What is in the way? A sermon on confronting white supremacy.

The following is a sermon I gave on the second anniversary of the racist violence in Charlottesville. There is a phone audio recording should you prefer to listen or follow along.

 

Last week was tough. If you were paying attention to the news, I imagine it was tough for you as well. In the wake of mass shootings and the darkness that follows I often feel paralyzed. I often shut down. How do you deal with these experiences? How do you find joy and rest?

For me it often can be through memories. Have you had an experience that just gave you life? A memory that serves as a pocket of joy that rescues you on sour days?

The summer of my sophomore year in college I was in South Florida with some of my closest friends seeing the Dave Matthews Band. We were all riding on the power of two amazing nights of performances by what any of us would have said was the greatest band on the planet. It was the last shows we would see for a while since the band had announced they would take an off-year in 2011. While I was there I received a text-alert from the Band announcing a surprise fall tour run with their two final shows taking place in their hometown of Charlottesville, Va. I can’t communicate how big of a deal this was. The hype surrounding this event made it some of the most anticipated shows in the history of the band. Seeing the Dave Matthews Band in their hometown was for the fan the equivalent of a Muslim’s hajj to Mecca. Every fan had to do it at least once, and this was not the time to miss out. I looked each of my friends in the eyes. None of us had to say the words…we were going.

In the years that followed there were hard times of suffering. Late nights studying away for exams I had to pass to graduate, career changes, deep painful deconstruction of my faith, broken hearts, and yet always I’ve had Charlottesville. That trip has burned joy into my memories. I often find myself looking back on the pictures, listening to the shows, or reading my recount of that trip. Every year I get excited when November 19th & 20th come around. Even the season of fall is better because it brings back memories of the week I traveled to Virginia to see those shows. That Mecca line isn’t so much of a joke. Charlottesville is a spiritual sanctuary to me.

A year before I started working here, I moved to Northern Virginia. Just an hour north of Charlottesville. As I moved to my new home, I passed those same road signs from years before. “100 miles to Charlottesville.” “50 miles to Charlottesville.” “11 miles to Charlottesville.” And I felt that joy move over my spirit. I felt joy driving by John Paul Jones Arena. I felt joy driving by UVA and the White Spot where you could get the Gus Burger. I felt joy walking the Warehouse District and the Downtown Mall. I felt joy finally being old enough to drink a beer at Millers where my favorite band got their start. I knew I would be back there often.

In a tumultuous year for me, Charlottesville was a town that saved me. I could go there and find Sabbath and rest. I can go there and listen to the local musicians or make friends playing creative board-games created in town. I could drive up Carter Mountain and have my breath taken away, or visit Blenheim Vineyards and spend the afternoon reading a book and drinking wine.

I could go there and I find rest for my soul.

And then the white supremacist came.

Today is August 11th. On this evening two years ago, a mob of white supremacists and their tiki torches marched through the campus of the Universirty of Virginia. They attacked counter protestors whose stood with the simplest message; that black lives mattered.

What do we do when something gets in the way? In the way of that which is good. That which is true. That which is just. That which is love.

What do we do?

Well first, what is the way? What is the thing that something can get in the way of?

What is the perfected hope that we are working towards? And who is influencing my understandings of such a world? Is it one group? One teacher? One tradition’s understanding of a text? One race? How diverse are the influences on our hopes?

I feel it important that we ask that question, given the times and given our failures. Because if the hopes we are working towards are narrowly mandated by one people group disguised behind religion then we risk building an Empire indoctrinated by a Manifest Destiny that consumes and enslaves rather than a paradise that frees.

So hold to that caution as we continue.

As Christians we call our hopes perfected heaven, Kingdom. We pray for this manifestation when we ask for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Charlottesville reminded us that there is a battle waging war against such hopes. Such anguish cannot be limited to an event. And Charlottesville was not the beginning. Racism is not an event. It’s not an action. Not an insult. It is a structure of privilege and power. A power that in America is rooted in the ideology and practice of White Supremacy.

Franciscan Monk, and beloved teacher by many in this congregation, Richard Rohr, when asked about the privileges whites receive from this power structure offered that  White privilege is largely hidden from our eyes if we are white. Why? Because it is structural instead of psychological, and we tend to interpret most things in personal, individual, and psychological ways. Since we do not consciously have racist attitudes or overt racist behavior, we kindly judge ourselves to be open minded, egalitarian, “liberal,” and therefore surely not racist. Because we have never been on the other side, we largely do not recognize the structural access, the trust we think we deserve, the assumption that we always belong and do not have to earn our belonging, the “we set the tone” mood that we white folks live inside of — and take totally for granted and even naturally deserved. Only the outsider can spot all these attitudes in us. It is especially hidden in countries and all groupings where white people are the majority.

“White Supremacy, as defined by Robin Deangelo, is something much more pervasive and subtle than actions of explicit white nationalists (like we saw in Charlottesville.) White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea-the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.”

As I see it, is the favoring of our experiences and the assumption that others should abide by them. It is the belief that my experience of America is the ideal one and that to be a good American others must fall into that line.

The Bible describes God’s Kingdom as being filled with those from every nation and every tongue and yet the more our nation seems to reflect such a reality, the more anxious the collective that is white people seems to become. White culture continues to readjust to position itself supreme. Our strong sense of individualism typically makes us go! But not me! I’m not like that! We try and distance ourselves and yet, the structure persists.

Diangelo writes “White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetuate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.

This story is not a new story. The more free a people become, the tighter the reigns a Pharaoh holds. Isn’t this the great narrative within the scriptures?

We all want to think we’re the Prophets and I’ve seen so beautifully and clearly in this community that often that is true, be we don’t like seeing ourselves as Pharaohs, rarely do we consider such a thing.

Perhaps this is helpful:

Try and visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt… Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, (you’re not treating people poorly, you’re not saying inappropriate things, you have friends that aren’t white) but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around…But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt- unless they are actively antiracist- they will find themselves carried along with the others” –Beverley Daniel Tatum, Phd

I was walking the downtown mall in Charlottesville one night when I noticed a group of men wearing matching polo’s and “Make America Great Again” hats gathered in front of Millers and surrounded by a small crowd. The crowd wasn’t pleased. I had heard that Millers had denied service to members of the “Alt-right” the previous weekend. They were gathered in protest of their right to assembly telling the crowd their reason for being there was simply that “they wanted a beer.” (It was obvious that was not why they had gathered.) A man named Jason Kessler was walking around with his phone in people’s faces live-streaming what he was calling his persecution. For nearly two hours I would talk to the different men gathered including Kessler. I asked Kessler about his ideologies.

I asked him why he thought people were misunderstanding what he was trying to do. I asked him why he thought others believed he was a racist. I won’t share his ideas here.

Many of the young men who were with Kessler knew very little about the man. I asked them questions about him and they barely knew what they were aligning with. What I saw that maybe others did not was how desperate these young men were for community and being in a fight for the constitution seemingly provided passion and purpose to gather for them. They were there to make a scene so that others would see them and hear of their oppression. White people are being oppressed and marginalized in their eyes. And so I spoke to Kessler. And you know if you had the opportunity to talk to such a person what would you say? Well, this is how I talked to an overt white supremacist, I talked to him about Toy Story. I shared with him this analogy.

White people are like Woody in Toy Story. They’re the favorite toy. They’ve always had the privilege of being Andy’s favorite toy. They’ve always had the privilege of leading and shaping the society that is Andy’s Room. Woody gets to steer his society. And then Buzz Lightyear comes in. This new and cool toy and Andy starts to love Buzz in the ways he has always loved Woody. The room starts to also listen to Buzz and follow some of his ideas. Buzz suddenly has equal influence to that of Woody and Woody begins to feel…oppressed. Jealous that his power and influence must now be shared with another. So Woody feels marginalized when in reality it’s just that his privileges are now being shared with another. And what does Woody do? He pushes Buzz out the window! I told him I feel like that’s the thing that you don’t understand. And that’s what you actually fear.

White people have historically been able to shape our society. But now America is more diverse. Our privileges are being extended to others. We now have more people and ideas and diversity and the influence and power we always have had can now be challenged with other perspectives and concerns from a more diverse body. And I believe this is great and healthy, it challenges me and it captures the images I read in Revelation of many nations gathered together in the Kingdom of God.

Two years ago tonight, Jason Kessler and the sea of white supremacists that he invited marched with flames through the University of Virginia. Two years ago tomorrow they murdered an anti-racist protestor named Heather Heyer while injuring countless others. The side-effects of that weekend still live within an uncountable number of people. Last week a shooter in El Paso murdered nine people because he viewed the growing diversity of this nation as an invasion against his power and his experience of America.

Church, We can no longer move the same direction as this conveyor belt. We cannot stand still. We must actively march against it. We must acknowledge our role and our history of creating white supremacy. Yes even us. Even this faith community.

Love demands we get in the way.

Love demands that we not just scapegoat the problem as “out there” but that we do the work within.

 

Anti-Apartheid activist Desmund Tutu famously said If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

The entirety of Christ’s life was to name and confront all that enslaves us so that we could truly live. He marched from town to town setting captives free. Whether this be a sickness or an identity. His movement was about liberating.

Salvation is about liberation. A liberation in this life too.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”-Jesus (John 10:10)

The truth of the matter is, we are in a time where people’s humanity is being stolen by regressive policies. By false categories of superiority championed by those who historically depended on the strength of others to place themselves into systems of power. The value of others is being destroyed for the sake of nationality or whether or not you have the right papers or speak the right language. Do we actually think any of that matters to God? Do we actually think those are the parameters by which we should love and serve another person? We still hide behind mirages of “law and order” built to name the “other” the criminal or the thug. There are literally bodies in our streets. Some of whom, like Heather Heyer, are those who chose to confront this evil.

This needs to start concerning us with more than just our words and Facebook posts.

We live in a nation whose majority population has only just begun to realize that we were built on the virtues of thieves who came here and stole, and killed, and destroyed to make this nation. Whether it be Native Americans, Asian Americans, or African Americans, we enslaved to be set free and acquire the liberties we sought for ourselves. There are entire books in the Bible that speak towards God’s wrath of peoples who have forgotten their story.  The slaves of Egypt still found a way to enslave others.

And yet, in the midst of all of this injustice, the good news is still fighting, breaking chains that we ourselves bound (many of them in the name of God), drawing our nation into repentance and towards justice. And we must celebrate this good work. Often times it takes generations for us to realize just how good of a work it was. And so never forsake to name those who moved mountains so that we could see a greater vision for the world. May they truly have an eternal life that speaks truth to our brokenness and sets captives free.

We have and we continue to do a great work. With each generation we’ve seen the heroes who would so boldly stand up to their own nation and tribe to confront those powers of injustice. Many of whom lost their lives in the work. But their lives echo throughout history.

It’s the activists who get into “good trouble” who “pray with their feet” and who call out the injustice of this American Empire. That bring about the good news of justice and freedom for all. May we be the Moses that marches in again and again and again until the Pharaoh that exists in our hearts, in our culture, and in our seats of power is worn down.

May we march in, and get in the way until all of God’s people are free.

The things I experienced in Charlottesville were a Moses to my Pharoah. They confronted me and made me reflect on things I had otherwise simply turned away from. But that walkway keeps moving.

And so on this painful anniversary I invite each of us into the action of reflection and prayerful contemplation.

That we would seek silence and name our Pharaohs. That we would read books that could be a Moses to our stubborn minds. That we would cross communities to discover new hopes. That we could stand up to that which is in the way.

Would you join me in contemplation?

It’s a freeing question for me. Rather than to hate another person. Rather than to dwell in anger, but to ask the question, what is getting in their way? There is such grace with that question. It understands that the person is not the obstacle or the thing to be hated. What is keeping them from seeing love? Think about your life. What has gotten in your way? What when you look back on it, limited your ability to love? Do you still feel pain about that? Are you so different from them? You who once did the same things? You who have grown from a less experienced person?  You who once thought the same ways? How do you respond to confrontation? Do you get angry? Do you get sensitive?  Are your feelings in the way? What helped you name it? Who helped you name it?

As white supremacists and counter protestors began the back and forth of their yelling, a wave of faith leaders marched around the corner. Singing songs of beauty and hope. People of every race and faith arm in arm, marching together. An image of hope singing: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Even here in Charlottesville, I’m gonna let it shine.

Even here in Charlottesville, I’m gonna let it shine.

Even here in Charlottesville, I’m gonna let it shine.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Amen.

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