Lent II, 2018
I once killed a black fellow…
Actually, my Brutus stabbed Rodney’s Caesar in our fifth grade production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Rodney was one of two African-Americans in the class. They took an hour-long bus ride from East San Diego to our elementary school. All told, probably about a fifth of the school made that long morning bus ride while I walked four blocks to school. It seemed normal.
In Jr High School, every month or so, some of the guys on the bus made other arrangements to get home. That was so we could go to a nearby park to play football. We called them “salt and pepper” games. It was blacks against whites. Before we played we would gather in the center of the field and a black kid we called “Father Michael” would say a prayer. Growing up in southern California in the 60’s and 70’s seemed integrated, without problems. It seemed normal.
Then a few years later, in high school, the cheerleaders decided to kidnap all the football players and take them to breakfast. Believe me, it is a dream come true when your 17-year old self is awakened by two or three cheerleaders telling you to come with them. It was a fun morning. But I also remember some of the guys from East San Diego meeting us at the restaurant. Apparently their parents had discouraged the cheerleaders from driving into that part of town at night. Perhaps things were not so “normal.”
I remember my first trip home after a semester at seminary. Suddenly from my father and grandmother I heard words for the first time that I had been hearing from them all my life. They were using racial slang, not for African-Americans, but for Japanese and Latinos. Was that “normal?”
A few months later my grandmother came to visit me at school. One afternoon during her visit I went to hear Jessie Jackson speak at the university. It was during the protests against Apartheid, South Africa’s brutal, government sanctioned segregation. Princeton had investments in companies that did business in South Africa and students were asking for divestment. It was powerful to hear Jackson speak and consider the inhumanity of racism and policies like Apartheid. But South Africa was a long way away.
The plan for the evening was to take grandmother into New York for dinner and a play. So a couple of hours after being stirred to battle the demons of racism I knocked on my grandmother’s hotel room door. She was dressed for a night on the town, including wearing her gold necklace with a Krugerrand dangling from it! It was an ounce of South African gold marketed in the 60’s and 70’s to lift the country’s economy. While students like me were loudly protesting, my grandmother was oblivious to the debate and the connection with a beloved piece of her jewelry. It seemed normal.
A final snapshot. As a newly graduated seminarian, anxious for a call to a church, I remember asking search committee after search committee about the racial composition of the congregation. One lady summed up all the responses: “They have their own church.” It seemed normal.
As we continue our journey through significant words of scripture and faith, our word today is race. I use this term as the root of the word racism. These words are about “making quick judgments on the characteristics of a race to rate them as inferior or superior- demonstrating a partiality or bias.”
The high point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is this: …”for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.”
In a burst of frustration at the segregation the Galatian community is employing, Paul bursts forth with a vision of what a community, saved by grace, truly looks like.
Paul’s frustration should be ours as well. For too many centuries race has divided us, deadened us and blinded us. As a youth growing up I was oblivious to the challenges faced by African-American classmates. I was deaf when it came to my grandmother’s comments about her changing neighborhood. When I needed a call, I silently went along with the accepted cliché, of Sunday worship being the most segregated hour in America. In hindsight, I am blind to the privilege that accrue to me because of the color of my skin. It is not only that I take it for granted, it means I have no framework for understanding the experience of one who looks different. Such ignorance has been pervasive and led to complacency at times, fear and separation at other times.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century theologian argued that “racism is the most vicious of all human vices,” a terrible abyss of evil in the soul of humanity. In his classic The Nature and Destiny of Man, notes that we are prone to such brokenness. He recognized that we are finite and free creatures. So our freedom causes anxiety and insecurity, which leads us, as individuals and groups, to seek security among our own kind through various forms of power over others in politics, religion and knowledge. Niebuhr concludes saying that groups use both religion and reason to advance their own interests and find it nearly impossible to “feel the pain of others as vividly as they do their own.” In other words, our base nature is to remain in our own tribe. Secure in the surroundings of those who think, look and act as we do.
Paul is telling us that Jesus does not see race and other such divides. So we must not see them. The divides that we have instilled, are just that, our inventions. The most profound differences between people known to Paul, like the differences between people known to us, are nothing compared to the power of Christ to reconcile all things. Christ has, with God, made one body out of an infinitely varied tapestry of believers.
Yet we not only fall short of that vision, we too often settle for complacency. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untired.”
Friends, it is time we all got on Christ’s side of our divide over race. It is time we tried and give full meaning to the claim we are disciples of Christ, clothed in his grace.
To do so we must overcome our stubborn tendency toward self-centeredness. Earlier in his letter Paul wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (2:19b-20a) An Alcoholics Anonymous group was fond of quoting a former pastor: “It’s not necessary that you believe in God. What’s necessary is that you know that you’re not God.” We must reach beyond our own small realm and grasp at the heavenly kingdom.
Paul wrote to another congregation that was easing away from the gospel’s diamond-hard truth: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.” (2 Cor. 5:16-17)
To be honest, most of us balk at this. In a moment of solidarity, say after the Charleston shooting, we might get on board and join the chorus of “We shall overcome, someday.” And we act as if that last word, someday is the license we need to keep the status quo. Yet Christ is in our lives today.
Fifty years after the Civil Rights, era, you would think we have figured out how to treat each other. Unfortunately, not. A New York Times poll eighteen months ago revealed that nearly sixty percent of Americans think race relations are bad, with forty percent thinking they are getting worse. It seems normal.
It is time then, to don the mantle of our discipleship and reach across streets, and neighborhoods and church pews to talk and get to know people whose race is different than our own. Who do you see at work, at the sr. center, at the market, who is another race? Find a way to connect with them. Listen to their story, hear their experience. As in the Native American proverb, we don’t know another until we have walked a mile in their moccasins.
It is time to gently tell my grandmother what the gold coin around her neck really means. It is time to listen to the words we use to describe others. It is time to break up the segregated worship hour.
Our community hungers for us, as followers of Christ, to lead the way to Christ’s new creation, where the dividing walls have been torn down and we are all one in Christ Jesus, our Lord. It is time to replace our normal with Christ’s normal!