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January 19, 2020

If We Say We Have No…

Passage: 1 John 1:1-9

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
(The Sunday before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

Long before I stood behind a pulpit, I worked in a chain of independent drug stores in a small town in Georgia. It was my job while in high school. If it was a weekend I got to fill and compound prescriptions and work the register. During the week I had to sweep the floor, take out the trash, and put merchandise on the shelves. I’ve said before that I learned most of what I needed to about humanity by working in a store that was both a gathering place (kind of like Cheers, “where everybody knows your name”) and a place where people were forced to be be vulnerable (you can tell a lot about someone by what medications they’re purchasing). 

One day I was working the register by the pharmacy. The register would automatically print out receipts. The routine went like this: employees would ask the customer if they’d like a copy, they’d say “no,” and we’d then promptly crumple them up and toss the receipts into the trash. 

Mr. Saunders was a very kind and talkative old man (we “clicked”). He was as gentle as they’d come, always offering a smile or a word of encouragement. One day I was checking him out and the register printed the receipt. I tore it off and threw it in the trash. We were talking and I didn’t want to interrupt. 

“Hey there, son,” he said kind of softly, “I need that ticket.” 

“Sorry ‘bout that, Mr. Saunders,” I said, “I guess you need to balance your checkbook.” 

“It’s an old habit, son, somethin’ you wouldn’t know much about.”

I eventually connected the dots. The African American customers kept their receipts most of the time. The white customers did not. At some point, someone — I’m not sure who it was — explained to me how, in years past, African American customers were so accustomed to being accused of shoplifting that they “religiously” kept copies of receipts from the time of purchase through the moment they left the parking lot. 

This is absolutely by no means my worst illustration of racism from growing up as a white person in middle Georgia. It’s a tiny, everyday moment. It’s subtle. It’s easy to miss. 

And that’s the point.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 

If we say we have no white privilege, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 

On our best days we recognize it. We reject overt racism and want to do something to eradicate it. When presented with something as glaringly racist as neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, we speak out against it: “That’s disgusting,” we’ll say, “I want nothing to do with it!” But on most days, however, we’re blind to how pervasively it “dyes the social fabric” of our nation and of our world. Some bright thinkers among us have helped us to see how racism is not just an internal attitude of hatred or prejudice but also a part the “scaffolding” of American society. Some rightly call racism “America’s original sin.” [1] Scaffolding. 

It would help to define terms here. Racism is “a belief that… racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” [2] White supremacy is an ideology that claims that “white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.” [3] White privilege is “the level of societal advantage that comes with being seen as the norm in America.” [4]

The concepts are all interrelated of course but the latter is the one that I think we need to reflect on this weekend as a community that is majority white and a denomination that is majority white. I’m convinced that well-intentioned white folks, especially progressive-leaning ones, are prone to blindness about how we participate in white supremacy and how it then benefits us (privilege). 

Many people struggle with this concept. I know I have in the past. They’ll point out that their lives have not been easy, that being white hasn’t given them advantages. “There’s not a racist bone in my body,” they’ll say, “life has kicked me around!” I would never ignore the pain and frustration behind statements like that. But I would, however, gently challenge by saying that white privilege doesn’t guarantee that those with lighter skin won’t be poor, won’t experience hardship, or won’t encounter obstacles. What an awareness of white privilege does reveal is how there is, on the whole, demonstrably less hardship and obstacles for people with darker skin. 

Take this exercise for example. Do a Google Images search of words, like “pretty” or “leadership” or “smart” or “trustworthy.” A colleague of mine did this a couple of years ago at his church. They had a screen up front so he could project the images up there for the congregation to see. Can you guess the appearance of the people in the pictures that showed up with each search? The majority appeared to be white. My colleague said that: 

On the Leadership slide, there were only 3 people of color [out of 16], but none of them appeared to be in a position of leadership; rather, they were part of the team or in the crowd. For Pretty, there were also 3 people, but they were images 12, 13, and 15. As for Smart, every person in those images was white (Albert Einstein dominated this slide as he was on 7 images). Finally, for Trustworthy, Denzel Washington was the only non-white person. All of the other images of people were White Caucasian. It’s of note that [he] did not use any other qualifiers. [He] didn’t add, “old, or young, or rich, or male, or female, or anything else. [5] 

You see, in these images, white was considered “normal,” preferred even. Like fish swimming in water, we might not think about it, but it’s all around us. 

This privilege entrenched within the structures of society takes on larger forms. All sorts of patterns become “normal.” Mass incarceration rates for people of color become normal. Racially biased ways schoolchildren are disciplined in the classroom becomes normal. Environmental degradation that disproportionately impacts communities of color becomes normal. Cruel separation of families at the border becomes normal. And those of us who get a “fair shake” from law enforcement, sail through school smoothly, drink clean water, and cross the border with nothing but expired drivers’ licenses don’t know what we don’t know. People get hurt and people die because of these inequalities. 

What becomes normal then becomes acceptable, tolerable, “just how things are.” You see, white privilege and white supremacy work together in a feedback loop. They reinforce each other. 

So what do we do as the church in the face of this darkness? We bring it into the light of day.

We who follow Jesus have in our tradition an uncomfortable but life-giving practice: repentance. We admit our own sin and the sin that pervades the “water” of our society in which we swim. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” John tells us, but “if we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What John points to in his letter to his church is that we human beings are often living contradictions. We claim connection to God yet live in ways that contradict that connection. To walk in the light, to have genuine fellowship with Christ and one another — with all God’s children — requires admitting that our actions don’t always line up with the beliefs we profess. 

It’s an uncomfortable process that provokes resistance. It’s a lifelong process (we’re never done). And yet, this practice of confession and repentance doesn’t end with guilt or resignation. Change, healing, and justice come when we have the humility to ask God to remove our blindness and help us see the truth of how these patterns harm some and benefit others. Through confession we notice this within ourselves and commit to working to dismantle that “scaffolding” within society. 

Though some try to dull the prophetic edges of Dr. King’s vision by turning it into a generic plea for human harmony, we shouldn’t neglect looking at the totality of what he taught: how white supremacy and white privilege join together with what he called “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” [6] They intersect with and uphold other evils that harm the human family.

The vision that image of the Beloved Community that Dr. King articulated so marvelously, a dream of equality, abundance, and safety for all God’s children, is still with us, inspiring us to keep “our hands to the plow.” That vision is still with us because, I believe, it is a reflection of the Biblical prophets’ vision of shalom and Jesus’ vision of the reign of God. It’s a vision of the love of neighbor in action. 

As John wrote, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Friends, let us walk in the light! 

[1] Jim Wallis’s book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

[2] As defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary online

[3] Showing Up for Racial Justice, “White Supremacy Culture

[4] Christine Emba’s “What Is White Privilege” in The Washington Post.

[5] With gratitude to the Rev. David McDaniel, senior pastor or Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO, for allowing me to borrow this example from his sermon on the same topic. 

[6] In a speech to the Hungry Club Forum on May 10, 1967, publicized in The Atlantic.