Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Luke 10:25-37;
Col. 1:1-14; Deut. 30:9-14
EXPOSING AND WORKING TO HEAL THE SIN OF RACISM
This sermon is a hybrid from the Sunday and Monday versions: some parts that were given at one service and not the other, plus several additions to this written edition.
Last Sunday we talked about sin — but from a different perspective than we might be used to. Generally, we talk about sin in terms of individual’s misdeeds — sin on a personal dimension, in other words. But our journey through St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians confronts us with an entirely different dimension of sin, namely, sin on a cultural and institution level. In his passionate message to the Galatians, Paul is trying to help them — help us — become more aware that the powers of sin and death even invade and infest our human cultures and institutions. His number one example is “law,” which in the ancient world was totally bound up with religion. Paul says startling and astounding things like, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Gal 2:19). We could just as well translate that as, “For through religion I died to religion, so that I might live to God.” Shocking, right?
At the center of Paul’s insight is the cross of Jesus itself. If Jesus was duly tried and found guilty in both the Jewish and Roman courts, by leaders who were also representatives of their religion, then God’s raising Jesus on Easter morning is not only the promise of the defeat of death. It is also God showing our systems of law and religion to miss the mark, to be sinful. If Jesus is guilty by human law, backed by religion, then we see that the power of sin even invades and infests the heart of our human institutions and cultures. Do you see? I hope so, because we are about to up the ante.
Last Sunday we talked about sin, in both the personal and cultural levels. This week in the news we witnessed again how sin invades and infests our American legal system through racism. Two more African-American men were killed by police. The Minnesota governor was very honest in admitting that, as he examined the tragic incident, he believes that Mr. Castile would still be alive if he was white. We grieve with and pray for the families and communities of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
And as the peaceful protests began, a lone gunman took advantage in Dallas, shooting five innocent police officers to death. We grieve with and pray for the families and communities of Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith.
Brothers and sisters, we also need to ask: can we respond with more than just prayer? And last week I ended my sermon by talking about what is for me the purpose of prayer, in the first place — namely, to align ourselves with what God desires for us and the world. The prophet Micah tells us (6:8), as we will sing in a few moments (David Haas’ hymn “We Are Called”), that God desires justice and calls us to join in. So the kind of prayer we want to be about is prayer that moves us to action for the sake of God’s world.
This morning’s immensely important Parable of the Good Samaritan ends with a call to action: “Go and do likewise!” And I believe that the parable which comes before it gives us Jesus’ version of helping us to see sin on the cultural level (which St. Paul then repeated in his own way). In terms of our experience as a nation this week, we might see the man lying dead in the road as those African Americans being killed under the power of the sin of racism. These are unique and innocent lives being taken. Will we respond, or pass by on the other side? How might we respond?
The priest and Levite stand for those in charge of our culture and institutions who choose to see and not respond. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus chose chief representatives of his own culture! In a democracy like ours, the priest and Levite can represent all of us, but especially us white folks! We need to see how, over a long period of four hundred years, our institutions were set up to serve white people. And here’s the other side of that coin essential to see: that the lives of nonwhite people have counted for less. That’s why we currently have a “Black Lives Matter” movement springing up. Not because all lives don’t matter, but because we need to recognize that for far too long black lives have mattered less in the ways we do things. When the Minnesota governor recognizes that Mr. Castile would probably still be alive if he was white, this is admitting how our culture has been formed for a long time with white lives mattering more than others. To begin to recognize the injustice of this and to change our hearts as individuals is the first step. But the next step is much more difficult: To see how the centuries-old injustices still inhabit our culture and institutions.
In short, I believe today’s parable from Jesus is told precisely to show us the power of sin that invades and infests our cultures through deadly powers like racism. What I believe it shows us is the basic shape of that sin which inhabits culture. And the difficult thing is that it involves both a good thing and bad thing. The good aspect is that culture helps the bonding in love and care within our human groups. That’s obviously good! But the bad thing, the way in which the power invades our cultures, is that that bonding together has generally been based on exclusion of others. Jesus exposes this by choosing a Samaritan to be the good guy in this story, precisely because he represents one of those others on whom the Jewish bonding-together depended. Jesus chooses one of their hated enemies, who compassionately crosses group boundaries and exposes the sin in their culture. We could say that the Jews of Jesus’ day counted Samaritan lives as of lesser value. So Jesus is throwing a wrench in all that by giving us a Samaritan who doesn’t play the same game. He counts the life of a Jewish man as of the same value and reaches out in compassionate care-taking and healing.
There’s one further essential element to see in this parable, by asking from our current situation: who has a stake in the “Black Lives Matter” movement? Obviously, African American men are high on the list. I have African American friends who are beginning to be more anxious — when they leave in the morning for work, they wonder if they will return home safely. You might be aware that I have two sons who are adopted from Africa. I’ve begun to be more anxious about my 18 year-old son heading off in the car and being in danger from a routine traffic stop by police. But what I want to suggest, brothers and sisters, is that we all have a vital stake in this “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Think about the context of this parable: a lawyer comes to test Jesus about what it takes to “inherit eternal life.” The first thing to note is that Luke chooses a lawyer to test Jesus — a representative of the law. Again, this is not a random choice. This signals to us that when Jesus characteristically turns the table on this person who comes to “test” him, Jesus’ counter-test also challenges what this man’s life has been about. Jesus is challenging our human law, our human institutions. Our systems are set-up to bond together communities by excluding others — in short, by defining neighbors in a restricted way. Jesus’ parable blows apart the usual restrictions on “neighbor.”
But here’s the part where we all have a stake in something like the “Black Lives Matter” movement: it’s a way to “inherit eternal life.” The translation into those words doesn’t help us, because we’ve become so focused on the afterlife. But for Jews like that lawyer and Jesus, his question about “inheriting eternal life” was much more about ushering in a time of abundant life … right now. He’s asking Jesus about what he can do to bring God’s reign of life into the world. He is looking around him and seeing so much death and suffering under the Roman Empire, and he’s wondering what he can do to help bring in God’s reign, God’s way of abundant life. To his credit, this lawyer is right on the money about centering things on love — love of God and love of neighbor. But in trying to justify himself, he still misses the crucial point: in God’s way of loving there can be no boundaries on who is one’s neighbor. We cannot love God and hate any of God’s children. We can’t base the love of our own group on our own definition of “neighbor,” in exclusion to others.
Brothers and sisters, this is essential for us at this moment in our nation’s history: we must face our long history of forming our culture and institutions along racial lines for which white lives mattered more than black lives. It’s right there in our Constitution, where black people are defined as 3/5 of a person. Yes, we’ve changed some of those laws, but the culture and institutions that backed those laws are much slower to change. They were 400 years in the making; they aren’t going to be undone in 40. A sign that black lives continue to matter less is precisely that their lives are taken by police in situations where white people would still be alive. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing on the part of bad police officers. It’s the effect of hundreds of years of black lives counting for less, operating on an unconscious level because of the ways in which our racist culture has deeply shaped us. That’s what makes this so difficult.
But, brothers and sisters, this is why we all have a stake in this. We all must play a part in reshaping our culture, perhaps us white folks even more so. We are called to take part in God’s work of redeeming human beings not just as individuals but also who we are as products of the cultures that form us. God is saving us from sin not just in the personal dimension but also the cultural dimension. And our stake in this is more abundant life for everyone … here and now. How can we “inherent eternal life”? By joining in movements like “Black Lives Matter,” to help end the injustice and inequality which continues to cost lives.
You may be asking how can we respond? What does it look like to “Go and do likewise” in the footsteps of the Samaritan? I’m writing an outline of an answer to this in my newsletter column. But let me give you just a brief glimpse.
Watch YouTube video: https://youtu.be/_P4tct7SYKQ
Title: “Crossroads Definition of Racism,” produced by Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training
The six minute video begins, “The solution to the problem of racism depends on how we define it.” It proposes and discusses the following definition:
Racism = Race prejudice + the misuse of power by systems and institutions
Copyright Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, used with permission. PO Box 309, Matteson IL 60443 Phone: 708-503-0804 / email: / website: http://crossroadsantiracism.org/
Did you notice how this definition of racism helps us be careful about the two categories of sin? The personal and the cultural dimensions? The key feature is that, when we hear conversations about racism in the media, it’s generally on the personal level only. The usual conversation equates racism with race prejudice — our attitudes that lead to hatred or indifference. The solution to the problem of racism in that case is simply to change personal attitudes.
But the crucial element of this definition is to add the cultural dimension: “the misuse of power by systems and institutions.” Then the solution to the problem of racism also becomes much more complicated. The racial prejudice that caused inequality of power for 400 years of white people coming to this continent, bringing African slaves with them, does not become equalized by changing a few laws. The inequality is built into our cultures so that it plays itself out in a thousand subtle ways — one of them being police officers tending to use deadly force more easily against African American males.
As an example, let’s take a moment to see the events of this week in the light of this definition of racism. The killings of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile very much fit this definition of racism. The long-time inequality of police relations to communities of color is an example of “the misuse of power by systems and institutions.” To begin to undo it requires intentional retraining and reorganizing. Until we act as a nation to be more intentional, these killings will continue. Good police officers will continue to do bad things because the system remains corrupted by the cultural sin of racism. We good Christians will continue to lament the deaths and pray for the families — until we respond with action that begins to elevate the conversation and with strategies to battle racism on the cultural level, not just the personal level.
The other thing that’s important to see about this week’s events is that the lone gunman who killed five innocent police officers was not acting under racism, by this definition. Was he acting under race prejudice? Absolutely! And we must continue to name and confront the deadliness of race prejudice as it leads to hatred and such acts of horrific violence. But his act of hatred was not racism to the extent that he was not operating within the misuse of power by a system or institution. He was acting as a lone person possessed by the hatred of race prejudice. His violent solution of seeking revenge, seeking to take the matter into his own hands, must continue to be denounced. The solution to the problem of racism will never lie in violence motivated by race prejudice. The solution lies in all of us taking responsibility for diagnosing and acting to heal and transform the misuse of power in our systems and institutions.
Let’s close on a word of hope that comes from a book that’s essential reading for problems we face: Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow. Notice how the dominant image in this quote is learning to see and respond in a way that leads to healing, the same image in today’s parable (where the priest and Levite see and pass by, while the Samaritan sees and responds with compassion):
Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. …We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream — a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.” (p. 244)
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, July 10-11, 2016