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Reverend Denise Clark-Jones
February 1, 2019
February is Black History Month in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. There are many more countries that created the great African Diaspora by kidnapping Africans from their home countries and selling them as slaves from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. With the Transatlantic slave trades, millions of Africans were taken from Western and Central Africa to many regions in the Americas and the Caribbean. Few would disagree that this was a horrible consequence of racism.
Today we tend to think of racism as a mean-spirited act carried out by an individual. But racism is a systematic injustice that pervades society. No one wants to be called a racist, but the truth of the matter is, whenever race is a factor in decisions, for good or ill, racism is in play. This goes for other “isms” as well. The word “racism” has become so charged that many who claim their race to be “white” become so defensive that they tune out, walk out, or become confrontational when they hear the word, “racism.” Sadly, this perpetuates ignorance. The Apostle Paul frequently warned the early Christian congregations about the dangers of ignorance and being led away from the witness of Jesus Christ. The author of 1 Peter cautioned:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Racism is not just a political issue, it is also a spiritual issue.
Black History Month came out of Negro History Week inaugurated in 1926 by the work of historian Carter G. Woodson. He sought to challenge racism with education. He believed that a biased history curriculum in schools and universities led to racist attitudes and institutional racism. He declared:
“There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom… why not exploit or enslave a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior? We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history.”
In the course of my preparing liturgy a few weeks ago I found these words in a “Prayer of Confession:” “We have silenced our prophets. We have covered our ears by those who speak out for justice because it makes us uncomfortable. We ignore calls to end oppression and violence because it is inconvenient for us. We avoid the looks of the poor because they embarrass us.”
It struck me that our society is luxuriating in intentional ignorance. We are fed so many lies and half-truths that can be even further from the truth. And then there are the lies of omission. During Black History month, school children will hear about a few African American heroes. If that is all that is taught, they will learn a lesson that one commentator described as: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the whites fixed everything.”
I am reminded of the passage from James 2:1-4:
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
In divisive times, such as we are now experiencing, remaining intentionally ignorant of the events in the world around us becomes a spiritual problem. Christ was sent into the world to reconcile all people to God and to one another. Reconciliation between people is a spiritual issue. There are many admonitions in the New Testament against being intentionally blind and deaf. In John 12:40, Jesus cites this passage from Isaiah 6:10 in which the ancient prophet warned the wayward leaders of Israel who had ceased to care for the most vulnerable in society and enhanced their own privilege. Isaiah saw that Israel needed spiritual healing. To be healed required open hearts, open eyes, and open ears. Sounds a lot like Westminster’s Mission Statement. From the prophet Isaiah:
“Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts; and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:10
Recently, I participated in a “webinar” sponsored by the Presbyterian Outlook. Amy Julia Becker, the author of “White Picket Fences,” recalled a panel discussion she had with an African-American author, Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, who wrote “A Sojourner’s Truth: Choosing Freedom and Courage in a Divided World.” The discussion included an observation of the “cognitive dissonance” that exists between the reality of our lives and the ideal of a life of liberty and justice for all. The responses to that dissonance include cynicism, anger, despair, bitterness, ignorance. Opening our hearts and minds, our eyes and our ears give us another option and can move us toward the ideal that Jesus described as the kingdom of God on earth.
One step we can take is to read. At the end of the lecture, Becker offered the following suggestions that may appeal to a variety of reading tastes from memoirs to textbooks. If you are not interested in reading something that may open your heart, mind, eyes, and ears, you should explore the reason why. The book list Becker gave is as follows:
White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo
I’m Still Here, by Austin Channing Brown
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
A Sojourner’s Truth: Choosing Freedom and Courage in a Divided World, by Natasha Sistrunk Robinson
Waking Up White, by Debby Irving
Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
Real American, by Julie Lythcott Hayes
Disunity in Christ, by Christena Cleveland
Between the World and Me, by Ta Nehisi Coates
Educated, by Tara Westover
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D.Vanceas
My First White Friend, by Patricia Raybon.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race, by Jean Halley
I contacted Rev. Tony Pierce, who participated in a small group book discussion at Westminster on Waking Up White, by Debby Irving, a few years ago. He strongly recommended White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo and I am reading it now. With the issue of immigration and the backlash against people of color by whites in the U.S. and Western Europe, it is critical for the Church to be an instrument of healing and reconciliation in these times.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” – Colossians 3:3-5
We, as the Church and as individual Christians, are witnesses for our faith. The Christian Church in America has wounded itself in the past with acts of racism and the inaction of indifference to the suffering of racism’s victims. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say about the struggle for civil rights for all: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
We can change ourselves and our world, even if it is just a small corner of the world and Christ has called us to do so. With prayer and small steps of love, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. To do the work we have been called to do – to uphold and promote justice in God’s world – we must start with ourselves. We must recognize a problem before we can work toward a solution. Education is a great start.
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” – Proverbs 28:26
Blessings! – Pastor Denise
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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“As a newcomer to Westminster (in September of 2014), I’ve found it to be a most welcoming fellowship. I look forward to going to services and events and find the warmth of the congregation to be most helpful to a newcomer to the entire area. I find sermons challenging … music beautiful and well prepared … and a dignity in the worship that is all too lacking in most Protestant congregations. Mix this with an open atmosphere where it is OK to question and still be seen as a good Christian, and I know I’ve found one important ‘home’ in Central Illinois.”