In light of all that transpired in Charlottesville last weekend, there have been cries for white Christian pastors to denounce white supremacy. The cries are disheartening for this white Christian pastor…because they suggest that, in our society, the public isn’t sure any more where the faith of Jesus stands on an issue as morally un-ambiguous as this one.
So, let me be clear. Racism is sin. That means that white supremacy, which is organized overt racism, also is sin. Anti-Semitism is sin. Inciting violence is sin. Refusing to denounce sin that is so obviously sin is sin.
What is sin? Sin is whatever diminishes a child of God. Sin is whatever gets in the way of someone becoming who God is creating them to be. Sin is spitting in the eye of the Creator.
Was marching with torches chanting Nazi slogans sin? Yes, it was sin. Was lashing out with violence sin? Yes, it was sin. Was intentionally speeding into a crowd of counter- protesters, killing one and injuring 19 sin? Yes, it was sin. That act could only be accomplished by seeing the human beings in front of you as less than human.
I get how crucial it is to denounce the sin of racism. I get how important it is to remove symbols of hatred like the Confederate flag and statues. I hear the cries to speak out against all forms of hate-speech and hateful actions. Speaking out is important.
But then what? Once the words have been spoken, what actions will follow?
In her book, The Power to Speak, theologian Rebecca Chopp describes the church’s role as two related movements: denouncing sin and announcing grace. She writes eloquently of the power of words, of how rhetoric shapes reality. Because rhetoric matters, it is crucial for the church to denounce everything that diminishes the dignity of any person.
But if all we do is denounce sin, what have we accomplished? Naming the sin of racism is important, but how will it be transformed? How will we be transformed?
Chopp reminds us that denouncing sin is only the first step of the church’s job. The second–equally necessary–step is announcing grace. What is grace? Grace is the radical acceptance of every child of God for who they are created by God to be. If a person can’t leave their home or drive their car or express frustration without fear of retributive violence, they are not living as God has created them to live. By the same token, if a person only feels powerful when they diminish someone else, they’re not living as God has created them to live. Diminishing someone else’s humanity, diminishes our own.
So, what might announcing grace in response to systemic racism look like?
This might seem counter-intuitive, but the first word of grace we speak must be directed to ourselves. For thoughtful Christians–especially those of us who are white and are aware of our privilege–it’s easy to feel guilt, even shame, simply for being white. I’m not saying the shame isn’t real or warranted…but to let ourselves become mired in shame disempowers us, paralyzes us. And if we’re paralyzed, we aren’t able to do the work of transformation.
Beating up on ourselves for our white privilege—which is itself an act of privilege—also prevents us from seeing the bigger picture of systemic racism. In truth, all of us are caught in the web of racism. Our actions are not entirely our own. The white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend, didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Those views have been held by people in our country for centuries. Feeling greater acceptance of their views currently, those folks have been emboldened to act on their views. Certainly, each person who marched made their own decision to be there and to bring riot gear and torches…but there also is a social framework in place that made what they did possible, that made it easier for them to act.
Which is exactly why systemic racism must be transformed. If a racist structure creates space for racist behavior, to what behaviors might a more life-giving societal structure lead?
Have you picked up yet that we’re talking about the kindom of God here? This thing of transforming religious and societal structures so that every person has everything they need to live and thrive and become who God created them to be? Jesus came to show us how to do that. As Jesus’ followers, it is the work to which we, too, are called.
So, what does Jesus show us today about making God’s dreams for the world come true?
First, he teaches a lesson warning the disciples not to interpret religious laws too rigidly. “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles,” he says. He’s referring here to strict dietary laws the Pharisees vigorously enforced. “It’s what comes out of a mouth that defiles.”
When the disciples ask for an explanation, Jesus tells them, “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” Thanks for the digestion lesson, Jesus! “But what comes out of the mouth”—what we say—“proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” What we do matters, but what we do with intention—what proceeds from our hearts—matters most. Rigid interpretation of the law isn’t the point. A changed heart is the point.
It’s a good, clearly-taught lesson. If only Jesus had listened to his own words.
Matthew tells us “Jesus left that place” (Galilee) “and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” a place inhabited by Gentiles, people with no knowledge of the law.
One of those inhabitants runs up and starts shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” So, this is interesting. To this point, few people have recognized Jesus as Lord—think, Messiah—but this Gentile, this foreigner, knows who Jesus is. How does Jesus respond? “He doesn’t answer her at all.”
When his disciples ask Jesus to send the woman away, he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The woman responds to these words by kneeling in front of Jesus. “Lord, help me,” she says. Seeing her, Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Excuse me?! Talk about rigidly interpreting religious law! Undeterred by his rudeness, and still desperate for her child to be healed, the woman says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Snap!
I’m not going to lie. Jesus doesn’t look good here. He’s rude and unbending in his interpretation of the law and of his role as God’s Messiah. And considering the lesson he’d just taught warning against rigid interpretations of the law, he’s also looking a tad hypocritical.
But then, he gets a clue. The woman’s comeback, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” wakes Jesus up to his prejudice. “Great is your faith!” he tells her. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed instantly.”
Did that line surprise you–“wakes Jesus up to his prejudice?” Jesus? Prejudiced? Most commentators struggle to go there. If Jesus was God, he couldn’t do anything wrong, could he? For Jesus to learn something—from a foreign Gentile woman, no less—is to suggest that he wasn’t already perfect. That possibility makes lots of interpreters nervous.
But what if he did? What if Jesus did learn something from that woman about who is included in the kindom (everybody) and who isn’t (nobody)? What if a key part of making God’s dreams for the world come true is to listen to and learn from people who are different from us, people who, perhaps, we might even look down on? What if the first step of creating God’s kindom here on earth as it is in heaven is confronting our own prejudices, acknowledging our own privilege? It’s kind of hard to use our privilege—white or otherwise—to transform systemic evils like racism without waking up to that privilege, right?
That’s the example Jesus gives us: immersed in, shaped by, and loyal to the social and religious norms of his day, he listened to someone whose social location and life experience were vastly different from his own. He took in her words, he faced the prejudice she was pointing out, then he used his privilege—as a man, as a Jewish teacher, as God’s Messiah—he used his privilege to heal the woman’s child.
Ultimately, that’s what all this is about, isn’t it? Facing our prejudices, waking up to our privilege, then using our privilege to transform all forms of injustice, including racism…we do it all for the sake of the children.
The saddest picture I saw this week—I hope to goodness it was fake news—the saddest picture I saw this week was of a toddler in a Klan outfit. A toddler.
The most hopeful thing I saw this week happened at 10:00 worship last Sunday. At one point, I looked up and saw Sunny Alexander coming in the door with Devon Hill-Kalasky on her hip. I did a double take and thought, Wait a minute! That’s the wrong kid! But after the initial puzzlement, I realized just how appropriate it was for someone besides Devon’s parents to be holding him. We’re all Devon’s parents, aren’t we? And Maddie’s. And Noah’s. And Eli’s. And Aiden’s. And Hannah’s. And Jake’s. And Maggie’s. And Mia’s.
These are our children. At their baptisms we promised, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciples, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best we are able. We promised, according to the grace given us, to grow with these children in the Christian faith… and to nurture them so that, one day, they may affirm their baptisms. We promised them our love, support, and care.
How will we keep our promises to the children? How will we keep our own baptismal vows? How will we “resist oppression and evil and show love and justice?” How will we use our privilege to help heal the world?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.