Facing Racism 2: Black Lives Matter

Transcribed from the sermon preached September 26, 2016

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Exodus 23:1-9, Matthew 7:1-5, Deuteronomy 20:10-18, Ephesians 2:8-9, 13-22

Last week, in the first in this series of sermons on race, I began with a look at the relationship of Christians and Jews.  And, as with today, we struggled with some of those passages in the Bible that seem to endorse exclusion and oppression of the other.  Today I attempt another sermon to address the theological issues that come up around the phrase Black Lives Matter. I again attempt an intellectual, rational approach. I say this as a warning that you may have to work to follow me.  And I give permission ahead of time to fall asleep.  Also, I want to acknowledge the irony. I am a white male who gets paid to speak, trying to listen while I speak. Diverting myself from the emotional situation of sitting with my sick wife in the hospital, I read theologians of color who argue reasonably that the notion of objective universal reason detached from the particularity of body has significantly contributed to hierarchy bias on race. I promise to come in next week with a more stories and emotion – to come down to earth, to get out of the head some and into the heart.

The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a conversation about whether or not it is appropriate to single out one particular group rather than emphasizing that all lives matter.  Of course the whole press of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to affirm that all lives matter against a world that says that only some lives matter. We see in scripture that at times God does lift up a “preferential option” for a particular people whose humanity is not being acknowledged by those in power.  So we see when the Egyptians decide that Israelite lives don’t matter, God says yes, I have heard the cries of my people.  God delivers the Israelites from slavery and journey’s with them to the Promised Land.

This conversation around the appropriateness of the claim black lives matter reminds one of the conversation years ago concerning Liberation Theology. Gustavo Gutierrez is a priest who was trained in European seminaries and came to serve in Lima Peru.  But he discovered that the issues that concerned European and North American Theology were not very helpful in his work with the poor in Lima.  Northern  first world theologians were primarily concerned with how to talk about God in the context of science and rational humanism.

How can you believe in God when you can’t prove by reason that God exists. Is faith in God the leftover primitive belief that a rational and free individual should cast off?  There was a trend in northern theology for theologians to argue their worth in secular academia, to incorporate science and respond to the psychological angst and alienation of the individual in modern capitalism.  In other words, those who mattered to northern theologians were the white middle class and the intellectual elite of the universities.

But Gutierrez found that these problems and questions were not the problems and question that needed to be addressed among the poor. Gutierrez noted that the question in the slums of Lima was, where is God in the context of structural injustice? Where is God for a mother when her child is dying of starvation?  Where is God when the empire is training and supporting death squads who slaughter whole villages when they get in the way of International corporations or demand political representation?  In the face of the racism, injustice and violence the poor suffer, the questions of the white theologians of academia were just mental acrobatics of the privileged.

In his seminal book A Theology of Liberation, the book which coined the term, Gutierrez lays out a beautifully detailed biblical study in which he finds that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”  Some Northern theologians were quick to respond that God loves everybody equally.  But Gutierrez responded, “Yes, God loves everybody, but given the context of conflict in history, given the reality of the world and its preferential option for the rich, God sides with the poor.”  God says “Poor lives matter” not because God does not love all lives, but because there is an imbalance of justice and the poor are treated like they don’t matter.

Jacquelyn Grant, in her article “Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Experience as a Source for Doing Theology, with Special Reference to Christology” notes that despite the oppressive, racist motivations of those who shared the Gospel with slaves, the Holy Spirit escaped these entrapments, and black people in general and black women in particular were able to appropriate certain themes of the Bible which spoke to their reality: The understanding of God as creator, sustainer, comforter, and liberator took on life as they agonized over their pain, and celebrated the hope that as God delivered the Israelites, they would be delivered as well.” (P.185 Grant, in Lewis, Hernandez, Locklear, Winbush.  Sisters Struggling in the Spirit. Women’s Ministries Division, PC USA 1994)

But they didn’t stop there.  As it was common for white ministers to preach using some passage to justify racism, oppression and slavery, the women also applied an internal critique of the Bible. A chief tool for this critique is the person of Jesus, his life and words.  As divine Co-sufferer Jesus called into question all attempts to justify injustice and violence toward others. (Ibid p.187)  As Paul notes in Ephesians, Jesus came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

It follows then, that a political statement or interpretation of scripture must be assessed by who is making it in what context. It particular we need to ask, where is the imbalance of power?  In other words, all lives matter may be theologically and philosophically true but it makes a difference if the person who is making that claim is poor or rich, male or female, gay or straight, black or white or brown. From what power position is a claim made?  It is one thing to say black lives matter in the context of well documented racial discrimination in the justice system, in housing and the job market, and another thing altogether for a white person to say, white lives matter, or even as a response to the statement black lives matter to say all lives matter.

In the context of an imbalance of power, loving our neighbor as ourselves means that we are to assess a situation from the other’s point of view.  There is no abstract or neutral theological or biblical truth.  What we think is the neutral theological or biblical truth is simply the interpretation we are used to and comfortable with.  And if we are in a privileged position, it is highly likely that the interpretation we are comfortable with is the one that will be the least challenging to the position we already hold. We will have cultural blinders which favors our understanding.  So Jesus says, we are to take the log out of our own eye, before we take the speck out of our neighbors.

In a very interesting article in the Christian Century entitled the New Black Theology, Jan 26,2012, Jonathan Tran reviews J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Willie J. Jennings’s The Christian Imagi­nation: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010). It is commonly thought that emphasis on reason with the Enlightenment liberated people from cultural and religious mythical constructs which solidified who is in and who is out. But Jennings argues that the modern definition of race develops alongside the Enlightenment. I will quote the article at length because it is a fascinating analysis.

“When the Enlightenment sought to find the standpoint of universal reason, it could only look down upon people (Jewish and some other ethnic groups) who—it was thought— could not so easily transcend their bodies. In a vicious but unquestioned bit of circular reasoning, it was decided that only Europeans could achieve this universality of reason. According to Carter, this trumped-up notion of reason resulted in the universality of whiteness according to which non-Europeans comprise lesser hues of whiteness. Nonwhite people simply could not get out of their bodies in the way that white people had.

White people, according to this line of thought, “are not a race in the same way that the other human races have become races. The other races have become races in such a way as to be held hostage to their own particularity,” says Carter. “Their particularity as race groups is excessive or out of balance inasmuch as it aims at only its own particularity. Indeed, they suffer under the entropy of their own particularity; they can’t get over themselves.” What makes white people “white” is their ability to get out of their bodies, to transcend bodily entrapment by way of reason’s surpassing abilities.

“Whiteness” is not so much something as nothing—a mythic conception of nonparticularity, the achievement of genuine transcendence, true reason. It is purity, existence free of the blemishes that colored all other races. Thus race became the way Westerners came to understand people’s differences and where people belong in the hierarchy of existence.”

Jennings and Carter both argue that bodies matter.  It is important to return to the Jewishness of Jesus – to find the divine nature in bodies with particular origin.

Instead of Christianity being expressed in a colonizing and slaveholding universalism, Christ is inscribed in the flesh of those whose slave narratives proclaim the good news. Rather than look for the triumph of the universal over the particular, the slave finds her particularity marked in the particularity of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection, which universally gathers and heals those who suffer.

In a unique twist, Jennings and Carter return to early Church debates over Christology in their discussion of race. Debates in the early church about Jesus’ identity emphasized two positions: one position prioritized Jesus humanity and downplayed his divinity; the other emphasized his divinity over his humanity. Carter and Jennings compare white supremacy or other forms of racial supremacy, or sexism to the heresy that overemphasized the humanity of Christ. So, for instance, we get stuck in the image of the white male Jesus as the universal Jesus. This Jesus becomes an idol we create to look like us, and from whom we earn salvation by looking like him.  On the other hand, when we attempt to ignore bodily life altogether, for instance when we attempt to ignore particularity and cultural difference, to be “color blind”, we fall into a heresy similar to Gnosticism – where Christ’s divinity is prioritized over his humanity.

So, as Christians we become one not by erasing culture and difference, not by having everyone erase their own culture and join ours, but by receiving the grace of Christ which comes to each of us in our own particularity and charges us to extend Christ like love toward one another, and to preach good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed. The dividing wall that is broken down by Christ is not our particularity but our hostility towards difference.  Our oneness is in the celebration and joy we share from the love we have received, and in the one Spirit through which we are empowered to love as Christ has loved us.

[17] And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; [18] for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
[19] So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,