Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sermon for January 22, 2012

Principles of Spiritual Activism: Condemning Racism
Galatians 3:26-28

I want to pick up where I left off last week, and read some excerpts from a famous sermon by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Dr. King delivered this sermon at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968.

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle--the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly--to get rid of the disease of racism . . . I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion . . . We're going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent [the] explosions are, I can still sing "We Shall Overcome." We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

So, how do you think we’re doing? Is Dr. King’s dream realized? Yes, we as a society have made gains. Yes, our awareness has grown and there’s no turning back. Yes, people of goodwill HAVE put their bodies and souls in motion. But, have we overcome? Is the will of Almighty God still heard in our demands for equality? Consider this news story about a nine-year-old girl, nine years old, who has been the target of racist acts at Roosevelt Elementary School in Taft, California. The African American girl complained of white students laughing at her, pulling her hair and pushing her into walls. Then they started calling names. “I hate you, black girl; ain’t nobody going to play with you because you are black.” This happened in October, 2011, not 1950. 2011!

I’m not going to spend time arguing about whether racism still exists in America today. Here’s the assumption behind today’s sermon: Racism still exists, and it’s the job of the spiritual activist to confront it, condemn it, and close it down. For African Americans, for Latinos, for Native Americans, for other non-white ethnicities, the dream of true equality has taken too long to come true. We have been dreaming about a world of true peace and equality for a long, long time. We’ve been dreaming it since the Apostle Paul first taught about God’s realm where there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, but all are united and all are one in the love of God. We seem to make some progress towards it, but that dream is not yet fulfilled.

We are creatures of duality. Black and white is taught to us from an early age. We are creatures of duality who speak a language color-coded values. In his book, Uprooting Racism, Paul Kivel says that whiteness has defined our culture for hundreds of years -- so much so that it has made its way into our language and our values. Embedded in our language is the idea that the color white and the people associated it are good. Dark colors, and those connected with them are dangerous, threatening or manipulative. I’m going to read a list of words and phrases. Each one of these words has a derogatory racial meaning and each of them puts a positive spin on whiteness: black deed, black list, black market, black-hearted, blackmail, black sheep, black magic, black death, black mark, black mood, black with rage, dark ages, the dark side, to be in the dark, yellow bellied, yellow peril, red menace, redskin, great white hope, white knight, whitewash, white wedding, pure/white as snow.

I’m not trying to enforce political correctness. I do want us to notice how dualism between white and dark, good and bad, is embedded in white culture. When we are aware, then we can continue to look for ways to talk that are not only respectful, but run counter to centuries of exploitation and domination.

I want to believe that each one of us longs to live up to our own best hopes. We all desire a world of equality and even of healing, where the suffering of the past can be salved and the future can be built on new trust. But it take a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? It means we need to take a hard look at everything -- even our words! Like many progressives, I’d like to skip this work. I’d like my actions and good intentions to speak for themselves. I’d like to think that I’m beyond the need for examining racism in society. But racism troubles me – it troubles us all whether we sense its shadow or not. It is deep in our society. And talking about it is difficult.

Condemning racism is a work of spiritual activism. When we address injustice in the world, we heal the world. This is a significant point for religious liberals, because we tend to dismiss healing as a central part of religion. We’ve seen Christians obsessed with faith healing and miraculous cures where some god-in-the-clouds makes life better without much effort on our part. We are right to dismiss this kind of religious healing. Yet, part of the purpose of religion is to heal the world; part of the function of religion is to heal our souls when we are damaged by the injustice of the world.

My question is not whether racism exists. My question is, how are we going to change it? We at CCC call ourselves an Anti-Racist congregation. But what does that mean to us today? Are we confronting systems of domination? Are we hoping to be multi-cultural? Both of these hopes are expressed in our Anti-racism covenant, printed in the front of your bulletin. Each hope has a different worldview and a different hoped-for outcome.

An Anti-racism worldview says, “The world is controlled by powerful systems with historically traceable roots. Once people are shown how they benefit from or are battered by those systems, they can work together to change the systems.” The hoped-for outcome is to bring about social change.

A Diversity and Multiculturalism worldview is a little different. It says, “The world is filled with a multitude of complex cultures, constantly intersecting & shaping each other. As people grow to understand & appreciate their own culture & cultures around them, they will be better able to cooperate and overcome mutual problems.” The hoped-for outcome is tolerance, awareness of cultural differences

I just talked about the role of healing. A healing and reconciliation worldview says, “The world is filled with groups that have been traumatized & victimized by historic events. When the oppressing group acknowledges & apologizes for these injustices, individual & social healing, reconciliation & transformation can occur.” The hoped-for outcome is individual transformation.

None one of these is better than the other. They have some overlapping concepts and goals. When it’s all said and processed, the task of the spiritual activist is to invest in relationships, to listen to each other with reverence, to speak from the heart, to deal with conflict, and to honor all people.

As a congregation, we need to keep talking about racism because it touches us all and because we are far from a solution. If we want to be spiritual activists who address society’s problems with prayerful action, we need to confront racism on systemic, institutional, and individual levels. Because, for all the work we’ve done, racism lurks everywhere. I cannot think of one area of American life that is not touched by this ongoing evil.

According to the latest census, 26.6% of all Hispanic persons (of any race) and 27.4% of all black persons are living in poverty. If we want to be spiritual activists who begin to end poverty, then we begin with ending the poverty of racism.

Statistics from the Department of Justice indicate that black males are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than white males. There are over 2.5 times as many Hispanics in jail as whites. Many African Americans and Hispanics are less able to afford high quality legal services; and they may be subject to discrimination in prosecution and sentencing. Some prosecutors have made a practice of eliminating blacks from their prospective juries, increasing the likelihood of a race-based decision. If we want to be spiritual activists who address the injustice of the penal system, we also need to address the injustices racism.

I just learned that African American women who have college degrees, who have insurance, who have good jobs actually have higher rates of infant mortality than white women who dropped out of school after eight grade, who don’t have high occupational status and who don’t have very good health care. Why is this? Some research says racism has a physiological affect that overloads the body. These affluent or middle class African American women experience so much daily stress from racism, their bodies can’t rest. Their blood pressure stays elevated at night. Their immune systems become compromised. Racism and discrimination are a public health matter. African Americans routinely get less access to health care and less quality care. If we want to be spiritual activists who heal our nation’s public health crisis, we also need to heal the disease of racism.

If we are going to talk about poverty and housing, then we need to talk about the environment to which they are linked. In the United States, lead poisoning continues to be the number one environmental health threat to children living in inner cities. Nationally, three out of five African Americans and Latino Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. Some predict global warming will negatively affect poor American families who will have to spend even more on food and electricity, which already represent a large proportion of their budgets. If we want to be spiritual activists who care for the earth and her people, then we must eradicate toxic racism that poisons our home.

Speaking of homes, a recent study, using data from the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, found that living in a predominantly African-American area, and to a lesser extent Hispanic area, is a powerful predictor of foreclosures across the nation. Predatory lending aimed at racially segregated minority neighborhoods led to mass foreclosures that fueled the U.S. housing crisis. If we want to be spiritual activists who help construct housing markets where all people in this land have a roof over their heads, then we also need to deconstruct racism.

What about our schools? Institutional racism is subtle, and often unintentional, but always potent. Many students of color do not have access to fully credentialed teachers or high-quality curriculum materials and advanced courses. Listen to this news item: The Southern Poverty Law Center reviews civil rights history curricula in standards across the country. Most states, unfortunately, get a failing grade. Sixteen states do not require any instruction about the civil rights movement. In another 19, coverage is minimal. If we, as spiritual activists, want to solve our education crisis, then we also need to dissolve racism.

Dr. King knew that it was not up to God to deliver anyone from racism. God is not that kind of deity. Dr. King might say that you cannot wait for miracles. You have to march forward and seize them. He might say that the Reign of God will come it its fullness as soon as we open our eyes and truly see the many hues around us and the real challenges that come with awareness. We refuse to gloss over history but see the pain and hear the suffering of others. We seek to live not in a melting pot where all is formless and void, but in a place where our stories and languages and cultures are valued, where our wounds are healed by deliberate listening. We strive to know and respect our differences and make possible the highest expectations for humanity. We do the work of liberating ourselves from hatred – beginning in the modest places of our longing souls and always reaching out – with our words, our actions, our prayers, our love and our hands – to all souls – to all souls. This is how we can be made whole again. This is how the world can be made whole again and all her people one.

• Dan Harper, The Weary Blues,
• Avraham Weiss, The Spiritual Activist: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World.
• Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People can Work for Racial Justice

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