The Besetting Sin of Racism
“If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us...”. I John 1:8
Ahmaud Arbery was just going for a run. His skin color led a father and son to arm themselves, get in their truck to go find him. The scuttle ultimately led to Arbery’s death. He would have been 26 yesterday.
“When will this story end?” I ask myself, and am sickened when people say blithely, “when Jesus returns” because hidden in that pious sounding phrase is the notion that “there’s nothing we can do”, and by ”we” we mean, “the rest of us - who weren’t pulling the trigger”. Like Pilate, we wash our hands and get on with our lives - and that attitude is precisely why this story doesn’t end.
There are three truths that must be embraced, not by a few, but by our nation, if we’re ever going to change the narrative and see the courage of racism wiped away, so that real healing and uniting can begin. Here are the truths:
Sin is not just individual - it’s systemic, communitarian, and national.
Because we live in a culture built on individualism, it’s difficult for us to understand the collective and corporate nature of sin. We say things like: “You made your bed - now you need to lie in it” as if our own private decisions are the only thing that create our lives. If that’s true, then go ahead and stop caring about other people’s choices, because you’ll be just fine, regardless of other’s values and decisions.
Reality though, proves otherwise. Anyone who’s dealt with alcoholism in the family knows the phrase “family systems”, how the choices of one affects the ecosystem of the whole. Companies and teams are ecosystems too - and the failure of a single one surely affects the health of the whole, even as the heroism and courage of one cascades to the benefit of the whole. Indeed, ecosystem is the right word, as we see throughout the world that the well being of the each one is necessary for the whole to know the fullness of God’s shalom and abundance.
Though generalizations are dangerous, I know enough about German history to share that the rise and fall of Hitler’s Nazi ideology led to what can only be called a collective, national repentance. People who didn’t agree with the ideology nonetheless identified with their national failure. The culture, politics, and educational systems that were built out of the ashes of a collectively owned failure pushed the dark ideology to the utter fringes - not perfectly of course, but substantially. Their commitment to the common good which rose out of their collective confessions of failure have been displayed in the dignity bestowed on all workers, in the basic access to health care offered to all, in their immigration policy as the Middle East and Africa have been ravaged by wars, and more. This isn’t romanticism or idealizing of the other - Germany has its own issues, and dark ideologies are never completely absent. However, having embraced a collective acknowledgement of the sins of nationalism, xenophobia, and genocide - they built something better.
Are we there yet In America? Have we owned our collective sin of racism? If we were there yet, we’d see that the shooting last February 23rd wasn’t “their problem”, it’s our problem. We’d embrace the reality that there are lies and idols in our culture, deep lies regarding individualism (I alone am responsible for my successes and failures - and the things that happen in the world happen only because of the individual choices of ‘’those people”). We’d name the lies of individualism, and as a result, own the truth that these tragedies are OUR tragedies. They reflect on our national identity. They reveal that the stronghold of racism has a dark grip on us over 150 years after the civil war ended, and over 50 years after the civil rights act was signed into law.
Until we collectively own the racism that is our collective national history, we won’t, collectively, ever move into the freedom and transformation that await us. There’s a “liberty and justice for all” thing that remains very far from reality, in spite of the ideals. There will continue to be not only shootings, but justifications of shootings; fears, and justifications of fears; blindness to our own pride and privilege; justifications of our own pride and privilege.
If you’re tempted to argue about my illustration of Germany, or deny the realities of white privilege, you’ll miss the point. Instead go to Nehemiah. He lived generations after the destruction of Jerusalem, and yet confessed the sins that caused his nation’s demise by saying “WE” have sinned. He identified, in other words, with the sins of the people, even though he wasn’t even alive at the time of those sins. They were his sins, because they were HIS people.
You and I have “a people” too, many peoples actually. The sins of the church are my sins, because the church are my people. The sins of America are my sins because I’m an American. Change won’t happen until we own OUR sins!
We are all from one blood
It’s more than tempting to see the world as us and them: it’s the illusion we’re presented with every day. Rich and poor. White and Black. Men and Women. Educated and Illiterate. Liberal and Conservative. Native (though the word is comical in America, a land made largely of immigrants) and Outsider. Let’s go a little further: ”Saved“ and “unsaved”. Beautiful and scarred. Athletic and immobile. Young and old. Productive and ‘lazy’.
The point isn’t to say that we all have the same income, or skin color, or age, or gender, or running ability, or ability at the piano or harp. We don’t (When you hear me sing at the end of the sermon this week, you’ll know that with certainty). But we DO all derive from one source, from one family, at least if we believe our Bibles. And we do all have longings for peace, and intimacy, and meaning, and justice. Finally, we do know that ”if one suffers”, ALL SUFFER!
We are living in an ecosystem as humanity. It’s never been more evident than right now, when one sick person can inflict suffering on the whole, and one healthy person caring for common good can contribute to the wellness of the whole.
The ecosystem that is American culture is marred, in spite of our wonderful constitution and immense wealth, with increasing levels of violence and anger, addiction and fear, tribalism and greed, homelessness and poverty. These, though, are all symptoms of one root sickness: we believe the lie that the well being of the other, particularly the ”very other” (as in the black person in a white culture, the homeless person in a wealthy city, the aged in a culture worshipping youth), isn’t our concern. We’ve bought into the lie that if everyone would just ‘take care of themselves’ we’d be fine.
Ahmaud Arbery, who would have been 26 yesterday was doing precisely that: taking care of himself by going for a run. He’s not fine. He’s dead. And I’m not fine either, and can’t be, until the stronghold of racism is owned collectively, confessed, and addressed with real transformation.
God help us.
The Holy Spirit is THE uniting force of the universe - This is the point of my talk on Sunday May 10th, at Bethany Community Church (available live online), so I won’t say much here, other than to point out that the power of God breaks down dividing walls, so that if your world vis a vis the sin of racism is either open participation or passive ”not my problem” disengagement, you’re missing something that the Holy Spirit desires for you, for us, for our nation, for the world.