More than 100 days ago now, a recent high school graduate, Michael Brown, was confronted by a police officer for jaywalking – who soon thereafter shot him several times. Brown’s body was left lying on the ground for more than 4 hours. Everyone agrees that he was unarmed.
In our country, stories like this one are unexceptional. Several unarmed young Black men – even a boy as young as 12 – have been killed by police officers in the 3+ months since the events that we have come in this country to designate simply with the name of the town: “Ferguson.” But for a variety of reasons (not limited to, but certainly including the combative reaction of the police to the protestors after the shooting, and the nationwide (even international!) community of activists fostered by Twitter), this one death became the catalyst for a conversation that had been on the back-burner for a couple of generations: Black men and women are still held in suspicion, and disproportionately subjected to violence, imprisonment, and other more subtle daily degradations on the basis of their “race.”
Yesterday, at my church (and at churches throughout the U.S. and Canada), the reading from Isaiah included these words: “you [God] have hidden your face from us, and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Which, if you are a White person living in the United States, was a particularly timely word. And one which was not likely expounded upon from the pulpit in your church, if you attend one.
So allow me.
My White sisters and brothers, our iniquity is ongoing. We don’t get let off the hook by saying, “I wasn’t even alive when slavery existed.” We continue to benefit from racism today. We are the beneficiaries of both conscious and unconscious racism, systemic racism, economic racism; if nothing else, we benefit simply by not being subject to the wearying daily assault of individual racist micro-aggressions. But we are not let off the hook even for slavery, because we ourselves have been taught the Race Code by the children of the children of the children of slaveholders and slave dealers (in case any non-Southern readers thought they might be getting a bye) – we have been brought up, by and large, to serve the false idols of “getting ahead.” and “having more than my parents did,” and we have shrugged off the warning of Exodus 20:5 – “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.”
We have not exactly been lacking opportunities to repent. But we haven’t been willing to admit that we have a problem – much less to examine what our problem consists of. Now with these protests that are rising up all over the country, we are once again given a choice. Will we harden our hearts? Will we rise up our voices in a self-serving counter-protest – uttering cowardly words, like: “Not all white people…” and “You’re exaggerating to make a point!” and “What about black on black crime?”
Or will we start to ask, “How am I a part of this problem, and how can I take responsibility as a White person in a society dominated by White people?”
One of my favorite Advent hymns (predictably, for a Methodist) is Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, by Charles Wesley. Every year, Methodists (and others) around the globe sing, “From our fears and sins release us…”
Our fear has too long held us captive, preventing White men and women from seeing their Black brothers and sisters lovingly. Our fear has blinded us to our sin. And in case you are not feeling particularly racist yourself, may I remind you of these words from the Book of Common Prayer, Morning Daily Prayer, Rite II: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
I can say for myself, I have left far too much undone, when it comes to working for justice in this country. It wasn’t so long ago that I was failing to even remember daily that this country has a race problem.
God of all people, give us courage. Plant in us the desire to see the world as you see it, even if it pains us to do so. Grant us the gift of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Even as we wait for you to make all things new, show each one of us how you would have us help build your coming kingdom, that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.