Addressing Racism – Part 1

Nehemiah 1
August 9, 2020
Matt Goodale

Today we begin a four week series on racism in the church and in America. This is a tough topic, so I invite us all to take a deep breath in and out. Before we begin, I want to give a few introductory comments.

Thirteen months ago you called me to be your pastor. As your pastor you called me to not only encourage and to comfort, but to challenge and to help bring us into greener pastures where justice rolls down like waterfalls and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. So as we engage in a topic that has proved to be polarizing and emotionally-charged for centuries, I ask for your trust. I ask for that same trust you placed in me when you called me to be your pastor thirteen months ago. And I ask for your openness. I pray that as a community and as individuals we would be open to learning something new, to having our heart transformed in ways we maybe didn’t know it needed transforming, and that we would be open to hearing a fresh word from the God-Of-Justice who cares deeply for the widow, the orphan, the downtrodden, the wrongly accused and the oppressed.

I also want to open by addressing the political nature of the topic of racism. A common refrain I often hear from Christians and pastors who don’t want to address racism is that they don’t want to get too political; they don’t want to introduce the elephant into the room that has proven to be one of the most divisive issues since our country’s inception. Some of us here might even be uncomfortable with this topic coming up in church because of its political overtones, especially recently. And what I often say to that refrain is “Yes, it is a political issue, but it does not need to be a partisan issue.” Jesus doesn’t care about your political affiliation; Jesus cares that you seek justice, compassion and love in all your political opinions, conversations and voting choices. You don’t have to be a Democrat to combat racism. You don’t have to be a Republican to combat racism. But to say, “Oh, I think I’ll stay out of this; I won’t take a stance” is to take a stance. The stand idly by and do nothing is a political statement in itself; it is to support the status quo.

But dealing with our country’s deep-rooted history of racism is so much more than just a political issue: it’s a Christian issue – an issue that we as Christians should fiercely care about, because the God we worship cares as much about justice as God does about love; and it’s a deeply human issue – these are our black and brown brothers and sisters, our fellow humans who are being shot in the street, taken advantage of in our country’s economic practices, denied fair housing rights and who will not receive the same access to education that most of us do.

And yes, the topic of racism is and will always be an incredibly divisive issue. But that is no reason to ignore it, as if inequalities will magically disappear on their own; and it is no reason to seek a false sense of peace where there is clearly conflict, pain and brokenness. And we might remember that Jesus himself was incredibly divisive; his teachings of love, grace and justice were too radical for most of his listeners. By the end of his life most of his followers had left him, and even he couldn’t keep all twelve of his closest friends from leaving him or betraying him. What God calls us to is rarely easy. So as we engage together in this tough and divisive topic, I pray that we will approach it with humility, grace and compassion for each other and for ourselves.

Finally, learning about how deep racism is imbedded in our country, in our institutions and even in our own thinking and unconscious biases is a lifelong journey. One never reaches a point where they can say, “I made it! I fully understand racism and have done all I can to combat it.” There is always more to learn, there is always more work to do. So even as I stand before you preaching on racism, I don’t claim to be an expert; I just claim to be a companion on the journey, and I invite you join me in what is a lifelong undertaking.

Today will be more of an introduction to the issue of racism and how we can begin to address it. Next week we’ll dive into the history of racism, particularly in the American church, and the following week we’ll look at how racism is imbedding in our nation’s foundational institutions such as our criminal justice system, healthcare systems, education systems, and housing and economic systems. In our fourth week we’ll take a look at how we can use our privilege to be an ally and help affect change.

Without further ado, let’s jump into our scripture for the day, which comes from Nehemiah 1. To give a little context: Nehemiah is an Israelite who is living in exile in Persia. He is the cupbearer to the king of Persia, the king who conquered and now controls Israel. The Israelites have been defeated and are scattered, but a remnant remain in Jerusalem.

“These are the memoirs of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.

It was the month of Kislev in the twentieth year. At the time I was in the palace complex at Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, had just arrived from Judah with some fellow Jews. I asked them about the conditions among the Jews there who had survived the exile, and about Jerusalem.

They told me, “The exile survivors who are left there in the province are in bad shape. Conditions are appalling. The wall of Jerusalem is still rubble; the city gates are still cinders.”

When I heard this, I sat down and wept. I mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God-of-Heaven.

5-6 I said, “God, God-of-Heaven, the great and awesome God, loyal to his covenant and faithful to those who love him and obey his commands: Look at me, listen to me. Pay attention to this prayer of your servant that I’m praying day and night in intercession for your servants, the People of Israel, confessing the sins of the People of Israel. And I’m including myself, I and my ancestors, among those who have sinned against you.

7-8 “We’ve treated you like dirt: We haven’t done what you told us, haven’t followed your commands, and haven’t respected the decisions you gave to Moses your servant.

10-11 “Well, there they are—your servants, your people whom you so powerfully and impressively redeemed. O Master, listen to me, listen to your servant’s prayer—and yes, to all your servants who delight in honoring you—and make me successful today so that I get what I want from the king.”

I was cupbearer to the king.

Racism comes up a lot these days. It seems like it comes up—in conversation, on the news—much more than it did fifteen or twenty years ago. People who don’t want to talk about racism find themselves frequently having to make a conscious choice to avoid the topic. This was me, just a few years ago, and here’s my story of growing up and grappling with the topic of racism.

I grew up in Colorado Springs at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and from a young age my world was very white. The schools I went to had a fair bit more diversity than most other schools in the city, but I never ended up interacting much with people who didn’t look like me. This may not have been a conscious choice, but it was probably an unconscious one. The black and Hispanic kids in my schools seemed to always be the ones getting in fight and getting suspended. Most of them dressed different from and spoke differently.

So in hindsight, it probably wasn’t an accident that all of my closest friends were white. But I never thought anything of this reality, because my world and everyone in it was white; that my friend group was all white didn’t seem strange to me in the slightest. All of my teachers but one, were white. In the church I grew up in that had around 3,000 members, I can now recall only two people who were not white. My doctors, dentists and anyone I had to see or trust for anything was white. But like I said, I never thought much about this at the time.

Fast forward a few years to college. I went to college up at Whitworth University, which boasts of its diversity, but is still probably at least 90% white. However, there was a small, but loud, contingent of black, Asian and Latin American students who kept bringing up these annoying conversations about race. Between these students and the cultural diversity training I was forced to take as a Resident Assistant, I could not escape these conversations about race that revealed just how white my world was and how little I understood about what it is like to grow up and live as a person of color in our nation.

All four years at Whitworth I listened to these conversations politely, I went to the cultural diversity trainings with as good an attitude as I could conjure, but I still couldn’t help but disbelieve what I was hearing. I kept hearing that racism is well and alive in our nation and that it infects almost every facet of our society. I couldn’t reconcile this with my history lessons that had essentially taught me that racism ended with the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Yeah, I knew there were still some extremist groups who were racist, but that was such a small group of people, and I had never personally witnessed someone being racist, so what were they talking about?

It was all too uncomfortable for me to deal with, so I did what we all do when we’re uncomfortable with conversations about race. I retreated back into my white world, with my white friend group where race didn’t matter, and I concocted all sorts of reasons to be skeptical about what my black and Latin American classmates were trying to tell me. I left Whitworth with this skepticism and even some bitterness at the fact that I had to be subjected to such uncomfortable conversations.

Fast forward a few more years to my time in seminary. And of course, again, conversations about race and racism were happening all around me. But it was inescapable this time, because even my white classmates cared deeply about these issues and wanted to talk about them; I seemed to be one of the only ones who didn’t want to talk about it. It was one of those funny moments that we all have when you think you’re the normal one and suddenly you realize, “Oh, wait a minute, maybe I’m the weird one.” This realization and these conversations were very uncomfortable, but thank goodness Jesus does his best work when we’re uncomfortable. And God was certainly trying to do something new in me.

I don’t know if I could tell you the exact moment my mind changed. It was a slow process I think, to get to the point when I could no longer deny how pervasive racism is in our nation. Because almost every one of my black or brown classmates had too many stories to tell about how their life had been affected by racism. I heard about how black parents have “the talk” with their kids, which is when they make sure their kids know that if they find themselves alone at night and see a police officer, they should run the other way. Some kids are no older than first grade when they are given this word of caution. I heard my black classmates talk about how they learned from a young age never to reach into their purse or bag while in a store for fear of being thought a thief. I heard my classmates share about how some of their scariest experiences in life were being pulled over by a police officer for no other reason than what has been termed “DWB”, Driving While Black. There was a married couple I knew who, if one of them had to drive somewhere more than 15 minutes away would call their spouse to let them know they had made it safely.

But it wasn’t just the heart-rending stories of my classmates that changed my mind, it was the undeniable evidence I was presented with in many of my classes and experienced on the east coast. Seeing firsthand how infected our nation’s systems are left me amazed and confused as to how I could’ve remained so naïve to these realities for the first 24 years of my life.

We lived in Princeton, New Jersey, one of the richest cities in the nation. It’s predominantly white. Only ten minutes south is Trenton, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in the nation. It’s predominantly black. Trenton is so poor that the governor of NJ doesn’t even live in Trenton, he chooses to live in Princeton.

In seminary I learned for the first time about how the likelihood of a white man ending up in prison at some point in his life is 1 in 17. The likelihood of a black man ending up in prison is 1 in 3. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of white people. Thirty-eight percent of state prisoners are black, although they make up 13 percent of the general population. No other country imprisons as many of its racial and ethnic minorities as does the United States. But I’m getting ahead of myself now; we’ll get more into all of this in a couple weeks.

But in seminary, for some reason—and I attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit—rather than continuing to listen with a skeptical mind, I began listening with a compassionate heart. And as we engage in topics of racism, whether you’ve been having these conversations for decades or whether you’re brand new to them, we are called to listen and participate with an ear for compassion and to respond not out of skepticism but out of love for our black and brown sisters and brothers.

When Nehemiah (from our scripture reading this morning) hears about the state of things back home in Jerusalem, when he hears from a firsthand account that the exile survivors are in bad shape, that their condition is appalling, he believes them. Nehemiah’s first response after hearing the news that these Jews left in Jerusalem are sorely oppressed and are in bad shape is to fall down and weep. He mourns for days, while fasting and praying. Nehemiah took seriously the report from the people who were in the midst of the suffering, and he didn’t insist on confirmation from outside sources to validate the reality of the misery. Nehemiah did what it took me much longer to do: listen with compassion rather than skepticism. Our black and brown brothers and sisters have been trying to tell us about their plight in America for four hundred years. Things haven’t changed much. Why, as a nation are we still unwilling to listen? Why do a majority of Christian congregations never talk about racism or even acknowledge its pernicious presence in our schools, our court rooms, our banks, our prisons and our neighborhoods?

Friends, as we begin to engage in this conversation about race as a church, let us take a page out of Nehemiah’s book and lean into the discomfort. As pastor John Hambrick writes, “When we make comfort our ultimate value, our comfort zone ceases to be a place where we rest and becomes a prison where we rot, separated from what God wants to do in us and through us.”

We can imagine it was incredibly uncomfortable for Nehemiah to come to the realization that while many of his people are living in misery, he is living in the safety of the king’s court, eating the best food and wine the world had to offer. It certainly would’ve been much easier for Nehemiah to ask for an outside report or wait until he had just the right evidence before dealing with this uncomfortable reality. But instead, he responded with his heart rather than his mind. He opened his heart and allowed it to be marked and scarred by compassion for what he heard.

Friends, I pray that as a community and as individuals we might be able to open our ears and our hearts to hear the cries of our fellow human beings who are burdened by systems that disproportionately harm them because of the color of their skin. I pray that as a community we might learn from black and brown experiences and that their stories would affect the ways we worship, do theology, and engage in our city’s politics. I pray that as an American church we might stand united against the common evil of racism. I pray that we might begin to see how justice is a central focus of the gospel—of our Bibles—and that the God we worship is not just the God-Of-Love, but is also the God-Of-Justice. There can be no love without justice. There can be no justice without love.

We’ll return to Nehemiah’s story again over the next few weeks, but I hope Nehemiah’s story might serve as a path forward, a next step to take. As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, engaging with issues of racism in our churches, our nation and even in our own hearts is a lifelong journey. Whether you’re 25 or 85, you’re never too old to take the first step forward towards justice and the work of healing and restoration. Because it’s not only black and brown people who need healing, but we as white people also need to be healed from this insidious disease called racism that infects our hearts and our minds, often without our recognition. We also need healing as we deal with the terribly racist history of our churches and our nation.

It is a long, arduous journey. But the first step is a simple one: have compassion. Listen to different voices with an open heart. Let your heart be affected by the stories you hear from black, indigenous and peoples of color and let it lead you to lament. Our God weeps with those who suffer oppression and injustice and hears their cries. Will we, as Christians and fellow human beings, also listen and weep? Amen.