Transcribed from the sermon preached January 17, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 1:1-11
I grew up learning of the civil rights movement as history. And civil rights won and prejudice lost because that was the way it was supposed to be. White people had come to see the racism and prejudice they inherited was a sin, we had repented and been born again – into a new nation, a better nation. No doubt part of the big push and moral energy for the civil rights movement came from the horrors of WWII, as the world learned about the Holocaust, the mass extermination of Jews, a whole people almost wiped away for their race and religion. We came to regret and repent our lack of compassion, for turning boats of refugees away. And we found redemption in the defeat of the Nazis. The Nazis rallied people through nationalism, the strength of violence. We were not the Nazis. Yet if we were not the Nazis, then why did African American soldiers come home to the same racism and discrimination they left? Were they fighting for freedom and democracy or not? If we were a righteous nation, racism and racial discrimination didn’t make sense. The hypocrisy could not stand. America could not call itself Land of the Free and Home of the brave if we didn’t have the courage to grant freedom and equal opportunity to all. It was a hard fight, but the moral arch of the universe bends towards justice. And so we passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights act. And that was the end of the story, the wedding of our ideals with our actions, and now was the time of celebration, the wedding party. Indeed it was no token accomplishment that the majority of the American people elected Barrack Obama to the presidency twice. This is the history I was taught. It is the story most of us want to be true. We drank that wine.
But we have learned that wanting it to be true does not make it all the way true. It turns out that history is a bit more complicated than the story we tell and more difficult to change than we thought. It turns out that all people and nations must be in continuous and constant vigilance against becoming the very enemy which we so proudly stood against. The great hope at the foundation of a democratic Israel has receded behind ethnic and religious prejudice, where some are given civil and human rights and others are not. And here there are echoes of our racist past, political candidates that sound awfully like fascists, whipping up crowds with nationalism and fear of the other races and religions. The war on drugs has only succeeded in creating a criminal underclass. The proliferation of the personal camera has begun to show us that there continues to be racial disparity in our law enforcement and, the statistics show, in the whole legal system as well. We know this is a reflection of continuing systemic racial bias in culture. Is the party over?
Has the wine run out?
With all the bad and negative news, it is easy to fear that it has. But while St. John’s is intimately involved with drug policy and criminal justice reform, with affirming that Black lives matter, sometimes a focus on the bad news skews our perception and fans the flames of division and fear. Even as we work against persistent racism in our nation and culture, let us affirm some of the gains. I could just as well speak of immigrants or Muslims, Gays and Lesbians but for the sake of time and Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, allow me to narrow focus on some good news with African Americans.
According to Charles D. Ellison in an article entitled “Are We Talking Enough About the Black Middle Class” in the April 13, 2015 Pacific Standard, “In 1960, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty, the overall black poverty rate was near 60 percent; by 2011, it dropped to a little more than 27 percent. That reflects a substantial transition from black working middle class to upper-middle class. Along with that, black college enrollment rates rose from 45 percent in 1975 to 65 percent by 2010—now equal with white enrollment rates. Census Bureau figures show unprecedented growth in African-American businesses by 2007, which is most likely a direct result of a much more upwardly mobile and educated black population.” Education matters.
In his 2003 analysis, “How the Poor Became Black: The Racialization of American Poverty in the Mass Media,” Princeton researcher Martin Gilens analyzed media trends between the 1950s to the 1990s. He found “the media’s tendency to associate African Americans with the undeserving poor reflects – and reinforces – the centuries old stereotype of blacks as lazy.” The same negative focus on immigrants who shoot at women and Muslims as radical terrorists skew our images of them. “This coverage,” Gilens added, “has in turn shaped social, economic and political conditions.”
Blacks, at 13 percent of the population, represent 22 percent of the poor and 14 percent of those receiving “safety net” benefits. Yet, according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report, whites—at 64 percent of the population and 42 percent of the poor—receive 69 percent of government benefits.
It is ironic that the white recipients of government support are the most likely to vote for candidates who oppose the existence of such programs. Building the media association of poverty and blackness creates an other who can then be the scapegoat, such as when, in the 2012 election presidential candidate Rick Santorum said, “I don’t want to make black peoples’ lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. “Neither Santorum nor his audience knew or would admit the reality that it is whites who receive a disproportionate amount of help from the government. And that is the way it has always been. Martin Luther King noted that while Reconstruction was dismantled and ex-slaves were expected to pull themselves up by their boot straps, the European immigrants were given land, government-funded education on farming and ranching, low-interest loans for mechanization and ranchers were leased government land at below market rates – all the while the US military protected settlers against Native Americans who were angry for having their land taken and given to white ranchers. There is a common perception in American culture that associates poverty with some moral failing or lack of work ethic. This in turn distracts from cultural and institutional bias – in schools, the justice system, real estate planning and finance – which compounds the struggle to rise out of poverty. (ibid)
As Christians we are not primarily concerned with the politics of the nation, but first with our own beliefs and conduct, and with the nature and actions of the Church of Jesus Christ. While we want to deconstruct the institutional and cultural prejudice against the poor and non-white people, we also want to construct positivity into our world view.
Paul is addressing the Corinthians who are arguing over which gifts are best, which are worthwhile and which are not. But Paul doesn’t want the church to create hierarchical judgments about who or what is worthwhile and who or what is not. The Church is to praise and honor variety and diversity of gifts and people. We are better and stronger persons and Church because of the love and honor of diversity. There are varieties of gifts but the same spirit.
Unfortunately, there will always be prejudicial and negative people, and with 24 hour TV and Global internet, anecdotal evidence of idiots is not hard to come by. For some reason it is hard for us to not pay attention to people who are negative toward us. Usually there are certain aspects of ourselves that we are especially sensitive about. Perhaps it is because early in our life someone in our family or school was biting and critical. We may internalize this oppression until it becomes our own view of ourselves. What are the negative or critical views about you that you have internalized? We give them more time and power than they deserve. I am not saying that we shouldn’t stand up to bullies or mean girls or address institutionalized prejudice, but I am saying that we are way more than the negative views some others may have of us. I am saying that we do not want to let those negative voices fill our mind and image of ourselves and distract us from the beauty and strengths that God gives and calls forth from us. God has a plan for us, and that plan should be our primary focus. What are your gifts? What makes you special and beautiful and strong? It may even be that what some consider our weakness can also be our strength and source of beauty and goodness. Let us focus on those things. We ought to say to ourselves and together that “We aint gonna let nobody turn us around.”
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. So the wine hasn’t run out, and it is not gonna run out. We are not going to stop celebrating the beauty of many colors and building diversity, and honoring equality, and building up our unique gifts, and joining together in joyous, harmonious teamwork to build a Church, culture, nation and world where all are honored and valued. We not going to be dragged back by pompous, divisive negativity, even those voices within ourselves, but continue to be drawn forth by what we know is right, true and good. We are not going to stop until we are a new nation, a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a diadem in the hand of our God. Married to the glorious God, God rejoices over us. Fill your cup, let it overflow. Fill your cup! Let it overflow with love.