A sacred conversation begins...

Today throughout the United Church of Christ, our parent denomination, a sacred conversation about race relations is beginning: it is the start of what many hope will be a loving leaven within the soul of America to help us rise again into a that beloved community of conscience and compassion Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once celebrated so eloquently. It is the start – not a onetime event – but the start of what we hope will be a long and loving look at what is real – good and bad – about race relations in 21st century America. And it is intended as an act of embodied prayer that could, with the Lord’s blessing, advance the cause of healing and hope in our still too fractured and unequal homeland.

It is hard for me to believe, but it is true, that for the most part we white Americans have not seriously considered or wrestled with the legacy of racism in our beloved nation for over 40 years. Dr. King, you may remember, was gunned down on April 4, 1968 – and after a profound outpouring of anger and grief – serious progress in the realm of race ended. Think about that: 40 years… of wandering in the wilderness. 40 years of injustice and inequality festering just below the surface in ghettoes and middle class neighborhoods of color; 40 years of denial by the silent majority who suddenly rise up – with the help of talk radio and right wing cable news companies – to act terrified and morally outraged when a black preacher from Chicago speaks truth to power in the midst of a political campaign.

40 years – sounds almost biblical doesn’t it? Which may have something to do with the timing of this conversation: it is time we came in from the desert – it’s time we exchanged the old ways of moral obfuscation for some days of radical investigation into the realities of why we are still so divided, afraid and angry with one another. In 1963, Martin noted with penetrating clarity that:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Today we would be remiss if we didn’t also add women of every race, color and creed, too, amen?) And yet it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

And that reality has not been overcome. To be sure, segregated water fountains and lunch counters have been eliminated – amen – and true progress has been made in some areas of education and economic opportunity – amen and amen! What’s more, each younger generation since 1968 has deepened their commitment to social and racial equality in ways that are healing and hopeful.

And yet – and when it comes to race in America there is always and yet – and yet it would be an ugly and pathological delusion to “believe that we have made significant progress in addressing and reversing the alarming divisions” in our land. Our national church leaders put it like this in their Pastoral Letter on Racism in America (copies of which are available for you after worship):

We have witnessed a systematic assault on affirmative action policies at the state and national level. In the wake of our so-called “war on terror,” our Arab American and Muslim brothers and sisters contend daily with discrimination, racial profiling and misunderstanding about the true nature of Islam. As unemployment increases and jobs are outsourced overseas, frustration and rage are unleashed upon the most vulnerable within our borders – immigrants and those some call “illegal aliens.” After more than two years, thousands of dispossessed residents of New Orleans are still in Diaspora, awaiting our government’s promise to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods. The divide between rich and poor is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. Despite the rise of a Black middle class over the past 40 years, the average net worth of White families in 2008 remains 10 times greater than the average net worth of Black families. And racial segregation in our public schools has intensified and even been condoned by the United States Supreme Court.

And just to make matters worse, out of nowhere it seems there comes along a cocky, brilliant, charismatic, hard-hitting, soul-gripping, truth-telling, fact-stretching, fear-inducing African American preacher from Chicago by the name of Jeremiah Wright – edited and manipulated to evoke our worst fears and political nightmares I might add – and all hell breaks loose, beloved, because you can’t turn on your TV without seeing him rant and holler like a wild man.

Now I know Jeremiah – not well by any means and not intimately – but I have studied with him as the only white man in a group of ghetto pastors in Black Cleveland, in the midst of other young urban ministers trying to learn from a master of church building in Detroit and as a parishioner sitting at the feet of one of America’s most gifted preachers. And I can say without reservation that I respect and value the ministry and life-changing commitment to the poor and neglected that Dr. Wright has embodied for over 30 years at Trinity Church in Chicago. I have borrowed and made my own one of Jeremiah’s aphorisms: beloved, I know from experience that God can take a nobody and turn him into a somebody who can tell everybody that anybody can be made whole and pure through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I have learned a lifetime of lessons from the music director of Dr. Wright’s church, the late Jeffrey Radford, who knew how to blend high European hymnody with down and dirty street music and sanctified Black gospel to created THE best blended and thoroughly integrated worship you could ever want to experience – black, white, Hispanic, Asian or Indian – and I mean EVER!

And yet – see what I mean – and yet sometimes the stridency and verve of Dr. Wright – and yes the arrogance as well as the very different social realities between a ghetto preacher and most middle class White Americans – can get in the way of our sacred conversation. It has become a distraction from our quest for the beloved community – and while it would be fruitful to explore and better understand the unique challenge of preaching hope and liberation in the Black Church – Jeremiah is not the issue: racism is.

So let’s take a moment to recall that while our churches may have been built on the back of racism in American – not exclusively, of course, and often simply because they were not sufficiently different from their culture – think of our Puritan forbearers and the Indians or even the Founding Fathers and their slave plantations – at the heart of God’s word is a different vision. Let me share three key texts with you that must take on renewed value if we are to reform our own lives and deepened our commitment to this sacred conversation.

Consider the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. Scholars Norman Gottwald and Laura Lagerquist-Gottwald note that: Genesis Two is a parabolic narrative about how earliest humans fell out of favor with God, while Genesis One is a liturgical declamation that places humans at the pinnacle of creation. And at least two insights are important for our living in light of our concerns about racism here: First: the biblical text – not some ideological editor – but the Bible tells us that in the beginning God created humankind. Not man but truly earthling – adam ha adamah – being made from the mud. And what does God do but create earth beings, male and female, formed in God’s own image.

Second: there is no racial division created in God’s image, is there? There is social and gender equality – adam ha adamah – but no black or white, Jew or Gentile, free or slave. This, you see, is where our old friend St. Paul gets his insight in Galatians 3 that in Christ Jesus, “…by faith you are all children of God…. 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.”

Jesse Jackson put it like this: we may have all come to America in different kinds of ships, but we’re in the same boat now. And that’s the first insight from scripture: God’s vision is very different from our own. God did not create a Constitution that deemed people of African descent as merely three fifths human. God did not decree that we should build ghettoes and implement red-lining to keep people divided. And God did not call us ugly racial epithets that demean and degrade. Not at all, in the beginning God took the very basic salt of the earth and mud of the ground and formed it into adam ha adamah – male and female he created them in God’s image – and then blew the Holy Spirit into their nostrils so that they became nephesh chaya – earth beings filled with spirit and soul and God’s very life.

I believe a comparable testimony is at work in the gospel reading from St. Matthew – that scripture we know as the Great Commission – speaks to us of making disciples of all the nations. Now pay careful attention to this because what we see in this text foreshadows one of the blessings of the Christian Church: the ever expanding circles of hospitality and welcome into the covenant of God’s grace.

It may be obvious to you but the first circle of Christians to follow Jesus were Jews; yes, he expanded the circle to include women and those who were often ritually unclean, but still the promise was initially shared only with Jews. After the resurrection, however, there is a dramatic change and the territory to be welcomed into the covenant begins to expand:

In Matthew, written about 80 CE, Paul has already been at work for 50 years bringing non-Jews into the fold. Peter has also been doing some of this after his vision gave him permission to reach out to beyond the dietary codes of his tradition. So scholars tell us that what began with Jews in Jerusalem and Judea now includes all of Palestine, Transjordan, Syrophonecia and most likely Egypt. And let’s not forget that those touched by Paul had pushed the circle to Italy, Turkey, Greece and more – and soon there would be Christians sharing the grace of God with the Celts and Slavs well beyond the boundaries of Israel. I will never forget my awe as Dianne and I stood in the great English cathedral of St. Paul’s which marks the place where worshippers have been gathering since about 400 CE.

What Matthew’s words are telling us, therefore, is that Christ calls us to break down barriers – to go out into all the nations – and build communities of faith, hope and love. There were ugly divisions in the Lord’s day between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Samaritan to say nothing of the ethnic conflict between Celts and Slavs and those that continue to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East. And amidst all of this – a real racial and ethnic cornucopia – Jesus continues to tell us that the mark of an authentic disciple is that we “love one another as he has loved us.”

Jesus’ love does not look like a Crusade: it does not resemble the tumult of an empire’s occupation forces, it has nothing to do with holy wars and jihad, it is the polar opposite of the Long March into Indian reservations and calls internment camps for Japanese American a blasphemy. Rather the love of Jesus has to do with ordinary people putting a towel around their neck and washing one another’s feet so that we cleanse away the crap away that keeps us distracted, defiled and deformed.

Remember: we were formed – created – in God’s sacred image. Male and female we were created – black and white we were created – beyond rich and poor we were created… and so a new sacred conversation has begun. It is my prayer and intention to keep it alive within and among us, too.

Yes, I know today is the start of our capital campaign and we’re going to commission our leadership and kick things off upstairs in just a few minutes so we won’t have a time to talk about my observations today – but we will starting in June. Every Sunday in June I’m going to hold a sacred conversation circle of faith, hope and love after fellowship hour so that might listen and talk and hear one another’s hopes and fears about being a part of God’s beloved community of racial reconciliation. I’ll give you some reading and reflection material, too, so that we might stretch our hearts and minds. And I even think there’s some work we need to do here in Pittsfield – especially with our historic Black sister congregation Second Congo just down the road. More will be revealed to us, sisters and brothers, as we move forward and hold one another’s in the Lord’s sacred hands. But this much I know: the time has come to reclaim that vision that is deep in the Bible but also in the fabric of our hearts.

It is a vision where the descendants of former slaves and slave owners are able to sit down together at a feast table along with Native peoples and immigrant peoples and their descendents to share our hopes and dreams about life, death and community. It is a vision built upon grace and courage and even speaking truth to power in love. And it is a vision deeply rooted in all that we hold as sacred. Remembering with gratitude those who have gone before us and relying upon God’s healing spirit, let us covenant again to treat the wound of our people with the care that it deserves. My friend, and president of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas says:

In the midst of peril, these sacred conversation offer promise: for those of us who are White, neither the sins of our ancestors nor our own past failures to confront racism need mire us in guilt. For those of us who have suffered the ravages of racism, neither our rightful indignation nor our temptation to despair need keep us from trusting once again. We are each blessed by the abundant grace of a forgiving God, a God who knows our pain and will be present in our healing. Our call is to trust that reconciliation is possible, but can only be achieved by beginning the process together. As Christians, we profess and proclaim the outrageous conviction that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Set free by that unconditional love, and emboldened by the faith of our sisters and brothers, we can find the courage to raise our voices for justice and to make American and the church all that they ought to be.

(NOTE: for a little musical treat you might enjoy listening to U2 sing with a gospel choir at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OCxE22DOac. And for something equally wild but in a different way, check out the boys from Dublin with the Boss: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVdZ0Rdm8zI&feature=related)


Black Pete said…
As a Canadian, I am interested that so much of our liberation theology is imported from our black relations, and our South/Central American relations. But it will always be an import, in a way, never quite taking root here among the oppressed, because the oppressed here aren't necessarily black, or even Christian.

Our oppressed are Aboriginal, the descendants of the oldest group of immigrants (thousands of years, as opposed to a few hundred, ago). Their religions are struggling to return to life and dignity, and often, our Aboriginal folks see Christianity as an enemy-- history validates that point of view.

There are many strong parallels between the struggle of black people in the US and Aboriginal people here in Canada, and each can learn from the other (there have been dialogues on occasion, in fact). There are also, because of the spiritual difference at their cores, important differences between the two.

I live in the tension of being a follower of Jesus, a reflection of the God of Israel hopefully), yet working among a people who live a different reality, who have different ceremonies and beliefs, who need these differences, at least for the time being, to build and uphold themselves in Creation.
RJ said…
I am really glad that we are starting to blog and reflect with one another, black pete. I am very eager to know your experience and what it means to be a white man living in solidarity with Aboriginal folk in Canada. As a white guy in the USA, I have had the privilege of being with Mexican farm workers, black women and men in the ghetto of Cleveland and GLBT folk in Tucson. Now, in a totally new place for me, comes the call of this election and the chance to rethink where the United States might go with race relations. I look forward to hearing more from you and learning. Blessings.

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