Healing Racial Division
Sermon preached 10-29-17 by Perry King
Universalist National Memorial Church
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
19:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
19:2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
1:1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
1:2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.
1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
1:4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
1:5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
1:6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
A fight before homeroom. Racist texts messages, Cheerleaders called the N-word. A black doll hanging by a tie. Pumpkins carved with a swastika and a reference to the Klu Klux Klan. Student protests. Police in the hallways. That was just this month. Across the region, schools are grappling with a wave of disturbing racial incidents and attempting to chart a peaceful path forward. (Philadelphia Inquirer 10-22-17)
Good morning everyone: The great German Theologian Karl Barth once said that to prepare a sermon we need to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other hand. Well I have to admit that I’ve become a news junkie over the last few months and in talking to some of you I know you have too. So let’s put the scriptures that were read today beside the newspaper and see if they can inform us on race and racial healing. As we said in our beautiful Declaration of Faith this morning we must bring hope and healing to the world and this issue has cried out for hope and healing in American society for too long.
Each one of us here could write our own book about race based on our lived experience in American Society. I remember an incident that happened on the night Martin Luther King was killed. My dad who was in the tax preparation business and we would often have people come to the door at night to pick up their taxes. A man came to the door and said: “I just heard Martin Luther King was shot. I hope whoever shot him was a good shot”. My mom and I were shocked and talked about how wrong this was. I am very thankful that my parents taught me that racism was wrong.
Today’s message will be divided into three parts: what are the historical origins of racism?; what’s going on today?; and what is the gospel message for us Universalists?
Before beginning this discussion of the origins of racism it is important to shatter a prevailing myth that racism is based on ignorance and fear. Some of the world’s most brilliant minds have actually invented racist ideologies to justify their economic stake in racism whether by slavery, colonialism, or maintaining low wages and mass incarceration rates to name but a few. What we’re living with today is a continuing influence by these ideologies of domination which were invented by brilliant academic minds like scientists, philosophers, clergy, and captains of industry. Yes these ideas often find fertile soil in hate and ignorance but these ideas were not caused by hate and ignorance but by the need to justify the economic domination of one people’s over another.
The invention of race started in the 16th century when the nations of Spain, Portugal, England and France set out to colonize the world and economically dominate other peoples. Racism is simply the ideological justification for the economic domination of one people over another based primarily on skin color. The origins of race are not in skin color. For example the Romans had no concept of race based on skin color and primarily divided people into Romans versus foreigners. Indeed the Germanic tribes which were lighter-skinned were looked upon as inferior barbarians by the darker-skinned Mediterranean people who largely inhabited the Roman Empire. Julius Cesar remarked that the long thin bodies of the Germanic tribes were ill equipped to process food for example. Racism is the justification for dominance through religious, pseudo scientific, and fear-based demagoguery. It is not America’s original sin as some have said but has its origins in Europe and it took a unique form in the United States with the spread of slavery. Racism is as American as apple pie. All of us brought up in this culture are contaminated by racism. A lot of our ideologies of racism in American culture take the form of religious expression.
In the 19th century Victorian era in England theories of racism were overwhelmingly pseudo-scientific and Darwinist. But these ideologies would not work so well on the overwhelmingly religious population in the United States so in the US theories of racism have been maintained more by religious justifications more than so called scientific justifications.
Let’s look at two of these religious-based ideas. Firstly “The White Man’s Burden”, a poem by Rudyard Kipling, was written to encourage the US to annex the Philippines.
The poem positively represents colonialism as the moral burden of the white race, which is divinely destined to civilize the brutish and barbarous parts of the world.
The implication, of course, was that the Empire existed not for the benefit — economic or strategic or otherwise — of Britain, itself, but in order that primitive peoples, incapable of self-government, could, with British guidance, eventually become civilized (and Christianized).[
The British who considered themselves civilized decent people could not accept that they could just go to a place like India and rob and pillage it so the idea of “The White Man’s Burden” came to prominence and this couched the robbing and plunder of a continent into a religious duty to civilize and bring Christianity to the world. Similarly in the United States the idea of “manifest destiny” was perceived to be God’s will. Also a lot of people believed in the 19th century that Americans were God’s chosen people. This dangerous mixture of religion and nationalism we see today in the idea of American exceptionalism whereby Americans believe they are morally superior to other nations or peoples. There are many historical parallels with American exceptionalism and white supremacy and those of us who want to maintain patriotic ideas must deconstruct this kind of nationalism to a love of one’s homeland but without these racist ideas.
Manifest Destiny was not without critics in its time.
On January 3, 1846, Representative Robert Winthrop ridiculed the concept in Congress, saying “I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation”. Winthrop was the first in a long line of critics who suggested that advocates of manifest destiny were citing “Divine Providence” for justification of actions that were motivated by chauvinism and self-interest. (http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/1801)
Let’s look at our own Unitarian Universalist voice
against this idea of manifest destiny. William E. Channing was probably the most important Unitarian voice in the 19th century.
In a 1837 letter to Henry Clay, he wrote:
“Did this county know itself, or were it disposed to profit by self-knowledge, it would feel the necessity of laying an immediate curb on its passion for extended territory…. We are a restless people, prone to encroachment, impatient of the ordinary laws of progress… We boast of our rapid growth, forgetting that, throughout nature, noble growths are slow….. It is full time that we should lay on ourselves serious, resolute restraint. Possessed of a domain, vast enough for the growth of ages, it is time for us to stop in the career of acquisition and conquest. Already endangered by our greatness, we cannot advance without imminent peril to our institutions, union, prosperity, virtue, and peace….. It is sometimes said, that nations are swayed by laws, as unfailing as those which govern matter; that they have their destinies; that their character and position carry them forward irresistibly to their goal;….
that … the Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxon. Away with this vile sophistry! There is no necessity for crime. There is no fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder. We boast of the progress of society, and this progress consists in the substitution of reason and moral principle for the sway of brute force….We talk of accomplishing our destiny. So did the late conqueror of Europe (Napoleon) ; and destiny consigned him to a lonely rock in the ocean, the prey of ambition which destroyed no peace but his own.
We can hear Channing’s prophetic voice now still relevant for our era.
Now let’s move to the second part of the sermon and consider that we have a newspaper in our hand. Let’s consider what’s going on in our city, nation, and world in terms of a situation that cries out for healing and hope.
In a newly published book called Cappuccino City, the author describes an all-out capital assault on our city. Gentrification is a euphemism as the reality is a rapid change in the landscape and demographics of our Shaw neighborhood in which this church is near. What’s happening to all the people who are displaced. Well if you drive up New York Avenue and look at all the motels they are full of homeless families almost all African Americans who have been displaced by the economic forces in our City. This systemic racism is built into our economic system. It is clearly wrong but because our economic system has been built upon racist ideologies it is acceptable and even called progress by the mainstream media.
Colin Kaepernick was an NFL player who last year knelt down during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against people of color. As other players have followed suit this year this has created a controversy that the owners and even the President have spoken on. On Friday, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair was forced to apologize for remarks made during a meeting discussing the kneel down when it was revealed he told other owners that “we can’t have inmates running the prison.”
There was a recent white supremacist march in Charlottesville and another this past week in Tennessee. We have seen the so-called emergence of the alt right which is really a euphemism for white supremacy. Disproportionate police killings of people of color continue.
The NAACP just came out with a recent warning for African Americans using American Airlines due to a pattern of racial discrimination.
We see a lot of vestiges of racism at work today. We see it in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. Subtly we see it in our criminal justice system which was exposed by the groundbreaking book “The new Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander which analyzes the criminal justice system as a reproduction of Jim Crow laws from the 50s and 60s. These current laws have the same effect by creating a huge class of felons and denying them the vote, denying them job opportunities, and discrimination in housing. We see it in paternalistic attitudes and nonprofit organizations which proposed to help the disadvantaged but operate from a vantage point of moral superiority. This moral superiority has a direct connection with the religious justification of racism where we go back to the 19th century justification of bringing Christianity to the uncivilized world. If we study the real history about this we know that we brought slaughter and impoverishment instead of the Gospel of Jesus. Religion has a huge influence on the types of racism expressed. Compare the English Puritan Protestantism with Catholic French colonialism for example. The Puritans did not consider other peoples as humans and therefore justified their slaughter but the French intermarried with Native Americans and built a thriving fur trade based on the interconnections of their communities in the Great Lakes region. Both of these views were driven by economic domination. Our Universalist religion should give us a radically different View.
Abraham Lincoln, “the great emancipator”, was also infected by racism when he said: “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, I as much as any man am in favor of the superior position assigned to the white race.”[
Even Walt Whitman was affected by the ideological currents of racism that infected the nation. That’s why it’s so important to develop a critical stance toward our culture.
There exist vestiges of racism all over our cultural landscape. We must separate ourselves from these influences and ruthlessly criticize our culture in the light of the Gospel message.
In our church before 2005 we used to say in our Declaration of Faith that “we believe in the just retribution for sin.” How many Christians in our society think of a racism as a sin?
One of Martin Luther King’s biggest source of pain was that the white church did not take a stand with him against racism.
Let’s see how our scripture lessons can inform us and look at the way some of the ways we can bring hope and healing in this context.
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;”
The reality is that there are wicked people today trying to stir up racial hatred and division. Especially when we hear a person’s scoff at another human being we should consider this as sin. I grew up listening to this jeering and mocking in small town North Carolina without knowing how sinful it was. But I always felt uneasy about it because my parents had taught me against racism. Jokes are one of the main vehicles in the multi-generational transmission of racism. Little poems, limericks, and jokes are the main vehicle for the transmission of racism from one generation to another.
The scriptures from Leviticus speak directly to our proper attitude towards race today.
“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your You must reprove your neighbor or become guilty yourself.”
The scriptures call for us to take a stand when we hear our neighbor say something that may be contaminated with racism.
In my reflection on scripture in preparation for this sermon this passage jumped out at me.
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. The way of the wicked will perish.”
As we read our daily newspaper and are assailed on all sides by appeals to racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, sexism, and the growing number of incidents, we can take comfort in knowing that if we meditate on the scriptures and free our minds from the influences in our culture we can be like trees strong in standing and well rooted in our Universalist gospel message and we will bear fruit in due season.
Just like the old labor song says: “We shall not be moved by the culture of racism.”
The Way of the Wicked will always perish in the end as they move toward reconciliation with God. May it be so.