Confessing Racism

The following long-read is a more plainspoken adaptation of an exercise for a seminar in Divinity School. You can find the full and footnoted version at the end of this post.

I. Nobody’s Racist, Apparently

Nobody likes to say they’re racist.

Well, I suppose that’s not necessarily true. White supremacists (sometimes called the supposedly more benign “alt-right” or “white nationalists”) will sometimes openly call themselves racists and be proud of it.

But, for most folks, they don’t want to be called racist.

We’ve effectively attached such a shame to racism that no one is willing to admit their complicity or affinity for any sort of racial prejudice. On the one hand, it’s great we think racism is so bad, right? On the other, though, we are so unwilling to recognize any sort of bad in ourselves that we try to invisiblize and hide our own tendencies toward any sort of prejudice, especially racial prejudice.

We need a way of talking about racial prejudice that’s a good deal more honest than that.

We need a way of naming our own biases and prejudices the leads us to change. As long as we continue to ignore the problems racism has created in ourselves, we will continue to perpetuate everything from racialized income inequality to police brutality to white supremacist terrorism. The stakes are high, and we need to be willing to uncomfortably name those parts of ourselves we pretend don’t exist. Continue reading “Confessing Racism”

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The Ashes of Privilege

Yesterday, Durham, NC, was encrusted with a thick layer of unforgiving ice. While nowhere near as bad a situation as that of our sisters and brothers in the Northeastern United States, being unequipped to deal with such weather, Durham was not the most pleasant place to be – especially gingerly making your way down the path to the bus stop to get to class at 8:00 in the morning. As my feet almost slipped on ice every few steps, the miserable weather seemed somehow appropriate for the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence.

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I did not go to school that morning expecting much. I was frustrated by the three-inch thick sheets of ice I literally pried off my car that morning, the five mph I had to drive just to get out of the parking lot, and the broken promise of cleared walkways to the bus stops. Snow was in the forecast for later that day, so I was not planning to stay for the afternoon as a precaution. It was just a matter of getting through the day.

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I knew the midday Ash Wednesday service in the chapel would be the only opportunity I had to go to worship today as my church up the interstate was too snowed in to offer anything this year. Almost reluctantly, I found a seat in the chapel and looked over the order of worship. If you do not know anything about Duke Divinity School, you might know how “high church” we are, which is a nice term for can devolve into worshipful pretension (not always). I do not normally go to  chapel in the Divinity School because it usually feels too forced or preachy for me.

This morning, however, it was preachy that I apparently needed.

Duke_Chapel_snowAfter reading a diatribe from Isaiah where the prophet condemned the people for serving “your own interest on your fast day” (58:3, NRSV) and the discourse from Matthew on the same subject (“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” [6:1]), Chuck Campbell, one of our preaching professors, gave a heart wrenching sermon. He read the passage from Matthew again and asked, “What if we took Jesus seriously?” We all sort of laughed because it is genuinely funny that on Ash Wednesday (“when you perform the most public act of piety you will perform in your entire life”) we read Matthew saying, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” However, Campbell pressed us, “What if we took Jesus seriously?”

The room quieted as Campbell told us as soon as we left the service to go and wipe off our ashes. The proposition was jarring at first. Why? Why remove what is most likely our own public act as Christians? Campbell continued to say that the ashed cross did not mean in Durham what it was supposed to mean. If we walked out of the Divinity School today with crosses on our foreheads, it would be a reminder to our Muslim sisters and brothers that we can worship publicly and they cannot. It would be a reminder to them that our worship is protected and our worship can proceed uninhibited or at least protected. When they saw the ash on our heads and heard the hymns chime for worship at our gargantuan chapel, they would know who had the power. They would know who was in charge. The cross on our foreheads would not be a symbol of mercy, hospitality, friendship, love, or peace. It would be a symbol of exclusion, dominance, and privilege.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others.”

Continue reading “The Ashes of Privilege”

Rejecting Jesus

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Photo by Scott Olson at Getty

I gave this sermon at the 2015 National Festival of Young Preachers, hosted by the wonderful Academy of Preachers, on January 3rd. It is a second look at the passage in Matthew’s Gospel about the Final Judgment. You can find my first sermon on the passage, given at First Baptist Church in Henderson, NC, here. While I do like the first version of the sermon, I may favor this shorter, but firmer, Version 2.0. I think it absolutely necessary for white preachers to be speaking truth about race and issues surrounding it in the United States. To some that is obvious truth, but to others it is not. There is a strong tradition among white (mainly liberal Protestant) Christians in the United States of remaining silent in the face of racialized injustice. We assume our mental ascent to higher ideals and virtue makes us exempt from the consent silence affords oppressive systems. This sermon is particularly for my white brothers and sisters who have, intentionally or not, missed Jesus staring them in the face – just as I so often do.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV

We like to be uncomfortable with this passage. It’s almost fashionable to be uncomfortable with this passage among my peers. We don’t like its (how did the sermon guidelines put it? …) “belligerent and divisive language.” We like to be inclusive, ecumenical, and friendly. We don’t like to be judgmental! Judgment has gone out of vogue and we avoid it like the plague. We love, then, to be uncomfortable with this passage. It is my contention, however, that many of us in this room are all too comfortable with this passage and we may not even know it.

This is a sermon for my brothers and sisters who look like me. This is a sermon for the church I grew up in and the church in which I will serve. This is a sermon for white people, a sermon for my white church, because my white church has become way too comfortable with this passage — at least the first part of it anyway. And unless any of you think you are going to be exempt from this sermon, I’m talking about liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, urban, suburban, and rural. I’m talking to white folk, because we have a problem.

The problem has been around since the time we started calling ourselves white and it has become especially obvious, at least to us, in recent days. From Jamestown to Michael Brown, we have loved all too much the separation of the sheep and goats. We have perpetrated this unjust judgment based on the myth of race.

Let me tell you a story. Continue reading “Rejecting Jesus”