doesn’t warrant brownie points.”
And Sandhya is absolutely right about there being skills to practice. As another blog post point out, those of us who wear the pin need to know what the pin means, know how much risk we’re willing to take, learn how to de-escalate volatile situations, know what you’ll do if de-escalation doesn’t work or if the situation gets violent, and practice. I recommend you read this blog post if, like me, you’re plan to wear a safety pin.
I’ll wear my pin for me as well as for people who I might meet along the way. I’ll wear my pin to remind me of the commitment I make to be a person who will help if needed (and wanted). And, as Sandhya concluded in her post: “[The safety pin] can become a symbol of accountability, that white people see it and acknowledge to each other, ‘we have a lot of work to do to unify our people around a different vision. We have a lot of work to do to protect other people from our people. We have a lot of work to do to create a different way of being white. Let’s make sure to hold each other to that.'”
We lived in the same town, but we lived in two worlds.
A high school classmate* recently posted on his Facebook page an experience he had as a young teen in our home town. A Lexington police officer cornered my friend with his (the cop’s) cruiser in the high school parking lot and told my friend, “Nigger boys like you go missing all the time. You should never go near my daughter.”
I had no idea that a police officer in my town would ever use that kind of language. I had not idea that a police officer would be so contemptuous toward one of my classmates. When I reacted to my friend’s post with horror and surprise, my friend shook it off—of course cops in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the 1970s would say something like this.
Let’s be clear: This cop threaten the life of the kid, a 14-year-old, and my friend is practically casual about it.
We lived in the same town, but we lived in two worlds. I think we still do.
*Just in case it’s not clear to you, my classmate is African-American.
My friend Lewis Day posted the following on his Facebook page on 26 May 2016. I think it is worthy of reposting. (I have corrected a few typos.)
Someone in a conversation I was following [on Facebook] posited that whites in the US are subject to “reversed racism.” It caused me to think about how to address the claimant.
There is no such thing as revers(ed) racism; there is only racism. Anyone can be racist, certainly, but the effects differ depending on the social and political structures in play.
In America and the west, the dominant cultures in part define the Other via observable racial (for want of a better term) characteristics. It’s true across the West, white racism is a social phenomenon, with the state colluding to greater and lesser degrees. Americans do it, Britons do it, Scandinavians do it, the Swiss, Australians, and Spanish do it. Governments enforce a racist hegemony in alliance with other social institutions, often at the same time as they push measures which combat overt racist acts. The cognitive dissonance is staggering, nowhere more so than in the US.
Racism in America flourishes even as we become a more diverse (in all ways) population, and even as many segments of the population combat it. The struggle is a long one, and chirrupy statements such as #alllivesmatter foster continued division by attempting to deny the particularity of American institutionalized racism. The election of Barack Obama did not signal the dawn of a post-racial America, and the reaction of congressional Republicans and their voters provide exquisite proof of this.
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.
We’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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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?