This is the pastoral letter I sent to my eastern Oregon community yesterday afternoon. TG
The first major decision I made was racist.
A young white man in his twenties, I was going to change the world. The new director of an urban early childhood program dedicated to providing services within a multiracial, multicultural, mixed-economic setting, I was passionate about the mission. Giving my confession of faith in a storefront church with a strong emphasis on inclusiveness and educated in the St. Louis city and Ferguson-Florissant school districts, I was not a novice to racial tensions.
Still, the first major decision I made was racist.
When you’re white you journey through life assumed by our culture to be a worthy human being. My experiences with racial conflict in the late sixties and seventies, while upsetting and confusing for me, were still experienced through the lens of a white child. In my church I was blessed to have an African-American man, whose weekday ministry was about healing racial strife, mentor and help me to process and understand race during that turbulent era. Looking back more than four decades later, I see the divine breath moving in our weekly conversations.
Still, the first major decision I made was racist.
Part of the problem is that I still understood racism in personal terms. I made a racist decision, not because I intended to favor a white employee at the expense of black employees, but because my white lens filtered out the experience of my African-American staff. Personal prejudice did not cause me to make a racist decision. Not understanding the systemic and institutional nature of racism, caused me to make a bigoted decision. The inability to perceive the whole picture particularly the role of power and privilege within which I was operating, caused me to make a racist decision.
Still, the first major decision I made was racist.
I’d like to be able to report that I was able to effectively and quickly fix my mistake. I cannot. The damage was done. I had stepped in the proverbial doo doo and early in my tenure I lost some credibility.
I was fortunate, however, to have a United Way representative — who herself was African American — help me to understand the significance of the mistake I made. I also was able to seek out an African American colleague, the director of a sibling early childhood program, a former professor specializing in racism, and several of my staff members. All were extremely patient with me. I am grateful for their help; they were under no obligation to teach me.
Still, the first major decision I made was racist.
As a result of that decision and other experiences I grew in my understanding and awareness of racism. I learned to accept the racist thoughts and impulses within me that are a part of growing up white in America. (Awareness of my shadow feelings, helps me to guard against acting upon them.) I made better, though imperfect, decisions after that day. I continue to learn about the insidious character of racism.
More than four decades later, I am no longer an active early childhood educator. I am the pastor of a small church in a tiny frontier town in eastern Oregon. By my count, we have no people of color within the membership of the church and less than a handful of African Americans among the 650 souls who live in our town.
During my nineteen months serving this progressive church, I have preached only twice about the injustice of racism. (This is a luxury that white pastors in white settings have which pastors of color do not.) The first time followed the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the second was in response to the shooting of Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer.
Two weeks ago when I preached about the sin of racism, a couple of individuals pushed back against my words with examples of individual African Americans acting in prejudicial ways. This is not an unusual response among whites. It reflects a personalizing of racism (which is really about power and systems) and a failure to hear the voices of our oppressed sisters and brothers.
A recent tweet that crossed my feed implied that Progressive Christians are all talk and no action regarding racism. Sadly, I think there is too much truth in this perspective. In my case, I’ve talked about racism only twice in nineteen months. No actions have been forthcoming from my community of Christians.
It is time for substantive action to end the institutional racism that results in the shooting of young black men. Those in the African American community cannot be expected to wait one moment longer for change.
Nonetheless, as a white pastor in a white community, I know that until whites admit that racism is real, they will not be a part of a solution. In ignorance, we will continue to make racist decisions until we listen and believe the lived experiences of our sisters and brothers. We must pay attention to the teachings and modeled life of Jesus: we must hear the cries of the marginalized and oppressed! Then, we must confess our past sins, personal and collective. When that happens, I am convinced that we will respond affirmatively to the divine encouragement to let go of our control of the pie, of our privilege, so that all might live in safety and security.
Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…
James 1:19 CEB
I’ve seen images this week of my old teenage stomping grounds under siege. I’ve seen the area where I began raising my own children torn apart when a young man was shot dead by a police officer.
I graduated from McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri. My best friend in high school, who was later the best man at my wedding, lived in Ferguson.
After college and a brief stint in another city, Maggie and I began to raise our family in St. Louis. We bought a house that is only 4-1/2 miles from the QuikTrip that was burned Sunday night.
My Dad passed that very convenience store twice last Sunday as he gave someone a ride to church and back home.
My dad lives 2-1/2 miles from where some of the looting took place. When our kids were small, my folks, my sister and brother and their families, and Maggie and I with our own kids would gather at a restaurant in that shopping plaza.
When I talked to my Dad on the phone this week, the man who is rarely rattled, seemed unnerved by the events in his own backyard. He told me stories of my nephew Jacob and his friends (all young men of color) being harassed by police.
And, so, this is personal.
My emotions are invested in this national story because people I love are a part of it. I have heard on-the-ground reports from my former church youth group leader, a former employee, and my other nephew Bryan.
But even if this weren’t personal, as a Christian I should be appalled: an unarmed 18-year-old boy was shot dead on the street.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief of that mother and father? Can you? I’ve tried but somehow I can’t quite put myself in their place. Maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe that’s because the mental picture is too horrifying and my psyche is protecting me.
When I was in my teen years, my friends and I did some stupid things in that area of St. Louis. Once, for example, I was stopped by the cops for a, um, questionable driving maneuver. My biggest fear was getting a ticket and having to tell my parents. I got off with a stern warning and I didn’t tell my parents.
It never even occurred to me that my life might be at risk. It never occurred to me that I should put my hands on the outside of the car door as actor Levar Burton does to assure he’s not shot by a nervous police officer because of the color of his skin.
It is within this context that Michael Brown was shot. I don’t know the circumstances of the shooting anymore than any one of you does. What I do know is that we have a race problem in this country and we refuse to talk about it in a productive way.
Those of us who have light skin, may not be actively racist but we all have racist imperfections having been raised within our culture. We may not be actively or verbally racist but we still benefit from the color of our skin because of systemic racism that views us as the norm. We benefit from things within our institutions and culture simply because of the color of our skin.
Talking about race is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable. It can be painful!
It’s also easy to ignore when you’re white.
But avoidance doesn’t work. When we fail to talk about racism the problems don’t go away. They just come out in unhealthy ways. We don’t grow as a human family…we just stagnate and learn to mistrust our sisters and brothers. When we don’t talk about race, when we ignore the problem we find ourselves drawing circles of insiders and outsiders.
Our human inclination to define boundaries of worthiness between ourselves and others is not new to our age. Our desire to claim God’s love for ourselves, and those like us, while excluding folks who are different has been going on for a very long time.
In our scripture lesson from the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul addresses the drawing of circles that exclude others from God.
Early in the history of the church, the gentile Romans to whom he writes had already drawn a circle that excluded those Jews who did not view Jesus as the messiah. They thought that because some Jews did not accept Jesus as Christ that they were outside God’s love.
Paul reminds the Gentiles that he himself is a Jew when he writes,
I’m an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. Romans 11:1b CEB
He reminds them that God made a covenant with Abraham and God doesn’t break promises. Paul reminds them that,
God hasn’t rejected [God’s] people, whom he knew in advance…God’s gifts and calling can’t be taken back. Romans 11:2:a, 29 CEB
God’s love is not conditional. God created each human being in the divine image, God’s hopes and dreams for each of us is endless. As Paul wrote earlier in his letter to Rome, “nothing can separate us from God’s love” (Romans 8:38 CEB).
And, so, when we draw circles that exclude others from our love and from God’s love, we sin. When we participate in racism, a hateful and extreme form of exclusion, we participate in sinfulness.
When we fail to recognize that racism is real because, well, we’re white and we have that option…
When we fail to see racism because we have a black president and that means racism is over…
When we fail to speak out when a friend begins a sentence with, “those blacks”…
When four unarmed black men have been shot by police this month alone and we fail to ask why (1)…We sin.
When our inactions & indifference tell our sisters and brothers of color that their boys are outside of our circle of concern and God’s circle of love…
The Good News is that God’s plans for humanity are,
plans for peace, not disaster, to give [us] a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11b CEB
It is time to take our heads out of the sand about racism and strive to be a part of God’s plan for love, for peace, and for hope for all peoples.
As followers of the One who endured ridicule, torture, and who overcame death we are each called to love. We’re called to love,
God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength…[and] love [our] neighbor as ourselves. Mark 12:30-31
The Apostle Paul says God’s call is irrevocable. Open your hearts and minds to our neighbors who suffer under the scourge of racism. Face the challenges and messiness of racism and work for justice.
One way or another, God’s love will prevail. Choose to be a part of it. Live your calling so that one day humanity can say,
Look at how good and pleasing it is when families live together as one (Psalm 133:1 CEB)
This sermon was preached at Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Condon is a tiny town in rural, eastern Oregon. The church community, reflecting the larger community, is nearly all white.
It wasn’t our daughter’s first protest or maybe it was. (Around the same time we’d protested at the Federal Courthouse in solidarity with native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is still in prison after 37 years.)
We gathered in the church parking lot of Memorial Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Louis after worship. We shared sandwiches and cookies out of plasticware before walking the two blocks to the Shell station on the corner where our march from Shell to Shell to Shell would begin. Our goal as people of faith was to shame Shell Oil out of South Africa and to build awareness for the boycott of the company until they did so. As my wife and I pushed our infant daughter in her stroller, we chanted “Free Mandela” and “End Apartheid! Boycott Shell!”
We were young and believed in the impossible. We believed that our action in north St. Louis could change the abhorrent conditions under which Africans lived thousands of miles away. Years have passed. Decades have come and gone. More times than I’d like to admit I have doubted that real change is coming.
As my baby girl nears thirty, I wonder whether hope is justified in a world in which food programs for children and adults are cut and banks get bail-outs. I am discouraged by a lack of empathy for the poor. I wonder if justice will ever come when our prisons are filled with black men and Leonard Peltier remains in prison. I wonder if peace will ever come after more than a decade of military action in Afghanistan. I weep when the first reaction to conflict in the world is to use military force.
I wonder if love can overcome death, as the Christian narrative tells me, when it doesn’t seem like we can even love one another.
And then I look at the life of Nelson Mandela. An imperfect man in a far from perfect world, his life is testament to love overcoming death. The extravagant love of the One will overcome the impossible as it did in Mr. Mandela’s life.
Though love doesn’t overcome at the speed I’d like it to come. It does come. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
After several sermons in a row in which I challenged the congregation, I was ready for a lighter sermon last week. It was not to be. Through Luke 12: 49-56, the Holy Spirit seemed to push me to address white privilege with even more vigor than I had just after the verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Click below to hear the words that crossed my lips.
If you prefer, download the file here or read the prepared (not delivered) text of the sermon below.
Where does Jesus get off? Where does he get off calling us hypocrites? It’s not like he’s Mister Perfectly Consistent!
First, we get all this lovey-dovey “love your neighbor as yourself” crap and then he starts into this “I’ve come to divide.” Then he has the gall to call us hypocrites!
If he wanted trouble, he’s got it. Consider:
The prince of peace that we were so excited about at Christmas is all grown up but something must’ve gone wrong because he says,
“I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49 CEB)
Oh, yeah. That’s peaceful! That’s kind. That’s loving. Mister Consistent Peace-man wishes the earth was blazing in fire.
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled! (Hark, the Herald Angels Sing)
Reconciled? Reconciliation? Then why does the all-grown up Jesus say:
“Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53 CEB)
That. That doesn’t sound like reconciliation to me.
I don’t mean to diss Mary. She was a cool enough Mom. She was young and I’m sure she did her best.
And from what we can tell Joseph — who by the way didn’t even have to be there — it wasn’t his kid — did the best he could. He took that poor fatherless child in, raised him as his own.
But sometimes, no matter what you do your kid makes some serious wrong turns. Your child doesn’t turn out like you expected.
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord. (O Come, All Ye Faithful)
I was right there with y’all last Christmas. I was right there adoring the baby as he slept in heavenly peace. But I’m done.
I’m done with this savior gone wrong.
I suppose I’d feel more empathy for adult Jesus if he was trying to be a peacemaker. He’s unapologetic about how he’s turned out.
He seems, well, almost like he’s proud of being a troublemaker. Did you hear what he said? This cocky, unapologetic Jesus says,
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.” (Luke 12:51 CEB)
On its face, today’s gospel reading from Luke seems extremely inconsistent with everything we know about Jesus from our holy scriptures. But what Jesus is really saying is not that he wants division but that — as a result of his ministry — “Here comes trouble!”
Writes scholar Audrey West,
…It is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes engendered by Christ’s work. (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13026)
In other words people may resist. People may divide themselves.
In the modern church, we’ve forgotten that to follow Jesus means that things will get stirred up. But we like the status quo and the status quo doesn’t like to be bothered. The status quo defines peace as, well, as things staying the same.
In the modern church of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we want things to be happy. We want peace without conflict. We want joy without pain.
We want growth without growing pains.
But as scholar Richard Carlson writes,
“Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed. Such social realities and values have a propensity to seek a harmony that favors those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless and expendable. Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice shatters such a status quo.” (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13138)
Let me tell you a story. This is a human story. It takes place within the democratic education community in the United States but it is happening within other groups in other places as well including churches. This is a story among the folks at the US version of the international conference at which I recently spent a week.
About four-years ago I noticed that the old-guard, the folks who I affectionately called “old hippies” were feeling threatened by the younger teachers and leaders coming up within democratic education.
At the annual conference, which, incidentally, my son incidentally, a young African American man from Chicago, Matthew, was the keynote speaker. Some folks got very upset when Matthew suggested in his keynote talk that many democratic education schools were elitist in the sense that not just anyone could attend.
“Well, we don’t keep anyone out!” was the protest.
“Yes, you do,” Matthew replied. “Those of you who are private schools keep most brown and black people out because of money.
You need to do more if you want to be truly democratic.”
His point? Democratic education is not accessible to all. It is not democratic in its availability. It is largely a white, upper middle-class phenomenon. When those who support democratic education abandon the public schools to create their own system, they are abandoning the poor, people of color, and other marginalized children.
A big brouhaha broke out in the ballroom with folks lining up for their turn to speak at the mic. I would summarize the message of many of the “old hippies” this way: “I’m not a racist.”
Matthew could have described his role at the conference in the words of Jesus:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. (Luke 12:51 CEB)
Matthew challenged the systems of racism that allowed many white, middle class children to participate in democratic education while brown and black children were left behind in public schools.
He suggested that the well-intentioned “old hippies” were part of the problem when they abandoned the public schools.
The trouble with racism is, it’s not just about personal racism. It is about a culture that privileges some people over other people.
I consider myself a fairly enlightened guy but I have benefited because of the color of my skin. You have as well. You didn’t ask for it. I didn’t ask for it. We didn’t ask for that privilege but it’s real.
This is the kind of thing — though not specifically racism — that Jesus is talking about in today’s reading when he calls the people hypocrites. I think Jesus might have been feeling a little frustrated at the willful ignorance of the people.
Jesus also said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Luke 12:54-55 CEB
I can imagine people listening shaking their heads saying to themselves,
“Yeah, we can tell when a storm is coming in.” Then, as they’re shaking their heads feeling pretty good about themselves, Jesus shouts:
“Hypocrites!” (Luke 12:56a CEB)
Are you blind to what else is going on? If he was talking to us he might say, do you not see that a few powerful people control the economics of this country?
Do you not see that brown and black people do not share in the privileges that you have? Even those of you who are less well off have advantages not afforded most brown and black people?
For those of us who are white and those of us who are relatively well off — some in this room do struggle financially by the way — but as long as we’re white, we can ignore the problems of race and class in this country and world.
We can take the easy path and ignore what the racial profiling of people means. We can ignore what Hal, an African American man who works in a state level job in Vermont told me. Hal told me that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has the resonance of a Challenger explosion or the Newtown shooting within the African American community.
Within that community it is another example of the dehumanization of their young men. It is another example of our culture considering their children as expendable.
And in Condon and other white communities across the nation we had our opinions about it. We may have even talked about it for a week or so but then we began the “forgetting about it” process.
We looked the other way and suggested it was an aberration, a tragedy that doesn’t happen every day.
Unfortunately, it does.
Unfortunately, while we’re looking at the sky, interpreting dark clouds as meaning rain is on its way, we fail to interpret other signs around us.
According to Bible scholar David Schlafer, our ancient kindred, those Jesus was talking to, failed to take responsibility,
“for learning from the rich and readily available tradition of Law and Prophets that would enable them to identify commonwealth resource mismanagement — what we’d call economic injustice — and its inevitable negative repercussions in God’s economy.” (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13138)
We fail to take the responsibility to learn from social science, from our history, from a little ol’ thing called the Bible, and from the experiences of our contemporary sisters and brothers.
We fail to learn about and work to eradicate the racial, economic, and class injustices in our country and world.
In terms of race, we say we want Martin Luther King’s dream but we don’t know what to do or…OR…we’re not willing to do the hard work it will take to finally reach it.
And, so, like those Jesus calls hypocrites, we know how to interpret weather conditions but somehow we’re oblivious to racial and economic injustice.
We are the twenty-first century version of the hypocrites Jesus is calling out in the twelfth chapter of Luke.
The Good News is God created each of us as growing and learning human beings. The Divine’s loving, creative power does not give up on us. We have a choice.
The extravagant and relentless love that overcame death at the cross, forgives us and keeps calling to us to be a part of the unfolding realm of God on earth.
The unfolding realm of God’s abundant, beloved community is an expanding circle of burning love for one another.
The Good News is that the fire Jesus came to cast upon the earth has begun to burn within our hearts.
It is a fire that cleanses without incinerating, and drives us to be God’s loving hands and feet of justice in a wounded world. It is a fire that will unite the oppressed, the marginalized, and even the oppressors together as one human family.
May we be the people God created us to be. May we actively listen to God and expand the circle of love and justice outward until all are truly welcome in this place.
May we give up hypocrisy, pull our heads out of the sand, for the good of others.