A Sermon after the Nonguilty Verdict
Pastor Joy Smith
Ezekiel 2:1-5 The Holy One said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2 And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation[b] of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God.” 5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
2 Corinthians 12:6- 12:10 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong
I am an educated person. I grew up during the Civil Rights era, and my southern parents always taught me to respect everyone regardless of the color of their skin. I listen to NPR and watch PBS. I have participated in many workshops on white privilege, always led by non-white women and men who were patient and very tough. I joined in vigils following the Charleston Massacre, Travon Martin, Michel Brown, Eric Gardener and after the murder of Philando Castile. In the 80s I marched in a protest lead by Jessie Jackson and Coretta Scott King to remember the lynching of 3 young black men in a small town outside of Atlanta. And more recently, I was challenged again – while attending the ASDIC Circle upstairs in the Parent Room.
I do not consider myself a racist like the KKK. I have been hyper-vigilant about racism in me and in my children.
I thought I was doing okay. But I wasn’t really listening, not deeply.
Especially, since the death, trial of Philando Castile here in St. Paul – I found myself defensive, nervous, wondering how to talk, respond. I actually have been depressed about all of it – wrestling with guilt, shame, mostly confusion- unsure how to understand whiteness or blackness or Native-ness, or how to hold hope. I am more wrapped up in racism than I have admpay attention to in a long time. And I have risked little to change it.
Sociologists call it “White Fragility”: That means when I experience even a little racial tension, I cry, get angry, argue or leave the situation all together. I can do that because my skin white. And then nothing changes. When I react it is embarrassing – but again that is because I am white.
Since the massacre in Charleston, SC – the conversation about race in America moved to the national front. After rampage, churches and people of faith responded immediately with horror, condemnation of the racism, deep sympathy (or at least, it feels deep), prayer and presence and public cries for change. It was a horrific act, and easy to respond to. But to take on the responsibility of racism– that is not so easy.
There have been some powerful symbolic changes – the confederate flag battle in South Carolina; other southern states doing the same – Amazon and Walmart no longer selling products showcasing the battle flag.
But – protecting voting rights are stalled in southern states; economic opportunities are not equal; the justice and penal systems are stridently racialized; the education gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota is higher than ever. White women are paid more than African American women who have PHDs.
And then the “theory” that the health of black women begins to deteriorate in early adulthood because they face with segregation and racism in every part of their lives …. ‘It causes stress on people that really impacts how they function. It impacts their cortisol levels, it impacts their brains [and] it impacts the babies that are born.’”1
This is fatal racism that permeates the structures of our society. And because I am white, I keep benefiting and protecting it in ways that I don’t even see. We don’t intend to be racist. But we do benefit from the way things are, and from the way we do and don’t see things.
God’s response to this penetrating sin, societal structures that benefit some and oppress others, remains what it has always been: God taps prophets to speak truth to power and provoke change.
Dr. Jennifer Harvey (some of you will remember she spoke at the UCC Conference a couple of years ago) is the author of a book titled “Dear White Christians” For Those Still Longing for Racial Recognition”.
Her core message is that we have to stop talking about reconciliation when we talk about race and racism. She clarifies, while reconciliation is at the very heart of the gospel. But – we have not done the hard work.
Maybe if we had truly listened to angry, truth-telling black voices in the 1960’s. And followed those prophets – like Jesus, Dr. King, Monsieur Romero who literally died for their commitment. We wouldn’t be where we are today. Maybe.
But we expect/want it to be easier than that. Maybe, if it were white people dying instead of black, or Native, or Hispanic, maybe we’d see things a little differently.
To be about prophetic work, the holy work, to dismantle racist structures, we have to spend more time listening, and listening, and listening, and listening. Not explaining, not defending, not entitlement, not insisting we are right and you are wrong. But listening, listening.
Only after South Africans told their painful stories of apartheid – did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begin to consider any reconciliation between individuals.
The work of national reconciliation never ends; because we must listen, and listen, and listen again, those of us, who like the way things are – and those of us who profit in unseen ways, those of us who never quite get it. And as we begin to hear, and to understand – we need to repent — to think anew, to accept our complicity and regret our role in unjust structures, and to earnestly desire change.
Dr. Harvey calls us to reparation – literally, actions to repair the brokenness, the injustice. Concrete actions, beyond listening and listening and listening.
Reparation does not only mean writing checks to descendants of those who had been slaves. I wish it was that easy- because it demands so much more.
Reparation means more than lighting candles, praying at vigils and marching down I94. Don’t misunderstand me – all of that is good and important. Keep doing it.
But for true change, it means unsettling lawmakers to change politics that can break old cycles. It means creating a scholarship fund that might right educational disparities. It means using white privilege in changes that undermine white privilege.
When we engage in these kind of actions, and then allow reconciliation to happen as it is supposed to happen – authentically and honest and not pressured by our discomfort and our power.
This is a weekend for “Dear White Christians” to reflect upon America’s uniqueness, (Harvey says) which is a better description than “exceptionalism,” a term that is loaded with racism, arrogance, ignorance, and injustice. Because alongside remarkably powerful principles and insights, America was also founded, economically and morally, with genocide and slavery. It’s a complex heritage. And the better we understand it; our racially divided society has a chance.
It is a risky commitment to be a prophet. Jesus says that prophets are sometimes killed, and unfortunately only valued after they are dead. If you are interested to take on the role – here is a job description:
Prophets are called by God, not self-appointed.
Because they are called by God, prophets are inspired and empowered, to speak with divine authority
Prophets are courageous and strong, yet humble; they do not speak for themselves, but for God, the way of Jesus, the good news
Prophets cannot expect to be popular, understood, or accepted
Prophets never go it all alone; Jesus gathered 12 , and sent them out in pairs – remember when Bree Ann Newsome scaled the flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina and removed the Confederate battle flag, she quoted scripture and had a companion who caught her.
Prophets are not responsible for the response of others, but simply to be faithful to God’s call.
“Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. … Do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words … and do not be dismayed by their looks … You shall speak my words to them” (Ez. 2:5-7). Pause ….
May it be said of me/you/Cherokee Park United Church- that there is indeed a prophet (probably more than one) among us who speaks up, who listens and listens and listens, who sees in new ways and repents of the old, who engages tirelessly in acts of reparation.
Perhaps, maybe we can glimpse the possibility of true reconciliation. At least we can be faithful to that good news, and trust in the power of Christ to keep us honest and at it. Those are my thoughts after Philando Castile’s tragic death was dismissed on Friday.