Interrupting Racism

Sermon 3/22: A link to listen to this sermon is provided here.

Intro: Hello, if you have never met me, my name is Devon Bailey and I am the Director of Youth Ministries here at First Church.  When I first came out to interview for this job, I was literally leaving a protest. A 10 day, 110 mile march From Charlottesville, Virginia to Washington, D.C. I left the march came out to Austin, to visit and win myself this job, then I hopped back on the plane to D.C. and rejoined the remainder of the march. The March to Confront White Supremacy. It was August of 2017, and just two weeks had passed since the events that took place on August 12th in Charlottesville, VA where the KKK, Nazis, and white supremacists marched publicly to champion their pride and their belief in the supremacy of white culture. A gathering that killed anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and injured many more, including a nation that watched with shock. It was a public and disturbing reminder that racism is alive; not some conquered disturbance of a past era. But present, loud, and unashamed, today.

When we think of racism, often it’s events like Charlottesville that come to mind. But racism is far more common and present than the overt violence of what transpired on August 12th of 2017.
In her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” author Beverly Daniel Tatum gives a most accurate analogy for racism. She writes: “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, 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”

Dr. Tatum concludes, the fact of White privilege means that Whites have greater access to the societal institutions in need of transformation.

 

To whom much is given, much is required.

 

Our Scripture today invites that very idea through a question: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses to help? Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

To whom much is given, much is required.

If the goal is the transformation of racist systems, what does it take to get us there?  In my life I’ve learned that transformation requires interruption.

I have an analogy that I think illustrates the scenario we’re up against: We’re in the midst of another Presidential Election. So if I may, a Presidential analogy: In the United States we have what I’ll call “two-party-privilege” There are many political parties and ideologies but the ones with the most representation and power are the Republicans and the Democrats. Rarely will a third party candidate share the same stage with those running in a primary or the final Presidential debates. It is often said that a third party candidate would never win in a general election.  Now is it the fault of a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump that the system and its privileges work this way? Are they to blame for the way that things are? Should they feel guilty? No. This way of shaping our democracy fell into place before they were even born. And yet it still persists. And yet they still benefit from it. Now to change this system to be more representative and more equitable towards the diverse political landscape, it would take those with the privilege to stand up for, give voice to, and share platform to those who are otherwise systemically being disadvantaged.  And why would those with power forfeit that benefit? Why would they make it harder for their campaigns to win?  Because we know this is true what we often see is candidates that might fit better into another political identity, who assimilate into the two party system because that’s where the power is. Whiteness works in a very similar way.

In her book I’m Still Here, Austin Channing Brown begins with the words “White people can be exhausting.” She describes different variants of white people, those who don’t know they are white, those who need to be white, but the hardest of the bunch for her are those who expected her to be white. It’s that expectation of assimilation and the ignorance or the pressure and often even the vilification towards that which does not that makes and integrated life exhausting for people of color.

Artist Sho Baraka has a lyric referring to the idea of America as a melting pot singing; Thanks for inviting me to your melting pot, but I feel like I’m the one that’s melting a lot.  This is the sin of whiteness.

When we are talking about the spiritual work of confronting racism. We’re not talking about teaching white people how to be nicer. We are talking about everything that is cooked into our society; a society that often receives people based upon the scale of whiteness and where they fall accordingly. It is the unnamed dominant culture that expects others to assimilate. That narrates what is American, What is respectable, what is Christian, What is professional, What is worthy of being arrested or criminal, all of this is cooked into white supremacy. I would argue that white supremacy in its most common and used form is the expectation of whiteness on other people. The preference of white culture which many white people have never even named. For most of my life, I hadn’t realized that the way in which I defined what it meant to be a good person, a great American, a good neighbor, an upright Christian, was based solely on the manifestations of the white people that I grew up with. I had nothing else to exemplify this, and so when I started to meet and experience people of color, I was measuring them by the standards of my white influences.

In the office next door those of us with bookshelves have challenged ourselves to really look at the authors we have up there. Who is shaping the way we see things about our culture and our faith and is it mostly white men? How many female authors are up there? How many people of color are there on my bookshelf? How many black women have I allowed to educate me about God, politics and the world or what it means to be alive? Or do I only go to those authors when it comes to topics about racism?

 

Can we see the need for transformation here? Can we see the need to interrupt this?

 

And so like our daily interruptions have invited you, I ask how are you emotionally responding to this? How are you feeling? Are you angry? Defensive? Is your mind working overtime to convince you that you are still a good person? Are you mad at me? Are you feeling guilty or are you feeling ashamed?

 

It’s a logical question: Like the Politicians running with their two-party privilege white people must come face to face with the question should you feel guilty?

To whom much is given, much is required. Or as Spider-man would teach us, “With great power comes… great responsibility.”

Don’t feel guilty, feel responsible.

Don’t feel guilty. Feel responsible.

Being a part of the problem doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the solution. –Lisa Fithian & Dave Oswald Mitchell

 

In 2015, shortly after white supremacist Dylan Roof walked into a black church during bible study and killed Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Malcom Graham, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson activist Bree Newsome climbed the 30 foot flag poll on the state capital grounds and removed the Confederate Battle Flag shouting “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. We come against hatred, and oppression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God, this flag comes down today.”

 

Interruption.

 

In 2014 the news was flooded with images of marches and peaceful protests, of riots and burning buildings after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The nation was invited to receive and think on the words “Black Lives Matter.”

Interruption.

 

In 2017, as white supremacists, klansmen and Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, VA boasting of their preference for white culture and influence. Faith leaders, activists and antiracists stood up and united against that hatred, singing this little light of mine.

 

Interruption.

I marched with those activists from Charlottesville to the White House to stand against White Supremacy. I experienced the racism and hatred directed towards people of color as trucks came by and gassed us with their fuel. As armed men dressed like Confederate Soldiers waited for our arrival with ar-15’s. As cops revoked our permits without explanation. As people drove by and called us the n-word.

My proximity to black activists on this march interrupted what I thought of America. Through their stories, I learned in a visceral way about their experiences and the systems that still work against them. I saw in the fullest way the power and privilege of my whiteness.

 

In each of these events of Ferguson, and Charleston, and Charlottesville, I experienced interruption. And that interruption is transforming me. But what I’ve learned about myself does not make me proud. Because I am still racist. I am still responsible. And the more I lean into this work of anti-racism the more I’m able to see how true that is. This is found again in the call of our scripture today: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses to help? Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
I notice I can work obsessively hard to perfect my word or speech on issues of anti-racism. I can talk about it, give a sermon on it, I can write a great Facebook post about it. I can show the book I’m reading, I can tell you with great pride about what my church is doing for Lent. That’s a lot of word and speech.

The truth is the sin of white supremacy is still at work in me. At times I still notice that I’m more invested in not being called racist than in undoing racist systems. It can be so easy to get into this work and start propping myself up and SIGNALING TO THE WORLD, and if I’m honest especially to people of color, how virtuous I am. I’m one of the good whites. I care about racism. I stood up to the racists in Charlottesville. So clearly I am no longer racist.

When reading the book Me & White Supremacy, I learned of the phrase “optical allyship.” That’s “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally,’ but often is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress. No, instead the intention behind the act of optical allyship is to avoid being called racists and to receive a reward through social recognition and praise. And let’s be honest White Progressives…really struggle with this.

If you’re reading White Fragility or following along we’ve been centering this quote: 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. We put all the energy there rather than where it is actually needed in the work of ongoing self-awareness, continued 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.

I ask again, how are you emotionally responding to this? How are you feeling? Are you angry? Defensive? Is your mind working overtime to convince you that you are still a good person? Are you mad at me? Are you feeling guilty or ashamed?

Don’t feel guilty, feel responsible.

Interruption is the invitation to transformation. We should both offer it and receive it as such.

Interruption is the invitation to transformation.

Not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Or as Stevie Wonder has so eloquently put, Don’t just talk about it, be about it.
For God so loves the world that he interrupted everything with the life of his son. That was through the love of enemy, and the flipping of tables. Through the healing of the sick, and through the rejection of power and laws and a status quo that dehumanized others. Why did God come as a human? Perhaps for the very reason of interrupting the social barriers of what it meant to be human.

Here is what I hope you will take away today. Here’s how I hope we can practice being responsible.
Courage and capability are not the same thing. We are all capable of this work. We are capable of educating ourselves. We are capable of standing up to that family member or our best friend. We are capable of holding our emotions back when we are confronted with an accusation of racism. We are capable of taking responsibility for our racism. We are capable. Are we all courageous enough to confront white supremacy both out there and in here? Or will we just be drawn down that moving walkway? Because the invitation right now…The interruption today is to move the other direction. Faster with more focus and determination than we are being pulled.  The interruption is the invitation. And the invitation is the transformation of this church body.

 

And so if you are a white person looking around a predominantly white church wondering where are all the people of color? Were we not taught that the church is not a building but a people? Perhaps the fact is our predominantly white church is living a predominantly white life. White friends, white schools, white neighborhoods, white restaurants, Perhaps we want people to see the magic that is here in our culture without ever opening ourselves up to the magic of another culture. If we want to see the change, we have to move our feet. We have to move our minds. We have to interrupt the blindness of whiteness. A thing that exists and functions so deeply, and yet so many who have it do not see it.

Interrupt.

We do not interrupt for bitterness sake, but because the Gospel compels us to. We interrupt because we have good news and the good news is we don’t have to live this way. New World is bursting forth where all are made one in Christ not in whiteness. Because the Kingdom of God is every nation and every tribe and every tongue and we are invited right here and now to find abundance and joy and new life in the beauty of all that God has created not just part of it. So when we see people fighting against this idea of Kingdom by diminishing people who do not speak English, we INTERRUPT because every tongue matters. When we see people speak falsely against immigrants from certain nations, we interrupt because every nation matters. When we see the stripping of tribal lands and the poisoning of water for profit, we interrupt because every tribe matters! When we see black lives treated different than white lives by our laws and our orders we interrupt because Black Lives Matter.  Because the Kingdom of God looks different than that. We don’t have to live like this. With Christ we are all capable, we all have been invited.

Do you have the courage to let Kingdom interrupt whiteness? When the need of our culture is an interruption to racism, does the love of God abide in you?

When white privilege has propped the resources of our nation to the benefit of whites, does the love of God abide in you towards lifting up programs that heal the imbalance?

When white supremacy shows itself in your presence, does the love of God abide in you to interrupt?

When your heart condemns you and you realize that you, not them, are in need of interruption, may the love of God abide in you.

It is the Good News of Christ, it is the hope and vision of Kingdom, that gives me courage to interrupt white supremacy, it is the love of God that gives me eyes to see the need.

Let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action.

Interrupt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s