Transcribed from the sermon preached September 18, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Leviticus 25:39-46, Luke 10:25-36
For the next several weeks we will be focusing on the issue of racism. Since Jesus was all about love and inclusion, renunciation of racial prejudice has been at least a part of hundreds of sermons preached here at St. John’s. Still we decided that the climate is such that God is calling us to take a direct look at the sin of racism and how we as Christians can exorcise this demon from our personal and cultural world view. As Christians, I think we have to start by taking a look at the development of our religion, our sacred text, and confess the ways in which it has been used to foster prejudice and exploitation.
So I begin with our passage from the Gospel of John. John is writing in the last decade of the first Century of the Common Era, years after the destruction of the temple in 70. The temple had been the center of Judean life, now it was missing. What would be the new center? Factions arose and Christianity grew; meanwhile authorities were trying to get control. Christianity had been Jewish minority sect, and it began to be isolated, separated and repressed. So John embraces this separation and makes it his own – unlike the other Gospels written earlier, John uses the term “The Jews” as distinctly separate term from Christians.
As Christianity becomes the religion of the empire, the power dynamic switches and John’s derogatory and generalizing term “The Jews” becomes fuel for stereotypes and hatred. We know that Jesus was a Jew, as were the vast majority of his followers and, as Crossan points out, the crowd present at his court hearing was a small group of political and religious elite. But the language in the Gospel of John seems to place the blame for the crucifixion on a whole people, and when Christians get power; this language becomes fuel for racism and persecution of Jews in Western history.
We see in Leviticus the issue of Jews who see themselves as a distinct ethnicity descending from Abraham as God’s “chosen” people. In general terms this is an example of how human groups use the story of our culture and faith to separate ourselves out. It may be race or ethnicity or religion or nationality, or all of the above, and we decide because we are God’s chosen people, Americans, white, heterosexual, male, Christian, Jew or Muslim, we somehow have a step up, a seat at the right hand of God, and those below us are not quite as loved by God, not quite as righteous, not quite as worthy of God’s blessings.
The issue of racism is a subset of the issue of idolatry, self-righteousness, arrogance, and greed. It is often a product of the effort to consolidate or hold onto economic power. Prejudicial and unequal economic power, however we justify it, is the big problem. While prejudice based on skin color is a special outgrowth of Western colonialism, fear, hatred and exploitation of the other is as old as humanity.
There is probably a very primitive or evolutionary aspect to racism in a fear of difference or the unknown, and the competition for resources between tribes. As with many animals, humans are both curious and apprehensive toward the unknown. A baby learns early to recognize his or her parents and family. But a stranger, any stranger, a strange voice or face will often cause them to be fearful and cry out. There may be little ethical or moral reason or difference, but we tend to worry less about things and people we are used to. Parents should make a point of speaking well of other people and seeking diversity of people.
When I arrived at the Rio Dulce in Guatemala as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I procured a boat and a map and proceeded to visit Kekchi villages down river. I found a very isolated village up a narrow tributary. When I came through the mangrove trees into the open village area I saw several thatched roof huts, I heard children playing and animals making various noises. The first thing that happened was that the dogs quickly ganged up in a pack to let everyone know someone strange had arrived. The second thing that happened was all the kids ran away announcing “Gringo, Gringo” and their mothers scurried them inside and shut the door.
Now there was political history involved in their isolation and their reticence toward strangers, but I was the first white person to ever enter their village. They didn’t know why I was there or what I wanted. I asked where the mayor lived and the ladies answered me from within the houses. Eventually I found someone who would talk to me. Slowly I became friends with the village, a guest in their houses, and I joined them in work and celebrations. The children began to greet me with smiles and laughter, led me around hand in hand, and even helped call the dogs off. The dogs and mosquitoes never gave me a break.
I mention this not as an example of racism, but an example of reticence to the stranger. The kids didn’t run from me because I was white, they ran because I was strange.
Racism is a bigger problem that develops as a part of a cultural world view, ideology and systemic structure. As cultures develop they run into conflict with other groups, they develop ideology which helps define who is in and who is out, and they develop gods, a priesthood, law and an army to defend and justify their point of view.
The Bible reflects this ethnocentricity more than we would like to admit. We see here in Leviticus that Hebrew law puts limits on slavery of fellow Hebrews but permits them to go to the slave markets of surrounding nations to buy slaves, to hold them as property, and to will them to their descendants as an inheritance in perpetuity.
It should be no surprise that American slave holders used this and other biblical passages to make the argument that God had ordained the institution of slavery and the prejudicial treatment of people outside ones tribe or religion. Colonists also co-opted the idea that they were the New Israel, God’s chosen people, who were empowered to take over the land and destroy the Canaanites, now in this new Promised Land, the Native Americans. Whites were now the ordained race, and Christianity the ordained religion, chosen and blessed by God, and therefore justified in our destruction and exploitation of other peoples.
In Luke Jesus tells a story involving a Samaritan. The Samaritans had become enemies of Jews as a Samaritan leader established a rival holy place in Shiloh. There were a number of stories, some more true than others, as to why the Samaritans were heretics and not real Jews, but what is clear is that by Jesus day Jews and Samaritans had different cultures and considered themselves enemies. The stories predisposed them toward distrust and dislike.
Now Jesus, here, as in many, many passages, works with the power of love to eliminate arrogance and fear and promote peace and goodwill. A man is robbed and three respected and privileged men who are considered the cream of the cultural crop pass him by without helping. Then the Samaritan comes along and acts out of love to help the victim. So much for preconceptions about who is good and who is bad. Jesus wants none of such prejudice. It is very clear from who Jesus is and what he says, that race, religion and nationality are not the basis on which the love of God is limited or extended. It is not descendants of Abraham or descendants of anyone else, but the truth, and the truth will set us free.
It may be the most horrendous distortion in the history of the world that the Church, as it came to power, twisted the Gospel of love into justification for prejudice and persecution of Jews and others – whoever the empire wanted to dominate. As Christians approaching the subject of racism, I think we have to start here. As Jesus suggests, take the log out of our own eye, before we take the speck out of our neighbor.
Our sacred texts reflect the fears and prejudice of human beings. The authors of scripture are human beings who live within a particular cultural, historical and political context, and from within that context attempt to discover and follow the will of God. The authors record this attempt, and its evolution, so that we note in scripture an ongoing tension between social and religious cohesion and the drive of love and justice for inclusion. The authors do not always get it right. And then sometimes, even when they get it right, still others twist it to serve the purpose of prejudice and injustice.
If we are followers of Jesus, racism however we want to define it, personal or structural, is simply not acceptable. We have to root it out, confess and repent from our sins. Culture is a garment of meaning woven together like a sweater, so that threads of racism are woven together and cross many other aspects of our culture. The ways we tell stories, our myths and entertainment, our history and education, our economics and real estate, our legal system and law enforcement, our religion all have threads of racism. For this reason, pulling out racism makes people feel like the whole culture is unraveling. We may know that it is wrong, but we are afraid, we feel tied up and stuck. So even if we are among those who benefit from racism, the descendants of Abraham or the descendants of Jefferson and Washington, we are also enslaved by it, enslaved by the fear of casting it out.
But Jesus says, seek the truth, and the truth shall set us free.