For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28
“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.” Those words all come 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.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?
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 is still alive and well. In 2016 the venomous monster of racism still writhes and strikes pain. How many times over the past two years have we watched yet another racially-profiled, unarmed Black youth shot dead?
Or heard astonishing words of forgiveness from grief-stricken relatives of murdered African Americans?
Or witnessed egomaniacal politicians branding undocumented immigrants as would-be rapists and desperate war refugees as likely terrorists?
Or watched hate-blinded souls attack mosques, synagogues and fellow Americans of a different faith?
Racism is alive and well, and it’s the job of the spiritual activist to confront it, condemn it, and dismantle it. 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.
Black and white is taught to us from an early age. In his book, Uprooting Racism, Paul Kivel says whiteness has defined our culture for hundreds of years -- so much so that it has even 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. Consider this list of words: 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, white as pure snow. Our words put a derogatory racial meaning on darkness while conveying a positive spin on whiteness When we become 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 healing, where the suffering of the past can be salved and the future can be built on new trust. But it takes a lot of hard work, doesn’t it? Dismantling racism 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. As pastor of an inclusive church, I’d like to be able to affirm that we welcome all people just like God welcomes all people without having to single out a particular group for special attention. But racism troubles me – it troubles us all whether we sense its venom or not. Its fangs are embedded deeply in our society. And talking about it is difficult.
My question is not whether racism exists. My question is, how are we going to dismantle 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 historic 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 and shaping each other. As people grow to understand & appreciate their own culture and cultures around them, they will be better able to cooperate and overcome mutual problems.” The hoped-for outcome is tolerance and awareness of cultural differences.
We could also talk about a healing and reconciliation worldview, which 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 and 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 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.
Last year at this time, we raised our first Black Lives Matter banner outside and saw it defaced with spray paint. We had a conversation in this sanctuary about why Black Lives Matter, with our banner hanging over the chancel. We put lawn signs on Colesville Road and invited one another to take them home and put them in our yards as a continuing testament to our pursuit of justice. Last Summer, many of us gathered on the church lawn to hold a public prayer vigil in honor of Black lives slain in a Charleston South Carolina church, and we rededicated ourselves to our own anti-racism commitments. CCC’s Racial Justice Circle, in the meantime, has been meeting to talk about issues from prison reform and the New Jim Crowe to racism against youth. Some of our members lead discussion groups. Some of our members offer tutoring to women coming out of prison. We will have a presentation in church soon from a county prosecutor who will tell us firsthand about issues of racism in the justice system. We have met with other local churches to talk about our anti-racism approaches. I don’t want you to think we are doing nothing. It’s just that many of these efforts are led by individuals with a vision. They are not necessarily plans embraced by the entire congregation. So, our efforts tend to be smaller.
We hung another Black Lives Matter banner last Summer, which was not only cut up and left damaged, but came with a threatening picture of a white reporter being shot by an armed Black Man, taped to the doors of our church. I think that’s when a lot of us started to feel some fear. Some people weren’t sure if it was safe to come to worship that Sunday. Some worried that our message was offensive or overly provocative. Since then, when it comes to Black Lives Matter, we’ve been stalled. Lots of ideas swirling around, but not much action.
“We’re just really busy people,” I hear you. I know. I get it. I’m a busy person myself.
“We are not united on this as a congregation,” I hear others say. I want us to have a united front, too. I want us to have time to talk and understand the issues.
But let me be clear. When we, as White Christians, claim busyness or fear as reasons for inaction, we are invoking our privilege. When we take time to talk about how we are going to talk about racism, but never get to the wider discussions, we are invoking privilege.
Here’s what I mean by that. When it comes to racism, privilege means Whites get a choice. We get to choose to avoid provoking anger from our neighbors by not talking about how Black Live Matter. We get to choose when we are finally not too busy to talk about our anti-racism commitments. We get to choose whether fear will keep us from worship. We get to choose whether we want to see the monster of racism for what it is, or turn the other way.
I had two more Black Lives Matter lawn signs left in my office. I put them on Colesville Road this morning. I didn’t even ask anyone. I’m not claiming any extraordinary braveness here. It’s my special way of proclaiming that now time to pick up these conversations and pair them with action.
For Dr. King, the only way to destroy the beast was through non-violent love. He knew if enough people ... lived in nonviolent protest against systemic evil, against the normalcies of this world's discrimination, exploitation and oppression - the result would be a new world we could hardly imagine. The idea that we can actually create such a just, peaceful world by fastening ourselves to non-violent love is almost unbelievable. When we try, we can’t seem to sustain it.
I believe change is in the air. When we turn to God’s non-violent will, God’s non-violent will circle back to us. Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s promise of redemption and release.
What did we do when our souls were opened to the cruelty around us? I’d like to say we ran. We ran away from our fears of inadequacy and ran to compassionate justice. We ran to non-violent love that confronts violence and inequality wherever we find it. We ran to the kind of love that challenges prejudicial jokes or remarks. We ran to the kind of love that challenges the purveyors and sponsors of hatred. We ran to the kind of love that that steps up against gun violence. We ran to the kind of love that explores new frontiers of equality, whether it be transgender rights, food security for those who are hungry, or immigration reform on our borders, or Black Lives Matter in our own backyards. We ran to the kind of love that puts into practices the words and example of Dr. King:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late...Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late.’... Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful —struggle for a new world.”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. 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, http://danielharper.org/archive/?cat=28
• 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