A sermon (confession) for white people in the wake of Charleston

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” — Mark 4:37-38

Sometimes it feels like Jesus is sleeping in the boat. The wind is howling, the storm is raging, the boat is about to sink, and it feels like Jesus is sleeping.

In recent days, it has felt like the boat of our humanity, of our nation, of our collective dignity, has yet again been at stake, and the storms of humanity’s own doing — the storms of racism, the storms of violence, the storms that come from centuries of dehumanizing others — such storms threaten to capsize our boat, to throw us into the choppy waters, to leave us to drown, desperately reaching for the shore, crying out for help. 

There are storms of nature that at times threaten us, and this is the kind of storm the disciples faced in this story from long ago, when the waves pounded their boat, and Jesus just laid there, sleeping. 

But there are also storms of our own doing, storms for which human beings are responsible: storms of violence, storms of racism, storms of violence *and* racism, storms that threaten to tear us apart, that have already torn us apart.

Like so many of you, I have spent the last few days overcome by feelings of emptiness and sorrow. The words of Lamentations ch. 2 have become expressions on our own hearts: “My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground…”

We so desperately want Jesus to calm the storm of racism that has ailed our nation for far too long, not just during years of slavery and segregation but well after, even and especially now. We want Jesus to heal the gaping racial wounds that feel so insurmountable, the gaping racial wounds that our nation so frequently fails to acknowledge and, as such, keeps us from truly becoming the land of the free and the home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all.

We would like Jesus to wake up and to calm our storms, like he did for his disciples long ago, to help us find solid ground, to still the kind of storms that keep black and brown people from feeling like they can gather together safely in this country, even in a sanctuary, or to walk to the convenience store and back without fear of death. And we long for Jesus to still the storms of racism that somehow lead whites in our country to feel like equality and justice for all somehow means less equality and justice for them, somehow means victimization for them, which in turn leads whites plagued by a seemingly chronic case of whiteness to be conditioned by fear all the more, sometimes in obvious, tragic ways for all to see, yet far more frequently in the quiet, daily, subtle, gnawing sensation that the racial divide in America doesn’t just hurt people of color but quietly destroys the souls of white folk as well. And when whites can’t quite suppress such feelings enough — despite centuries of ideology in their favor! — we become all too aware that we are drowning in a sickness unto death. 

If we want Jesus to wake up and calm these storms, if we dare solicit his help, we must take pause. We must realize that Jesus doesn’t offer cheap remedies; rather, he asks everything of us, including and especially honesty coupled with action. The remedy Jesus offers is not quick, and it is not without its challenges. In times like ours, the remedy he offers is less a soothing balm and more a disrupting presence. Stilling the storms of racism, which are inextricably connected to the storms of violence, requires us to face deeply into ourselves, to ask the difficult questions and acknowledge the uncomfortable truths about our nation’s history, including the daily fears of what it means to be black or brown in a nation that in a variety of ways continues to inflict grossly disproportionate amounts of violence upon black and brown bodies, a violence that is not just about the denial of basic human dignity and rights but, all too frequently, the very denial of life itself. If those of us who are white feel the sting of racism as something that gnaws away at our collective (figurative) soul, how privileged it is for that to be the primary affect of racism on our lives. There are figurative deaths, and there are literal deaths. Racism deals both kinds; but let us not equate the two. There is an existential sickness unto death, and there is death itself. Separate, but not equal. 

The truth that Jesus exposes, if we dare face it, is the truth of one who was violently scapegoated and subsequently murdered for crimes he did not commit. Jesus, the beautiful and blameless lamb, was executed by those who blamed him for their problems. “You are causing a disturbance!” they said to him. “You are threatening our way of life! Keep to yourself!” Sounds frighteningly similar, doesn’t it, to the rhetoric used by Charleston’s terrorist — “You rape our women and are taking over our country,” he said to those gathered for prayer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — employing rhetoric which has been invoked on countless occasions down through the years by white supremacists in order to justify scores of lynchings and murders.

If we want to know where the crucified Jesus resides today, we need only to look at the bodies of those murdered by an evil violence based on misguided fear, frequently rooted in a founding myth of racial superiority and prejudice and privilege and subjugation and dehumanization. Indeed, Jesus’ dead body hangs not only from a wooden cross in ancient Rome but from countless trees across the deep south of the United States of America; Jesus’ blood-soaked body has been laid to rest many times, not only in ancient Galilee but also in Birmingham Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Money Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River and Springfield Missouri’s own town square and Oakland California’s Fruitvale Station and Staten Island’s public streets and Cleveland Ohio’s public parks, and, now, on the floor of Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, a state where the Confederate battle flag still flies high and, evidently, bows to nothing. 

Of course, we need to be careful here. We’re treading in dangerous waters. The life and death of Jesus exposes us to the truth of our collective existence (or, perhaps, the truth of our penchant for destruction), and, as such, we very well may prefer Jesus to stay asleep, so we don’t have to deal with the deep questions and uncomfortable truths that haunt our country and our society. 

After all, the simple but disastrously naive way to read the story of Charleston’s terrorist is to view him as an aberration, a bad apple, a lone wolf, as one who acted outside of the system, as opposed to being more properly understood as a symptom of the very system itself.

Of course we condemn his act — of course we are outraged by it — this is the most obvious of all things! But truly honoring the victims of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and truly honoring the memory of Jesus, means we must not only condemn and be outraged by this single act, which is unfathomably horrific, but, even more, we must condemn and be outraged by the conditions that lead to such displays of violence in our country, over and over and over again.

As Jon Stewart noted in his moving segment on Thursday’s Daily Show, the roads in South Carolina, traversed by blacks and whites alike on a daily basis, are still named “in honor” of Confederate generals. And even though this shooting might largely be acknowledged as an act of racist violence, let’s not kid ourselves here —> the standard rhetorical climate on social media and cable news networks results in thousands of thinly-veiled, subtly-coded racist statements on a daily basis that are deemed perfectly acceptable by no small segment of our nation’s population. I mean, I’m a white guy in the Ozarks. When people don’t know I’m a progressive Christian pastor, the racist comments I am regularly privy to on a behind-the-scenes basis lack nearly all filters that might otherwise keep them from being said in public.

All of this sets the stage for contempt and anger and violence; all of this can make 21-year-old white men in South Carolina or Missouri or wherever feel as if their anger at people of color is somehow legitimate. At its perverse core, racist rhetoric, whether in implicit or explicit form, whether expressed on social media or interpersonal conversation or cable news networks, incites nothing but misguided anger and fear and blame that in turn populates the tragic killing fields of racism, with horrific consequences for all of humanity. 

Yet as much as I wish it wasn’t the case, things are even more complicated than this. As many whites are beginning to recognize, and as black and brown people have known for far too long, racism is not simply about individual feelings of prejudice by just “a few bad apples.”

As one professor writes, “a fundamental but very challenging part of [anti-racist] work is moving white people from an individual understanding of racism—i.e. only some people are racist and those people are bad—to a structural understanding. A structural understanding recognizes racism as a default system that institutionalizes an unequal distribution of resources and power between white people and people of color. This system is historic, taken for granted, deeply embedded, and, [while toxic and burdensome to people of color] it works to the benefit of whites.”

Many of us who are white in America don’t like to acknowledge such uncomfortable truths — I know I don’t — but if we want our response to tragedies like the one in Charleston to be more than just an empty rhetorical gesture, we must begin by telling the truth about our past — not white washing or sugar coating it. It begins by acknowledging that America’s original sin is the sin of racism, and that the signs and symbols of racism and inequality and misguided fear are still deeply entrenched in our culture. America is not exceptionalist, except perhaps in the numbers of those killed by armed violence, and the first step toward our collective healing is the act of confession, of being honest about our predicament, so we are not lost in a perpetual state of death-dealing denial. 

I say this not to condemn white people, or to make us feel guilty, but to encourage us, and our nation, to heal, to mend, to begin the journey of redemption and transformation. I say this because I believe we can change. I say this because I believe we long to change. I say all of this because our past doesn’t have to define our future. I say this to a largely white congregation because our black and brown brothers and sisters deserve a world that doesn’t benefit one group at the expense of another group. I say this not out of pessimism but out of an unbridled hope that our society, and our nation, can be better, can be redeemed, can be transformed. I say this because I believe in a God of second chances (and third and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventy times seven chances), I say this because I believe in a God of forgiveness and transformation and liberation and redemption and salvation. This call to forgiveness and transformation and liberation is part of the abiding witness of the black church, and it represents the church universal at its very best, and has already even been expressed by the families of Emanuel’s victims in words of forgiveness, just days after their loved ones were gunned down, which is yet another remarkable testament to the resiliency and courage and leadership that has long marked the black church in America. 

For white Americans, our honesty about our situation — our confession — must be coupled with our action. When we encounter the seeds that cultivate the killing fields of racism, we must stand up and speak out, guided by a desire for our world to be measured not by hate and fear and prejudice but by love and equality and justice for all. 

So when people continue to insist on sharing inhumane and racist jokes, whether they come in the form of a forwarded email or a quiet whisper, we must say, no more. When people think it’s somehow comical to compare a black or brown person to a monkey, whether it be the president in the White House or a peasant who doesn’t have a house, we must say no more.

In the times that a person is judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character, we must say no more. In the times that public officials or media pundits or everyday people refer to blacks as thugs, or Muslims as terrorists, yet at the same time refer to whites responsible for mass atrocities not as a thug or a terrorist but simply as a likely victim of mental illness, we must say, no more. When a white terrorist blatantly declares his plan is to shoot up a church because he wants to kill blacks, yet people don’t acknowledge racism as the chief motivation, we must say, no more. 

It’s also important for us to ask, and seriously consider, why as a nation we valorize violence as the answer to all of our problems. We rush to war, we rush to arms, we act as though mediation or diplomacy is for the weak. Instead of blessing the peacemakers, as Jesus did, we call our guns peacemakers. And we wonder why we have such a disproportionate amount of gun violence in comparison to other countries.

And, perhaps most fundamentally, we should consider why there is so much racial animosity and anger in the first place. Is it really rooted in beliefs that God ordered one race to be historically superior? What kind of cultural conditioning goes on to make people think this way? (We know that children have to learn racism.) Does any of this have to do with misguided and perhaps unconscious fears, with whites looking for someone to scapegoat or blame for the ills of society, like what was done to Jesus all those years ago, like what a 2016 presidential candidate did to immigrants just a few days ago, when Donald Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists ruining our country? Does it have to do with worries that the balance of power in America (which has historically benefitted straight white males) might be shifting, and whites are insecure about what this might mean?

These are all questions without easy answers. And I cannot begin to answer them for you. But I do believe that if we really care about being part of the healing of our nation’s gaping racial wounds, if we really care about the state of our collective dignity, we must begin somewhere.

I’d like to close by bridging together four quotes, the first three by three Nobel peace prize-winning laureates, and the fourth by the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, an ambassador for peace and justice whose life, along with the lives of eight of his parishioners, was taken far too soon by the evils of a racism that we must give all we have to abolish, to send back to the deepest pit of hell from which it emerged. 

“The greatest tragedy [in the face of injustice] is not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people…

Therefore, we must not stand idly by…

For each of us has a responsibility. Sometimes we wait for people like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela to speak up for us, and we forget they were just normal people like us, and we need to recognize that if we step forward we can also bring change just like them…

[For] America is about freedom, whether we live it out or not […] It is about freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s what church is all about: freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intended us to be, freedom to be equal in the sight of God.”

May our lives be measured by such a dream.


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