In the chorus of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s song “Greed” she sings: I been thinking about how to talk about greed//I been thinking about how to talk about greed//I been wondering if I could sing about greed//Trying to find a way to talk about greed.
Her point, of course, is that talking about greed isn’t easy. But she feels compelled to say something, because saying nothing won’t accomplish anything. So she begins with a confession: “I been trying to find a way to talk about greed.”
Since returning from sabbatical a year ago—just a month after Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into violent protest after the shooting death of Michael Brown—“I been trying to find a way to talk about race.” I think I’ve been waiting for the right book, or the right workshop, or the right TV program, or divine inspiration…something that will help create space for us to have honest and holy conversations about race here at Pilgrimage. I think I’ve been looking for a way for us to talk about race that will be neat and tidy—kind of like our focus last summer, when we immersed ourselves in the idea of community. At summer’s end, we tied it up with a bow and moved on.
It struck me the other day, though– there really is no tidy way to talk about race or racism. There’s no way not to ruffle feathers. There’s no way to stay comfortable when we talk about race, not if we want our conversations to be authentic. If I wait for the perfect words, if we as a community wait for the perfect method to appear to talk about race—much less to do something about racism—we’ll never start. I’m beginning to see Bernice’s wisdom—sometimes you just have to start….even if it’s only to confess just how hard it is to start.
So, where do we start the conversation about race? In my thinking about how to talk about race I’m thinking we’ll do well to begin with Genesis 1:27. There we are told that “humankind was created as God’s reflection: In the divine image God created them.” Every human being is created in the image of God. If we begin with that basic assumption, and hold it fast, the way forward will become clear. Or at least clearer.
Looking at every person as if they are a beloved child of God will help us to see them as God sees them; we’ll see them whole. We’ll want to learn about their experiences, discover their gifts, hear their stories, learn about their dreams. I’m convinced the way forward on any subject that involves other human beings becomes clearer when we see them as God sees them, when we see God in them.
Looking at others with our God-glasses on—that’s really good. Any time you try to see something from someone else’s perspective as a way to understand them better, as a way to connect with them, it’s a good thing.
But I’m thinking now as I’m trying to figure out how to talk about race, that perhaps there’s a prior step. Perhaps before we try to see others as God sees them, we might turn that holy, grace-filled gaze on ourselves. Perhaps the best way to prepare ourselves for authentic conversation about race is to see ourselves as whole human beings, created in the image of God, and deeply loved by God.
Conversations on race are not easy, perhaps especially for white people. White privilege is a real thing. But before we can confront that or any racism we might harbor, it’s vital to remember that we, too, are beloved children of God. If we know we are loved—deep down know we are loved—then doing the hard work of talking about race becomes, not easy, but more doable. If we know that we are loved, then authentic conversation becomes possible.
So, what might it mean to engage in conversations about race as if we are beloved children of God?
I think it begins by acknowledging that we aren’t perfect. We’re not going to say everything right all the time. In fact, we’re probably going to get things painfully wrong some times. We’re going to mess up. At some point, we’re going to say something deeply offensive to someone. Our words are going to hurt somebody—when we never had any intention of hurting anyone. Because of the way race has played out in American culture, people of color long have had to think about race…every moment of their lives they have been aware that they are not part of the dominant culture, of the predominant race.
Those of us who are white, because we are part of the predominant culture, we haven’t had to think about race every moment of every day of our lives. That means that this kind of thinking, this kind of conversing is going to be new for us. It’s going to be hard at first. It will take practice. We’ll have a lot to learn about what words, images, and traditions mean for people who are from a different racial background. We’ll have to listen. A lot. We’ll have to open ourselves up to anger—both our own and that of others who have been judged, mistreated, and discriminated against by white people because of their color. That part’s hard. It’s really hard. But it will be part of any authentic conversation about race.
What happens when you’re learning something new and it gets hard? If you’re like me, you start beating yourself up. Self-laceration can become a gut response to not doing things perfectly. Others of us might lash out at someone else. Mis-direction, the psychologists call it. We’re angry at ourselves and, because dealing with that anger is too difficult, we direct it toward someone else.
If in those times when the lessons get hard we remember that we are whole human beings, created in the image of God, deeply loved by God…If in the midst of authentic conversation about race we start feeling inadequate or defensive or beaten up, if we can remember in those hard times that we are deeply loved by God, then we’ll have another option besides mis-direction or self-laceration. If we know we’re loved, then when we mess up, we can take a step back and learn from the mistake. We can grow from it. We can, the Genesis writer says, do an even better job of reflecting God’s love to others.
Each of us has our own history. And each of us has our own history with race. Each of us at some point likely has experienced some sort of discrimination. And each of us, no doubt, has without intending to, hurt others with our words or stereotypes or thoughts or exclusions.
One account of someone waking up to their own racism comes from a beautiful song written by Kate Campbell. It’s a story she made up after seeing a photograph of a half-burned plantation home. The circumstances likely won’t resonate too much, but the feelings might. Here’s Kate Campbell singing, “Look Away.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pTMN10Nois
Now. I understand that we’re all at different points in our desire to engage in conversations about race. Some of us are eager to learn all we can, to talk together, to work to transform social systems, to work to heal our own racism. Others of us don’t see the need for the conversation or we see the need, but we just don’t have energy for it. Wherever you are on that journey is fine.
If you are interested in engaging in issues of race, on the other side of the sheet with Kate’s song you will see several opportunities for doing so. One thing I’d draw your attention to is the Ala-Tenn Association meeting in Montgomery Oct 2-3. One of the great things about being part of the Southeast Conference of the UCC is the amount of racial diversity among our member churches. We have a unique opportunity in the Southeast Conference to really talk with each other, learn from each other about issues of race. The meeting in Montgomery is one of those opportunities.
You’ll see that the main speaker is Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of a UCC church in Fourissant, Missoruri. Traci has been a key voice in the conversations that have been happening in Ferguson. If you might be interested in joining me for that overnight trip, let me know.
My first year here someone said of my sermons: “There are lots of levels to them. You can get something from the surface, or if you want to go deeper, you can do that, too.” This is definitely a multi-layered sermon. If you want to take Genesis 1:27, this idea that human beings are God’s reflection, and focus just on it, go for it. If you feel drawn to receiving and learning to believe in God’s love for you, do that. If you want to enter the process of reflecting more deeply on race and racism, do that. And if any of the things on the sheet interest you, let me know.
Let’s end the sermon together by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” remembering that we, too, are one of the children Jesus loves.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015