The violent death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis followed closely on the heels of the deaths, under similar circumstances, of Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. That’s just three of the legion of names that could be added to the lynchings of our past and present. The outrage, anger, frustration, and just plain exhaustion felt by people of color and those who stand with them have resulted in protests.
I am sick and tired of my fellow humans of a darker complexion being left out, pushed aside, demeaned, and of course, killed. I want it to stop. My soul is full of a strange combination of sorrow and anger. I am sickened every time I think of the words, “I can’t breathe.” So, does that mean I’m “woke,” or enlightened and can point my fingers elsewhere to find the source of the racism that is killing us? No.
Racial justice can never happen until there is real reconciliation between white and black people. Reconciliation can never happen until we, who are white, do something that we seem loathe to do: repent. Yup, it is a move we must begin. Our forebears put the walls up, but we have maintained them. We are so steeped in racism that we are blind to it. So, I want to draw from an article I shared almost a year ago – at another time when racism reared its satanic head in violence. I confess to you and to all my brothers and sisters, especially those who are black, that I am a racist.
I am a racist. I was born to it. So were my parents, and their parents before them. The potential for racism is woven into my humanity. The presence of racism in my life is as pervasive as the air I breathe.
First, racism is an expression of one of the most basic forms of sin: self-justification. “Us and them” dichotomies are always about improving my standing at another’s expense. Racism is an “us and them” construct that is based on the lie that the color of your skin is constitutive of your humanity. As Merriam-Webster defines it, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates defines it more broadly: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” My capacity to be a racist (or misogynist, or elitist, or any kind of “-ist”) is grounded in my desire to divide my world into us and them for my own benefit. “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)
Second, I can’t escape the racism of the culture around me. An old Hasidic proverb says: “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” If you live in America, racism is like the horseradish surrounding the poor worm. You just don’t know anything different. You can’t even see the sin, unless you get to the edge of the jar and can somehow look to the other side of the glass. Even then, escape is nearly impossible.
The truth of our racism as a nation is inescapable. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Award winner, professor, poet and bestselling author, says, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Jim Wallis, author, pastor and leader of Sojourners, in his book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America states the truth in a way that always shakes me to the core: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” Imitating Isaiah 6:5 – I am a racist, and I live among a racist people. (Isaiah 6:5)
I want to be clear. I am not a White Supremacist actively seeking the destruction of other races. Neither am I one who rationally believes any of the nonsense about how racially different people are, inferior, flawed, lazy, stupid. I have confronted racist behavior in public, in my congregations, and in my personal life. I’ve shared friendship, broken bread, served alongside people of color with joy. That said, I have also failed many times. I have failed to say “NO!” when I get offered something before a person of color standing in the same line. I have remained silent when someone utters the racial epithet or tells the cruel racial joke. I have been the recipient of grace and blessing when I did not even realize it was taken from someone who had darker skin. I have been too lazy too often to change what I could to make a difference.
Dealing with racism begins with admitting its strangling hold on our culture, our nation and my own soul. Dealing with racism starts with my own repentance – every day – as I resist and reject falling into the cultural notions about my “inherent superiority” because of my color (or lack thereof).
Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor writes in his book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America, “Passivity is the new engine of systemic racism. You just have to believe that this is the way things are.” Being an active racist who utters inflammatory words or engages in hateful, violent behavior and being a passive racist who does nothing or ignores the truth fuels the same sin and feeds the evil that still works to destroy us.
I am a racist. I am every day called by my faith to beat back the lies and evil that try to tell me I am superior to someone because of my skin color; to resist racist speech, thought, violence, injustice in my own life and the life of the world. My place is to stand with those victimized by racism and against those who perpetuate it. Of this, I am certain, because Jesus is my Lord (a Palestinian) who told me to love everyone – no matter what.
“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them” ― Elie Wiesel
Tim Olson, Lead Pastor