A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2015
Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas; and all that is in them; who keeps his promises for ever; Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.
On June 17, nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot and killed by an attacker expressing reasons for the murders connected with race. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination has asked all churches in this country to join in a “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” The leadership of the national Episcopal Church and Bishop Dietsche have encouraged all parishes to participate, so I will focus on this issue in today’s sermon.
Most Episcopal churches have a predominantly white membership. I have spent most of my ministry in parishes, which, though they often sincerely expressed a desire to be more diverse and inclusive, were slightly more white in membership than the surrounding community. So being at this church has been a new experience for me and I hope I have learned something that may be relevant.
Racism … is actually difficult to recognize when you are its beneficiary. I’m serious, and I only really came to appreciate that fact as I experienced seeing the same human dynamic in other people in an entirely un-related area over the past year. As I grew up, everyone expected me to do well in school and to be successful in a career. I learned that we all had rights and, that in a free country, we could exercise those rights without fear. I became used to being respected and trusted, given the opportunity to speak my mind and the benefit of the doubt if I didn’t get things quite right. I was aware that that was not the experience of everyone, in particular persons of color, but it was a little hard to grasp why or how this came to be. About a year ago, a group of us quietly spoke the truth about some serious concerns, fully expecting to be taken seriously and brought into a conversation to solve the problems. I won’t go into the specifics, but I suddenly experienced not being trusted, having my motives and interpretations of facts dismissed, and being cast out from all influence and receiving no respect. This was happening at the same time that our country’s attention was focused on the much more important, literally life-and-death events in Ferguson, Missouri. I realized that what I experienced in being not respected or trusted, in a really limited and temporary way, was analogous to the lifelong experience of millions in our country: chronically not trusted, nor given respect as a matter of course, experiencing one sort of demeaning treatment or other and having the benefit of the doubt given to those who demeaned them. The difference was that I was dealing with a contained set of people and interests, but for millions, indeed for our country as a whole, these problems are defined by race.
It is easy enough to see violence, and bad words, and over-the-top racist nastiness. For Episcopalians, that generally happens far away and outside of our social group. We can safely be outraged, condemn bad language and bad actions, even pass resolutions or send money, then pat ourselves on the back, go back to business as usual, and everything stays the same. But what is difficult is to really see racism. One author helpfully labels it, PWS – Polite White Supremacy. Episcopalians are far too polite for Crass White Supremacy, when you think of the Polite version…
Oh, no. We are far too good and Christian for that… It would be rude to imply that any of our brothers and sisters in Christ ever profited from slavery. Oh, well maybe historically, but … still we need to be courteous and polite.
To be fair, most people’s lives are a struggle. Comparing miseries doesn’t help, most people experience their own difficulty and that is bad enough. They have a hard time imagining how they would get by and be able to properly take care of their children, or get to the point that they could have children, if anything of significance was taken away from them. And most people try to be good and try to find a way to see themselves and their families and friends as fundamentally good, that’s how people survive.
The problem, put simply, is that the legacy of chattel slavery is indigestible for white Americans. I’m convinced that the concept of race as we have inherited it really developed from the need to rationalize and make morally okay, the practice of keeping people of African ancestry in permanent bondage. That had evolved into a perception of economic necessity, so the rationale became that these people were enslaved because their race made it appropriate or even necessary for them to be slaves. Slavery itself was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, but its legacy in racism continues.
It is difficult to see how an ordinary guy whose family never owned a plantation or who doesn’t have a family fortune going back to the slave trade profits from racism. Believe me, it’s hard for that guy. But the benefit of unacknowledged privilege, of easier access to pathways to success, to safety and education that can be taken for granted—that is real. The problem is, that even with those benefits things are not always easy and when you think about change. … Change is good, change the bad things, but the problem is, well… change. Change knocks our security free from its anchor, it might endanger things that are important to us, we might lose what we don’t want to give up, and if you press this too far, the story of how we are good people might need to be changed.
So the problem with race and the Episcopal Church is that on the one hand we can’t afford to treat one category of people differently than another—as our lesson from James this morning says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord, Jesus Christ?” Yet it will require much change, not just in a few rules but in our relationships and expectations of one another, changes that have implications for the finances of the church and where the administrative energy of the church might go. And yet, I don’t know if you have been around to many of the churches in the Diocese of New York, but most of them are hurting financially, and even the wealthiest churches are not as well off as they once were, with fewer parishioners and smaller budgets. There is no, no-cost solution to racism, even the energy to pay attention to how we treat one another is hard to come by.
What I want is for is for those of us who are privileged to listen to what people who suffer from racism have to say. It will be only through careful listening and working hard to change our attitudes and our behavior that we ever have a hope of ending the evil that is racism. It’s a long process; perhaps our grandchildren will be able to explain to their grandchildren how hard the process was. And, let us pray that those babies will have a hard time understanding that.
Racism is a process of denial. Denial makes everything slippery, everything is hard to change—you just get yessed to death and nothing changes. The Episcopal Church extends denial beyond questions of race into most corners of its life. Perhaps if we can be forthright in speaking with one another on issues related to race, we can also be forthright about priorities about mission, about providing ministry for our churches, about the responsibility of laity and about how the ministry of all baptized people can be effective in this world. The Gospel challenges us all to change, to be more welcoming, to live in the overwhelming grace of God and to not keep it to ourselves. The Gospel challenges Trinity Church to change as much as any other, and that can be frightening—yet no more frightening than the alternative—to become rigid and blind, and cease to be.
We are called by God to be his people. Listen to these words from our lesson from Isaiah:
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert, the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.
Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God.