There is a white pickup truck near my home. I see it when I walk the dog. It catches my attention when I take my morning runs. The racism oozes from this particular truck. The truck sports a large window sticker bearing these words: “White Trucks Matter.”
No. This is not funny.
Humor has a way of revealing our beliefs, convictions, or values. Our laughter-disclosed feelings are sometimes those things of which we are not proud. A self-aware and moral response to revelations about ourselves can lead us to personal growth and change. Noting what we find funny can be an impetus to lessening unconscious ways in which we act in racist ways.
Sadly, the owner flaunts his racist values. Though you and I may not post racist signs on the back of our vehicles, we have a lot of growing to do. For those of us who are white, a willingness and awareness of our privilege is critical. Whether revealed by our humor or not, failing to accept the existence of our own privilege, denying systemic racism and privilege which benefits us, is no less offensive than “white trucks matter.”
On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.
In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?” I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.
“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”
Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship. Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.
I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.
“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”
[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s. In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.
As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.
“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”
Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.
When unaccompanied children were arriving at the southern border of the United States, grandmothers’ arms ached to hold and comfort. In my eastern Oregon town we talked about, “What can we do to help?”
When Mike Brown lay dead on a hot summer street for hours, we didn’t talk. It was a foreign land; it was news from the big city back east. Grandmothers’ hearts were protected by ignoring and avoiding.
When burnt convenience stores awakened white grandmothers’ arms, I told my story of growing up near Ferguson. I told my story of my family still nearby. Grandmothers asked, “Is your dad okay?”
Assured my white father was safe, it no longer mattered that Mike Brown had lay dead on a hot city street for hours or that black mothers and fathers sobbed. White grandmothers’ arms crossed in defensiveness and talked about, “What did he do to deserve this?” and “Why are they burning buildings?” while black grandmothers’ arms ached to hold grandbabies.
And so I told my stories of race, identifying my own sins, and our collective white sin of racism. I was dismissed, “You only told one side of the story.” We talked about anything but race.
When Freddie Gray died in police custody, white grandmothers’ arms ached again. We talked about, “something is not right” until we were reminded by power and defensiveness that Mike, Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Tanisha and so many more before and since were not worthy of due process.
We listened to the voices of power, fear, and sin justify shooting children of God because of skin melanin. We listened to white supremacy, fragility, and privilege as it determined the status quo, the truth, and our white history of subjugation must be hidden at the cost of black body after black body.
It is our turn to confess our sins. It is our turn to learn our history. It is our turn to bear the pain of the truth of what white supremacy, ignorance, and fragility has wrought.
If our arms aren’t aching we aren’t paying attention.
Other Suggested Reading These represent a few of the many articles that I’ve found helpful as I’ve begun accepting my own white culpability and responsibility in responding to our nation’s race problem.
“I looked it up. It’s true,” she said.
“No,” I said sticking to my guns.
“Um, yes dear. Mt. Adams IS taller than Mt. Hood.”
“Nope,” I said, “Mt. Hood is the best, the tallest of all mountains!”
In my unbending insistence, I was a five-year-old defending my dad as the strongest and smartest. (He is, by the way.) That’s the trouble with dogma; it often ignores facts. Though institutional religion is the quintessential dogmatist, it is far from alone. The laying down of ideas as beyond reproach is common among human beings.
My mother-in-law even once criticized the color we painted our house because, she pronounced, “houses are white with black shutters.” There was no room in her thinking for cheerful yellow.
Partisan politics, brand loyalty, American exceptionalism, the importance of eating locally, the definition of marriage, the best mountain, paint color, and even atheism can become dogmatic. Anything from which we find identity or meaning can become dogmatic. All it takes is a little passion and a dash of inflexibility sautéed over a bed of unquestioning spirit to cook up dogma. Spiced with fear or ignorance and the dish becomes poisonous.
Since the deadly dogma that led to the murder of nine African American men and women at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, I’ve been reflecting upon my theology and found it wanting.
Theology, or how we understand and experience the divine mystery, hints at the nature of the one I call God. Though it seeks to explain the divine nature, my personal theology reflects as much or more about my nature than that of God. Though useful, any theology has its limitations when faced with the mysterium tremendum (literally, tremendous mystery).
I lean toward a process understanding of the inexplicable One. In Process Theology, God allows evil in the world because God cannot prevent it. In simplistic terms, the killing of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson is the result of human free will.
The coercive God of most theologies could have prevented the shooter from his deadly action, leaving us with the question, “why?” In the Process view, God is non-coercive and was incapable of directly preventing the killings. God seeks to lure, beckon, or encourage each of us toward the most loving action in each moment. Evil happens when we make choices contrary to God’s desired (loving) action for us.
In the case of Charleston, we collectively allow racism to fester. Instead of heeding the luring spirit to eradicate this American sin, we make other choices. Within this context, relationships influence each of us but it never means the individual perpetrator is faultless. Given his free will, the shooter ignored God repeatedly. The final and deadly action was the result of utter disregard for the non-coercive God’s preferred action. He instead chose evil.
So, what do I find wanting about my theology following the heinous crime at Emanuel AME Church? The non-coercive nature of the divine seems to explain why God allows evil to exist. Isn’t that enough?
No. What I find lacking in my theology is an attribute which I perceive to be in God’s nature: passion. My pedantic explanation of how a young man could sit in Bible Study with nine men and women and then shoot them is too-tidy, too-easy, and too-sterile. Like my ancient forebears in the faith, I perceive God as passionate.
“The Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord the God of Israel”. 1 Kings 11:9 REB
I imagine God raging, not only at the shooter but at those of us who are white. For too long, we have allowed the poisonous dogma of white supremacy and privilege to fester. Having constricted racism with color blindness, we are culpable.
At worst our white failure to confront our personal and collective roles in the scourge of racism caused the killing of the nine women and men of Emanuel AME Church. At best, our failure to question the dogma in which we were raised sanctioned not only killing the nine at Bible study but the countless other people of color who are killed daily in our nation.
LORD of Justice, Your anger is justified. We have been ignorant and indifferent to the lives of others. Clinging to personal comfort and the dogma of whiteness, we’ve failed to listen and learn and grow. Confronted with the sin of white supremacy, we explain it away.
Help us to see the road ahead. Taking responsibility for our personal and collective sin, may we listen, follow, and move to act in ways that bring forth justice for our sisters and brothers who have suffered at our expense for too many generations.
When I saw it, I thought apartment building. When she saw it, she thought Swiss cheese.
Climbing the ridge I paused at the tree stump and exclaimed internally, Rodent Apartments! Moments later my hiking companion came up from behind and exclaimed audibly, “Swiss Cheese!”
So, who was right? Were either of us right?
In my thinking, I noted the multiple holes. I proceeded to think about which creatures might be using this old stump. Then, I overlaid my conception of a place with multiple residences to describe it as Rodent Apartments. Of course, I did this in seconds.
She? I suspect she reacted to the visual appearance of the stump. In her mind, she then went through objects with multiple holes. Donuts, nope not quite. Golf course, not so much. Finally, her mind arrived at Swiss cheese. She, too, did this in microseconds.
Each of our descriptions use pre-existing understandings of the world around us. Each of us lay previous learnings on top of a new experience.
We all do this. A lot.
We use our own frame of reference to describe and understand things we encounter. The words and pictures and thought patterns we use when we do this reflect as much about us as the object or event. In other words, how we describe and understand things reflects who we are. It’s true of tree stumps, of our politics, and of the Bible.
There is no such thing as a fully objective reading of scripture. We can mitigate the risks of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the fancy term for reading our own ideas or desires into the Bible rather than allowing the meanings of the text to be drawn out.
That is, we impose our ideas on the Bible instead of letting it speak to us.
We can lessen but never eliminate these personal and cultural biases from our understanding of the text. This is one of the reasons it is helpful to read scripture together in diverse community. Each of us hear slightly different things.
By bouncing thoughts off of one another we can more accurately hear the voices of our ancient kindred describing how they understood God. We also — and most importantly — can more accurately perceive God’s still speaking voice and dream for our lives in the twenty-first century.
I tell you this because too often our personal history and our preconceived ideas block us from the power, the depth and the radicalism of God’s dream for humanity.
Our life experiences change what we think the Bible says regardless of what meaning was intended by the original writers. The only way around this is to build our own self- and cultural awareness within diverse community.
Consider, as people of relative means, when we hear Luke’s report of Jesus preaching,
Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33 CEB
As people of relative means, when we hear Jesus preach this, we tend to view it as a suggestion or as hyperbole because it demands a lot of us. It demands that we live differently than our culture and capitalism tell us to live. And, so, we interpret away our obligation.
Sometimes, we talk about spiritual poverty and pretend that Jesus was more concerned about how you and I feel about God than about physically feeding the poor or economic injustices in our world.
OR we say it is unrealistic and surely SURELY God doesn’t expect us to give up everything, not really. Sometimes we act like Jesus said, “clean out your kitchen cabinets and give the canned goods to the poor.”
Not bad to share food but not exactly what Jesus said.
OR we just dismiss it because, well, because we don’t want our faith to inconvenience us.
We can intellectualize away passages like this if we are not poor. However, it is more than just being able to intellectualize passages away. We actually hear what Jesus is saying differently because of our relative wealth.
Imagine if you can, how this same event sounds if you’re impoverished. Imagine you work three jobs and still keep falling behind on your bills.
Imagine that people look down their noses at you on the street.
Imagine your body is growing old before its time because you’ve lived most of your life without adequate health care and it’s hard to take a sick day even now because it means losing pay.
Hear how Jesus’ words might sound if you were poor. Listen as the poor person I described. I’m reading from Matthew’s version of the event this time.
Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”Matthew 19:21 CEB
I don’t know about you but I hear Jesus affirm God’s favor for the poor.
And this is just one passage. Depending upon how narrowly or widely you define the terms, the Bible either addresses the needs of the poor and needy three hundred times or over two-thousand times. Either number is significant.
Either number is far, far above the number of times the Bible talks about, oh I dunno, homosexuality or abortion (zero) or unfaithfulness in marriage. The significance of the number is true no matter how widely we define our terms to do the counting of references.
If the biblical witness reflects the experiences of our ancient kindred with God, than God is deeply concerned about economic injustice in human society.That is, if our claim that the Bible is a collection of the stories, experiences, and theologies of our ancient forebears and that God speaks through the scripture, shouldn’t one of our chief concerns as Christians be the poor?
Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the Bible’s sheer numerical and thematic concern for the poor God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Says Gutiérrez:
But the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.
Does God play favorites? The short answer is yes. Jesus didn’t make this stuff up himself, though he clearly taught and preached it. God’s concern for the poor is embedded in Jesus’ lived Judaism. It was ingrained in his day to day faith.
Recall that as a good Jew, Jesus’ own Bible was roughly our Old Testament. Not only would Jesus have known what we number as Psalm 113, scholar James L. Mays points out that as a traditional psalm sung at Passover,
The psalm would have been the first sung by Jesus and the disciples in the celebration of their last supper… (Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching by James L. Mays, Kindle loc. 7104)
Listen again to the first two verses:
Praise the Lord!
You who serve the Lord—praise! Praise the Lord’s name!
Let the Lord’s name be blessed from now until forever from now!
Psalm 113:1-2 CEB
As you may recall, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings and songs. More than any other book of our Bible it directly reflects the words of the people in relationship with God.
This particular psalm is a praise hymn that, along with 114, would be sung at the start of Passover. Notice how as this hymn progresses, the writer not only calls the people to worship but also gives reasons for doing so.
The LORD is high over all the nations; God’s glory is higher than the skies! Who could possibly compare to the LORD our God? Psalm 113:4-5a CEB
Then in this hymn of praise, God’s particular concern for the poor is restated. Imagine as you hear this, Jesus and his disciples singing this on that last night of Jesus’ life.
God lifts up the poor from the dirt and raises up the needy from the garbage pile to seat them with leaders— with the leaders of his own people Psalm 113:7-8 CEB
As they sang it, they would have appreciated the poetry in the language in ways which we lose in English. The Hebrew verb yashav which is repeated in verses five, eight, and nine
suggest[s] that when God condescends from on high to raise up the lowly, God is exchanging some part of God’s nature and character with the humans that God is saving. (Beverly Roberts Gaventa & David Petersen, Eds., New Interpreters Bible (One Volume) Commentary, p. 341)
Jesus and his disciples understood God’s “preferential option for the poor” and reflected it not only in their teaching and healing and other daily actions but in their liturgical practices.
Does God Play Favorites? Yes.
It makes me squirm as it should you. It means that my wealth is a hindrance to my faith. It means that I ought to be doing more to unravel the sinful tapestry of our economic system, the one that keeps too many citizens of our world in poverty.
It means Jesus was serious.
We are called to live with less — to give away our possessions — and share with the poor. We’re called to follow the teachings of Jesus, to mimic his life by living like and among those without. In so doing, the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be lifted up.
Jesus was serious. God is serious. It’s time that the church get serious about fundamental social change that benefits the oppressed and impoverished.
This is our great sin. This is our great hypocrisy. We sing songs of praise but too often leave out the verses that talk about how God comes down from on high to lift up those in need. We gloss over or forget that we are called to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
We keep waiting for God to fix the church or lift up the poor or end all manner of sins in the world but fail to respond to God’s beckoning voice calling us to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
We ignore what it means for God to play favorites for the poor and oppressed while we ignore the the teachings of Jesus calling us to let go of our wealth and dismantle the systems of oppression under which poor people are trapped.
We fail to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us,
“to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8b CEB)
Sometimes we fail because our wealth and preconceived ideas keep us from hearing God’s still challenging voice. Sometimes we fail because we don’t like what Jesus teaches or what our ancient kindred heard God saying.
Often, it is just too much for us — me included — to admit that God favors the very people who we feel uncomfortable among. And, so, we alleviate our guilt by alleviating the symptoms.
But God calls us to radicalism.
Jesus teaches a new social order in which the poor are lifted from the dirt and the needy are raised from the garbage pile and seated among the leaders, the very leaders of God’s own people. (Psalm 113:7-8 CEB)
In the words of Gustavo Guitiérrez,
the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.
Does God play favorites? Yes, yes God does. The difficult question is the next one: what are we going to do about it?
Are we prepared to align our interests, our favorites with God’s priorities?As individuals and as community, as church, are we prepared to embrace the radicalism of the faith we profess?
This sermon was preached at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ on Sunday, July 5, 2015.
I packed up the props I’d used in class. I carefully inserted my students’ papers and exams into the “to be graded” pocket in my bag. I touched the glass window beside my desk, shivering involuntarily.
I wrapped my warmest scarf around my neck, pulled on the hat my students (and my own children) laughed at, laced my snow boots, and put on my heavy coat. It was winter in upstate New York and the sidewalks were still imperfect from the twenty-three incher two days ago. Trudging through the student parking lot toward the small faculty lot I used, I noticed a quarter inch had fallen while I was distracted by student conferences.
I looked forward to sitting around a fire with my family after my long day. I wondered if I should pick up a pizza for dinner or if Maggie had another idea. Though I certainly didn’t feel like cooking, my mood was upbeat. I was gratified by the discussion we’d had in class that afternoon. My students were finally grasping the concepts they’d been struggling with for several weeks.
When I got to my car, all of the joy flushed out of me. Scrawled across the back of my car, in the newly fallen snow was one word: Fag.
I perceived this as a reaction to the rainbow sticker across the top of my rear window. I perceived this as a hateful act. I felt diminished. If I felt this way…what if? What if, I wondered, this had happened to one of my students? What if I was gay or lesbian or transgender? What if this action was directed at an immutable part of who I am?
The next morning I reported the issue to Security. None of the thousands of students at the college should be subjected to hate based upon their orientation. The connection between my rainbow sticker and the disgusting word scrawled in the snow was clear, I said.
I was dismissed. It was random, I was told. Nothing they could do, I was told.
Next, I spoke to my Department Chair. She was sympathetic to my concern for students, agreeing it was a hateful act. Unfortunately, political considerations and transitions-in-the-making kept her from using any of her remaining clout in support of pushing this issue. She gave me strategic assistance but essentially I was on my own.
I contacted the head of Security. In what I think was a well-articulated email, I described what happened. I expressed my concern for LGBT students.It was random, I was told. Nothing he could do, I was told.
In the end, I dropped it. I was getting nowhere. That was more than fifteen years ago.
To this day, I regret I didn’t work harder at getting at least an acknowledgement that a hateful act had occurred. I don’t recall whether, as a non-tenured faculty member, I was afraid of causing trouble. Perhaps, but I think I’d remember that emotion. I think the sin is that I dropped the matter because I was busy. I gave up because it was easier. How many students, staff, and faculty suffered similar hatred because I stopped too soon?
Holy One, I confess I’ve failed to use all of my gifts and talents when faced with injustice. Forgive this sin. Too often I use busy-ness or “not my fight” as an excuse for allowing an injustice to continue. Forgive my self-focus. Nag me. Remind me that bumper stickers are not enough. Move me. Keep me restless for your dream for our world. Help me to strive for justice wherever and whenever I encounter it. Amen.
When I was trying on pacifism in my formative years, my peers would begin the classic argumentative questioning. “Would you kill if someone threatened your sister?” “Would you kill if it was the only way to save your own life?”
The goal — if there was an articulated goal in my society of children and teens — was to prove pacifism flawed because it was impossible to practice.
As a mature pacifist I know that given the right circumstances I could be driven to violence against another. Though I understand the harming of others to be out of bounds, I understand violent urges. I am human.
None of this negates my belief that pacifism is consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the interconnected divinity of creation. Harming another ultimately harms self.
Anytime we resort to violence, in the language of my faith, we sin. Violence, harming of another, is a tragedy and a failure because it breaks relationship. The perpetrator of violence is not the only one at fault. Typically there is plenty of sin to go around.
Context matters. When basic rights and needs are denied, when people are oppressed, and their call for relief and change go unheeded, the likelihood of physical violence increases.
When people go unheard, the ones who fail to listen and respond are at least as culpable as those who are driven to violence. My dog can accurately be called sweet and loving. However, if I were to taunt him, fail to meet his basic needs, and abuse him, couldn’t he be pushed to the limits of friendliness and lash out?
Now is the time for whites to accept our culpability in the pattern of police killings of blacks. Now is the time for us to stop tsk tsk-ing about property damage when our sisters and brothers are being killed!
We must listen to and believe our oppressed kindred and follow them in insisting on change. Despite what our media tell us, this is not about property damage. It is about the taking of lives.
I have a graveyard in my house. It’s in my kitchen on top of the microwave. That’s where potatoes go to die.
Their bakeable skin gradually wrinkles and soon sprouts. If I’m alert I catch the first sprout, cut it out, and add the remaining potato to a dish. Once the rotting begins, however, I’m rarely alert.
That’s when the rot of the potato spreads to me. I focus on the wrinkly skin and mourn the lost food. I feel bad about myself for my wasteful western ways. I feel guilty.
But this is a moment of transition not death. The potato itself is not dying. The potato is reproducing. The tiny, bright green sprouts are not only hope for new potatoes, they are intrinsically beautiful. They are divine beauty in this moment.
Pausing before the divine, I confess I too often waste. I overuse at the expense of others. I want and take in the face of other’s needs. And then I let my guilt be darkness rather than a sign of beauty — of you — within me. May new sprouts grow in my heart that I make decisions that are mindful of those in my town, in my nation, and on the other side of the world.