(Note: This sermon was “purchased” at the youth auction by church member, Gundel Bowen. She asked that I preach on the topic of race and address the specific question, “Do we worship a white supremacist God?” This question was raised at a conference on race at Montreat that we attended with others from our congregation. WLH)
Is God an old, white guy in the clouds? Even if depicted that way in some European art, the answer to that question is pretty simple: No. I suppose if one wants to be overly literal about the Genesis account of Adam and Eve being in the image of God you’d have to conclude that God is black since human life emerged out of Africa. But, as most who give it any thought at all, we quickly conclude that God is not white or black, male or female or bound to any other category of human existence.
When we put on our theological hats it is pretty easy to say that God is not made in our image. Yet, and this is the rub, humans for all of time have done just that. So, God ends up with gender and race and nationality. In its most twisted forms, such as Germany in the 1930’s, God is Aryan, or in South Africa of the middle of the last century, God is white, or as sprinkled throughout American history, God is a red-blooded American. This sounds rather crass but the truth of the matter is that a fundamental sin in every faith tradition is that we humans make God in our image, not the other way around. So, Gundel, who called for this sermon and asked the question, “Do we worship a white supremacist God?” The answer is, “Yes, some people do just that.” It is the God of the KKK and the God of white nationalist parties. The question for good Presbyterians and others with a conscience is how much of that heresy creeps into our lives.
It is easy to say that God is not bound to our human categories but it is another thing to put that into practice. Mindful of that fundamental problem I invite you to think about God. Think also about being white, being black or whatever category, if any, that you claim and, for the vast majority in this room, give some thought of confronting that uncomfortable reality of white privilege. Let’s be uncomfortable together for a short time.
I chose the scripture today – they weren’t assigned to me. And, in contrast to historical accounts of genocide, attributed to God by our ancestors, or the words from the epistles that advise slaves to be obedient to their masters, I have chosen a different stream in that long term conversation and argument called the Bible.
In the first of the two creation stories in Genesis, we are told that God made humankind in God’s own image. Male and female - both in the image of God. And it was not only good, as noted throughout the chapter; with humankind it was “very good.” Then, when Abram and Sarai were called to leave their home and venture into new territory they were promised to be the parents of a new nation, and a people, according to God, in whom “all the families of earth would be blessed.” That story begins the age old struggle within Judaism of tribe and the world. Is the faith all about the tribe or is the tribe all about a universal God? That tension runs throughout the Bible and all of human history. In church terms, is our purpose to create a pure, holy group, separate from the world, or to be in the world as light and life? It is always in tension even as we figure out the relationship of the house & grounds budget to the mission budget.
Turning to Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read one of the most stirring visions of the universality of the Spirit of God. For, in Christ, we are told (and believe), “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Really? It is a stirring vision yet any consumer of the daily news would agree that we have a long way to go.
We Americans have a particularly tortured history. Eight of our early Presidents owned slaves. The definition of “we the people” in the early days meant white, land owning men. We built a nation upon the genocide of Native peoples and, in part, on the backs of enslaved Africans. It is a violent history. Needing to support the institution of slavery we established theories, backed by made up science, that African Americans were inherently inferior and predestined to be slaves. From that assumption, Samuel Cartwright published a medical report in 1851 that slaves who tried to run away were suffering from a form of mental illness. He called it “drapetomania” and announced that with proper medical intervention the “troublesome practice” could “almost entirely be prevented.” (What Does it Mean to Be White, p. 99) History, yes, but not forgotten. Its remnant and influence are what we face today.
Up until recently I had never given much thought to being white. Sure, compliments of the civil rights movement, a good education and exposure to different peoples and cultures I have long had a sense of the grand movement of human liberation from bondage but that was mostly about the other. Growing up in segregated communities I am a newcomer to much of the deeper complexities of race and the discussion of being white.
What does white privilege look like? For me it is the answer, “I rarely think about it,” to the question, “How has race shaped your life?” Growing up I never really needed to think about being white – that was the norm, from my perspective. When I hear of African American parents needing to coach their children, nearly on a day to day basis, in what it means to be black and negotiating the white world, I realize that I am privileged. I didn’t even think about it. Being white was “normal” from where I stood.
What does white privilege mean to me? It has meant that in 40 years of ministry I have never visited one our youth in prison for drug possession. Possess, many certainly have. Arrested? Yes. But in my visits to local jails and prisons over the years it has never been for one of our kids for reason of drug possession. It would be a different story if we were a predominantly African American or Hispanic congregation.
What does white privilege mean to me? It meant that I never had the conversation with my sons, as nearly all African American parents have with their sons, about not moving your hands off the steering wheel when pulled over by the police.
White privilege? It is real. Now, let’s not avoid the question by changing the topic. I am not saying that white folks don’t have troubles or are treated unfairly at times or that “poor white trash” is anything other than a malicious slur, but white privilege, in our society, is a real thing.
Here are a few other observations, mostly learned by mistake and the product of being a slow learner (yes, at the age of 65 I have had the awakening of still needing to learn!).
Bias and prejudice are inherent to the human condition. We all have biases – folks we call saints and those we call sinners – and biases can be conscious or unconscious. For example, I know that I carry a certain set of biases and assumptions about folks who are obese. I make assumptions about persons who are bi-polar and, yes, I have a set of assumptions about those who are fans of Jerry Springer or Rush Limbaugh. Are these biases grounded in fact and are they fair? No. So, I have to check myself. In a few cases I have made the bold assumption that a particular man must be kind and trustworthy because he looked like my father. I projected my father’s kindness on to the other. Now, that is a generous assumption to make, but hardly related to the facts of the person. All of us carry biases and most of us project our personal histories onto others. The moral challenge is to recognize and evaluate them.
Learning two. Racism is different than being a bad person. Bad persons can be racist yet good people can be racist, as well. Racism is all about the way that groups, traditions, and laws harm another person.
For example, when the wave of World War II veterans propelled our society through the benefits of the GI Bill, African American veterans were, on the most part, left out. Why? Discrimination in college applications and “red lining” by the banks kept black veterans out of schools and homes, the path to middle class citizenship. Now, not every admission’s director or bank employee would have been viewed as a bad person but they were cogs in a racist system of laws and practices. As Robin DiAngelo writes, “Remember: Being a good person and being complicit in racism are not mutually exclusive. We may be good people, but have still been socialized into unaware racist perspectives, investments, and behaviors.” (Ibid, p. 272)
I encountered this as a teen and, at the time, was a bit baffled. My all white, suburban Chicago, Presbyterian congregation was picketed by a group of African Americans from the city who were protesting the practices of a company that was owned by a member of our congregation. (I should add that, now, from the perspective as a pastor, I can imagine the stress this put on that pastor, session and members.) I remember that after our pastor said that Mr. X “was a fine Christian man,” I thought to myself, “But you’ve said nothing about the company and its practices.” Good people can willingly or unwillingly participate in evil. Our highly respected pastor did not answer the question about the company and seemingly assumed that being a good Christian covered the concern. By the way, that is why Presbyterians have always understood that Christian witness means engagement in public policy as well as personal morality.
Learning three: racism is about outcomes not intent. Even though we have seen a rise in the KKK and other hate groups and some politicians have been using racially charged rhetoric to whip up anger and support, few of us are intentionally racist. Yet, the defense, “I did not mean to hurt you.” or “I had no idea of this racist history.” while possibly accurate is not particularly relevant. Behavior and outcomes, not intent, are the issue. Let me give an example from a less emotionally charged setting.
Years ago I was bike riding with Doug along the Niagara River. At one point a dog ran out of the front yard and bit Doug on the thigh. When we confronted the owner, the man said, “Oh, don’t worry, he does that to everybody.” Now, the fact that Doug did nothing to incite the dog and that Doug was not chosen for any particular reason may have been true… but these observations were hardly relevant. The point was that the dog bit him. Racism is about behavior and outcomes, not intent. So, if I do not have a particularly racist thought in my mind yet participate in a racist act or system, it is racism. Remember: the argument that “I didn’t want to…” or “I didn’t think about it…” rarely makes for a good defense in a court of law. Behavior is the bottom line.
So, Gundel, thanks for the tough questions. And, yes, at our worst some Christians do worship a white supremacist God. It is our job to call them out. And, when white privilege is somehow assumed to be God given or God blessed, we have created God in our own image. As Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others remind us, when good people are silent evil wins.
What do we do? We pray. We study. We talk and most of all we listen. We listen to our neighbors. I am particularly grateful for a couple of years of conversation about race with some local clergy, appropriately entitled “A Sacred Conversation.” We also listen to the words of the grand vision of our ancestors of faith. Yes, like us, they were bound to time and place. There is no way that the apostle Paul could not have understood the implications of his vision that in Christ there is no slave or free, male or female. In his day, slavery was assumed and the second class role of women was so entrenched that there were few openings. But, quite remarkably, our ancestors had a broad vision of life in the kingdom that imagined a time when indeed there is no slave or free, male or female for all are one. It is taking centuries to live into that vision and we are still on our way. My hope is that with honest confession and deep listening, that vision will keep us alive and on the way. Thanks be to God for such a life-giving vision.