Addressing Racism — Part 2
August 16, 2020
Today is our second week in this four part series on racism in America. Last week I shared a bit about my story and invited us to listen with open and compassionate hearts to stories and experiences that might differ from our own.
Today we’ll be talking about America’s original sin, as we remember our nation’s difficult history of racism. Once again, this week I ask for your trust. I ask for that same trust you placed in me when you called me to be your pastor 13 months ago. This is a tough topic. You might find yourself reacting to some of the things I say. That’s ok. Feel free to talk to me about it after the service. I want it to spark a conversation. The goal of these sermons is to get us as a church community to start thinking and talking about these issues of racism, and hopefully eventually to move towards some sort of action.
Again, as I mentioned last week, let’s lean into the uncomfortable together, because that is where God is calling us to new life.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is possibly one of the most well-known stories in Scripture. The call to be a Good Samaritan is one that we hear not only in religious circles, but mainstream ones as well. This parable, told by Jesus to a know-it-all lawyer, has captured our imaginations for thousands of years. There is power in the story. There is something that resonates deep inside of us when we hear this story, bringing back memories of the times that we played the part of the good Samaritan, helping someone in need.
We can also recall times that we played the part of the priest and the Levite, passing by someone in need, perhaps because we were too busy, or didn’t know how to help. And maybe some of us have even imagined ourselves as the man who was beaten, robbed and left for dead, passed by those on the side of the road who refuse to help. This parable, as is the case with all of Jesus’ parables, invites our participation, it invites our imagination.
So I ask that you would imagine with me if Jesus were sitting with us right now, telling this same parable, but in contemporary terms, what might he say? I wonder if Jesus would tell the parable something like this:
There was a black man who was assaulted by robbers on the path between Africa and the new Americas. He was stripped of everything he owned and ripped from his home, as shackles were tightened around his wrists and he was thrown into the dank, dark cramped space under the deck of a ship, laid side by side like cargo with others who shared his plight. He was brought to a foreign land, known as the New World, where he was stripped naked and put on the auction block to be bought by white, supposedly God-fearing Christians. He worked tirelessly all the days of his life, beaten, whipped and left for dead.
The black man lay beaten and left for dead by the side of the road, as years, and then decades and then centuries passed. Eventually, a white pastor wanders down the road, but he pretends not the see the black man struggling to get up by the side of the road. To this pastor, the scene he sees makes sense. This pastor is sensible and educated, he grew up reading the Bible and hearing it preached, so he knows it’s God’s will that blacks were created inferior to whites to punish them for Ham’s curse. It makes sense to him that the black man is struggling to stay alive. He has never seen it otherwise.
Another century passes and this time a white preacher comes down the road. He notices the black man lying beaten and close to death. He pauses, wanders over to the man on the ground and stoops down to look him in the eyes. The preacher tells him, “You are loved by God. Now get up and come with me.” But the black man looks at him and answers, “How can I? I’ve been beaten down and lying here for 300 years. How is it that you expect me to just get up and shake off these injuries as if they are nothing?” The white preacher looks questioningly at the man, confused about something. “Hmm,” the preacher responds, “I don’t quite understand what you seem to be complaining about. These wounds you bear aren’t that serious. Now come on, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and let’s go.” The black man looks at the white preacher with a look of pain in his eyes as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing. The white preacher shrugs, stands up and continues on his way.
A few more decades pass, and the man still lies beaten and close to death. He should be dead by now, but something inside of him keeps fighting. There is a fierce hope, a defiant resistance that lights a fire inside of him and wills him to keep on living. Finally, an Indigenous woman walks by the man as he is on the brink of death but refuses to close his eyes for good. She notices him immediately, for she is used to finding people who have been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. She kneels down beside him and pulls some medicine from her bag. She looks him in the eyes and has compassion. “Oh honey, they got you too, didn’t they?” She doesn’t expect a response because she already knows. The woman knows exactly which wounds to bandage and how. She’s been bandaging wounds like this on her own people for much longer.
And this is the part when Jesus would turn to us and ask, “who of these was a neighbor to the black man left for dead by the side of the road?” The answer that burns on my lips, that I know is true, yet it hurts to speak, is “not us.” Not America. Not the white church.
A well-known truth from scripture is that there can be no healing or reconciliation without repentance, there can be no repentance without confession, and there can be no confession without telling the truth. If racism is a disease that infects us and our society, then there can be no healing without first telling the truth about our nation’s history of racism. I’ve heard it called our nation’s original sin.
As author of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, said in an interview: “You can’t understand many of the most destructive [racist] issues or policies in our country without understanding our history of racial inequality. And I actually think it begins with our interaction with native people, because we took land, we killed people, we disrupted a culture. We were brutal. And we justified and rationalized that land grab, that genocide, by characterizing native people as different…We abused and mistreated the communities and cultures that existed on this land before Europeans arrived, and then that narrative of racial difference was used to develop slavery… I genuinely believe that, despite all of that victimization, the worst part of slavery was this narrative that we created about black people—this idea that black people aren’t fully human, that they are three-fifths human, that they are not capable, that they are not evolved. That ideology, which set up white supremacy in America, was the most poisonous and destructive consequence of two centuries of slavery. And I do believe that we never addressed it.”
As I shared in my story last week, the version of history I received growing up was that slavery ended in 1865 and then racism ended in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. When you study individual events, then I suppose it’s possible to come to that conclusion. However, if you really study American history, if you really look at how and why white people justified slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, sharecropping, convict leasing among other horribly demonic realities, then you would have to be incredibly naïve to believe that racism disappeared after the passing of a few laws. I was one of those incredibly naïve people, who enjoyed living in a world where I truly believed racism was mostly gone, except for a few extremist groups.
But if you study or call to mind the horrible reality of lynching in America, that alone should be enough to keep you wondering if racism and hatred that deep and that engrained can really disappear in a few short decades. According to the Tuskegee institute, 3,446 African Americans were lynched between 1865 and 1968. During this time we fought a war against the Nazis and decried their demonic torture of Jews, and meanwhile in our own country we enacted the same demonic torture upon our fellow black citizens. Black men and women were strung up on trees and poles, they were tortured, castrated and burned. Some of what we did is so awful I can’t repeat it here. Thousands of white folks would come from all over for some of these lynching spectacles. They’d take pictures with the lynching victim and send it to family members with a note saying: “sorry you missed the barbeque.” Many of these people were white Christians, still dressed in their Sunday best from the church service they exited just a few hours earlier. These historical realities should give us pause before we think that racism just disappeared after a few laws were passed. We have a day to commemorate the 2,977 people who died in 9/11, as we rightly should. Why is there no day to commemorate the 3,446 black Americans who our white ancestors mercilessly slaughtered? It’s too shameful, I think, to have a day to acknowledge our sin and commemorate the lives we brutally ended.
Historian Jemar Tisby writes, “You cannot erase four hundred years of race-based oppression by passing a few laws. From the earliest years of slavery in the 1600s, through the legal end of Jim Crow in 1954, and in the numerous and varied ways in which racism is still enacted in law and culture today, the United States has had more than 300 years of race-based discrimination. A few short decades of legal freedom have not corrected the damage done by centuries of racism.”
Like most viruses, racism never goes away, but it adapts and it evolves. A brief survey of American history will confirm that this is the case. Now I wish that I could go into the whole history of racism in America and walk us through it, but I think we’d be here until next Sunday. So I strongly encourage you to make sure you’re educated about the history of racism in America. Watch the Netflix documentary 13th. An incredible book to read is The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby. He writes specifically about the history of racism and complicity in the American church.
I believe this is an important book to read, because it reveals just how similar the white American church is to the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable who walk by the man beaten and robbed at the side of the road. In fact, for many years the white American church played the role of the robbers who beat the man and left him for dead in the first place.
A study of our history will show that there were a few Christian voices who spoke up against racism, but they were few and far between. Most white Christians and white churches ignored the man on the side of the road, and did nothing to address his pain. Pastor David Swanson writes, “There’s no reason more white Christians couldn’t have stood against racism and white supremacy at any point in the past. There’s no reason churches and ministries couldn’t have identified the deceptive narrative of racial difference and publicly and intentionally opposed it. There’s no reason we couldn’t have discovered the ways this nations’ racial practices were deforming us…Yet rather than resisting this deforming discipleship, the vast majority of white Christianity has gone along with it. We have colluded with injustice. We are complicit in the suffering experienced by our sisters and brothers in Christ.”
Those of us sitting here may not have been the ones who beat the man and left him for dead. We may not be the ones who committed genocide to clear these lands, we may not have been the ones who systematically stole slaves and used their labor and their bodies. We may not have been the ones who created and supported Jim Crow. We may not have been the ones who enacted racist policies and laws that are still in effect today. We may have been raised to believe that all people are equal, regardless of their race. We may be well-meaning and may have never intentionally spoken a racial slur or comment. But until we begin to actively work against the racism that is still imbedded in many of our nation’s institutions (which we’ll take a look at next week), then we are no better than the priest or the Levite who walk by the man in need. Until we join in the work for change, then we remain complicit. We’ll dive more into this next week, and next week I’ll tell you all about how I’m a racist, so stay tuned for that.
But my goal this week is to get us thinking more about our nation’s history as we engage in these difficult conversations about race and racism. What is going on in our nation right now, the riots and protests, the calls for police reform and cries that black lives matter are not happening in a vacuum. They are connected to our centuries-long history of racial oppression and discrimination. Until we really deal with and confess our nation’s and our church’s history of complicity and racism, there will be no real movement towards healing.
I’m going to close with a powerful litany written by theologian Soong-Chan Rah. He wrote it as a response to what he often hears from Christian and non-Christian white folk. Their response to the call for “black lives matter” is often, “well, all lives matter.” This was something I used to say in college so I didn’t have to deal with the uncomfortable reality that the cry for black lives matter was trying to expose. Next time you hear someone say “all lives matter”, Soong-Chan Rah reminds us:
“It was not ALL lives that were ripped from their homes in Africa.
It was not ALL lives that were separated from families and marched to the West African coast.
It was not ALL lives put into the dank, dark tombs of the slave castles.
It was not ALL lives that were offered as a tithe to the church and accepted by the church.
It was not ALL lives crammed into the European slave ships.
It was not ALL lives laid side by side like cargo in the hull of the ship.
It was not ALL lives that were force fed because they staged hunger strikes.
It was not ALL lives that were casually thrown overboard to be devoured by sharks following the slave ships.
It was not ALL lives that were brought to the New World as slave labor.
It was not ALL lives stripped naked and put on the auction block.
It was not ALL lives for whom the slave auction bell rang, often in rhythm to the church bell.
It was not ALL lives that were bought and sold by God-fearing white American Christians.
It was not ALL lives that were whipped and beaten on the plantations.
It was not ALL lives that were systematically and repeatedly raped by white slave owners.
It was not ALL lives who were daily assaulted in their very identity as those made in the image of God.
It was not ALL lives who were repeatedly told they were less than human.
It was not ALL lives who were diminished by the 3/5 compromise, the Missouri compromise, and the Dred Scott decision.
It was not ALL lives whose communities were wiped out because they sought to build a life for themselves after emancipation.
It was not ALL lives that were told “separate but equal” with equal never being equal.
It was not ALL lives but black lives that hung like strange fruit from Southern trees.
It was not ALL lives, it was Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Roberson, and Carol Denise McNair, four little black lives who were blown up when they bombed a church.
It was not ALL lives that were beset by attack dogs and by fire hoses.
It was not ALL lives but the black lives of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X who were systematically assassinated.
It was not ALL lives that have been victims of police violence, but it was the black life of Oscar Grant.
It was not ALL lives, it was the black life of Trayvon Martin.
It was not ALL lives, it was the black life of Michael Brown.
It was not ALL lives, it was the black life of John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland.
It was not ALL lives, it was the black life of Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Daniel Simmons, Sr., DePayne Middleton Doctor.
It was not ALL lives, it was the black life of Rekia Boyd.
It was not ALL lives, it was the black life of Laquan McDonald.
It is not ALL lives that are targeted for mass incarceration.
It is not ALL lives that the prison industrial complex exploits.
These historical events did not involve the destruction and death of ALL lives, they were black lives that have been systematically targeted and abused by American society.” (Soong-Chan Rah).
This is America’s original sin. Most of our nation and most our churches have not acknowledged it or repented of it. Jesus’ parable hangs in the air even now. Will we carry on the legacy of the priest and the Levite who walked by the man in need? Or will we write a different ending to the story? It is too late for the white church to play the part of the Good Samaritan. But it is not too late for us to join with the Good Samaritans who have been working towards racial justice for decades and even centuries. We’re late to the game. But the game isn’t over yet. There’s still work to be done. God is doing something new here in our midst to correct, heal and redeem centuries of racism. The questions remains: Will we join in on this work? Amen.