Institutional Racism and the church (sermon)
In August of 2014 modern day civil rights activist Lisa Sharon Harper went to Ferguson, MO. She’s an acquaintance at our church and was part of our FCQ series. This time she went to Ferguson to bridge the gap between white and black people surrounding the death of Michael Brown.
If you remember from a couple of years ago, Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot dead by a white police officer. Brown’s body lay in the streets for 4 hours before anyone came to take Brown to the hospital. The officer who shot Brown wrote out an incident report that conflicted greatly with the accounts of eyewitnesses and ultimately it was police officer Wilson’s reports that were backed up by Ferguson’s police chief. We’d later learn that even though there were inconsistencies and gross professional misconduct in officer Wilson’s actions, there’d be no punishment for the officer.
The ensuing protests in Ferguson turned violent. Many were arrested. Over 90 people were assaulted and seriously hurt. Reporters were also hurt and assaulted. Military grade vehicles occupied the streets of Ferguson and curfews enacted. Rightfully so the tension remained.
Harper found herself bothered by the fact that there were fewer white allies marching and protesting with Black people in Ferguson. In fact she didn’t understand why so many churches in the city, churches who considered themselves diverse and multicultural, refused to show up.
After convening predominantly white pastors, elders, and community leaders throughout Ferguson, Harper, along with Pastor Leroy Barber came and preached a message. The message was taken from a passage we love here at this church mainly because Jesus uses it in his first sermon. It’s Isaiah 61:1-4. For those in need of a reminder here’s what it says,
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty, instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. –Isaiah 61:1-4
The Reverend Barber spoke to the group and what he said had quite the impact. He said in effect that what Isaiah is telling us is that those who’ve been consistently oppressed, those that have been in pain, those who have witnessed the struggle first hand, they are the ones that will lead. They will be the oaks of righteousness. They will rebuild that which is broken.
And then Barber and Harper said to the pastors of all of these churches, they said, “What’s happening right now are fulfillment of Isaiah’s words today. The oppressed are working to lead the way to a new way of living. The broken are the strong ones who fight for injustice. They are working to bring the end to devastation. Do you believe that they can lead you? Do you believe that you can be led to peace by the people of color here in Ferguson Missouri?”
Finally a young pastor spoke up. He looked around the room and spoke a truth that I think is important for many of us to hear today. He said,
“As a white man I’ve implicitly been taught that I’m the one that leads everyone else.” Someone else spoke up. “It never occurred to me that I could be led to peace by a group like we have here in Ferguson.
As disheartening as that is, it comes as a product of America’s collective history. There is an institution that has long established the words in Isaiah as being implausible. They discount the fact that the oppressed should ever lead and in fact, laws throughout the years have been put in place to ensure that the oppressed aren’t ever given the opportunity to lead restoration. When I say institution I’m going to go back quite a ways but for the sake of time I actually have to leave a bunch of stuff out.
The philosopher Plato sets a ground work for western thought in the year 300 when he writes in his famous book, The Republic, that races should be treated like precious metals, with light skinned people being considered gold while those who are darker be treated as bronze, copper, and other common metals. Plato’s works became part of a predominant western thought, which manifested itself in the decisions of the learned popes.
Pope Nicholas the V began the West African slave trade by ordering European nations to enslave anyone who didn’t convert to Christianity.
Pope Alexander the VI “gifted” much of what we now know as America, Mexico, and Central America. Sociologists believe that the swath of landed gifted was inhabited by upwards of 100 million native people. The condition in which the pope gifted the land was that western Europeans settle there and convert everyone to Christianity. Those who don’t convert deserve death. Sociologists then say that after Europeans took over the land gifted by the Pope that the population of said area decreased by 80-90 percent. There is a quote from one of the conquistadors saying,
“When we became tired of the killing, God saw fit to give the savages smallpox” – Bernal Diaz Del Castillo.
In 1751 beloved American figure, Benjamin Franklin lamented the declining Anglo-Saxon population and declared that America should protect the White population by becoming an Anglo-Saxon only colony. He made his argument before the British Parliament.
When the Declaration of Independence came to in 1776 Thomas Jefferson declares that all men are created equal, which we like to celebrate. Just a few paragraphs later Jefferson has these words to say about Native Americans,
The last of these complaints, however, is one that reads: (King George) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In some ways Ben Franklin, with the help of Jefferson got his wish. Upon the United State’s first ever census people of color residing the US were listed as Chattel. That means, any property deemed necessary for production of goods and livelihood. Other things considered chattel at the time included pitchforks and horses. That’s what non-white human beings were reduced to here in this country less than 300 years ago.
Also in 1790 came the Citizen Naturalization Act, which said that only white men had the right to vote, which as we know, is of profound importance when shaping a new nation, or even an old one. The naturalization act in so many words proclaimed that immigrants to the US could be categorized as white. We have Irish, Germans, Scandinavian, and others across Europe forsaking their own culture to legally be seen as white and procuring their right to vote. This law remained in effect for so long that in 1922, less than 100 years ago, a Japanese man named Takao Ozawa sued the US government for the chance at being categorized as white and thus considered a citizen of the US, capable of voting. The US census decided to count Mr. Ozawa as Chinese even though he was clearly not of Chinese descent. In fact, anyone with any semblance of appearing Asian were qualified as chinese, effectively minimizing their humanness, culture, and heritage, another reason that I think the idea of not seeing color is detrimental. At the end of the day there has only remained one constant on each US census from 1790 to 2010. That is the fact one category remains, it’s the category that refers to people simply as “White.”
What about the fact that the Japanese were interned, basically imprisoned during WW2 simply because they were Japanese! That’s in the lifetimes of some of our family members! Fear brought upon by our history is not reduced to the African American population.
Around the same time as the Naturalization act went down, Congress set into motion something called the 3/5 compromise, which decided that African slaves should count as 3/5 of a human being. This was just the beginning of institutionalizing racism amongst Africans living in the US. And continues to be perpetuated throughout our history.
Now I know that some of you might be thinking, “But this was so long ago. America has made great strides.” I think that’s a myth. Our racism might not be overt as it once was but laws set in place hundreds of years ago still have major consequences today.
African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
- The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
- Mass incarceration. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults.
- Education - Look at the stats. 18 percent of minority students account of 50 percent of suspensions.
- Racial wealth inequality - whites make 18x more and 10x more than blacks and Latinos respectively.
If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
I think it manifests itself in more informal ways.
Today we don’t say “black ppl” we say “we want to crack down on drugs” but why do police target black neighborhoods more if blacks and whites use drugs at same rates. In fact, during the crack epidemic of the 80’s, which greatly affected the African American populations, we called it the war on drugs and we incarcerated a record number of people.
Today we have another drug problem. We have the opioid crisis, which greatly affects white people. We don’t incarcerate them though. We don’t even call it a war. We run tv and internet commercials giving addicts and their families options to get help!
Today we shine giant spotlights right at all section 8 housing in the name of safety. Do the police shine giant spotlights in your neighborhood in the name of safety? They don’t in mine? Today we don’t say “black women” we say “welfare queens” and immediately an image of black women come to mind even though most welfare recipients are white.
In the past weeks and in the coming weeks we’ve asked you to take a look at the history of our country and its dealings with minorities in regards to housing, educational, and job discrimination. I encourage your groups to look at the disparities between white people and people of color in every one of these scenarios. Our disparities are set a part from the beginning of our country’s history.
So back to a couple of weeks ago when I talked about equity versus equality. Once again, equality says that all have the ability to see over the sheet. The sheet is set at a certain height. But we must acknowledge that some groups, from the get go, have been reduced to less than greatly hindering their ability to have equitable status. Church, if anyone of us has the mindset that everyone has an equal chance to succeed, the way that our country was inherently set up makes that line of thinking faulty and illogical. Let’s stop talking about pulling up by bootstraps when there were systems in place set up to stop that very thing from happening.
This manifests itself in a couple of ways within our own lives. The standards set from the beginning of North America’s existence creates within us a implicit bias against people of color. This isn’t just for white people, this is for all of us.
The implicit associate test, given by Project Implicit shows that 75 percent of test takers have biases against people of color. Even people of color have biases against people of color. That means three out of every four of us in this room have some sort of bias against people of color. And like I said last week, it’s not overt. We generally have blind spots but these blind spots make a huge difference.
Ohio State University did a study on this implicit bias and it shows that it greatly impacts the way we treat people of color in regards to first encounters, whether or not we arrest, shoot, or prosecute people of color. And I want to stress that we have many fine people that work in law enforcement here in our church. We are great people but we are influenced by a history that is designed so that our brains think differently about POC’s
How often do you look at someone and innately think, that person must be dangerous, smart, weaker than me, a doctor, jobless, on welfare? I can go on. In fact I will go on. According to the extensive research done on implicit bias we see that our institutional racism brings about a personal racism. We are indeed affected by the structures of inequity that have long affected America and its people.
Furthermore the church has responded with complicit actions to keep inequality inequitable. In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith present data that shows the vast majority of Christians right up until the start of the Civil War believed that Native Americans, Slaves, Asians, and other minority groups had no souls and therefore weren’t worthy of Christianity. In fact, the majority of Christians used scripture to justify slavery pointing to passages like this one in the book of Colossians,
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord – Colossians 3:21
On a side note, can we stop saying that we take the Bible literally? But I digress.
Others like famous preacher Cotton Mather advocated for slaves’ rights but ultimately did very little do bring about equity for minorities, both men and women alike. And If I’m being frank I think there are many churches, maybe ours included who are doing the same thing! We’re advocating for the kingdom of heaven here on earth but aren’t doing enough to bring the light of Christ. This isn’t so much an indictment as a challenge for us to be different.
Ultimately, most of the Christian church has historically stood on the side of the oppressor, a direct contradiction to the radical call of the gospel message. I’ll go even further to say that parts of the American Christian church are in danger of becoming irrelevant due to the fact that they still stand on the side of the oppressor. After the US declared 200K El Salvadorians living in the US for 16 years, “Illegal” I unfortunately saw a fair share of religious folks come out in praise of a country that would protect its people. Unfortunately what they don’t see is that this perpetuates a hundreds of years old pattern in the US and remains that antithesis to the gospel message. So why not just shut the whole church down? Why not just throw the baby out with the bathwater? I’m tempted but I believe that the Epiphany, the incarnation of Christ will not be defeated.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, we’re in the middle of Epiphany. Regardless of the intensity of this message I think that this is a time of celebration. We’re celebrating the fact that the light of Christ is here. We’re celebrating the incarnation of god to show us what the kingdom of heaven looks like. The kingdom of heaven looks a whole lot like Jesus. And so I’ll continue to remind us in this Epiphany season that our job is to partner with God to bring the kingdom of heaven here to earth. How did Jesus do it?
He interacts with the Samaritan, the SyroPhoenician woman, the Roman Centurion, the demoniac, all of whom were fundamentally different than Jesus. Jesus does not treat all people equally. Read the scripture, he doesn’t. He treats those who are victims of racism, oppression, and hurt, better than others! Jesus does not bring equality. Jesus brings equity. That is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus breaks down temple systems through his death. There was a clear delineation between the Jewish part of the temple and the gentile part of the temple. In fact, Gentiles were warned not to go near that part of the temple under penalty of death. But Jesus’ death changes the systems of the temple and invites all in.
Lastly, the picture of Pentecost, the spirit of Jesus upon the people once again shows what happens when the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. – Acts 2:4-6
There is a picture of all the languages, all of the differences highlighted and yet the spirit of the Lord descends equitably on them all, giving each of them the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Time and time again the Bible points to the fact that the Epiphany season, the light of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, is an equitable kingdom where our differences are celebrated and the gifts of God are made for us all, no exceptions. Frankly, that’s the good news of the Gospel and like I told you before, we get to usher that gospel message into our community!
A couple of weeks ago we talked about developing the willingness to listen. I talked about the fact that listening to the experiences of others creates empathy as does cultivating a practice of grief for all that we’ve heard today and all that we hear from other members of our community.
I want to point out two more things that I think are important to do today in regards to being a church that changes systems. I think we need to hear the voice of the prophet Isaiah and the sermon of Reverend Barber. We need to pay attention to the question asked by our prophets and the questions asked in Ferguson Missouri. Do we believe that the oppressed are the ones who can lead us to peace? Do we believe that some of us as the dominant culture can sit at the feet of those who have long been held back and be led? If we can say yes to that then I think we can take the next steps to bring the kingdom of God.
1. Be an ally and show up. Hannah Johnston at St. Lydias talks about the fact that they have a ministry where they simply show up in support of others in the city who deal with racism. That sometimes means that they are there as allies for a Black Lives Matter rally. Other times it means being present when the city thinks about passing a law that will increase institutional disparity. Often it’s in support of refugees or those served by DACA.
As some of you have heard or not heard. One of the ways that our church will work to change systems is through our work with the Arab American Support Center in NYC and working with the city of NY directly to help change laws and that perpetuate racism. I invite you to find out more about the orgs we’ll support and invite you to show up and be an ally for those that need allies.
2. Prayer matters here at our church. We say it every Sunday. We have a prayer team and I don’t think we take advantage. I think prayer allows us to take all of our thoughts captive, like Paul calls us to do in scripture I think prayer gives us the mind to see everyone as a child of God. I believe that the power of prayer changes implicit bias beset upon us by systems of inequity and gives us different eyes to see. I believe that a cultivated prayer life is one that allows us to reorder our minds to change systems.
And as we celebrate Epiphany we celebrate the we extend the light of God, that the spirit is at work in us to bring about a just and generous system of equity to our community.
Let’s pray the same prayer that Lisa Sharon Harper prayed with the church leaders in Ferguson four years ago.
1. Close your eyes.
2. Remember Isaiah’s statement that it will be the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the imprisoned who will repair the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations.
3. Imagine yourself being led by the oppressed in your town, city, and state.
4. How does it feel in your gut to imagine following the lead of the least of these?
5. Be brutally honest with yourself. Do you believe the Scripture?
6. If not, then confess your unbelief to God, and ask God to help you believe.
7. If you believe, then ask God to guide your steps as you enter the movement to repair what race broke in America."