Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
In response to a statement and call from the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pledged the support of our church in recognizing Sunday, September 6, as “Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism” Sunday.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism as this:
“A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.”
It is such a powerful word, a dangerous word. It is a word that at once defines the daily reality of 25-30% of the population of the country; and for the other 70-75%, it is a word that spells doom, with the power to forever define one as stained and, dare I say, evil. There are few charges that one can level against a white person than claiming they are racist.
The decision to talk about racism this morning was not an easy one. The word conjures up images and feels of fear, of anger, or loss, of offensiveness, of defensiveness. It is a word we hate. We hate everything about it, we hate everything it represents. Which is exactly why we need to talk about it.
I expect that by now, there are more than a few people uncomfortable. You’re not alone. We aren’t used to actually talking about it, even though we encounter it every day. That’s actually why we are talking about it today. Because we don’t usually talk about it.
Which I guess is not entirely true. We do talk about racism. We talk about it a lot. We just don’t name it for what it is, and we spend all of our time denying that it exists. And because we don’t name it, we don’t confront it. Very often, this is how sin works. Ignored long enough, it seeps into the culture to become normal, accepted, even celebrated. We have done this many sins in our country, and racism is one of them.
We claim to hate racism, but so long as we never actually connect what we’re doing to the word racism, we don’t do anything about it. Because once the word is involved, once something is actually pointed out as racist, it makes us look at what we’re doing. It’s not the racism that offends us. It’s the word.
It’s why a church in Kentucky in 2011 can vote to ban interracial couples from participating in church services, but the entire community gathers to condemn the church because the rest of them “aren’t racist”.
It’s why a TV show commenter can ask “But who will clean your toilet?” when asked what would happen if there were no Latinos in the country, and then turn around gain sympathy because she’s “not a racist”.
It’s why a leading political candidate can call Mexicans, an entire ethnicity and nationality rapists, murders, and drug dealers, and people will actually -cheer-, and then turn around and claim that it’s “not racist”.
It’s why a young man can bring a gun into a church, murder nine people in cold blood, saying things like, “You are raping our women and taking over our country,” and that he wanted to start a race war, but people will go out of their way to find alternate explanations for his motivations that “aren’t racist”.
Racism is so hard to talk about, because if we talk about it, it may mean someone calls us racist, and for us, that’s the worst thing that could happen to us—it’s worse than actually living as victims of racism. So when we do talk about racism, immediately, we shift the narrative to us and to our hurt. We talk about our experiences with phrases like, “I’m not racist, but…” because it allows us to keep racism alive without taking any of the responsibility of confronting it.
Everyone’s experience with racism and the word racism is different. We all have stories we can tell. But today, I want to ask you to withhold the telling of your own stories so that you can allow others to speak. Today, I want you to be like Jesus—Jesus at the end of the story, though, not the beginning.
Today’s story is one of the most uncomfortable stories of Jesus’s ministry. You can easily tell how uncomfortable a Biblical story is by how many hoops one has to jump through in order to justify it, or make it seem not so bad.
In this story, Jesus meets a Syrophoenician woman who comes to him with the same sort of request he’s received from so many people. Her daughter is sick with a demon. And she, in faith, comes to him to beg for her daughter’s life. Jesus’s response is… well, see for yourself.
Jesus hears her cries for help, hears her story, and immediately dismisses her. Not only does he dismiss her, he calls her a dog. She’s an animal to him. Her hurt is not worth his time, just because she’s a Syrophoenician. Her story doesn’t matter.
In short, Jesus has a response that mimics the racism we live in today. His story matters. Hers doesn’t.
Now, we can try to find different ways to explain Jesus’s horrible behavior. Many have tried to explain Jesus’s response as being a “test”, to make sure the woman’s faith was really strong. How ridiculous is that? He treated her cruelly, played a very mean joke on her, we say, because Jesus being a cruel jerk is easier to accept than Jesus being a racist. Treating someone like a dog is okay, as long as it means you’re “not a racist”.
It doesn’t matter that Jesus is acting like a racist in this story. It doesn’t matter that he treats this woman poorly and insults her. We can minimize her pain and the injury done to her by explaining away Jesus’s actions.
But what if we looked at the story from the viewpoint of the Syrophoenician woman? What if, by listening to her story, we do truly hear a woman who experiences hate, prejudice, and injustice? And what if, by listening to her story for what it really is, we allow her to inform our understanding of what it means to live in world where she, from Jesus’s point of view, was an outsider?
Listening. It is a skill that is surprisingly difficult to cultivate, because in order to listen, we have to stop talking. The listener has to give up control of the conversation and let the other person speak, give them control of the conversation.
Jesus has to listen to the Syrophoenician woman if he is to understand the pain he’s caused her. And when he does, when he listens to her story, it changes him. Whereas before, he saw himself only as someone for his own race, he now understands his mission to be for non-Israelites, for non-Judeans. He spends days in the area of the Decapolis, which was a collection of Greek cities—Gentiles, outsiders—and there, he continues his healing.
All of this, because his racism was confronted, and he listened.
If we are going to stand up to the sin of racism that lives in our church and in our country, we’re going to have to learn how to listen. We’re going to have to give up control of the conversation, give up our conditions and terms we impose on it. Because as long as we maintain control of the conversation, we won’t be able to hear the pain of those who, like the Syrophoenician woman, are ignored on a daily basis. And if we don’t hear the pain, we won’t believe it exists—after all, we didn’t hear it.
We need to listen to the stories of non-white people in our own church when they tell us that our church is not a welcoming place for anyone who isn’t of German or Scandinavian descent. We need to listen to the stories of non-white people when they tell us that they experience sanctioned and consistent discrimination and prejudice leveled against them, discrimination that we ourselves are blind to. We need to listen to their frustration and their pain for what it is—hurt and pain.
So step one is to listen. If Jesus could have his false preconceptions about Syrophoenicians challenged, then we, too, are able to let ourselves be taught, to hear and to listen to the stories of others. Step two is to act.
Martin Luther famously called the letter of James an “epistle of straw” because of how much it focused on works. He didn’t like it. But, I think James has a point.
For one, James calls out the Christians who show favoritism to one group over the other—in his case, he’s specifically talking about courting and bowing to the rich people in their midst while shunning and ignoring the poor. While the way we treat the rich and the poor is the subject of an entirely different sermon, one I’d like to give, there is something to be said about James’s wholesale condemnation of treating one group of people as better than another.
But what I’m most moved by in this part of the letter is this:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat you fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
It’s the same idea behind a quote attributed to Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry, and then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”
We can admit that racism is a problem in our society—a far greater problem than we like to admit. We can talk about it until our tongues and ears fall off. Just last month, our Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, held a live webcast conversation with William B. Horne II on racism and its effects. But talk will only get us so far. As with any sin, racism will not go away simply be talking about it. We have to do something about it.
I wish I could tell you what that something is. I remember my own frustration in my seminary class on Race, Ethnicity, and Religion, when our conversation seemed to suggest that there was nothing to be done about racism. I don’t know what it will take to end racism in this country. I don’t know how to undo or repair the damage done by centuries of blatant, official, systemic oppression built into the fabric and foundation of our country that we are still only climbing out of.
My hope is that by listening, by actually listening, without getting offended by what he hear, without making it about us avoiding the word “racist” and defending ourselves, without passing judgment on the stories we hear, we are able to move forward. We are able to actually work toward eliminating racism instead of just talking about it and hiding from it.
And there is something else in James’s letter that gives me hope: “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Ultimately, confronting racism, that dreaded word, no matter how painful and uncomfortable as it might be for us, leads to mercy and reconciliation for all.