In a recent survey of American households, 6% of white people said that racism is still a significant problem in the United States. So that means that 94% thought it wasn’t still a significant problem. In another study around the same time, 12% of the white people thought that Elvis Presley might still be alive. So that means that twice as many white people think that Elvis is more likely to be alive than racism is a significant problem in the U. S.! [UCC White Privilege, Facilitator’s Guide]
Why are we talking about “rejecting racism” when more people are looking for Elvis? Maybe our banner shouldn’t read, “Be the church. Reject racism,” but rather, “Be the church. Let Elvis rest in peace.” It would be funny if it weren’t exactly the problem.
We would do well to devote a good part of a year, let alone one sermon in this series, to addressing our mandate to “Reject racism.” Here in the whitest state in America–why is that? Here in a denomination that included both the Puritans, who had a history of excluding any who did not believe a certain way, or act a certain way, perhaps who did not look a certain way, as well as some of the staunchest abolitionists, who defended the escaped slaves aboard the Amistad, and who spoke and wrote forcefully for the end of the institution of slavery. Here in this congregation of good, caring, socially concerned people, who, by and large, don’t have a clue how privileged and powerful we are. We would do well to let this one sermon annoy, anger, disturb, or intrigue us enough to commit to investing the time we need to engage in a long-term “Sacred Conversation about Race,” as the UCC urges us to do, [and provides resources for us to do] and to explore the Privilege that most of us as “white people” enjoy. “White Privilege,” a UCC poster declares. “If you can’t see it, you’ve got it.” “Be the church. Reject racism.”
Will Willimon, former bishop of the United Methodist Church and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, writes,
In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, then state Senator Barak [sic] Obama gave an address that introduced him to most of us. “We’re not Black America or white America or Latino America or Asian America,” said Obama. “We’re the United States of America.” The applause was thunderous; white America is desperate to believe that what Obama said is true.
While race is a humanly constructed fiction, white supremacist racism, bias and privilege, is a continuing fact. White supremacy–birthed in the godless European Enlightenment in support of European colonialism (with Christian complicity), cultivated to support American slavery and subsequent racial segregation–is an evil set of ideas and practices that continues to infect our economy, educational systems, and church polity. (Journal for Preachers, Easter 2017, p. 3)
…and, I would add, has a sympathetic ear in the White House.
“For Christians,” Willimon says, “racism is not primarily an historical, sociological issue.” It is a theological issue. Racism is a problem because of the God we say we worship. Willimon says that the central message of the Christian church, the message of Easter toward which we are journeying, is this: “God has raised the (brown-skinned) body of crucified (lynched) Jesus from the dead! Now we know what God is up to, whose side God is on.” (Ibid.)
This is why we must reject racism if we are to “be the church.” It’s about God, who created human beings in God’s own image, and who we Christians confess became flesh in brown-skinned, Palestinian flesh, and was executed, lynched by the powers that be. It’s about God, and it’s about who we are.
In 1993, the 19th General Synod of the United Church of Christ called upon the UCC, in all its settings, to be a multiracial and multicultural church. “A multiracial and multicultural church,” the Pronouncement says, “confesses and acts out its faith in the one sovereign God who through Jesus Christ binds in covenant faithful people of all races, ethnicities, and cultures. A multiracial and multicultural church embodies these diversities as gifts to the human family and rejoices in the variety of God’s grace.” “Now there are varieties of gifts,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “but the same Spirit….Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
So it is that the UCC is committed to inclusive and equitable procedures for hiring [I pray that we would be open to and supportive of a candidate for pastor from a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background than most of us]. The UCC has a full-time racial justice agency, which coordinates programmatic strategies and involves the entire membership in making racial justice a reality; it engages in prophetic advocacy and public policy development, supports the development and dissemination of multi-lingual resources, the list goes on. To reject racism as a church is not only to examine the individual attitudes and prejudices that we as members hold, but also to change institutions that keep racism in place. Racism is, after all, both prejudice and power, i.e. access to power and control of institutions; not just our attitudes, but also the systems of power we are part of.
Most white people were brought up with the myth of meritocracy, that is, the belief that “choice and opportunity are equally available to all.” If you make the right choices, if you work hard, you can “get ahead.” “If you a person of color in America,” however, the UCC guide for discussing White Privilege suggests, ” the seeing of privilege is inescapable. If you are white, you have most likely not been conditioned to even look for, much less see, where your privilege functions.”
White privilege is defined as “the term for the way people and social institutions grant social privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by people of color under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. White privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create, or enjoy on purpose. It refers more to the phenomenon that social systems award preference based on the presumption of white as norm.”
If I walk into Rite Aid, I can wander around the aisles for as long as I want, and if I’m lucky, somebody might ask me if I need any help. Gavin Johnson does not have that same privilege. He will be noticed and watched. And he’d better not wear a hoodie sweatshirt.
If I stay at the Hampton Inn when I’m attending a wedding somewhere out of town, if I forget my shampoo, the complimentary toiletries in my room will include shampoo that will get my hair clean, if not give it body. But if my African American friends attend that wedding and stay in the Hampton Inn, that shampoo on the bathroom counter will do terrible things to their hair, just as Pink Oil Lotion, which would work on black hair, would do terrible things to mine. I never have to think about when I’m traveling. White is the norm. “In this country,” says author Toni Morrison, “American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.”
To claim, “I don’t see race,” or “I’m colorblind,” or “We’re all equal, just one human race” is to deny or refuse to acknowledge that people’s race and people’s lived experience in America because of their race differs. That’s the definition of “erasure”–we essentially erase the very real, lived experience of people of color in America.
Our state legislative representative, Kiah Morris, has, just this past week, introduced legislation, co-sponsored by Kevin Christie of Hartford, into the Vermont House, creating an independent board to oversee the implementation of racial justice reforms across the state, including data collection and implicit bias policies and trainings. It focuses particularly on racial bias in our criminal justice systems, including the police, prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges, and the Department of Corrections. This oversight board is necessary because, though we have laws on the books prohibiting racial injustice, they are not always enforced and because our law enforcement officials share the same unexamined biases and privileges that most of us do. You’re more likely to get pulled over if you’re black. People of color make up a disproportionate number of people in our prisons. Children of color are more likely to be disciplined in and suspended from our schools. The school to prison pipeline is present even in Vermont.
“Be the church. Reject racism.” The conversation we need to have here at Second Congregational Church in Bennington, VT is not the same conversation that St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA was invited to have. St. Paul’s is known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy, and was the church where Robert E. Lee worshipped, where there is a Davis stained glass window, depicting Jefferson Davis as St. Paul in prison; where there is a Lee window (no relation) dedicated to Robert E. Lee as Moses, leading his people to freedom (ironic, isn’t it?), and kneelers with Confederate flags embroidered on them. One Sunday the priest, Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, quietly asked in a sermon, “What if we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols here in our worship space?” He quoted from the Wisdom of Solomon: “The generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them.” “Generating. Building up,” Fr. Adams-Riley said, “Giving life. Strengthening. Healing. Bringing wholeness. That is what God does. And we, being made in God’s image, find our greatest fulfilment in doing likewise.” [Betsy Shirley, Sojourners, April 2017
Our issues, our history, are different, but the call is no less urgent, demanding, difficult, or fulfilling. Be the church. Reject Racism. Our own well-being is tied up in this conversation, for unexamined racism, white privilege, and seeing too few people who don’t look like us narrows our experience and thinking, keeps us fearful, damages our humanity. We are all welcome at the table, at the party God has invited us to, but we dare not assume that the places of honor are reserved for us. Jesus’ parable challenges us, just as it challenged the Pharisees of his day. At God’s table, we simply come and enjoy the company of people of all races and backgrounds and abilities, the varieties of gifts given by the same Spirit, rejoicing that both the first and the last in God’s kingdom are still in the kingdom, part of the beloved community.
Be the church. Protect the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Reject racism. Let the journey continue!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark