January 14, 2018 – The United Churches
Today marks the first sermon in our five part sermon series on caring. It seems to me that in our polarized, nationalistic environment, wherein compassion has been diminished as we relate to one another through digital devices that we cannot talk enough about caring. In the weeks ahead we will also be talking about caring for those who are alone, caring for the caregiver, caring in a world of social media and caring during transitions. We are beginning with caring for the oppressed as we are observing tomorrow the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When speaking about caring for the oppressed it is important to ground ourselves in the prophets and the sages of the Bible. During the reign of each king of Israel and Judah, there was always a prophet speaking for the oppressed. In our current climate, the need for the prophetic voice is as important as ever. The sages, those that wrote the collected sayings of the book we call Proverbs, share the wisdom of the ancient Near East that is a sharp critique of today’s policies: “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself and giving to the rich will lead only to loss.” These words of wisdom, thousands of years old are fresh in our ears today. Zechariah reminds us of the core of Jewish faith when he demands that we show “kindness and mercy to one another…do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, the poor and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Have the people been listening? Have they followed God’s command? NO. Zechariah immediately tells his audience that they refused to listen and turned a cold shoulder and covered their ears so that they would not have to hear it.
The Bible, our guide for life and spiritual practice, demands that our first priority be caring for the oppressed. All of us are called by God to care for the oppressed: the widow, the orphan, the alien (read: not a citizen of our country) and the poor. This is the first call to Christians. If we say that we are a Christian nation, and we say it all the time, then this is our job as a nation. When we make sure that our widows and elders have decent social security and medical coverage, when we make sure that our children without parents have safe and loving homes and health care, when we provide safe harbor for those who need to be in our country and when we lift up the poor in real and meaningful ways, then we can call ourselves a Christian nation. (never mind that these same instructions have been given to every other major faith group.) Our first focus as Christians is to care for the oppressed.
Though I think all of those mentioned in our scripture texts deserve our attention, because we are celebrating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King tomorrow, I am going to make my caring suggestions on how we can care for those oppressed because of their race, ethnicity or status as a citizen. I think my caring suggestions can be useful for any person experiencing oppression.
Each week when I think about what I am going to say, I first prepare by studying the scriptures. Guided by the sentiment of theologian Karl Barth who said that you should prepare your sermon with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” I also read the news. I have never been let down by the news in terms giving me something in which to challenge and this week was no exception. Mr. Trump suggesting that a continent or a country was a s**thole (I am not going to swear in church) from which we should not accept immigrants, while instead accepting immigrants from countries like Norway is a perfect example of the underlying struggle around race that we all swim in. Even if you can recognize as so many have this week, how egregious, incendiary, ridiculous and downright evil the remark was, we often cannot recognize our own complicity in the embedded structures of racism in our country. It is so easy for us to express our shock and outrage at Mr. Trump and his comments and so hard for us to examine our own part in this system.
Tayo Rockson, CEO of UTD Management (Standing for Use Your Difference to make a difference) teaches corporations how to communicate across cultural boundaries. He recently wrote that he was on the train riding home from work. As he sunk into his seat, about to relax and close his eyes, he saw a fellow passenger put on a cap on his head that had on it a simple handwritten message: “I hope that I don’t get killed for being black today.” Tayo who is also black silently nodded in agreement.
That brings me to Colin Kaepernick, the bi-racial quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers who set off a firestorm by carrying out an act of non-violent resistance. To support the Black Lives Matter movement, he “took a knee” during the National Anthem. Colin Kaepernick was adopted by a white family from Turlock, CA who had twins die of heart defects a few days after their birth. They had two older children and when they adopted Colin, their family was complete. Going to High School and College in Sacramento, I know of Turlock. It is in the Central Valley of California, near Modesto. The Central Valley is home to agriculture. Not surprisingly 40% of the residents of Turlock are Hispanic. 49% are White. 2% are black. 2% are bi-racial. Colin had the resources of a white family, and experienced the micro aggressions that a black person often suffers. In college, He joined a traditionally African American fraternity and found himself drawn to his team’s black players. But his skin tone and middle-class dialect gave him away, and a few of Kaepernick’s new friends sometimes referred to him as “whitewashed.” So he started listening to people’s stories. Perhaps he felt if he could understand the journeys of others, perhaps he could feel more at ease with his own.
In the summer of 2016, Kaepernick found himself feeling drawn to a different kind of story: those involving police and African Americans. His social media feeds, previously used for motivational quotes or to lift up his teammates, became a pulpit. He shared videos and unvarnished reactions, a dramatic break from the normally bland public commentary of NFL quarterbacks. He preached about the death of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Freddy Gray and then he just had to do something, so he took a knee during the National Anthem. And people WENT NUTS! He was accused of disrespecting the troops, and disrespecting the flag. People were very upset by his actions and many (33%) even stopped watching the NFL. A talented player, he cannot find work. (incidentally, My son who is in the military took an oath to defend the constitution of the United States, not the flag. Perhaps we should leave the military out of this.)
I have to wonder why people went on and on about what he was doing, and had little to no conversation about why he was doing it. If you still don’t think we have a problem with racism in the United States my first invitation to you is to educate yourself. Read up on what White Privilege and systemic racism is, and how it plays a role in society today. Learn how it is effects education, the media the economy and human psychology. You will learn how racial inequity creates a cycle of poverty that continues to perpetuate problems. Use your new found knowledge to stimulate change. Prepare to be uncomfortable. As you start sharing your knowledge your friends may be unhappy with your new ideas. Remember that silence is violence. Use your circle of influence because you never know who you might reach. This might mean that you have to call out family members or friends on their racism and micro aggressions even when it is uncomfortable.
Invite people who are different than you to tell you about their lives. Be willing to listen and learn. When those who are oppressed state their concerns, you should be taking notes. If a person of color trusts you enough to share their story of how racism and prejudice affects them, just listen and hold the space. Use it as an opportunity to learn, not to defend your race.
Resist the “white savior complex.” Don’t offer fixes or swoop in and take action without the request and invitation of another. Reexamine how to offer help.
Here is the hardest one. Give up some privilege. Even if you don’t feel privileged, you are. Top of the privilege heap are straight, white, educated males. We straight, white educated women are privileged as well. When we who are white are called upon to give up some of our privilege, we get anxious and declare that it is “reverse discrimination.” There is no such thing as reverse discrimination. (Robin DiAngelo calls it “White Fragility) Peggy McIntosh who decades ago wrote White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Back Pack concludes at the end of her study: “It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly enculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our faith calls us to action. We are called to care for the oppressed, and to use our power and privilege to change the system. I don’t want to live in a nation that denigrates brothers and sisters from Africa and from Haiti, I don’t want to live in a nation where a white middle school teacher from Ohio can threaten a 13 year old black student with a lynching if he doesn’t refocus on his school work.  We start with the intention of caring for and lifting up those who are oppressed and we start with ourselves.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said that “the ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” It’s time to speak up, to educate ourselves, to listen to stories, to give up privilege and to call others to do the same.
May it be so. Amen.