Back in 2003, a sociologist named Devah Pager had men apply for entry-level jobs that had been advertised in the Milwaukee newspaper. She gave all the men comparable credentials in terms of education and work experience. The difference was that two of the men were white and two were black. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the white applicants were called back for an interview more often than the black applicants.
But here’s the other aspect to the experiment: one of the black applicants and one of the white applicants had a criminal record of non-violent drug possession. I wasn’t surprised that white applicants without a criminal record got called back more often than those with a criminal record. What I didn’t expect was this: White applicants with a criminal record got called back for an interview more often that black applicants without a criminal record.
Let that sink in for a minute.
It’s easier for white men with a criminal conviction to get a job than it is for black men with no criminal record.
And think about all of the potential effects of unemployment: poverty, poor physical and mental health, family stress, higher potential for criminal activity . . .
This is a small snapshot of systemic racism in our country. And we know it is wrong. Evil. We know this is not how the world should be. Not how God wants the world to be.
But how do we know? Why do we believe this?
This morning we begin our “Rooted and Grounded” worship series—looking at the biblical and theological bases for some of our core values and beliefs. We are seeking to do what Psalm 1 says: to mediate on the law of the Lord. Remember that Jesus taught us that all the law and the prophets is summed up in the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
And I took the title of this series from my favorite blessing, out of Epheshians:
I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
may have power together with all the saints
to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . .
Rooted and grounded. This morning, we want to root a little deeper into our anti-racist commitment. As a caveat, let me say that I will be focusing on anti-black racism—not because it is the only racism, but because we can’t cover everything in twenty minutes.
Rooted and grounded. And what better place to start grounding ourselves than in the very beginning—the creation story of Genesis 1:
So God created humankind in the Divine image,
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.
The creation of humanity in the image of God is indeed a grounding principle for us as Christians. There is no distinction here by race or gender or anything else. All humankind is created by God in the image of God. And this belief certainly affirms that people should not be discriminated against based on their race.
So at the very heart of our faith is a belief that God is intimately connected to all people. All people.
(If anyone were to make a claim regarding racial superiority based on creation, it would certainly not be a claim for white racial superiority. Genesis and scientists agree that the first human beings to walk the earth were not white people.)
Moving into the New Testament, our anti-racist commitments can be anchored in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ entire ministry involved deconstructing people’s notions of “us” and “them,” and refuting claims that God loves “us” more.
The discriminations—or “partiality” as James puts it—in Jesus’ day were not racial in the sense that we understand that term today. There was not a sharp division between “black” and “white.” Jesus was surely, like the people around him, a brown-skinned person.
The divisions in Jesus’ day were ethnic and religious and class-based and gender-based. And Jesus was having none of it. His conversation with a Samaritan woman by the well shattered all these barriers at once. And, of course, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. He healed the servant of the Roman centurion. He almost got himself killed by pointing out in a sermon that God’s cares extends to people outside of Israel. Jesus said “let the children come to me.” He told parables about a great banquet where all kinds of people will be gathered around the table. He himself gathered with all kinds of people around the table.
Jesus spoke and acted against the major prejudices of his day and culture. As racism is clearly one of the major prejudices of our day and culture, we are, as followers of Jesus, required to speak and act out against it.
Of course, the followers of Jesus have never been particularly good at, you know, following Jesus. Which is why Paul had to remind the Christians of Galatia:
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.
Which is why the writer of James had to remind people of Jesus’ teaching:
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And follow it up with a warning:
If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
You all are with me so far, right? Love and equality and following Jesus and big potluck dinners. What’s not to love about being rooted and grounded in what the Bible says regarding anti-racism?
But there is a danger here with these scriptures I’ve been talking about. It’s a trap that many well-meaning white Christians fall into.
“Neither Jew nor Greek.” Check.
“Show no partiality.” Check.
“I have black neighbors. I have black friends. I’m not prejudiced. I don’t show partiality. So, therefore, I have nothing to do with racism.” This is the danger of talking about racism solely in the context of Genesis and Galatians and James.
So let me put another scripture out there for you. You might not like this one as much. It’s from Ephesians:
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Now I don’t know exactly what all of this means. I can’t draw you a picture of the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” or precisely identify the “spiritual forces of evil.” But I know that racism is part of this darkness, this evil. Individual people can—and do—act in racist ways, which is a sin. But the sin, the darkness, the evil, of racism extends far beyond individual prejudices. A few statistics.
- A typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a typical black household. This wealth gap is a direct result of discriminatory practices in our country such as slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, and inequitable lending.
- As I mentioned earlier, hiring practices of blacks and whites are far from equitable.
- School segregation is still wide-spread, and the lower the percentage of white students at a school, the lower the funding per student is likely to be. According to 2012 data from the Department of Education, a 10% increase in non-white students at a school correlated to a $75 per student decrease in funding.
- Beginning in preschool, black students are punished more frequently and more harshly than white students.
- Even though white people use drugs at a higher rate than black people, black people are arrested for drug possession at a rate three times higher than white people.
I know, and you know, this list could go on. And on. And on.
This is systemic evil. Deeper and wider and uglier than mere individuals who choose to fly a confederate flag or tweet a racist joke or use the N word. The evils of racism go beyond individual prejudice.
Which is why our anti-racism must go beyond individually being nice to black people.
Which is why it is so important for us to root and ground ourselves in God’s word, in God’s love.
The writer of Ephesians tells us that because of these “spiritual forces of evil” we must put on “the whole armor of God: . . the belt of truth . . . the breastplate of righteousness . . . the shield of faith . . . the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
As a pacifist, this metaphor has always made me a little uncomfortable. But I don’t think it needs to. The armor, after all, is metaphorical. Though the evil we must withstand is very real.
And tucked away in these lines from Ephesians is a verse I hadn’t noticed before: “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
So what will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? The gospel of anti-racism?
What will make us ready?
Being grounded in the word of God.
Being rooted in a community that seeks to follow Jesus.
Clinging to an uncompromising commitment to love God and our neighbors.
All of our neighbors.
With everything we have—heart, soul, mind, and strength.