I am Complicit in the Racism I Abhor

I might be a racist.

I don’t want to be, but I don’t know whether I do enough to be sure I am an anti-racist.

I realize that sounds shocking, so let me break that down a little bit, because we in this country are terrible when it comes to talking about race, and we need to clarify a few things first.

White folks like me often get upset when we are accused of racism because we imagine ourselves to be good people who don’t wish anyone ill. And for the most part that’s true. But racism has nothing to do with our feelings.

It has nothing to do with what any one of us might think about another race or ethnic group. Racism is an –ism, like Federalism, capitalism, socialism, industrialism, feudalism, and so on. It’s a societal structure that is built all around us.

So, in the same way that we might be capitalists if we willingly participate in a capitalist system, we are racists if we benefit from a racist structure but do nothing to challenge it. We can be perfectly loving people, who harbor no ill will toward anyone of any race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality, and still in our embedded actions can perpetuate a system that is grossly unjust and that causes harm to so many.

I consider myself to be one who bears no ill will toward anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, or otherwise. I live in a large metropolitan area and work closely with people of all different backgrounds, religions, orientations, and identities. Among my close friends are people who hail from all around the world, whom I love dearly. And yet…

And yet, do I do enough outside of my own life and relationships to work for a world in which the people I love are truly included? Or do I, as a white male, consider my affections sufficient to the task? I’m not a bigot, but am I nonetheless a racist? Do I do enough or am I nevertheless complicit in the very systems that oppress the people I care about?

THE COMPLICITY OF PRIVILEGE

That problem of complicity is compounded by the fact that we frequently are blind to the very systems we’re complicit in.

Imagine you’re like me and left-handed. Imagine going into a classroom to take an important exam and all of the desks are those little one-armed deals that we had in high school. And all of the desks in that classroom are the ones where the desk piece is on the right side, meant for right-handed people.

It’s a small thing — but as a left-handed person, you notice that kind of thing. You notice further, that you can’t read any of the writing on pens and pencils because when you hold the pencil, the writing is upside-down. But if you’re right handed, you never notice any of that.

Imagine you have to go around on crutches or in a wheelchair. And none of the curbs in the sidewalks of your town has that little cutout that allows you to cross the street in the crosswalk. The only way for you to do it is to roll down the side of the street itself. And yet, if you’re not disabled, you never even have to think about it as you lithely leap from curb to crossing.

But to the left-handed and the disabled, the world has a noticeable right-handed and able-bodied bias. Those who are right-handed and able-bodied are privileged in such systems.

It’s not their fault. They’re not to be blamed for that. But the system is designed with them in mind, and not with the others.

That’s how it is with race. Those of us who are white are living in a system that was built for us. We may not always have success in that system — it’s not guaranteed that we’ll be rich or influential or even happy — but as a group we are the ones who have the privilege in that system.

It’s not our fault. We’re not to be blamed for it. But we are responsible for it. We have to acknowledge that the system is designed for people who look like us, and designed not to work for others. It is upon us to be aware of that.

See, I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, Christian, straight, cisgendered, college-educated, middle-class, able-bodied, English speaking, natural born citizen male. There is literally not a category of identity in which I am not able to identify with the category that has the greater privilege.

I have to acknowledge that I benefit from the color of my skin and the other categories to which I belong. It hasn’t necessarily made me rich or ensured that I get all the breaks. But it does mean that as a white male, I am rarely questioned when I walk into a building and breeze right past the front desk. It means that I will never get pulled over by the police and asked what I’m doing in a given neighborhood. And as a male it means that despite the fact that my female colleague has just made a really great suggestion, more people will listen to me and take me more seriously when I repeat the exact same idea seconds later.

So, while this privilege does not guarantee me success, or a job, or fame and fortune, it does guarantee that there will be no undue obstacles in my path. In the race of life, white folks may stumble and fall and fail to reach the finish line, but we start a whole lot further down the track than our black and brown brothers and sisters do.

Again, it’s not our fault that that should be the case, but it is our responsibility to do something about it.

And it’s on us to fix that and to challenge the ways that racism and bias are embedded into our society. Because the issues at stake are an awful lot more significant than whether the desk you sit at accommodates your dominant handedness.

Because right now people’s lives are at stake. And when people’s lives are at stake, inaction is unacceptable.

STANDING UP TO HATE

Seventy-two years ago, my grandfather returned from serving in the Second World War. For over three years, he had served with the army as an artillery captain in Italy, pushing the Nazi army back out of the peninsula and leading to its eventual defeat and destruction. He came home, married my grandmother, started a family, built a business and lived a long and productive life, until he died at 100 years of age this past Friday.

But now there are honest-to-God Nazis marching through the streets of American cities, waving swastika flags and shouting “blood and soil” and demanding the same kind of racist, white supremacy that Adolf Hitler and his regime strove to erect. What is the point of my grandfather having risked his life for our freedom and against evil if we’re going to allow that same evil to flourish on our shores?

But here is where we need to be honest with ourselves. This kind of hate does not arise solely because some loner kid gets indoctrinated online by a white supremacist. It happens because we have failed to purge the racism embedded in our culture.

In recent studies, researchers sought to uncover what it is that makes people racist. The result was surprising. Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist notes:

In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be. This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us. [1]

Washington Post, August 14, 2017

Racism may not be something that is taught, but it is definitely learned. And it’s learned implicitly. That is, no one ever has to come out and say, “African Americans are inferior,” if all around us, the society is quietly reinforcing that very message. In a study at Tufts University, it was found that “even with a TV show on mute displaying scenes with no explicit discrimination, the nonverbal body language of black and white actors interacting was enough to cause watchers to test higher for implicit bias afterward.” [2]

What that means is that we don’t have to do anything overt to promote racist ideas. They’re already percolating out there in the culture, being learned if we simply do nothing.

And that’s becoming a problem. Because while we white folks can feel like things are much better than they used to be when people would say all manner of terrible things openly, the essential structure remains and the embedded cultural messages continue to be taught. And as we’ve seen recently, it’s putting us on a path with some pretty terrible consequences.

We can no longer sit idly by, content with the knowledge that we bear no ill will to anyone. We have to work actively to eradicate the scourge of racism from our midst.

WHY WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS IN CHURCH

But, you may be asking, why is this our concern on a Sunday morning? Why are we as Christians supposed to care? Is this just the rantings of a liberal, big-city preacher with a captive audience?

On the contrary, this is part of our essential and core message. Indeed, racism opposes the very heart of the gospel message that we proclaim.

THE SIN OF RACISM

At its core, racism and white supremacy are a kind of idolatry. They imagine that merit, acceptance by God, and salvation are all a function of the color of one’s skin. They elevate this aspect of a person’s nature above all others, higher even than faith. No matter how faithful, how trusting, how righteous an individual is, if they’re not white, they are cast off, rejected by God.

This makes the color of our skin the method of salvation, in effect, making skin color an idol. One’s race becomes that which determines salvation, not God. Not grace.

It means, also, that to judge someone by their skin is not being godly. In the passage from 1 Samuel, the prophet Samuel assumes that Eliab is the Lord’s anointed one because he looks right. God reminds him:

Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.

1 Samuel 16:7

In addition, by creating divisions within the human race, one group that is higher than another, racist ideology denies the fundamental equality of all human beings under the lordship of God. God alone is due power and glory and honor — not white people.

Which means that racism and white supremacy are also a kind of blasphemy. For in the first account of the creation in the Book of Genesis, we read God declaring:

“Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.

Genesis 1:26–27

When we elevate one group of human beings over another, when we privilege one group over another, when we declare that one group of human beings is superior to another, we deny the God-image that God declares is in every human being. We make of our hate an idol and of God we make a liar. That is idolatry. That is blasphemy. And even were it not, there is nothing about either racism or white supremacy that is Christian.

ANTITHETICAL TO THE GOSPEL

Jesus repeatedly reached out across divisions of race, nationality, or ethnicity. He spoke with a Samaritan woman and even made a despised Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables. He told his disciples that faith was not in “lording it over one another” like the pagans, but in serving one another. Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion.

In instructing the early church, St. Paul was clear that divisions of race or ethnicity, national origins, class, or sex no longer mattered: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

In the Book of Revelation, the multitude of the elect that “no one could number” are from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

It is abundantly clear that the central premise of racism, that there is an “us” and a “them” is rejected by Jesus — there is only an “us.” The very idea of dividing humanity into groups that are worthy and groups that are not is contrary to the message of God that we are all children of God and all deserving of dignity, compassion, and respect. We are called to testify otherwise.

And our calling must go beyond our own individual feelings and extend to true societal transformation.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once said, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” What we do as a community is more central to our faith than our own personal piety and personal holiness. It was a similar ethic that drove the Social Gospel in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to work for societal transformation, of which Methodists were a significant part. Sin is not something limited to our inidividual actions, in our Methodist thinking, there are societal sins, and for Wesley, slavery and racial oppression were among the greatest.

It is not our fault that the world is this way, but it is our responsibility to do something about it, because Jesus calls us to.

As Christians, we cannot content ourselves to ensuring that we as individuals are nice people, bearing no one ill-will on account of their race, so long as unjust structures exist and so long as the background noise of our culture allows violent racists and extremists to arise. In our baptismal and membership vows is the commitment to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.” And they’ve been presenting themselves a lot lately.

END

Look, I get it that doing this work is uncomfortable. It involves risk. It will involve listening to the experiences of people of color and hearing what they have to say — even if it makes us uncomfortable. It will involve not immediately trying to defend ourselves and our own feelings. It may involve a lot of uncomfortable conversations at the Thanksgiving dinner table or around the office water cooler. It may involve speaking up against voices of hate and intolerance. Putting ourselves on the line. It involves putting ourselves out there. It’s scary, to be sure. But such is the calling of the Christian.

Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather put a lot at risk when he joined the fight against fascism, tyranny, and a system that would have elevated one ethnic group and enslaved millions of others. He put his life on the line to defend the proposition that we’re all created equal and deserving of life and liberty. I cannot ignore his example and do anything less.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all need to do it in the same way he did — with an entire battery of artillery — but we should be no less committed to the cause. No less willing to sacrifice and put ourselves in places of discomfort and risk.

I worry that I might be a racist because I am too complicit in the very structures I claim to abhor.

So, if I am to be complicit, let me be complicit not in systems that elevate some and oppress others. Rather, let me be complicit in creating a society in which everyone is valued, in which all people are treated with human dignity, in which the image of God is affirmed in all human beings, regardless of race, creed, color, class, age, gender, orientation, national origin, political ideology, or ability.

Christ calls us to reject our complicity with the evil, injustice, and oppression in the world. To move past our unexamined privilege and the ways we perpetuate systems that harm. Instead, Christ calls us to be complicit in justice, complicit in love, and complicit in the Gospel he came and gave his life to proclaim.

Reprinted from a sermon given following the racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, August 2017.

THE TEXTS

Genesis 1:26–27 • Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.

1 Samuel 16:6–7 • When they arrived, Samuel looked at Eliab and thought, That must be the LORD’s anointed right in front. But the LORD said to Samuel, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart.”

Galatians 3:26–29 • You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now if you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

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