This Is Who We Are

“This Is Who We Are” Mark 1:4-13 Baptism of Our Lord January 10, 2021 First Christian Church Mahtomedi, MN Preached at First Christian Church on January 10, 2021. “This isn’t who we are.” President-elect Joe Biden said these words in the aftermath of Wednesday’s assault on the US Capitol. Politicians like to say this during events like this.  I know more often than not the people who say this mean well.  They want to say that as Americans we aspire to higher goals and that what happened is something that is uncharacteristic of who we are as Americans. This phrase comes from a good place. It’s also incredibly wrong.  This is who we are.  This is who we are as a nation. Because if you are African American like I am or Native American or Japanese American, you know that our nation has a dark side and far too many times that dark side has shown up to harm persons of color, LGBTQ Americans, and others.  For some of these people seeing the images of a mostly white crowd running amok within the walls of the US Capitol, a place where I once worked, nod their heads and say “This IS Who we are.” This is not all of what the United States is all about.  If it was, then we as a nation are without hope.  The words found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution matter to us as Americans. As a nation, we strive to live up to better ideas and many times we do. But let’s not kid ourselves.  A century ago, three African American men were lynched in Duluth under trumped-up charges of rape.  Later this year, we will commemorate a century since the Tulsa Massacre which killed an untold number of African Americans in what was called Black Wall Street. This is who we are. We are sinners.  We fall short. We commit evil. We are not okay. In Mark, John the Baptist comes around preaching a baptism that led to repentance, to change their lives. One day, Jesus comes.  That had to come as a shock to John because Jesus had nothing to repent of.  But he baptizes his cousin anyway.  When he comes up from the water, the sky splits and the Holy Spirit comes into him.  It is then a voice that claims Jesus as the Son of God.  It is there that he is given an identity as our savior. This is who Jesus is. When we are baptized, we are claimed by God. This is who we are.  You and I are Daughters and sons of God. But we still sin.  We fall short.  We are claimed by God, but let’s not forget that we are sinners saved by the grace of God. Because we are claimed by God in spite of our sin, we are called to act. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil and then went into his ministry, because he knew who he was. Our theme for Epiphany is “For the Sake of the World.” It’s a phrase that comes from our Lutheran sisters and brothers and it says the church exists for the sake of the world.  Churches exist as people who are baptized and claimed by God to go out to proclaim justice and preach reconciliation.  This is who we are. In light of the storming of the capital our baptism matters. We are called into a ministry of reconciliation and Lord knows we need it.  As a congregation, we need to find ways to give space to where people can listen to one another. Our baptism compels us to move from the sidelines and join in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. What happened this week is a wake-up call for the nation and the church. What we saw is a reminder that this is part of who we are as a nation.  We saw rioters, bullies and a President out that want to spread fear, to use the words of God, but worship an idol. That is who they are. But we at First Christian have another identity. Claimed by God, we have a role in preaching God’s love and justice to our nation and our world. We will be talking about this more because we must.  It is time for us to live out our baptisms. It doesn’t matter how small we are in number or how much money we have in the bank. It is time for you and I to live up to who we are in the eyes of God. We are the children of God. This is who we are.  Let’s start acting like it. Thanks be to God. Amen. Listen to the sermon podcast.

Macro and Micro-Racism

2014-12-01-16448702mmmainEver since the grand jury in Ferguson, MO failed to indict officer Darrell Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, I’ve been wondering what to say about all of this.  That desire to say something grew this week when another grand jury failed to indict the policeman involved in the death of Eric Garner.

Being an African American male, which seems to be the target of cops these days, I wanted to say something.  I need to say something because this issue involved me.  Eric Garner was only two years younger than me.  That means that it’s not only young black men that can face brutality from police, it could be a middle aged black man like myself.

To put it more starkly, it could be me.  I could be stopped for speeding (as I have been every few years or so) and could face danger from someone that is supposed to keep order.

I’ve been wondering what the response should be to these incidents where black men are being gunned down by the police.  More specifically, I’m wondering what the church’s response should be.  Right now, the options being offered from the left and the right are not the best.

Let’s take what conservatives are saying first.  The response to these cases has been mixed.  Many conservatives tended to look at these issues from a “micro” view, meaning they look at each individual case to determine judgement.  So with the incident involving Michael Brown, they focused on the fact that Brown had stole cigarillos and was responding to Wilson in a way that made Wilson fear for his life.  In the Garner case, there is shared outrage but the reason is different.  Here is what Robert Tracinski said regarding that incident:

…one of the most insidious errors you can make is to turn each case into a symbol of “systemic racism” rather than an individual case to be judged on its own merits.

What did the facts show in the Staten Island case? They don’t show deliberate murder. The video of the police arrest of Eric Garner shows no evidence of malice or specific intent to harm Garner. Rather, it shows a callousness toward his obvious physical distress when the confrontation goes wrong. The killing is less malicious than officious. I mostly agree with Sean Davis, who argues that it was a reckless use of force that caused Garner’s death, which means that there is a good case for prosecuting the policeman responsible on charges of manslaughter.

Despite the damning video that brought the case to national attention, it is not totally cut and dried. The autopsy showed that Garner was already on the run from the grim reaper. The choking action (which may not technically be a “chokehold” but was, er, a hold that choked him) was found to be the primary cause of death, but Garner had major health problems, including asthma. So you could imagine a defense attorney making the case that this just happened to be an unfortunate situation in which a guy resisted arrest and was in such bad shape that he didn’t survive the altercation. There is a conceivable defense that the choking made no difference and Garner would have died anyway just from the stress of resisting arrest. But that’s a defense that ought to be made in court, not pre-emptively endorsed by a grand jury.

That’s why so many on the right have come down on a different side in this case than they did in Ferguson.

For many on the right, each case has to be argued by their own merits.  It makes no sense to look at some “macro” cause like systemic racism.  So, in the Garner case the issue at hand is that the police used excessive force, not racism.

I personally think there is much good to take from this.  The Brown case is different from the Garner case and that should be taken into account.

That said, this view tends to play down more macro-issues like racism to the extent that it’s made to appear that they don’t seem concerned with race or see it as a settled issue, a relic of the 1960s.

But ignoring that race might play a factor (at the very least a hidden factor) is telling a good chunk of the population (African Americans make up about 12% of the US population)  that has had to learn to fear the police that their concerns are silly.  It ignores that there are have been several incidents over the years where black men have faced harrassment from white police.  Here in Minnesota, a black man sitting in a downtown St. Paul skyway waiting for his son to finish school was harrassed and tased by St. Paul police for no apparent reason.

While I don’t think there is some conspiracy, it’s hard not to see a disturbing pattern taking shape.  What conservatives fail to see is that racism isn’t just a bunch of guys wearing bed sheets and standing around a flaming cross.  It can also be a silent bias that people are not even aware of.

If conservatives tend to focus on the micro to the exclusion of the macro, then liberals do the exact opposite.  They are rightly focused on the racism that takes place but sometimes miss the particulars.  They also tend to not really have a realistic way of solving our problems both near term and long term.

Tim Wise is a well-known anti-racism speaker.  In his most recent article he hits the problem (macro) but doesn’t really offer any solutions other than being angry.  Here’s a sample:

Nice people do not protest, angry people do; and right now, I’d trade every nice white person about whom Chris Rock was speaking for 100,000 angry ones. But not those who are angry at black folks or brown immigrants or taxes—we have more than enough of them. I mean 100,000 who are angry enough at a system of racial injustice to throw ourselves upon the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio once insisted. A hundred thousand angry enough to join with our brothers and sisters of color and say enough. A hundred thousand who are tired of silence, tired of collaboration, tired of nice, and ready for justice.

In short, and though I know it won’t strike some folks as particularly, well, nice, it really must be said: fuck nice. And the fact that there are many who would be more disturbed by my language here than by the death of black men at the hands of police, tells us all we need to know about the poison that is niceness, and about the dangerous souls who cling to that self-concept like a badge of honor. They have made clear by virtue of their silence what side they’re on; and that will not, cannot, be forgotten.

Wise has some good points.  But his angry prophet pose doesn’t always help.  Yes, white Americans are somewhat clueless at times about the plight of African Americans.  Sometimes you have to shout at people, but not all the time.  Sometimes yelling at people ends up turning people off instead of allowing them to listen.

Another problem with Wise and other liberals is that they too often are preaching to the choir.  So liberals, especially white liberals can pat themselves on the back, thankful they aren’t like those SOBs who are so blind to racial injustice.

Wise isn’t the only one doing this.  Susan Thistlewaite, the head of Chicago Theological Seminary, has a long piece repeating the problem of white privilege in America, but offers no solution either.  If conservatives can’t see a problem, liberals can’t see a solution.

America has a problem and doesn’t have a solution to racism.

I think the church has to offer an answer that is beyond the conservative and liberal offerings.  As Christians, we have to be committed to diversity and racial reconciliation.  But far too often in my own experience when the church tries to deal with racism, it ends up having blacks talking about being victims and white people being made to feel guilty.

I don’t have a grand theological solution.  What I do think is that during Jesus’ earthly ministry he talked with people.  He invited himself to different tables; tax collectors, religious folk and “sinners.”  I think the way to help at least break down some of the walls is by churches coming together in fellowship.  Maybe predominantly white and black churches could start worshipping together on occassion.

Churches could also focus on solvable solutions instead of dealing with the big macro issue of racism.  Churches should press for reform of local police departments and also pursue changes at the national level.

The church should be able to speak against the macro issue of racism and also work on the micro level for real solutions.

After the last 10 days we have seen that unfortunately we don’t live in a “post-racial society,” at least not yet.  But we can get there. As followers of Jesus we have to work and work on both a macro and a micro level so that one day we won’t hear anymore stories of white policemen harrassing and shooting black men.

We can solve this as long as we have God on our side.