I began serving my first church as minister in 1989. It was a town outside Pittsburgh, PA, so in Pittsburgh Presbytery – southwestern PA.
For several years beginning in 1990, the churches and synagogues of Southwestern Pennsylvania were asked to join in a particular kind of worship service on one particular weekend in each January. The theme of that service was “Speak With One Voice Against Racism.” Hundreds of congregations – Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant – devoted their service to that subject, on that weekend. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other newspapers ran articles and editorials on the campaign. Worship resources and background information were sent to each participating congregation, by the organizers of the effort.
The timing of the event, each year, was that it took place on the weekend preceding the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, which usually falls, as it does this year, on the third Monday in January. It is a particularly appropriate time for such an effort, of course, as Dr. King may have done more than anyone in the past few decades to draw our attention to the problem of racism, and challenge us to do something about it.
While the particular organized event called “Speak With One Voice” is no longer happening, the Martin Luther King holiday still is, of course – and so, unfortunately, is the problem of racism: inferior opportunities for minorities when it comes to employment, housing, education, and income; personal attacks on people, even murder, for no other reason than the color of their skin; the refusal to associate with people of a different race; racist slurs, jokes, put-downs, stereotyping. The problems are still with us.
But why, it has been asked, have churches so often decided to participate in this holiday, and to encourage its observance? Why should the church speak out against racism? After all, Christians know that we are to love one another, and that racism gets in the way of that love.
Nobody here is sending bombs through the mail to judges and NAACP leaders, as happened a few years back. Nobody here is going to leave this service, put on a Ku Klux Klan hood and gown and burn a cross somewhere. No one here is going to stand up and advocate changing the Bible so that it says “hate your neighbor” instead of “love your neighbor,” or “stop certain people from becoming your neighbor” – don’t let them in your neighborhood. Why should the church be the setting for speaking out against racism?
Well, there are several reasons, as a matter of fact. The first is that we are readers of the Bible, and the Bible instructs us repeatedly to work for justice, to get involved to eliminate unfair practices and oppression. Our call to worship today is one example: the last line is from Amos – “let justice roll down like waters.” The Old Testament is full of such statements, including the often-repeated order to work on behalf of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the immigrant – anyone whom society puts at a disadvantage, who is discriminated against. When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor, the one I’m supposed to love?”, his unexpected answer was “a Samaritan” – the one from that race for which you express hatred.
The second reason is cause for rejoicing: We the church should work against racism because we have the power to do so – power that no one else has. It is the power of Jesus Christ, as expressed in our New Testament lesson, in Ephesians 2: he has broken down the barriers that separate people and become the peace between us. He has destroyed the hostility. If God is working through us to destroy racism, who can stand against us?
The other reasons the church needs to be involved, however, are causes for shame. The church needs to work against racism because, unfortunately, there are still people in the church who argue that Christianity and racism are compatible. There are still church members who join the Ku Klux Klan, who show their faces in worship Sunday morning and hide them behind bedsheets Sunday night. There is a group calling itself the “Christian Identity” movement which claims that Christianity should be, quote, “purified of undesirable elements” – by this they mean certain ethnic groups. There are militias around which wrap gun ownership, patriotism, Christianity, and white supremacy into one confusing package, claiming God’s favor on them all. We need to speak out that these movements are not Christian – that they are corruptions and distortions of our faith. We need to let their members know that they cannot use our doctrine and our institutions to perpetuate their hatred, a hatred that is in direct opposition to the Christian message.
Even worse, the church needs to work against racism because it was guilty of spreading it for so long – not just a few kooks misrepresenting the church, but the mainstream church itself. It must reverse the shameful lessons it taught in the past. There is a scene, for example, in the movie “Mississippi Burning,” the story of three young men who were killed when they tried to help African Americans vote in the 1960’s, where the deputy’s wife refers to what she was taught in Sunday School. It is a quick comment; all she says is “Genesis 9:25.”
Well, Genesis 9:25 is part of that strange story we read this morning, about Noah getting drunk and then, for some reason, blaming and cursing his grandson because the kid’s father had happened to see Noah being drunk. Noah said “Let Canaan” – that’s the grandson – “be the slave of his brothers.” And for years many churches quoted that verse as justification for slavery and for continued discrimination against African Americans. This verse, they said, shows that God has commanded slavery, and that the slaves are to be Canaan’s African American descendants.
Never mind that it’s a drunken Noah that pronounces the curse, not God. Never mind that there’s no evidence to suggest that the people of Africa were descendants of Canaan. Never mind, in fact, that the next chapter actually lists African people as having descended from a different ancestor, not Canaan! The church was so anxious to justify slavery and racism that it took this fragment of a verse and twisted it, into a rationalization for oppression – and taught that lesson to its Sunday School children, taught them to hate, taught them to discriminate, taught them to ignore all the passages like that in Leviticus which says “you shall not make your poor brother your slave, but treat him as a guest.” It was not until 1967 that the church made its first confessional statement affirming racial equality: “God overcomes the barriers between us and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial ethnic difference, real or imaginary. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination, and ministers to those injured by it.” 1967. The church has done damage it must repair.
And fifth, the church must speak out against racism because of the continued existence of something known as “institutional racism.” We have a tendency to look inside ourselves as individuals, and if we personally don’t find hateful feelings toward another race, conclude that racism isn’t a problem we have to worry about. But institutional racism is the continued existence of policies and organizations and procedures around us which do perpetuate prejudice, regardless of the condition of our individual feelings. And even if we don’t feel prejudiced ourselves, our actions can either contribute to the continuation of racist practices, or contribute to their dismantling.
For example: we may feel comfortable that we wouldn’t refuse to see an African-American doctor or listen to an African-American preacher. But that’s not the end of the story. Working to overcome racism also means working to break down the barriers which prevent African-Americans form going to medical school or seminary in the first place – economic barriers, educational barriers, other peoples’ biases. If we are really interested in justice, as the Bible says we should be, the issue doesn’t end with one’s own feelings. There are many instances in society today where the prejudice of the past continues to affect people today, and those effects still need to be reversed, even if we ourselves don’t feel prejudiced.
So, there’s still work to be done. And there are still very good reasons for the church to be speaking out against racism, in connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or any time the need arises.
But what can we do, as individual church members, if we don’t feel prejudiced ourselves? What can we do if we’re not in positions of power, to solve institutional racism in quick broad strokes?
There are some things, and some of them may seem little, but all of them help. Some are listed in your insert today, which was furnished by the “Speak With One Voice Against Racism” campaign. Take a look at them after the service today; see if they give you something to think about, something to try.
In conjunction with, or addition to them, I have a couple other suggestions and comments. Some steps we might take to combat racism:
One: don’t join in the calling of people by names or words they’ve said they don’t like. This is a simple matter of respect: even if the words “colored” or “Negro” don’t sound particularly offensive to you, African Americans have been telling us for over 40 years that they don’t like those terms. So, show that you’ve listened; show that you respect their wishes. Don’t call people by names they don’t like.
Two: don’t stereotype, in your conversations, with anyone. Any statement that says, “All these certain kinds of people do this, or are like that, or are good or bad at a certain activity” treats a person as a category, a thing, instead of an individual. You may not think its sounds insulting to say “All those people are good at basketball” or “are musically talented,” even though you probably wouldn’t be thrilled to hear someone say “Oh, you’re white; you must be clumsy and tone-deaf.” But listen to what the so-called compliment says: it says “All your hard work and practice doesn’t count; you’re only talented because of your race.” It says “the only thing I see about you is your race; I’m going to draw conclusions based on your color regardless of who you are as a person.” Don’t stereotype.
Three: Take every opportunity to listen to people of other races tell you about their experience as a member of that race. What do we know about what it feels like to be discriminated against because of color? How can we express the greatest possible compassion or sympathy or understanding of anger without knowing the experience? Attend a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event, for example, or watch one on television each year.
Four. Don’t ignore groups like the Ku Klux Klan and “Christian Identity” and racist militias. It’s not enough to say “Well I’m not one of them.” They present legislation; they send messages to minorities that nobody wants them around; they try to recruit children. Not joining is not enough.
And finally, the theme of the day, speak out against racism. It may be a quiet but firm response when a neighbor says “Well, you know those coloreds just ain’t too bright.” It may be a letter to an editor or a congressperson to protest the continuation of a racist policy. It may be the correction of a child who comes to you repeating something heard at school. But it’s long past time to start speaking out.
Dr. King said, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the black person’s great stumbling block in their stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice . . . who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another person’s freedom, who lives by a mythical concept of time and constantly advises blacks to wait for ‘a more convenient season.’”
Join in the speak-out against racism in honor of Dr. King; join in the rest of the year too. We aren’t to wait for a “more convenient season” for justice; join in now.
And let’s pray: God, help us, in whatever ways we can, large or small, to be a voice and a force which works to dismantle attitudes and practices of racism, in accordance with that “most important” commandment “love your neighbor as yourself.” Amen.
“BUT WHAT CAN I DO?”
- Pray daily about racism; welcome God’s gracious presence to lead in unwinding the web of racism; ask for guidance, abilities, and courage to be transformed and transforming in society.
- Look at your sphere of influence and see how you can personally bring about change –
In the business world, develop training and hiring practices to employ more racial ethnic persons.
In your congregation, invite, welcome, and listen to people of all races, encouraging participation in all areas of life and power.
In schools and other groups, seek to be a peacemaker and reconciler.
At home, teach your children by your words and actions that all races are equally loved and gifted by God, and that faith means ending racism.
- Be ready to speak up when you hear a racist comment or see a racial injustice.
- Try to develop a real friendship with a person or family of another race, such as a family in your neighborhood, and let God work through that genuine relationship.
- Be a local representative in your congregation to work against racism, and seek others to work locally.
- Volunteer time and/or give funds to organizations working against racism.
- Write letters to business leaders urging them to hire more racial ethnic persons to do all they can to work for racial justice.
- Advocate within your congregation and denomination, and local state, and federal government for actions correcting injustices and inequalities with genuine compassion.
TOGETHER – AND WITH GOD – WE CAN END RACISM!