“I’m a Good Christian, not a Racist.” Are you sure?

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Jeremiah 31:31-34, Fifth Sunday in Lent

For decades, Jeremiah has preached the theme: “know the Lord.” When a prophet tells you to know the Lord, he’s not asking you merely to memorize facts about God. Rather, he means that you must know God in a relationship of love, trust, and obedience. Walter Brueggemann says knowing the Lord “means affirmation of Yahweh as sovereign Lord with readiness to obey the commands for justice that are the will of Yahweh.”[1] But Jeremiah’s preaching hasn’t made the difference in moral behavior for which he hoped. He looks forward to the time when God’s people no longer will have to encourage one another to “know the Lord,” because, in the current moment, he is so is frustrated that they don’t.

Jeremiah’s frustration sounds similar to the one I hear voiced by those who are connecting poor racial relations to poor knowledge of the Lord. I’m four months into my term as moderator of our regional presbytery, and have completed twenty meetings or events. Nearly everywhere I go in our presbytery, I’m challenged to revisit the truth that racist behaviors still exist, and to consider how they are tied to an imperfect knowledge of God, and God’s will for the Church.

The people from whom I hear have a point. If you’ve seen that video of the young men in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing their racist song, then it’s clear that they had a poor personal knowledge of the Lord, even though some of these boys received Christian educations and lived in respectable Bible-belt homes.[2] Like Jeremiah looking at the people of God who still need to know the Lord, I imagine that many of us are feeling the apparent disjunction between young men who apparently have been taught about the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus, and yet also feel no reluctance to join in joking and singing about racial exclusion and murder.

It would be deceptively easy to think that I’m not part of the problem. I’d like to believe the statement I read on Facebook: Not all cops are bad, not all black people are criminals, not all white people are racist. Among the professors and community leaders I admire, some of them happen to be African-American. Among my friends and college roommates, some of them happen to be African-American. It would be deceptively easy to say that I’m not a racist.

But then I read the Department of Justice report on its “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,”[4] and I realize how little I know about the complicated web of relationships and processes in place in many communities like it. The DOJ reports patterns of excessively aggressive arrests and unduly harsh penalties, motivated in part by a desire to generate more revenue for the municipality. The report says that the processes of arrest, penalty, and revenue generation exact a disproportionately large toll from African-American residents. I read the report as one with a strong tendency to support those engaged in the work of law, order, and government. I have a built-in bias against interpretation of data that would malign them. Yet, I read the report, and find it difficult to deny a deep, systemic problem that has resulted in racial discrimination and injustice.

For years, I’ve driven through Ferguson and similar communities, never fined, never stopped, never followed, while African-Americans were, and I never had the slightest inkling about what was happening there. How could I be so ignorant of what was going on? To what extent did I choose to be ignorant?

Like the community to which Jeremiah preached, I think I know the Lord. But, if I take seriously scripture and our Reformed theological tradition, then I realize that my ignorance can be a result of a sinful tendency to deceive myself when it suits my purposes. I suspect that what is true of me isn’t uncommon.

  • Have you ever listened to a family member or friend make a derogatory comment that insults people of another race, and simply let it go? You didn’t want to get into an argument, and nothing about the comment seemed to be affecting your family or home.
  • When was the last time you wondered out loud about why there aren’t more people of a race different than your own living in your neighborhood, eating at your club or favorite restaurant, or, yes, even worshiping in your church? You didn’t want to upset anyone, and your interests seem to be protected.

Like Jeremiah’s community, you and I may ignore questions about the morality of our daily activities and interactions, and never think about what they reveal regarding our relative knowledge and ignorance of the Lord.

The prophet Jeremiah was really bothered to see people living with little moral reflection upon the way their actions affected the freedom and livelihood of individuals and communities. In the seventh century B.C.E., he began a ministry of prophetic preaching that was to last forty years. During all that time, Jeremiah reminded the people of Jerusalem about God’s law, and called them to repentance. Yet, to his great disappointment, the people who should have best known the law were the ones who most openly disregarded it. The nation was on a course toward extinction.Jeremiah realizes that it will take more than human effort to save the world.

Jeremiah announces that a day of change is coming. A new and better world will require an act of God, in which God writes the law upon human hearts. People will not just know about God, they will know God in relationships of devotion, trust, and obedience. Ignorance about themselves and the world will give way to broader and deeper knowledge of God’s will and ways.

When I think about my ignorance in relation to racial injustice, I remember the workshop I participated in years ago, sponsored by our presbytery’s Dismantling Racism and Privilege Task Force. The most-illuminating part of the workshop was an exercise in which everyone – perhaps twenty of us – started side-by-side in a line across the middle of a church’s fellowship hall. Then we were asked a series of questions – like the questions you can link to at fourth footnote – that called for a simple “yes” or “no” response.[4] If your answer was “yes,” then you were to take a step forward; if your answer was “no,” then you were to take a step backward. “When I turn on the television, do I see people of my race widely represented?” “When I am instructed about our national heritage, am I shown people of my color who made it what it is?” “Can I go into a local supermarket and find the food I grew up with?” “Can I go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed?” “Can I be pretty sure that if I ask to talk with the person in charge I will be facing a person of my race?” When we were done, we were asked to look around the room. Every African-American was in the back half of the room, and every white person was in the front half. I was very near the front wall.

That experience taught me something about the white privilege from which I benefit. It taught me that not only are there sins of commission, during which I do something I know is wrong, and sins of omission, during which I neglect to do what I know I should have done. There are also, if I may coin a phrase, “sins of unrecognition.” If you don’t believe it, then remember:

  • The book of Leviticus prescribes sacrifices for unknown sins, when the people err unintentionally and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly.[5]
  • David prayed, “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.”[6]

The workshop taught me that I am constantly immersed in a culture shaped by past and present racial prejudice, that I benefit from white privilege whether I am aware of it or not. Ignorance of racial injustice is evidence of sin in the system that insulates and protects us from that knowledge.

You might ask, “Preacher, what’s the point?” “Are you just trying to make us feel bad? Why does it matter for us to think about racism?

Long ago, Howard Thurman told about driving through the South in the 1950s, and stopping at a park along the highway. His young daughters immediately spotted a playground, and pulled their father toward the swing set. They couldn’t read the sign: “whites only by state law.” Sadly, but patiently, Thurman told his little girls that they could not play there and explained why. Of course, they were sad and cried. Like his grandmother had done for him, Thurman gathered his children on his knees, and said to them, “Listen, you girls are somebody. You are so important and so valuable to God that it takes the governor, the lieutenant governor, and whole state police force to keep you little girls off those swings.”[7]

  • It matters for us to think about racism because we thought stories this awful were relegated to the past, but now realize our generation has its own awful stories that have taken place in cities all across our country.
  • It matters for us to think about racism because little girls like Thurman’s daughters now have their counterparts in little children, loved by God, who face a present and future of racial injustice.
  • It matters for us to think about racism because we can make a difference in raising children and grandchildren who, when conflict arises, react first with words, rather than reach for guns.

According to Jeremiah, there will come a time when they no longer shall they teach one another proper moral behavior, or say to each other, “Know the Lord.” But we aren’t there yet. God of Jeremiah, put your law within us, write it upon our hearts. Forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, p. 293.

[2] Robert Wilonsky, “Parker Rice, parents of Levi Pettit apologize for ‘horrible mistake’ made in OU SAE video,” Dallas Morning News, 10 March 2015, http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/2015/03/jesuit-dallas-president-says-graduate-appears-to-be-leading-racist-chant-in-ou-sae-video.html/

[3] “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 4 March 2015, downloaded from The Washington Post, http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/national/department-of-justice-report-on-the-ferguson-mo-police-department/1435/

[4] http://crc-global.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/white-privilege.pdf

[5] E.g. Leviticus 4:13-14.

[6] Psalm 19:12.

[7] Howard Thurman, as related by Thomas G. Long in Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2004, pp. 63-64.

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 24, 2015.

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