More Thoughts on Racism and Reasons for Hope

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | July 12, 2020

2nd Corinthians 5:17-20

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to God through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to God’s self in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making God’s appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Verse 19: “God has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Friends, I am a recovering racist.

Racism has been called “America’s Original Sin” (Jim Wallis and others).  

I grew up down the street from Theodore Beaver Cleaver and his older brother Wally, of Leave It to Beaver fame.  Our entire neighborhood in Bloomington, Minnesota, was white. My high school, John F. Kennedy in Bloomington, back in 1970 had 2600 students, one of whom was black.  (Today it is more than 50% kids of color.  I just love to visit there now; it’s the United Nations.)  At St. Olaf College I took a class on Black American Literature.  It was taught by a white man.  St. Olaf…I don’t recall that any of the school’s twenty black students was enrolled.

Because I had no experience with people of other cultures whatsoever, and because it was the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, I picked up some prejudices and less than Christian attitudes.  Over the years I have worked fairly hard at extricating those.  I read books, participated in classes, made friends with people of color and considered myself to be a reasonably enlightened person.  Until a few years ago.  And especially a few weeks ago.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I have been learning a lot.  I trust you have as well.

This is my second sermon on racism in the past couple of months.  I want us today to think briefly about five areas: white privilege, the Confederate flag, the case for reparations, ways to educate ourselves, and my reasons for hope.  Strap in.  (This written version includes full-length resources, not all of which I read in the in-person sermon.)

White Privilege.  Some of us have seen lists of what it means to be the beneficiary of white privilege.  It was only this week that I learned that almost all of the compilers of those lists are white.  How ironic. The most famous list was compiled by Peggy McIntosh back in 1988.  I will read just a few of the 26 examples, but you can get the entire list on the written copy of this sermon, which will be available on the website.

White Privilege means:

  1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. 
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live. 
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me. 
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed (by the clerks). 
  5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented. 
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. 
  7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. (As one Black educator has noted, “The history of your people is part of the core curriculum.  The history of my people is an elective.”)
  8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege. 
  9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair. 
  10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. 
  11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them. 
  12. I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race. 
  13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial. 
  14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race. 
  15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group. 
  16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion. 
  17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.  
  18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race. 
  19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race. 
  21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared. 
  22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co- workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race. 
  23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen. 
  24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me. 
  25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones. 
  26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin. 

Here is a real-life example from a woman of color, Lori Laken Hutchinson:

On my very first date with my now husband, I climbed into his car and saw baby wipes on the passenger-side floor. He said he didn’t have kids; they were just there to clean up messes in the car. I twisted to secure my seatbelt and saw a stuffed animal in the rear window. I gave him a look. He said, “I promise, I don’t have kids. That’s only there so I don’t get stopped by the police.” He then told me that when he drove home from work late at night, he was getting stopped by cops constantly because he was a black man in a luxury car, and they assumed that either it was stole,n or he was a drug dealer. When he told a cop friend about this, Warren was told to put a stuffed animal in the rear window because it would change “his profile” to that of a family man and he was much less likely to be stopped. The point here is, if you’ve never had to mask the fruits of your success with a floppy-eared, stuffed bunny rabbit so you won’t get harassed by the cops on the way home from your gainful employment (or never had a first date start this way), you have white privilege.

A few years back the church which I served as senior pastor, Oak Grove Presbyterian in Bloomington, was interested in hiring a young man as our interim associate pastor.  He was invited to preach one Sunday morning.  Worship started at 9:30. He pulled into the parking lot at 9:27.  I said to myself, “This ain’t gonna work.”

It turned out that he had been stopped by a police officer on his way to church, for no offense, and detained for twenty minutes while they ran his record. He is Black, in his mid-30s, always impeccably dressed and groomed, never speeds or knowingly violates any laws, and he drives a little blue Toyota pickup, perhaps the most innocuous and inconspicuous vehicle on the road.  

Now, I get stopped by the police about once a decade, and always because I’ve messed up somehow.  Jermaine gets stopped several times a year, and every time he is stopped, he fears for his life.

After the murder of George Floyd, Jermaine emailed me and said, “See.  This is what I was trying to tell the Oak Grove people back in 2016. Maybe they’ll get it now.” Before 2016 I thought I was reasonably well-educated about racism, but during the year that Jermaine spent with us I learned so very much!  One of the chief things I learned about was the constant stress, the daily and hourly strain and anxiety, of living in America as a Black man.  That’s a big reason why black men don’t live as long as white men in the US.  White privilege.

Second. The Confederate flag.  In the news a lot.

This information is from a man named Jim Golden, who teaches Advanced Placement US History.  I’m not going to read the entire piece, but again, you can read the entire piece on the written version of the sermon on the website.

If you are confused as to why so many Americans are defending the confederate flag, monuments, and statues right now, I put together a quick Q&A, with questions from a hypothetical person with misconceptions, and answers from my perspective as an AP U.S. History Teacher:

Q: What did the Confederacy stand for?

A: Rather than interpreting, let’s go directly to the words of the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens. In his “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861, he stated “The Constitution… rested upon the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Q: But people keep saying heritage, not hate! They think the purpose of the flags and monuments are to honor confederate soldiers, right? 

A: The vast majority of confederate flags flying over government buildings in the south were first put up in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. So, for the first hundred years after the Civil War ended, while relatives of those who fought in it were still alive, the confederate flag wasn’t much of a symbol at all. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis were marching on Washington to get the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) passed, leaders in the south felt compelled to fly confederate flags and put up monuments to honor people who had no living family members and had fought in a war that ended a century ago. Their purpose in doing this was to exhibit their displeasure with black people fighting for basic human rights that were guaranteed to them in the 14th and 15th Amendments but being withheld by racist policies and practices.

Q: But if we take down confederate statues and monuments, how will we teach about and remember the past?

A: Monuments and statues pose little educational relevance, whereas museums, the rightful place for Confederate paraphernalia, can provide more educational opportunities for citizens to learn about our country’s history. The Civil War is important to learn about, and will always loom large in social studies curriculum. Removing monuments from public places and putting them in museums also allows us to avoid celebrating and honoring people who believed that tens of millions of black Americans should be legal property. 

Q: But what if the Confederate flag symbol means something different to me?

A: Individuals aren’t able to change the meaning of symbols that have been defined by history. When I hang a Bucs flag outside my house, to me, the Bucs might represent the best team in the NFL, but to the outside world, they represent an awful NFL team, since they haven’t won a playoff game in 18 years. I can’t change that meaning for everyone who drives by my house because it has been established for the whole world to see. If a Confederate flag stands for generic rebellion or southern pride to you, your personal interpretation forfeits any meaning once you display it publicly, as its meaning takes on the meaning it earned when a failed regime killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in an attempt to destroy America and keep black people enslaved forever. 

Q: But my uncle posted a meme that said the Civil War/Confederacy was about state’s rights and not slavery?

A: “A state’s right to what?” – John Green

Q: Everyone is offended about everything these days. Should we take everything down that offends anyone?

A: The Confederacy literally existed to go against the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the idea that black people are human beings that deserve to live freely. If that doesn’t upset or offend you, you are un-American. 

Q: Taking these down goes against the First Amendment and freedom of speech, right?

A: No. Anyone can do whatever they want on their private property, on their social media, etc. Taking these down in public, or having private corporations like NASCAR ban them on their properties, has literally nothing to do with the Bill of Rights. 

Q: How can people claim to be patriotic while supporting a flag that stood for a group of insurgent failures who tried to permanently destroy America and killed 300,000 Americans in the process? 

A: No clue.

Q: So, if I made a confederate flag my profile picture, or put a confederate bumper sticker on my car, what am I declaring to my friends, family, and the world?

A: That you support the Confederacy. To recap, the Confederacy stands for: slavery, white supremacy, treason, failure, and a desire to…(support) white supremacy. 

It’s no accident that: 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B. DuBois

You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington. 

You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves. 

You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street. 

You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”

You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals. 

You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race. 

You learned about “states’ rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession. 

Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. 

Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. 

You have a choice. – Jim Golden

Three.  The Case for Reparations

Some have suggested that the US government should pay reparations to African-Americans, first as moral recompense for the sin of slavery, and second, as partial repayment for the incalculable economic benefits that accrued to whites through 250 years of slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws, redlining, segregation, and exploitation. 

“In 1860 over $3 billion was the value assigned to the physical bodies of enslaved Black Americans to be used as free labor and production. This was more money than was invested in factories and railroads combined. 

In 1861 the value placed on cotton produced by enslaved Blacks was $250 million. Slavery enriched white slave owners and their descendants, and it fueled the country’s economy.

There were more millionaires in Mississippi…than in New York.”  (Sermon by Gwin Pratt)

Still, when I first heard about reparations, I thought it was kind of a crackpot idea, certainly entirely impractical.

In March of 2019 David Brooks, columnist of the NY Times, wrote about reparations.  As most of you know, Brooks is not a flaming liberal, but a self-described moderate Republican.  He wrote:

Nearly five years ago I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” with mild disagreement. All sorts of practical objections leapt to mind. What about the recent African immigrants? What about the poor whites who have nothing of what you would call privilege? Do we pay Oprah and LeBron?

But I have had so many experiences over the past year — sitting, for example, with an elderly black woman in South Carolina shaking in rage because the kids in her neighborhood face greater challenges than she did growing up in 1953 — that suggest we are at another moment of make-or-break racial reckoning.

Coates’s essay seems right now, especially this part: “And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

To read Coates’ original article see below (June 2014 Ta Nehisi-Coates).

The concept of reparations is what Dr. King had in mind when he said these words at a mass rally in DC:

We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.  (Pratt sermon)

Presbyterian Church of Apostles, a small congregation in Burnsville, has, in the spirit of reparations, set up a college scholarship fund for the Black children of their congregation and three scholarships for other kids of color at Burnsville High School.

Reparations is worth a serious national conversation at this point in our nation’s history and is well worth some discussion within our own congregation.   

Fourth.  Ways to educate ourselves.  One of the beautiful things to come out of the murder of George Floyd is the national awakening to the issue of racism.  It’s been gratifying to see the explosion of educational materials spotlighted in the newspaper, in social media, highlighted on Netflix and other streaming services.  It can be overwhelming.  Let me just mention four: “Jim Crow of the North,” a TPT documentary about redlining in Minnesota.  Redlining refers to the conspiracy by city leaders and realtors to restrict where Black people could purchase houses.  The documentary is on youtube.

“13th” is a 2016 documentary by Ava DuVernay receiving renewed attention now. The film explores the “intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.” It is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the United States. The film is available on Netflix.

Hamilton, with its black cast.  Streaming now on Disney Plus.  If you don’t have Disney Plus, someone you know will.  I suggest you watch it with closed captioning on, as the words come fast and furious.

The final resource is one I came across in the Little Free Library at the end of our block a week ago.  It is a book by Kent Nerburn, who lives in Bemidji, Minnesota.  Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a nonfiction work consisting of the reflections of a nearly 80-year-old Native American man called Dan.  Neither Wolf Nor Dog is not a new book.  It’s from 1994, with a revised edition in 2002.  Again, I thought I knew a fair amount about Native Americans, but this book has been a revelation.  Within the first 50 pages I ran out of Post-it notes.  That kind of book.  Neither Wolf Nor Dog.

Let me read a bit from the foreword: 

An Ojibwe man who read the book later phoned the author, Kent Nerburn.  His words were fumbling: I could tell that the phone call was difficult for him. “I’m the guy you gave that book to,” he said. “I just want to thank you.”

I told him that no thanks were necessary.

“No,” he said, “I got to do this.  See, I’ve been sad my whole life.  Ever since I was a little kid, people always said to me, ‘Why are you so sad?’ They’d see me outside playing and I’d be sad.  My own little kids, even they ask me why I’m so sad. But I couldn’t tell them.  I was just sad.  Then I read that book you gave me and for the first time I knew why I was sad.  I sat at the table one day and just started talking to my family.  I talked more than I ever talked.  I just kept talking until I talked all the sadness out of me.  Now I’m not sad any more and my family isn’t sad.  I want you to know what you did.  You are my brother and I want to thank you.” (p. x)

As a non-Indian, I can say that this is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life.

So, finally, number five: What do we do?  The question every sermon should ask of us.

The message of scripture is that God’s kin-dom is broad and deep and inclusive of all, and that God’s will is justice and compassion for all.  Let us teach our children this truth.

God calls us to the hard work of reconciliation.  Let us be faithful in prayer and in action.  Let us give our time and our money to projects of justice.

We go in the strength and the promises of God and of the community of faith:  

The prophet Micah declared that what the Lord requires of us is “to do justice, act with kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

The apostle Paul declared, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3).”

Jesus promised, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”  

God promised “Behold, I make all things new.”  

And finally, the Risen Christ promised, “I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”

Friends, I charge us with the work of reconciliation, in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Amen and amen!

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