What to do about the Sin of Racism
We asked a few months ago and racism was the #1 topic. Feels weird for me as a white middle-aged, middle-class pastor who is decidedly anti-racist to speak on the topic because I have not personally experienced many of the deleterious consequences of racism. Last summer in the wake of the George Floyd murder and subsequent riots in Long Beach, Naomi Rainey Pierson local president of the NAACP/Bay Shore Church member and I organized a press event for local clergy of all faiths to call for peace and justice. One of the things that surprised me was the number of my black clergy brothers who kept underscoring the importance of white pastors to address racism head-on. They know that a key component in the success of the Civil Rights Movement was the role of white clergy joining the movement and speaking up about the evils of racism to their congregations. Unfortunately, despite all the advancements in the last 60 years, the need for us to keep doing it is as urgent now as it was in 1961.
White nationalism and blatant personal racist attacks and behavior that would have been hidden a decade ago are becoming more mainstream. Most people believe that race relations are bad and getting worse. According to a Pew survey in 2019 78% of black people said the country has not gone far enough in giving equal rights and half said our country will never achieve equal rights. A lot of the bad stuff we see is perpetrated under the banner of evangelical Christianity. So, it is time to be clear about something positive our faith tradition can bring to this situation.
Racism is a Sin
The most important declaration we need to affirm is that all forms of racism are contrary to the will of God revealed in scripture, incompatible with the gospel, and need to be called sinful. God is about bringing people together, not dividing them. The first story in the Bible is about God creating all human beings in the divine image, not just some of us, all of us.
Jesus told us to love one another–not just the people like us, but even our enemies. He shared his grace with foreigners—like the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman who wanted her child cured, and the Roman Centurion.
On the day of Pentecost people from every nation and tongue came together and started the church. The book of Acts tells about an Ethiopian eunuch—most assuredly black–who was one of the first people baptized into the faith. In Acts 10, the church found a way to overcome what were thought to be irreconcilable differences between Jews and gentiles. In Galatians 3, the apostle Paul said it the most clearly in a passage that was quoted at every baptism in the early church. Galatians 3 was the primary text about overcoming divisions that separate the rest of the world especially race, gender, and economic circumstance. Galatians 3 says,
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,[k] heirs according to the promise.
We are one. In this time of strife and anxiety, we need to return to this core assertion.
Racism is a Post-biblical, Slavery-justifying Invention.
Now the concept of race itself is not found in scripture. The term “race” isn’t there. They didn’t have a concept of inherent differences between people based on skin pigmentation. It is a post-biblical, invention to justify slavery but they needed a way to square it with Christian faith, so they tossed out Galatians 3 and mangled the Bible to find authorization for dehumanizing black and Native American people. They especially zeroed in on the story of the curse of servitude on Noah’s son, Ham. With zero evidence, they took this obscure passage and argued that Ham and his descendants were black. From then on, “. . .blackness, servitude and the idea of racial hierarchy became inextricably linked.”
With a biblical justification in hand, white people felt free to commit near-genocide to Native Americans and degrade and enslave those they considered inherently unlawful and cursed by their maker. Not only did they use biblical justifications, but they also quoted “scientists” who measured skulls and determined that white people have bigger brains and must be superior. This terrible combination of bad religion and bad science gave rise to the concept of racism that Rev. Jim Wallis identifies as “America’s original sin.”
The Legacy of this Sin
This same combination of bad religion and bad science has a sad legacy to this day. White nationalists quote this stuff to this day. Many Christians saw through this and called for a return to Galatians 3 principles and called for the abolishment of slavery and more inclusive faith. But despite the abolishment of slavery, racism was alive and well. Jim Crow laws emerged and racism took on new systemic forms that have shaped the world as we know it today.
I heard The Rev. William Barber talk about someone criticizing his efforts against racism. The critic said, “You just want free stuff.” Free stuff? Let’s talk about free stuff. For example, the rise of a predominantly white middle class after World War II has a lot to do with the fact that the G.I. Bill wasn’t available to most blacks because of their skin color. Despite fighting side by side with their white brothers on the battlefield, they couldn’t get the free education and other benefits available to white people. I’m sure, like you, you’ve had friends and relatives who achieved great success because of the GI Bill. The denial of the GI Bill to blacks combined with the denial of mortgages to blacks contributed to the creation of suburbs with better education and more resources for whites than blacks. Then gerrymandering carved up voting districts explicitly for the purposes of underrepresenting black voices in government.
Civil Rights Legislation a Step, not a Cure-all
But wait, didn’t Civil Rights legislation and Affirmative Action put an end to all of that? Hardly. Civil rights legislation was a step, but not a cure-all. Prejudiced people keep finding ways to assert their agendas. You look at the war on crime or drug war policies such as making crack cocaine a more serious offense than powder cocaine and the fact that blacks are imprisoned at a disproportionate rate tells us systemic racism continues to breed and grow.
As Radley Blako said in an op-ed last week, “It seems unlikely that we’ve completely purged the legacy of explicitly discriminatory practices from our culture and institutions in the decades since. It’s a far safer bet that those policies still inflict harm on marginalized groups, and still help the people they’ve always helped.”
The problem of racism isn’t just individual prejudices that people display, it’s how it is embedded in structures and policies, and cultures of institutions. The real problems arise when prejudice is combined with the power to affect someone’s life. Last week we recalled the role of the prophets in calling out systems that were rigged against vulnerable people. So systemic racism is something as people of faith we must do what we can to address and call for justice. Another part of our baptismal liturgy is to say we will “resist evil, injustice, and oppression” in whatever form they present themselves. We have a faith mandate not just to make sure we are not participating in racism as individuals, but we must also see ourselves as advocates for racial justice.
We Know What to Do About Sin
I’ve organized this sermon around naming racism as sin because faith tells us what to do about sin. The end is not to wallow in guilt and shame. We trust that there can be a better day. The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that neither the cross nor the lynching tree can subvert God’s efforts to make us one or as Wheaton College religion professor Esau McCaulley says, “has the final say about those whom God values.”
What does our faith teach us about handling sin? We acknowledge it (learning the depths of its consequences), we confess it, we make amends, we learn from it and turn away from it and make things better.
Acknowledging the Sin of Racism
Acknowledging the sin of racism means that we are honest about history and learn from the past. Those who do not learn from the sins of the past are doomed to repeat them. The Bible doesn’t whitewash its history, it’s filled with the stories of how people of faith got it wrong and worked toward redemption. We shouldn’t be afraid of making sure the next generation knows the ugly truths about what has happened in our country. It’s a step in making things better.
Acknowledging the sin also means that each of us “do our own work” we examine the ways that we may have personally benefited from unfair policies. Most of this we don’t even realize how our experiences are influenced by racist policies (like how many of you knew about the GI Bill?). There is the old joke about two fish swimming along and another fish swims by and asks, “Hey boys, how’s the water?” The two fish swim along, finally, one asks the other, “What’s water?” We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why we need to learn from the perspectives of others, to listen to people of other races about their experiences without reacting, getting defensive.
We confess our sin as a nation and as individuals. We look at the little things we do, the prejudices we may carry that we’ve been made aware of. We work on ourselves and be lovers of life–our own and our neighbors.
During last year I’ve had to re-look at things. From childhood taken an “I’m not racist” attitude. I thought I was beyond that. But in the last year, I’ve read a lot and heard a lot of voices. What I’ve discovered is that despite thinking I was beyond it prejudices worm their way in and need to be rooted out. I saw a list of racial microaggressions and many times I’ve thought, “I’ve done that, I’ve thought that. People take offense at that?” From trying to get Asian people to be less quiet, to thinking, “she speaks English so well.” There are things I was surprised that I need to work on.
Amends and Repentance
We make amends where we can and advocate for our society to do that, too. I used to think that racism would just go away with time and education. When President Obama was elected, I thought we were on an inevitable trajectory of progress. But time and education alone are not doing the trick. They have never been the antidote to sin. The sin of racism is rooted in fear—fear that advancement of one person just means that there isn’t as much of a slice of the pie for you. We called to be people of love. Love casts out fear. So instead of listening to fear-mongering, listen for the voices of love.
The word repentance literally means to turn away from and head in the opposite direction. We become what they are calling anti-racist. Not just saying that we are not personally going to engage in racist actions, but that we are going to be supportive where efforts are being made to dismantle racism, violence, sexism, dehumanizing exist.
In Long Beach, we have this great gift of such a mix of races and cultures. But as Naomi Rainey Pearson says, we have far too much distrust between the groups and too much of groups sticking with their own. Too many of us not aware of our own biases and discriminating. When judge peeps based on what you are and if they are different see them as wrong. It affects college admissions and hiring.
So, let each of us ask what we can do. Have we invited people of other races into our groups, including church? Invite them into your home? Learn about Quanza events, lectures? Read up. Have to reach out on our own, it’s not going to come to you. If not you will just lean on your own understanding. Have we made it known that we are allies? Do you speak out against racist actions and behavior and comments? Or does our silence make us complicit in perpetuating the great sin? It seems we already have the great mix of people here, now let us do our part to live into God’s vision that we are one. Amen.