~ Matthew 25:31-46 ~
The night of September 22, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky declared a state of emergency. What was the emergency? “The potential for civil unrest,” was his reason. Six months after officers shot and killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, at home, in her bed, while she slept, the Kentucky Attorney General was about to announce whether or not his office would bring charges against the officers involved in her killing. The mayor said the city “must be prepared.”
Usually, a state of emergency is declared in the face of pending disasters like wildfires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes heading our way. But that wasn’t the case in Louisville that night. Instead, the ongoing emergency that hangs over the city and many other cities, indeed, over the entire country, is much more serious.
Racism is the emergency! What if we truly addressed systemic racial injustice with the urgency that we would a raging wildfire? What if we put everything in to ensuring that all of our neighbors were safe? What if this became the one thing that was at the center of everything for a while?
Of course, as we all soon found out, the Kentucky Attorney General did not bring any charges against the officers for shooting Breonna Taylor while she slept. One officer was charged only with what’s called “wanton endangerment,” for shooting bullets into the apartment next door, where, not surprisingly, white people lived. The emergency? Racism is the emergency.
Engage! That is our word for today. The last of our four mission statements says that as a congregation we will engage in opportunities for service, social action, and dialogue with a diversity of cultures and faiths. There are many ways that can happen and this congregation has done that in various ways through the years. But at this time in our history we have quite intentionally taken on a particular form of engagement: Seeking to dismantle structural racism. This past fall we adopted the PCUSA Matthew 25 initiative as our commitment to engage in service, social action, and dialogue. Just to remind ourselves, Karen read Jesus’ parable from Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
This is a parable of judgment. Indeed, of the last judgment, when Jesus, the Son of Man, comes in his glory, sits on the throne and judges the nations. Importantly, this parable is not really about individual behavior. It is about how communities, societies, nations behave toward those in their communities who are the ‘least’. And, again importantly, when Jesus talks about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoners he is not saying that these are people who are less in importance or value to the community, the nation, like those who produce or decision-makers or of high status. The least, as far as Jesus is concerned, are the measure of how righteous a community, a nation, is because how the community treats the ‘least’ determines whether they are sheep or goats. Because, as Jesus so poignantly states, whatever you’ve done for the least of these you’ve done it to me.
In that regard racism is not about individual racist behavior. It is about how the community, the nation, works for those who are ‘least’. It is about how a community, a nation, is structured to either enhance or oppress all within the community. Indeed, it is about the system. There are many ways a society can push people down, but in our particular society, with our particular history, systemic racism is the critical issue.
I admit that how we, you and I, individually wrap our heads around the idea that we participate in a racist system is a hard thing. How can I, just because I’m white, be complicit in an unjust, evil system.? What sin have I committed? Some of the pushback by some Christians says that if racism is so evil why hasn’t the Holy Spirit convicted me of that sin? Why do I have to rely on some sociological, historical analysis to say that all us white people are sinners? Why should I feel guilty for something I didn’t do? Only racial bigots are racist, those who overtly hate Black people, right? I’m not a racist!
At this juncture I think it would be helpful to provide a bit of some of that sociological, historical analysis that I mentioned before. Why is racism structural? Why is it systemic?
Of late, a term has come into play that gets people pretty riled up: Critical Race Theory or CRT. CRT is the sociological analysis that says that white supremacy is the default norm of our society. It is how our society ‘frames’ the message that whites are superior and all others, BIPOC, are by default less. This message is deep and extensive with thousands of stored ‘bits’ of cultural information – images, stories, interpretations, omissions, silences – that are passed along from one person and group to the next, and from one generation to the next. These bits circulate both explicitly and implicitly such as through movies, TV, news, social media and stories told to us by family and friends. These messages affect how we interpret social relations and integrate new ‘bits’.
At the most general level, this ‘framing’ of the message views whites as superior in culture and achievement and views BIPOC as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence. People of color are seen as inferior to whites in making and keeping of the nation, of the community. And, because social institutions are controlled by whites, white dominance is unremarkable and taken for granted. Thus, whites are disproportionately enriched and privileged by these taken-for-granted institutions. But the usual take-away is that whites are entitled to more privileges and resources because we are ‘better’ people. And, at an even deeper level, negative stereotypes and images of racial others as inferior are reinforced and accepted. Corresponding emotions, such as fear, contempt and resentment become part of the message. These messages are so internalized, so submerged, that they are never consciously considered or challenged by most whites.
This is the essence of Critical Race Theory. And, as I said before, this approach to understanding our racialized society is quite controversial. Indeed, it is the philosophy that informs Black Lives Matter. Much of the pushback against BLM is because it is an outworking of this analysis of society. Thus, Christian apologists decry it, calling it anti-Christian. Conservatives claim CRT is a Marxist philosophy and BLM is a Marxist organization. The President had some bad things to say about CRT in a speech last week, ordering all diversity training halted in Federal offices, because, of course, diversity training comes from CRT.
CRT has come to the foreground of late because people have come to realize that we can’t just change laws; we have to change peoples’ hearts. Now, throughout the nation’s abolitionist and civil rights movements, there has always been an understanding that racism is systemic. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke of society-wide racial oppression, woven into the fabric of American institutions. And in the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, Martin Luther King Jr spoke often of how deeply racialized our institutions and society are. The thing about the civil rights movement is that we all thought that if we could just remove the legal restrictions and barriers, we could produce a more just society; if the law treated all people as equal under the law then we would be on our way to racial justice.
Subsequently, what frustrated many of us who championed such changes, is that changing the laws didn’t have the desired effect. Prejudice, discrimination, and oppression still seemed to hold sway. Racial-restrictive real estate practice was technically illegal but housing segregation still was operative. Brown v. Board of Education made segregation in schools illegal but we still have segregated schools. Why? Because changing the law is not enough. We must change hearts. And to change hearts we must delve deep into the heart that still so easily assumes that whites are superior. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. It is systemic.
So, when we talk about ‘dismantling structural racism’ we come to realize that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. It is a daunting task we are taking on. But it is probably the most important task we could be doing right now. Maybe we should declare it a state of emergency.
Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” We, who consider ourselves part of Jesus’ family, are called to treat everyone in his family as our own. Thus, we live out our mission to ‘engage our congregation and community in opportunities for service, social action, and dialogue with a diversity cultures and faiths.’