Bishops of The African Methodist Episcopal Church have asked all Christians to make this coming Sunday, September 6, 2015, a day to preach about racism and call for acts leading to its eradication in the United States.
It’s a bold call. And it’s one United Methodists are already committed to, both in our baptismal covenant and in our official resolutions. In baptism, we pledge to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin” (not just feel sorry, but change our ways), and, “accept[ing] the freedom and power Christ gives us, … resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form in which they present themselves”… “in union with the church which Christ opens to people of all ages nations and races.” If that weren’t enough, we say, flat out, “The UMC is committed to the eradication of racism,” and we call for “every annual conference, district and local congregation within the US to have a strategy and a program which educates and supports systemic and personal changes to end racism and work multiculturally,” even requiring those preparing for ordination to participate in multicultural education and anti-racism training (Resolution 3374, 2012 Book of Resolutions, pp. 453-454). And we even have a general agency, the General Commission on Religion and Race, to lead the way in helping us all acknowledge and dismantle racism wherever and however it manifests itself.
On paper then, at least, and in our baptismal commitments, we are “on this.”
And this Sunday, so is the Revised Common Lectionary.
This Sunday and these readings provide a reality check to see whether we are actually on this, and what next steps we need to take to become more on this than we currently are.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Where the Proverbs speak of “rich and poor,” they also speak of privileged and oppressed. Racism in America is in part a system to maintain the privilege of those already privileged, primarily those of British and Western European descent, and to ensure those who are not in the privileged caste, primarily persons of African and indigenous American descent, can never have access to the full benefits of the privileged that racist systems protect.
Racism does exactly what Proverbs 22:22 calls us not to do. It robs the poor (whom we have systematically made poor) because they are poor, and crushes the afflicted at the gate.
This is what policies and processes that make it harder for the poor to escape poverty systematically and effectively inflict. Reducing investments in public transportation, increasing barriers to getting needed assistance (medical, financial, or psychological), and both gerrymandering and restrictions on voter registration systems all lead to keeping the poor stuck in poverty and making their voice to reverse these possibilities increasingly unlikely to be heard.
On top of that, in many places we, in effect, criminalize poverty. Requiring drug testing as a condition of receiving financial support treats all the poor as if they were criminals. Laws or enforcement policies that disproportionately target the lives of the poor make it much more likely that more of the poor (African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American) will be arrested. And the penalties assigned to those of the poor found guilty are often far more stringent than those assigned to persons of privilege (Euro-descended, middle class and up).
Look around you. Who are the poor and afflicted? In the U.S., the largest number of the poor are in fact of European descent1, in part because the largest number of people who live here still are. But the percentages of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans who are poor or in prison are dramatically higher. The 2014 Current Population Survey Data show that while 9.6% of people of European descent live in poverty, 23.5% of Hispanic/Latino and 27.1% of African Americans do2. This is not the result of a defect in the character of people of these ethnicities. It is the result of either blatant disobedience or appalling ineffectiveness in fulfilling our baptismal calling to renounce, reject, repent, and resist the evil of racism in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today is a day to renew our commitment to our baptismal calling. Renounce, reject, and repent of the evils of racism in which you participate. Receive and use the freedom and power Christ gives you to resist this and every form of evil, injustice, and oppression. And commit to making sure your local congregation, district, and conference are actively working to dismantle racism where you are.
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Racism as we know it did not exist as a phenomenon during the time of Jesus and the early Christians described in the Bible. Racism is a social construction that developed to underwrite and support European supremacy during the era of international European colonialism over the global South beginning in the 16th century. In the U.S., it has manifested as a caste system to ensure the supremacy of the mostly Western European colonizers of North America, particularly against the indigenous peoples (Native Americans) and the African slaves bought and sold to reduce the labor costs for its expanding agrarian-industrial economy for the benefit of the upper castes.
Racism did not exist in early Christianity. But James makes clear that prejudicial treatment against the poor (who in our context in the U.S. are also disproportionately the targets of racism) and preferential treatment of the rich did exist even among early Christians. And he makes it equally clear that both are sins.
Indeed, James indicates these sins of preference and prejudice call into question whether we are Christian at all. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (James 2:1, NRSV). James is not playing. He’s quite serious. If we give any preference to the privileged (in the U.S. setting, “white privilege” and the privilege of those who are wealthy) and treat the poor (in our context, both the targets of racism and the poor in general) we have “become judges with evil thoughts” (verse 4).
We aren’t believers. Our thoughts are evil.
James doesn’t stop there. We’re lawbreakers, too, having broken the “royal law” (2:8) of loving all neighbors as ourselves by showing partiality to some and supremacy over others (2:9). Indeed, he says, this sin makes us accountable for having broken all of the law (2:10).
And James still doesn’t stop. If we expect to have mercy shown to us by our Judge, we must show the same mercy to all, and especially to those who need it most (2:13). And we must actually show it, not simply have good intentions, or offer words of blessing to those in need. Unless we are actively supporting our neighbors who are poor, overcoming the effects of racism in their lives (and ours!) and dismantling racist systems where we can, whatever faith we think we have is dead.
We have work to do.
We must follow the royal law, and actually love our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves.
We must end the deference to the privileged and all actions and attitudes of supremacy over the poor and the targets of racism in this country in our own hearts and congregations.
We must show mercy to all, always, and especially to those who for whatever reason find themselves in the most vulnerable position—the poor and the targets of racism.
We must actually believe what we say we believe, that “God has chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that [God] has promised to those who love him” (2:5, NRSV).
We must honor the poor and all those whom racism actively dishonors.
And to do any of this, we must entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, that God may enliven our dead faith, free us from the power of racism and predisposition to honor the wealthy and dishonor the poor, and convert us into conduits of mercy to every neighbor as each has need.
Mark 7:24-30 (31-37)
Racism as we know it did not exist in the time of Jesus and the early church, but sexism and nationalism did (and still does). Sexism, like racism, builds social systems that elevate one group (in this case, males) and oppress or subjugate the other (in this case, females). And nationalism asserts people of one’s own nation or tribe are superior and worthy of greater attention from God and the wider world than those of others.
We see both of these at play, and we see Jesus ultimately acting to dismantle both, in the first part of today’s gospel lesson.
While on vacation in Tyre, a Gentile city in the Gentile country of Syro-Phoenecia, an ancient enemy state of Israel, a Gentile woman, also Syrophoenician, asks Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon.
Even Jesus struggles with this, it seems. He puts her off with the typical nationalist answer, that his own people deserve his attention before he deals with the needs of the Gentiles (Mark 7:27).
But she does not let him get away with that. She rejects the nationalist excuse. She presses on, noting that in fact even the dogs are fed at the same time as the children as crumbs fall from the table of the children (7:28). In other words, nationalism may treat some as less than human, but God makes sure all are fed.
We do not know why Jesus said what he said, other than that he really didn’t want to be bothered at all on this trip. He was genuinely trying to get away from everyone for a while (7:24). What we do know is he saw this Gentile woman had remarkable faith in the very kingdom of God he had been proclaiming elsewhere, a kingdom in which salvation was in fact brought to all people, not just a chosen, privileged few. And he announced the child was delivered from the demon. Indeed, when the woman arrived home, she found her daughter was set free.
Jesus broke at least two socially constructed barriers here. He broke nationalism, by announcing the deliverance of a Gentile. He broke sexism, by ultimately responding to the need brought to him by a woman—the first time we see that happening anywhere in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, this appeared to be at the request of Peter and the other male disciples, not her request (1:30). And when the woman with the issue of blood was healed, it wasn’t something he apparently had voluntarily chosen to do (6:30). He’d even refused to deal with a request from his own mother after she had tracked him down because she was concerned about him (3:31). Now, for the first time, confronted by a foreign, pagan woman asking for help for her daughter, he responds directly to her, and deliverance flows.
Perhaps Mark told this story in part so that Jesus grew in awareness of the scope of his mission, message, and ministry over time, just as we see the early church growing in its awareness in Acts.
If so, then this story can be good news for those of us who may have been unaware of the scope of our own baptismal calling, and that it includes taking direct action that resists every form of evil, injustice and oppression as part of a church that Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races.
When the woman pressed her case, challenging his nationalist rhetoric and sexist dismissal of her, Jesus acted, breaking both.
If we accept the freedom and power he offers us, as we promise we will at baptism, we, too, can, and will, do the same with racism.
While we have no word at this point from other partners about specific follow up actions to this observance on September 6, Lent marks a wonderful time to do extended work around this theme. Lent, after all, is the season for preparing candidates to live out the baptismal vows, and, as we’ve seen already, our baptismal vows address racism and all other forms of injustice and oppression in a direct and powerful way. Several United Methodist churches in the Atlanta area are already in the beginning stages of planning a seven-week Lenten weeknight series to address racism there; and there is some discussion about theming these weekly gatherings to address hands-on, practical applications of our baptismal vows.
Certainly, one day to call attention to racism in worship is not nearly enough to fulfill our stated commitment as a church to dismantle it at all levels, including our congregations, districts, and conferences. If your church doesn’t currently have a plan and a program to work at this, perhaps your next step is to take the next several weeks or months to begin to develop one. If you have one, perhaps from now through the end of the Season after Pentecost, you may make particular efforts to draw more attention to it and make it work more effectively than it now does.
As disciples of Jesus, we have no choice but to confess, repent from, resist and seek to dismantle racism wherever and however it appears. As people filled with many gifts from the Holy Spirit, we have the resources among us and our neighbors to accomplish much.
So, let’s do it.
Or, as our General Conference theme for 2016 calls us: