Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angels Clippers, has said some despicable things. “In your lousy f**ing Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with — walking with black people.” There’s more and if you’ve somehow missed the story you can easily search for more of the man’s ugly opinions. It’s disgusting stuff, made more stark coming from someone who makes money from a team comprising many African American players. The recordings that caught Sterling’s honesty are allegations at this point though they line up well with past comments and sentiments.
The reaction to Sterling’s racist opinions has been swift and satisfying. Aside from a few predictable pundits who’ve attempted to redirect attention to Sterling’s girlfriend, most have come down hard, making it clear that there is no place from him in the NBA. The outrage is palpable. How could this man with these dehumanizing views have been a team owner for the past thirty-odd years?
I wonder, though, if the outrage is sincere; if the anger is righteous.
Sterling has been known for years to be prejudiced in his real estate dealings. He didn’t want to rent to Hispanics because they “smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He opined that “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.” The Department of Justice sued Sterling in 2006, accusing him of housing discrimination. Where was the anger then? Perhaps it’s just easier to direct outrage toward those who make their racism explicit. Prejudiced systems and policies are more complicated, a fuzzier point to rally around. Maybe that’s why Sterling’s implicit racism didn’t elicit calls for his ouster. Or maybe it’s because acknowledging radicalized systems and policies implicates a whole lot of people and not just one, unlikable individual.
Those of us in positions of cultural privilege and power lose nothing when we call for Sterling to step down. It costs us nothing to distance ourselves from his racist language and perspectives on the world. But the same wouldn’t be true were we to call out the underlying racist structures that have made Sterling a very rich man while marginalizing his tenants, employees, and players. Shining a light into these shadows may well mean shining the light on ourselves. Much better, don’t you think, to direct our attention at one pitiful man?
For a majority culture that refuses to acknowledge the systemic nature of racism, scapegoats like Donald Sterling will always be necessary to prove our innocence and good will. With our ire heaped on his shoulders, we can ignore things like affirmative action bering chipped away, public school segregation increasing, and new voting laws that marginalize minority voters. Is it that these things are too complicated for our minds to grasp and for our emotions to feel? Or do we know that looking closely in these directions would reveal our own privileges and prejudices?
Could it be that, instead of piling on to Donald Sterling, we should instead thank him for being our scapegoat- for allowing our more acceptable privileges and prejudices to continue unchecked?
“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.
My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.
A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.
The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)
The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.
Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.
Thanks to my friend Zach Schmidt at Bread for the World I’ve had the chance to add my name to the following letter to one of my senators about supporting the extension of emergency unemployment compensation.
March 7, 2014
Dear Senator Kirk,
As religious leaders, we are tasked with ensuring the needs of our communities—both spiritual and physical—are met. The long-term unemployed members of our communities—those who have been jobless longer than 26 weeks—are especially vulnerable as our nation continues its slow economic recovery, and there remains only one job for every three job-seekers.
In late December, the U.S. Congress allowed emergency unemployment compensation (EUC) to expire. When unemployment rates are high, lawmakers have always made provisions to help Americans until the economy returns to full employment—namely, by passing EUC. Today, the long-term unemployment rate remains twice as high as any time Congress has previously let EUC expire. Since December, the Senate has tried and failed twice to extend EUC, and you have voted “no” both times.
When you first voted “no” in January, you said the bill needed to be paid for and that you would vote for it if such a pay-for were included. Last week, you again voted “no” on extending EUC, even though the bill was completely paid for. At 8.9 percent, Illinois has the third highest rate of unemployment in the country, and so far 109,000 of our neighbors have lost these modest but vital benefits that help them put food on the table. Hundreds more are losing benefits each week.
For these reasons, we are saddened by your “no” votes on emergency unemployment compensation, and we ask you to vote “yes” next time—for the good of our communities and for the good of Illinois.
Visit the Bread blog to see the other clergy who have signed and let me know if you know of any other clergy or religious leaders who might be interested in signing.
Here’s a lightly edited version of the sermon I preached at New Community Covenant Church on Sunday. Unlike most of my sermons this one was written quickly, after the news broke from the Michael Dunn trial on Saturday evening.
In November 2012, 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis and his friends were parked outside a convenience store in Florida when an argument broke out with the white man parked next to them about the volume of their music. The argument ended when the man, Michael Dunn shot 10 rounds into Davis’ car- some of those bullets hit and killed Davis. At his trial Dunn claimed he felt threatened, that he had to stand his ground. No gun was ever found in the young Jordan Davis’ car. Last night a mostly white jury found Dunn guilty on lesser counts of attempted murder- but for the actual murder they couldn’t agree. And so again, a young black man’s life is taken and it’s not called murder. Again, as the trial proved, the responsibility was placed on the dead man’s life to show that he didn’t deserve to die.
As Joshua DuBois wrote on Twitter last night, “Unbroken line, Emmett Till to Jordan Davis. Deadly to whistle, to play loud music. Deadly to be a young Black man in America, 2014.”
So today I want to talk about justice.
As it relates to yesterday’s verdict, I assume there are at least three groups of people here this morning: the distracted, the despairing, and the discouraged. Today I want to talk about justice by giving a word of conviction from Jesus’ life for the distracted, a word of comfort from Jesus’ death for the despairing, and a word of challenge from Jesus’ resurrection to the discouraged.
Conviction for the Distracted: Jesus’ life.
We begin with one of Jesus’ most well known parables from Luke 10:25-37.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
We tend to focus on what the priest and Levite didn’t do and on what the Samaritan did. The first two walked by while the Samaritan stopped and cared for the battered man. But the passage records something in common between the three: they each saw the suffering man. The priest saw and passed by. The Levite saw and passed by. The Samaritan saw and took pity.
Which says to me that there is seeing and there is seeing. You and I see injustice everyday, but we don’t really see. We don’t see the humanity behind the suffering. We are too distracted to see. The priest and the Levite had places to be and people that were counting on them. Heck, they had God’s work to do. We understand this. Your life is busy. Your job is demanding. Your family is chaotic. But there are a whole lot of busy people with chaotic lives who are deeply aware of the injustices facing themselves and those they love.
What is distracting you? Please don’t blame your busyness. There are a whole lot of people who would love to trade their suffering for your busyness.
Justice begins with seeing. Jesus’ entire life was about seeing those whom others overlooked: the woman at the well; the bleeding woman; the tax collector in the tree; the daughter of his country’s oppressor. The Samaritan was able to get off his donkey and care for the beaten man because he saw him. He saw, on the side of the rode, another image-bearer of God who was created for God’s glory. He saw one whose dignity and worth had been violently undermined.
Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t a pep talk how important it is to notice people. In fact, seeing is fundamental to our Christian faith. To begin with, our very salvation is precipitated on the fact that God saw us. We are like the Hebrew Children suffering under in bondage to whom God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.”
Our place within the Kingdom of God; our identities as children of God; our rescue from sin by the hand of God… all of these exist because God saw us. He saw our plight. He saw sin’s oppressive hand on our backs. He saw us and he came down to rescue us.
And there’s more: Jesus’ life was about making blind people see. In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:19-19 he quotes from Isaiah to lay out his agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now Jesus certainly came to with good news for real poor people and real prisoners and real blind people and real oppressed people. But as the Gospel’s also make clear, every one of us suffers from spiritual poverty and blindness. And Jesus came to heal that blindness so that we would no longer be bound within our own small worlds like the priest and Levite.
Listen: Jesus came to save you from your selfishness. He came to make it possible that you love your neighbors; really love them- as much as you love yourself. Jesus came to rescue you from the petty distractions and idols that have consumed your devotions and attentions so that you might actually see this world in all of its ferocity and pain and wonder. So to the distracted there is a word of conviction: Wake up! Jesus came that you might see.
Comfort for the Despairing: Jesus’ death.
For those who are not distracted, the murder of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Haydiya Pendleton and the Dunbar High School student earlier this week cannot help but weigh heavily. These injustices, along with the lies and systems that seek to legitimize them have begun to grind you down.
It’s not that you don’t want to have hope it’s just that it always seems misplaced. Regardless of who the mayor is or police chief is or schools CEO is it’s the same story. Some of you hear the news of Jordan Davis’ demise and you immediately think of your own sons and daughters. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last night,
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
The Psalmist could be praying on your behalf when he asks of the Lord in Psalm 94:3-7,
How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
To the despairing and the doubting I can only hope to point to the one who well knows your grief. He is the one the prophet spoke of in Isaiah 4:3-5,
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Here is the Bible’s seemingly impossible claim: God’s justice was accomplished when the universe’s injustice came crashing down onto Jesus’ innocent head. That is, on the cross where Jesus hung the monsters of evil and wickedness and destruction that have wreaked havoc on our world and in our lives turned the full force of their violent fury onto God’s perfect Son.
And it was here at the cross, despite our complicity with the very evil that crushed Jesus, it was here that our salvation was accomplished. It was here the poor heard the good news that the kingdom of heaven was theirs; it was here that prisoners learned that their jailer would answer to a higher authority; it was here that scales fell from blind eyes; it was here that oppressed bodies were unshackled and ushered into freedom.
So despite the despair and doubt that some of you carry, the cross of Jesus compels me to speak to you boldly this morning. The cross does not allow me simply offer my sympathy or my empathy, as important as those may be. The cross does not allow me to offer small words of comfort; little bandages for gaping wounds. The cross does not allow me to explain away the ugliness of last night’s verdict with catchy phrases or spiritual slogans. And while we must acknowledge the despair and doubt; while we must lament together another act of justice- what the cross does not allow us to do is to grant more power to these unjust acts than they actually posses.
You’ve heard me say it many times and I will say it again from the shadows of Jordan Davis’ un-vindicated death: What the forces of evil meant for our destruction, God absorbed for our salvation. What was meant to kill us, God bore so that we would live. What appeared to the entire world as God’s defeat was, in fact, the place where God’s victory was accomplished.
And while the cross has profound consequences for our salvation and God’s restoration of all things- the cross has equally profound consequences for every single place in our world where it seems that evil is winning. Within the reality of God’s coming kingdom, there is not one tragedy that cannot be redeemed.
Does this sound callous or like a shallow cliché? I promise you, it’s not. The cross of Jesus signals to every power and principality of evil that their days are numbered. It is a reminder that their power is finite and their end secure. It is a proclamation that God is holy and just and not to be trifled with.
I know this requires faith. But consider again in whom we place our faith. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So let me nudge the despairing just a bit more. If indeed God has overcome the troubles of this world through the suffering and broken body of Jesus – one who knew the face of injustice and oppression – then there is no situation of injustice that is beyond hope.
Challenge for the Discouraged: Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, many of us this morning simply feel discouraged. You’re not distracted. In fact, you’re profoundly aware of the harsh realities surrounding us. You know that although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for it. You know that while the USA has 5% of world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, with a disproportionate percentage being people of color: 1 in every 106 white men; 1 in ever 36 Hispanic men; 1 in every 15 black men are imprisoned. You know that since the 1960’s the unemployment rate for African Americans has consistently been double that of whites. You know about the impact of redlining, housing covenants, and state-sponsored segregation enforced by bank lending policy. You know about the bamboo ceiling in the workplace that encourages the model-minority myth for Asian Americans while excluding them from top levels of leadership. You know about Hispanic immigrant churches that today are gathering in fear, wondering who will be deported next, what child will be left without a parent.
No, you’re not distracted. And You’re not despairing either, though you can imagine getting there. No, many of us feel tired, worn out, and discouraged. We relate to the disciples, walking home after the crucifixion. Not sure what happened, but sure that it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. And it’s not wrong to be discouraged; this life provides plenty of fodder for discouragement. But, even in moments of profound disappointment, discouragement can never be the only word.
If the Distracted are convicted by Jesus’ life, the Despairing are comforted by Jesus’ cross, then you – the Discouraged – can be challenged by Jesus’ resurrection.
One of the great surprises of the story of the early church is how the disciples could morph from a discouraged group of people returning to their homes after Jesus’ death to a bold community after the resurrection that is unafraid of the very same individuals who killed their Messiah. The key to understanding this transformation comes in the closing lines of Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2:36. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” In other words Jesus’ death and resurrection are not only the surprising way through which God rescues us; they were also God’s strategy to accomplish victory over all of God’s enemies, over every source of evil and injustice.
Peter, the same disciple who once told Jesus to quick talking about going to the cross because would-be Messiahs who die on crosses are failed Messiahs; that same Peter now acknowledges that it was through Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection that his kingdom has now been inaugurated; it is coming; it is breaking in.
Earlier in his sermon Peter says that God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a magic trick. It wasn’t an amazing miracle to convince us that he really was God. His resurrection is a victory; a victory over death itself; a victory that establishes his authority as King and Lord and Messiah. His resurrection is, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, like the first fruit of a harvest- it is evidence of what is to come in a world that still rejects his reign, where death still demands our fear and submission. But this king, Paul goes on to write, will rule until that day- when he “hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “[1 Corinthians 15:24-26]
What does this mean for the discouraged among us? It means that when Jesus sent out his disciples after his resurrection to represent his kingdom, he did so a conquering king. When Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he is reflecting the authority that comes from accomplishing our salvation on the cross and rising victoriously over God’s enemies – including death – at the resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection calls us to action. Not in some vaguely spiritual way where everything is going to be OK. In fact, earlier in Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” [10:16] No, the resurrected and victorious Jesus has sent those who confess him as Savior and King into the real world. The King has come to the world and we are sent as his representatives, his ambassadors, and his witnesses to proclaim with our words and our lives that a new kingdom is coming. We are sent to show that the powers of evil that seem entrenched, insurmountable, and irresistible have, in fact, already been defeated. Their thin power is based solely on uncreative lies and systematic deception.
The resurrected Jesus has sent us with words of life on our lips and the power of the Holy Spirit in our bodies. We have been sent to the young men who heard once again last night at the verdict of Jordan Davis’ killer: your life is cheap. We have been sent to underfunded classrooms that reek of lowered expectations to demonstrate a dignity and value that cannot be bought. We have been sent to courtrooms, newsrooms, boardrooms, and political backrooms and other places of power to remind they powerful that there is a King to whom they will answer. We’ve been sent to family members and neighbors who tacitly approve of systemic racism.
You see, followers of Jesus are like the Samaritan- we are called to acts of compassion and mercy when we come across injustice. But there’s something else. At some point we have to ask why it is that innocent travelers keep getting beat down on the Jericho road. Yes, we’ll patch you up and pursue your healing, but followers of Jesus are called to travel further up the Jericho road to find the source of these travelers’ misery. This is the work of justice. We are called to those places in the world where God’s will for humanity’s flourishing is opposed; we are called there to invest our lives, to pray with our hearts and our bodies- God may your will be done here as it is in heaven!
Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?
Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.
Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.
Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.
One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.