After Charlottesville. A Homily on Race
“You know they were chaplains on slave ships, right?”
In the song Precious Puritans, Christian hip hop artist Propaganda confronts evangelical pastors who thoughtlessly quote and praise Puritan preachers without regard for the people of color who are sitting in the pews as the descendants of the “cargo” of those very slave ships. He points out how the Puritans twisted St. Paul’s words about “being content in one’s state in life” as a declaration that Africans, though made in the image of God, should be content in “their shackled, diseased, imprisoned” state. Content?
Yet that same theology of contentment buried itself into the American psyche of white Christians as seen when Dr. Martin Luther King’s freedom movement in the 1960s clashed against white pastors in the South. Thrown in jail for non-violent peaceful protests, Dr. King penned his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” not to the nation, but specifically to white, southern clergy who, instead of standing with him, urged him to be cautious, restrained, and not make waves. Be content.
The brilliance of Dr King was not to appeal to sociologists and research, but to say to Christians you aren’t being Christian enough! You aren’t following Christ enough! You’re hung up on all the wrong perspectives that you cannot see the gospel! He challenged their faith and said it wasn’t authentic enough, it wasn’t true enough to Scripture. And he was right.
Dr King quoted two Roman Catholic theologians and saints, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, to back up his freedom movement with the bullet-proof theology of the best of the Christian tradition. If these two can side with King, why can’t we?
Being confronted is always difficult. We get defensive. We explain our motives. We defend our intentions. All of this we do instead of just listening.
When black men and women talk about the systemic injustice they experience as a minority, too often we roll our eyes and say, “Those days are over.” Instead of listening to our Christian brothers and sisters, we try to engage in colorless rhetoric, thinking that by not talking about race it proves we aren’t racists. But the problem with colorless rhetoric is that it isn’t real. It’s not incarnational. It’s a cop-out.
In the reconciling words of Propaganda, “You see my skin, and I see yours, and they are beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully, divinely designed uniqueness. Shouldn’t we celebrate that instead of acting like it isn’t there?”
There is no such thing as a colorless person, a race-neutral person doesn’t exist. So why does our rhetoric? Because it is difficult.
This weekend our nation blew up. One of the largest white nationalists and supremacists gatherings in decades protested the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. Their anti-Jewish signs and chants literally contradict the words of Saint Paul in today’s Second Reading. “The Goyim Know” and “Jews will not replace us” could not stand in a starker, demonic relief against the words of St Paul who, with an anguished and broken heart for his own Jewish people, cries out that, if it were possible, he would be cut off from Christ “for the sake of my own people.” “Theirs is the adoption, the glory, the covenants…”
The urge is to make the same recurring denunciations and put distance between ourselves and the extremists. “I would never do that.” “I don’t think that way.” “This was a national disgrace and an outrage!” But that approach does not work anymore. Let’s look at history for a second.
When African Americans from the South moved out of rural environments and into America’s cities in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, that gave birth to “White Flight” and the modern suburb. For 30 years the American suburb was functional segregation. The practice of Red Lining, literal red lines drawn on maps where banks wouldn’t loan money to poor minorities for housing, kept people of color on the outside, “in their place.” Then as economic barriers came down and the suburbs got a little bit more brown we witness “Gentrification”, a process where wealthier people, mostly whites, are moving back into the city, creating sky-high home prices and expensive retailers price the people out of their own neighborhoods. “Yeah, but we hipsters now have a new coffeeshop and a Trader Joes!”
Psalm 85 should make us all uncomfortable but hopeful. “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.”
In Charlottesville, kindness and truth are not meeting and justice and peace are not kissing because the hurt, the past, collided. The crooked and sinful nature of our fallen humanity constantly raises barriers to the commandment of Jesus Christ to “love your neighbor as yourself.” AS MYSELF?!
As the Dodge Charger plowed into the crowd, killing one and injuring dozens of people, we see that in order to love our black and brown neighbors, we are going to have to die to ourselves, take up our crosses, and repent. We have to make room in our personal lives and at our dinner tables, as well as in the pews and at the altar. The table-fellowship of the Pharisees was one of exclusion. Pope Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth, talks about how Jesus’ table-fellowship could not be more contrasted, as all, even the pharisee, was invited into his community.
Jesus Christ changes everything. I do not accept the current cultural climate where whites and blacks must be at war with each other; that the poor and the rich must despise each other; that men and women must oppress one another. The cross breaks down the “dividing wall of hostility” between God and man, but in Christ, it also breaks down the dividing wall of hostility that we are constantly erecting between us. We separate ourselves based on pride, arrogance, worldly ideologies, our bank account statements, our skin color, our accents, our place of birth. The real reason why we do this is because we are all engaged in the delusional project of self-justification. We all need redemption, but instead of coming to Jesus Christ and surrendering ourselves to his grace, we create systems of self-justification. “At least I’m not like so-and-so.”
Crucial to the Catholic concept of justice is the notion of solidarity. Saint John Paul II used this to tear down Communism in Poland. Solidarity, at its core, is a realization on the gut-check level that you and I are the same and I’m not going to let our differences put distances between us. The thing about privilege is that it can prevent us from encountering those without privilege. We can gate ourselves into a community, becoming so isolated that we no longer live in the same world, even though we’re technically in the same city. When solidarity collapses, when I refuse to stand with you, when I refuse to listen to you, then I make room for Satan to divide and conquer.
Our nation is divided into two. Do you think that’s God’s work? Then come and let us oppose the devil, taking his strongholds in the name of Jesus Christ. Let us beg Christ for repentance where it is needed, and it is needed. Let us beg him for boldness like the Church in Acts of the Apostles chapter 4 did, and change the nation.
Christians, we should be leading racial reconciliation. The blood of Jesus Christ speaks more eloquently then a thousand protest slogans because the Cross alone can actually bring us together. The cross reveals how we are all sinners, we are all guilty before God, we all stand in the filthy rags of our own self-justification, and it was only through the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ on the Cross that we are restored to a right relationship with God.
Like the Gospel for today, our country is being tossed about on the stormy waves of racial violence and distrust. The winds of violence and arrogance are strong. In the fourth watch of the night, when it is darkest, when the people are terrified, when fear grips us all, Jesus Christ comes walking on the waters. He is God and can make miracles in the midst of storms. In his arms he holds the universe, the same arms pinned to the beam of the cross.
I know we don’t want to hear this, I don’t want to say this, but if we don’t then we make a mockery of the Cross of Christ and empty it of its power. We hide behind our ideologies from the power of the Holy Spirit to really transform our hearts, minds, lives. We hide behind our self-justification when we, not Christ, define “who is my neighbor.”
Ephesians chapter 2 says beautifully: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.”
If we are willing to be his disciples, and not merely his fans, then its time to take courage and get out of the boat. You might be surprised to find that, with Him, you’re walking on water.