Addressing Racism — Part 3

Nehemiah 1
August 23, 2020
Matt Goodale

Today is part three of our four part sermon series on racism in America. Last week we remembered together some of the horrifying parts of our nation’s history, some of the parts that are normally white-washed, not talked about or forgotten as if they are last century’s myth. In order to understand what is really going on in this cultural moment right now, in order to understand why there are so many people who are still in the streets protesting around the nation after George Floyd’s murder—I mean, Portland is on like it’s 90th straight day of protests—we must remember our nation’s bloody history of racism, of viewing white skin as superior, and dark skin as inferior, as 3/5 human, as less capable or as dangerous. As I spoke about last week, a few decades of legal freedoms and a few laws are not enough to undo 300 years of race-based oppression and discrimination. Hate that runs that deep doesn’t just disappear overnight.

Racism hasn’t disappeared from our nation or from our communities, even though we as white people tend not to see it or notice it. Racism never goes away, but like a virus it adapts and it evolves. And this is the reality I want to develop for us today.

Drawing on our knowledge of America’s history of racism, I want to talk to you about the concept of corporate evil, or systemic evil and injustice. I’ll explain this in a second, but I start off by saying that western people in general and white American people in particular have little or no concept of corporate/systemic evil or they’re actively set against the idea. I think it’s important for me as a white guy to say that this is wrong. And if as white Americans we don’t begin to understand the systemic nature of racism or the corporate responsibility we all as white people bear to fix it, then we won’t be able to understand our black or brown neighbors, or at worst we’ll think they’re paranoid.

So first, I’m going to talk about corporate responsibility and then systemic evil. Both are incredibly biblical concepts, and in fact, most people, in most cultures and places understand the reality of corporate responsibility and systemic evil, but we as westerners/white Americans have a hard time with this concept. If you grew up in America or in any westernized civilization, then from the moment you emerge from your mother’s womb you are handed a view of the world that is based entirely on individualism.

Now what do I mean by that? What I mean is that beginning from a very young age, you are shaped by the idea that you are an individual and you are free to make decisions for yourself that you as an individual will then be accountable for. As an individual you are accountable only for your own actions, because your life is shaped only by your own choices, not the choices of anyone else. So if you screw up, it’s on you and only you to take responsibility to fix it; if you succeed, then that success belongs to you.

So as people who are raised to be individualists, when we come to certain passages in scripture like Joshua 7, Nehemiah 1 or countless other places, they make little sense to us. Joshua 7 is a little known story about an Israelite man named Achan who stole some property and hid it under his tent, explicitly going against what God had commanded of the Israelites. When it’s found out that Achan stole some wealth for himself, not only is he punished for it, but his entire family is stoned to death with him.

As individualistic westerners, this story has us going “what?!” We say, “Wait a minute, they didn’t do it, he did it!” But most people in most cultures and in most centuries understand what is going on here, because they recognize that we as individuals are not just a product of our own choices. We are shaped by our community, by our social location in large and small ways. So in this story, Achan did the bad thing, he stole, but the writers of scripture and again, most people in most cultures and in most centuries would recognize that Achan’s family is at least partially responsible for either actively shaping him into who he is, or passively allowing him to be shaped without intervening.

We see this concept of corporate responsibility in Nehemiah 1 as well, our passage for today. Nehemiah repents not only for his own sins, but for the sins of his nation, his people. Nehemiah likely wasn’t alive when his people sinned against God, causing them to be sent into exile. But he recognizes that he is part of a larger community, a larger culture that did sin, that did screw up, and he takes responsibility for that. He knows he is a product of his culture, he is connected to his people and to their sins.

Let me use a contemporary example to help this make a little more sense. In high school there was a kid in my class named Marshall. He was a very intelligent guy who was a few years younger than the rest of us. He was a little socially awkward and pretty immature. Marshall was, unfortunately, the butt of most jokes in our class. He was picked on and while at the time we thought it was in good fun, looking back I can name that it was bullying. Now, I never actively (that I can remember) picked on Marshall or made jokes about him. Through an individualistic lens I was free of guilt. I never actively bullied him, so I’m off the hook.

However, though I never teased Marshall or picked on him, I did sit by and allow others to without ever intervening. I could have intervened, but I didn’t. And I also probably laughed at some of the jokes believing them to be in good fun. Now, do I bear any responsibility for bullying Marshall? I hope we all might say “yes”. Because though I individually never picked on Marshall, I participated in a community that did. I contributed to that classroom community and culture of bullying by laughing and by remaining silent. I bear some of the responsibility.

This is just like the parable of the Good Samaritan we looked at last week. The priest and Levite who walk by the man in need aren’t responsible for robbing the man and leaving him for dead, but they are responsible for leaving him to die and refusing to help. They as individuals may not have been the perpetrators of evil, but with their silence they propped up and perpetuated a culture in which evil of that sort was allowed to exist and to do its harm. It is not the robbers who receive Jesus’ judgment and ire, it is the priest and Levite, the supposedly good individuals who walked by. They share responsibility for the evil by allowing it to happen, even though they themselves didn’t commit it.

Now, let’s transition to talk about systemic evil, and you’ll see how this relates to corporate responsibility in just a second. Here’s what I mean by systemic: if you’re part of a community, there are systems that the whole community participates in. Things get done by the system, and you, by participating in the community, are to some degree getting that done, even if there’s different levels of responsibility. I’ll give you these levels. You might be in the community and know exactly what the system is doing and be happy for it and actually actively doing it. Or secondly, you might kind of know what’s happening in the system and you don’t think too much about it, but you’re in favor of it. Or number three, you know what’s happening but you don’t do anything to stop it. Or number four, you don’t really know what’s happening and you don’t care and you don’t even care to try to find out about it.

Let’s take for example, the Holocaust. I draw this example from Tim Keller, because I think it’s incredibly helpful. The Nazi’s set up a system for exterminating Jews and purifying their race. “At the top of the system, at the most responsible, you had people who set up the death camps. Underneath that, you have guards and people who are in the death camps who were just following orders, as they said. Underneath that, you had people in the town, civic leaders who kind of know what was happening there but they didn’t want to know. Very often after the war, some of them committed suicide when they actually saw what was happening in the camp because they knew but “I had no idea exactly” and so forth. Then you go down to the citizen, the German citizen who had heard rumors but didn’t want to know and didn’t do anything about it and just paid their taxes and worked.

Don’t you see that at the one end, you’ve got people who are more corporately responsible, at the bottom a little less corporately responsible, but all those [Jews] died only because the whole system was working and everybody who was in the system, everybody who wasn’t resisting the system was part of it because the system couldn’t kill all those people unless everybody was doing their job, even just looking the other way.”

Now, it’s easy to look at the system that upheld the Holocaust in hindsight and recognize it for what it is: evil. It’s much more difficult to recognize systemic evil when you yourself are entrenched in the system. There are many systems that support our way of living and allow our nation to keep running the way it does. A few big ones: the education system, criminal justice system, healthcare system and housing/urban development systems. These systems all work on their own, regardless of what I as an individual choose or choose not to contribute to their efficiency, but my life is affected—most of the time for the better—because of these systems. Our education system trained me up and will train my children up, our criminal justice system protects me and our healthcare system keeps me healthy.

These systems don’t always work well, but most of the time they do what they’re supposed to, if you are white. Now, I add this caveat “If you are white”, because it’s a very real caveat. Just like the system that upheld the Holocaust worked for you if you were German, but not if you were Jewish, and the same way that the systems that upheld Jim Crow in the US worked if you were white, but not if you were black, in this same way, most of our current systems in America work if you are white, but not if you are black or brown.

Let me give some examples. I’ll focus on our criminal justice system because this is the system I’m most well educated in. I don’t know if you knew this, but the US has the highest rates of incarceration in the world; there is also no other country that imprisons as many of its racial and ethnic minorities as does the US. Currently, 38% of state prisoners are black, although they make up only 13% of the general population. If you are a white man, your likelihood of ending up in prison at some time during your life is 1 in 17 – not bad odds. If you are a black man, your likelihood of ending up in prison is 1 in 3.[1]

Given this evidence, there are two possible conclusions we can come to. The first is that black people are inferior and are just born more likely to be criminals. I hope none of us are willing to conclude that. The second possibility is that the criminal justice system is racist and is rigged against you if you’re black. And in fact we do see evidence of this. During the War on Drugs, beginning in the 1970’s, we see how this war was not in fact a war waged against drugs, but against black communities.

In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which carried harsher sentences for possession of crack, as opposed to the more expensive and finer version, cocaine. You received the same jail sentence for possessing 5 ounces of crack as you did for possessing 500 ounces of cocaine. Now, the issue here is that crack is known as the poor man’s drug and was found primarily in urban, black communities. Cocaine is the wealthier white person’s drug. You see the issue here. This is just one example among many of how our criminal justice system has been used to target black and brown bodies.

Now, I’ve heard some people argue that the racial disparity in our prisons has nothing to do with race and everything to do with poverty. We know that poverty often leads to more criminal activity, so the argument goes that black people aren’t targeted because they’re black, but they happen to get into more trouble because they’re poor. But here we have the same issue: why is there a greater proportion of black poor people than white poor people?

Today, the median income for white families is about $60,000, while the median income for black families is about $37,000. The figures for household wealth are even more stark. The median household wealth for white families is about $134,000, while the median household wealth for black families is just $11,000.[2] While many white working- and middle-class Americans have enjoyed appreciating property values and an attendant accumulation of wealth that can then be passed on to subsequent generations, many black families have suffered for decades under the cumulative impact of generations of systemic racism in housing and lending practices. Are black people inferior, less smart, less hard working, and therefore just poorer? Or is the system broken and stacked against them? I hope we are willing to recognize that it is the latter that is true.

As we saw in the example of the Holocaust, it took everyone for that system to keep working the way it did. It didn’t just take the people at the top who set up the death camps. But it also took the normal citizens who didn’t ask questions, who kept paying their taxes and passively allowed such a system to work. There are different levels of corporate responsibility involved, but all parties are responsible at some level, all parties are necessary for the system to keep operating and keep doing harm. What happened with the Holocaust to keep that system running is not so different than what is currently happening in our nation.

You see, I may not have any conscious dislike or hatred for black people. I was raised that all people are equal and have not knowingly or intentionally spoken a racial slur or racist remark. BUT, while I individually feel no ill will towards people of color, I am responsible for living in, benefitting from and upholding the systems and institutions in our nation that are directly harming people of color. Even though up until four or five years ago I had no idea the harm these systems were doing, I was still an important and necessary cog that kept the machine running by never questioning it. I bear corporate responsibility for the racism that exists in our nation’s systems.

As I spoke about last week, unless I begin to question and work actively against these systems, I remain complicit in the harm being done. If I sit by and turn a blind eye as the bullies do their work, I’m no less a bully than they are.

Scripture reveals that we are sinful, even when we don’t realize we are and even when we don’t intend to be. We screw up again and again and never seem to get it quite right. This is a hard truth to swallow. But from the very same pages, we hear the incredible news of gospel. We hear the news from Jesus’ lips that we are loved and we are forgiven, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. Unmerited grace. Unconditional love. This is the foundation of the gospel and the whole reason we gather here together.

We bear the undeserved weight and burden of the sins of our ancestors in America. We are paying the price for their racism, and we inherited much of that racist ideology and it is engrained in us whether we realize it or not. It’s not fair. But also unfair is the grace that God pours out upon us. Grace upon grace. Amazing grace. This is the hope, the foundation that we rest firmly on and that gives us the courage to look our nation’s ugly history in the face, the courage to discover that our systems are dripping in racial injustice and the courage to examine our own hearts and find that they too bear the marks of racism.

There is no way forward without God’s grace. Next week we’ll ask the question, “What is the way forward? What do we do with this new reality of systemic racism once our eyes are opened to it?” But for now, let us be uncomfortable with this reality. Let it stir us up and prevent us from getting too comfy. When you go home, do your homework. It won’t take you long to discover how racist our health care systems, our educational systems and our urban development systems are. Let this drive us to our knees like Nehemiah in lament.

And let us rest in God’s grace, knowing that no amount of systemic evil is capable of overcoming God’s redemptive plan for humanity. God’s grace overcomes our evil. God’s justice breaks the bonds that we and our ancestors have shackled on. God is Amazing Grace. God is Unquenchable Justice. God is beckoning us now to join in this fight for justice. Amen.

[1] For numbers and evidence, see The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught by Marie Gottschalk, or Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

[2] Richard Rothstein, Color of Law, 184.