RCL Year C
July 21, 2013
A few years ago, our Bishop held an anti-racism workshop in Alexandria. For some reason, I couldn’t go, but I remember thinking that we were a little behind the times. That racism was an old issue that we’d tackled and pretty much solved. Why weren’t we looking into the future and righting a new wrong? Hadn’t we brought racism out into the open, exposed it and squashed it over the last 50 years?
How naïve I was. Around that time, the first African American President of the United States was elected. I believed the divisions of the campaign and afterwards were only the usual political ones. But the criticisms grew more personal and mean, and finally it was clear that some of the underlying resentment and distrust and rejection was mirroring the division between races. Some people didn’t like President Obama because he was black. The race issue was still alive. And, to be realistic, two generations is probably too short a time to change the attitudes of thousands of years. A good lesson as we seek to put to rest other kinds of prejudice.
I can’t help but think that the polarization we’ve seen in the last several years has come about partly because racism persists among us. Beneath the wave of racism runs the ocean of fear. Thirty states have passed laws similar to the stand your ground law in Florida. These laws are based on fear, not reason, and racism is one manifestation of fear.
I’m not a lawyer. I can’t comment on the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin; I wasn’t in the courtroom and don’t know all the evidence presented. The whole thing is a tragedy in the deepest sense of the word. If the judgment rendered was fair within the law as it’s written, then I pray that law, and others like it, will be scrutinized wherever they exist, for the motives of those who wrote them and for their implications and effects. So let’s look at the problem of racism.
Racism. That’s a word that was more common years ago. Racist. An old, bad word. Prejudice. Not acceptable in any time. Discrimination. Not defendable. We’ve pretty much worn those words out and tossed them onto the pile of inacceptable behavior. Perhaps their meaning was too harsh; perhaps the human eye can look only so long at failings placed under too bright a light. We do what we can, we put the failings aside, believing we’ve overcome them, and we move on to the next one.
The truth is, we’ve moved too fast away from racism. That label is not acceptable anymore, so someone came up with “racial profiling.” It’s a little cleaner. It’s something that happens on the corporate level, when a company or a school is reviewing applications. Racial profiling is like collateral damage. It doesn’t usually apply at the personal level; at least, not to the person making the decision. It’s a few steps removed from mind and conscience. Collateral damage describes the reality of warfare and sidesteps the tragedy and responsibility; racial profiling describes a selection process of a board or a committee. These words have a “necessary” ring to them. Change the label, remove the action to another level, and you and I can go on to something else. It’s like black on black crime. It really doesn’t affect us. It’s justifiable out there, somewhere. Labels like these hide atrocities that should bring an earthquake in our consciences.
And then something happens like happened last year: a teenage boy, not even a full grown man yet, is shot by an adult man. Our senses are shattered. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t know it was wrong and should never have happened, that it’s a dark stain on the beautiful life God intends for each of us. And when the term racial profiling begins to be used, it helps. We can’t fully understand it, but it salves our senses to some extent. We have to force ourselves to look at the tragedy straight on and utter the bare facts: We say our future lies with our young people. A young man was killed. A young life was ended violently and senselessly. Racism played a part in this tragedy.
It’s clear that our we’ve only scratched the surface of the old problem of racism. We are left to wonder if Trayvon Martin would have been followed and shot if he’d been white and not black, all other circumstances being the same; if he would have been above suspicion for being a stranger in the neighborhood; if he would have left home that night and returned home safely.
Racism is still an issue. As imperceptible as it may be to us, it’s still a bright red flag for men who are black, and all you have to do is listen to the stories African American mothers and fathers have been telling about “the talk” they have to have with their sons teaching them how to walk, how to dress, how to look around, how to respond to confrontation – common sense to most of us but a matter of survival for black men – all you have to do is listen to those stories to know there is still a deep, bloody gash running down the middle of our great country. It’s a festering and painful sorrow that admits that some of our people do not count on the protection of our laws. That they have to be afraid of the law that is supposed to guard them.
Racism is one cause of this tragedy. I’m not saying it should have been an issue in Zimmerman’s trial because I don’t know if it could have been. I don’t deny that the causes are deep and not all on one side or the other. But we’re living in la-la land if we say racism wasn’t a factor in the encounter and that little was done to name it the wrong that it is. We’re denying our baptismal promises if we look away from this tragedy and move on to something else. If racism is, truly, still a reality in our country, then the people who write our laws have to do everything they can to write and pass laws that make it a crime for people to act violently on their fears and prejudices. And we as citizens have to do everything we can to confront our own prejudices and fears and help our society do the same thing.
Where do we start? As always, we start with ourselves. We start by speaking the truth, by admitting that we all are formed in families with their own peculiar experiences and that there’s no way our individual or corporate experience can define someone else’s experience, in this case an experience that comes of another culture and color of skin and history. We can ask ourselves hard questions about our fears and where they come from. Do they rule us, or can we break free of them?
We talk about compassion. Compassion begins with empathy, listening, touching, caring, really caring. We can never understand completely the experience of another person, but we can learn it and let that knowledge guide us in living with that person and that culture. We can create opportunities to listen to others and to express with sensitivity our own fears and the reasons for them, our own lives and experiences and histories. And we can be as sensitive and even handed as is humanly possible in writing and enforcing our laws.
So if we are to listen and touch and care, it’s clear we have to look one another in the eye and spend time together. We are so fortunate at Holy Cross. We are right here on a street where most if not all our neighbors come out of a completely different life experience from our own. Our neighbors are close. It’s easy for us to see and touch them. It’s convenient for us to have conversations with them. And I’m not talking about offering the peace when our neighbors are in church. I’m talking about sitting at a table, sharing a meal, visiting on the sidewalk, inviting them in, having and continuing to have conversations. And then going back to our homes changed people and calling others into that awareness. Our President asked a concrete question: Am I doing as much as I can to wring bias out of myself?
It’s easy to take the comfortable way, to say we’ve moved past the problems of racism and prejudice. Maybe it takes a gunshot and a death to scare us back to reality. It’s harder to ask questions that probe our deepest fears. It can be uncomfortable. We begin with a desire to do what’s right, to leave the world a better place than we found it, in whatever ways we can. It takes being honest with ourselves and probing the whys of our fears; honoring our neighbors as brothers and sisters and caring about them. Caring enough to confront the failings and blindness and neglect of our society and calling them by name out loud. Caring enough to sacrifice something of ourselves, our time and our comfort.
If we can learn anything from the familiar story of Martha and Mary we read today, we see that both intentional action and deep, honest reflection are required. Action without reflection can be shallow, misdirected, short lived. Reflection without action can be so deep and still that it goes nowhere, benefits no one.
If you didn’t hear our President’s talk Friday to the press core, pull it up on the internet and listen to it. He opens a window through which we can glimpse the experience of the black man in our country. It’s not what we want to see. And we, hand in hand with the black community, can do something about it.
Will we succeed? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Some battles have to be fought over and over; they’re lost several times before they’re won. The roots of racism are deep and many and complicated. History, guilt, blame, experience form the tangled root ball of fear. Each does its part to feed the tree of racism.
But no good is ever lost: God made this world out of stuff that is good. Goodness and justice and righteousness and love are the core of the universe. The prophets have told us, and Jesus’ resurrection affirms it. God’s will is that justice and right prevail, ultimately, and in large and small ways in the meantime. The soil in which the tree grows is of God’s creating, and that soil feeds and forms the tree, too. It’s not complicated. It’s love.
Racism is as alive and well as evil is. It may be invisible, it may be denied. Each generation will have to deal with fear, and fear manifests itself in subtle and deadly ways. We share God’s vision of a world where there is no hunger, no homelessness, no violence, no person dying at the hands of another. And we’re assured that because each one of us, each person in God’s Creation, is precious and beloved of God, not one of us is dispensable or insignificant. Each person is a creation of God whom God intends to have a life of goodness. Each of us who follows Jesus is called to be a neighbor, the keeper of our brother and sister’s life and safety. Let’s look for ways, together, to answer that call.
Love’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, can not, overcome it.
The Rev. Mary B. Richard