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Dismantling Racism:
Being White

April 22, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Pastor Jeff Wells


Scripture Lesson: 
1 John 2:3-11

     This is the third Sunday in our seven-week worship series on Dismantling Racism. Two weeks ago, Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer Miller reminded us that Christianity itself has often been perverted to be a tool for racism and white supremacy. She called us to remember that “racism is not only out there but it is also in here. It is surreptitious – poisoning the souls of all of us in different ways. It must be confronted on all its fronts.” And last Sunday, Rev. Doris Dalton called us to reimagine beloved community as a gathering around the table – a new table of mutual liberation. She offered us a vision of this new table through the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus whose eyes were opened in the break of the bread together with Jesus. We pray that God will continue to open our eyes to the work we must do for liberation and transformation. If you missed either of these sermons, I encourage you to read them online. They are connected to and inform my message today and the others that will follow over the next four weeks. 

I invite you now to pray with me and for all of us: 

Loving God, you have inspired us to gather this day to hear a challenging word about dismantling racism. May your spirit help us to open our hearts to hear you speaking to us in this moment and to fill in the gaps my message leaves open. I thank you for the forgiveness you already offer for the ways this message fails to adequately express your longing for love and justice.

     Let me begin by reprising the stark message of today’s scripture lesson. “This is how we know we are in Jesus: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did…. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.” Let that sink in. If we truly desire to live in the light of God in Jesus Christ, then we cannot practice hate against any of our siblings – any children of God. Claiming we “love one another” means nothing if we do harm or allow harm to a sibling or to a whole group of siblings. I read this passage as an indictment of whiteness. White supremacy and white power are practices marked by hatred against siblings in God. They are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     I grew up in western Wisconsin. My father and grandfather were born and died there. I did not personally have contact with people of color until I was in high school. I was born into whiteness.

     My parents were loving, generous, and well-meaning people. My father was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church. They both volunteered at the local hospital and helped lead civic organizations. They believed that everyone should be treated fairly and equally and they taught that to my siblings and me. I loved my parents very much. They had wonderful qualities about them. Yet, though they surely did not think of themselves this way, my parents were also racist. I remember my father telling jokes that featured people of color as the characters being mocked or disparaged. From a young age that made me very uncomfortable and very confused about my dad. Finally, in 1968, when I was 11 years old, I summoned the courage to challenge him and told him to stop telling those jokes and stop referring to “colored” people and use African-American. I think of that as my first anti-racist act. After this first encounter, I recall a few times I had to push back on racist things my parents did or said. The good news is that my parents changed their behavior quickly – at least around my brothers and me and, over time, I believe they changed their attitudes significantly under our influence. Yet, I am not aware that they ever took any significant steps to oppose racism. I don’t think they ever came to understand that there is a culture of whiteness and a system that maintains white power in this country.

     White supremacy is the system that maintains white dominance and the oppression of people of color. It is the active side of whiteness. White privilege is the passive side. It describes the benefits and privileges that accrue to white persons, whether we embrace them or not. Of course, the benefits are not distributed equally, but every white person is privileged in some ways relative to persons of color. Whether we want it or not, we are generally treated better than people of color – especially black persons – by the police, realtors, employers, healthcare providers, the educational system, and government bureaucracies.

      What does it mean, then, to be white in the U.S. today? Some white people choose to be intentionally and actively racist. Many choose to be passive and complacent. Others choose to become conscious, the learn, to grow, and then to act. And, of course, others are at various points in between. As Isaiah said in his video, “there is nothing wrong with being white.” Yet, while there is nothing wrong with being white, there is something terribly wrong with "whiteness" as a social system that demeans others. What is wrong is being complacent about racism. What is wrong is being aware of white power and privilege and refusing to act on that knowledge. Being white in the U.S. today means the need to make a choice. White people can choose ignorance, complacency, and the pretense of “innocence.” Or, we can, with an attitude of humility, study and learn, from people of color and allies available to us, and then act on what we have learned. We can choose, as Isaiah put it, to “use our privilege as a platform to advocate for racial equity and justice in America.”

     Of course, we can choose to do all of that and still often fail to get it right. One reason we chose to engage in this worship series at this particular moment in the life of our community was the departure of Pastor Elyse Ambrose, who told us that she felt unheard, tokenized, invisibilized, unsupported, and disregarded as a black woman. She challenged us to re-examine our commitments and the ways we maybe be failing to put them into practice. The Church of the Village is committed to a journey of dismantling racism, as well as sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Yet, we have to acknowledge that there are times when we fail. We engage this sacred journey imperfectly and our commitments do not exempt us from the insidious and systemic nature of these evils. Because whiteness is so pervasive, I, as a white person, can be blinded to the expressions of my privilege. I am painfully conscious that I often fail in being conscious of my privilege and unintentionally harm people I love.

     The brutal truth is we live in a nation in which white supremacy and white power permeate every aspect of society. Whiteness infects the government, educational systems, financial systems, business, and industry. It is like a cancer that has metastasized and invaded every organ. And it harms and with terrible frequency kills its victims.

     The white supremacist system is treacherous and deceitful. It is a shape shifting phenomenon – able to evolve and change its appearance in the attempt to disguise itself. It tries to hide behind concepts like “democracy,” “equality before the law,” and “individual responsibility.” It hides behind declarations of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It even hides behind reform legislation like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and policies like the “War on Poverty,” that, while they definitely improve lives, do not fundamentally damage, change, or dismantle white supremacy.

     The majority of white people in the U.S. are racist. They are racist because, among other reasons, they have not undertaken to educate themselves about the depths of racism and white supremacy – historic and present – in this nation. They have remained willfully blind. They have embraced the lie that they don’t live in a white supremacist country or if they admit racism exists, they take no personal responsibility for opposing it and no action to dismantle it. And, they are not aware of the immensity of their white privilege nor have they sought ways to undermine it.    

     Is it possible to reject whiteness, to unlearn the racism in which we have been born and raised, and to devote ourselves to the struggle to overturn white supremacy? I believe it is. I can’t give you a precise prescription. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think I even know all the questions! In fact, the more I learn, the more I grasp how much I don’t know. But that just makes me want to learn and grow more.

     As long as we live in a white supremacist society, neither I nor any white person can escape white privilege. We can’t choose the way police, employers, the educational system, banks, the real estate industry treat us. But we can choose to not to embrace privilege. We can choose to do all in our power to undermine white power and privilege. I believe it is possible to reject whiteness, to unlearn the ways we have been socialized, and to give ourselves to the struggle to overturn white supremacy. And I believe that is my only choice if I desire to have love of God in me and to live as Jesus did.

     I was born into whiteness and had to be reborn – and, indeed, I have to be continually reborn into a new understanding of our common and shared humanity. It is just as Jesus said to the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Every person born into whiteness needs to be born again if we are going to remove the insidious claws of whiteness from our minds, bodies, and spirits. Being reborn requires a long period of gestation and potentially painful labor, and the work only begins at that point. The journey is long, but, it has the potential to bring us to our full humanity as God desires.

     I believe this is the choice God calls white persons to. It is a profound choice, with huge ramifications – personal, political, and social. White supremacy is completely enmeshed in U.S. capitalism. I believe we will not succeed in overturning white supremacy short of creating a new economic and political system that is not founded on greed. White supremacy exists because it is very profitable for an elite that has convinced the majority of white people that it benefits them enough to support it, ignore it, or acquiesce to it.   

     This fundamental change will take a new American revolution. It will require a love revolution. And I admit we are not prepared for that revolution yet. But I am encouraged to see more people – especially young people – willing to engage in the hard work that it will take to bring the love revolution to pass. And I believe that we can take this journey together and we are already learning and practicing for the love revolution – right here in our own community at the Church of the Village.

     This will require an in-depth study of racism – historical and current – in the U.S. It will demand that we are politically and socially conscious and active. It will take looking deeply at our own attitudes and behaviors. It will take challenging ourselves, our families, our friends, co-workers, and people in our churches to examine and undermine our own racism and the racism of this white supremacist country. We have to work from the inside out and the bottom up. We have to be courageous in changing hearts and minds.

     This can feel like a perpetual struggle with no end – to both people of color and to those white persons who have embarked on this struggle. Yet, I am convinced that it is possible to dismantle white supremacy and racism and the economic and political systems which are their foundation. I believe this, first, because God is on the side of this titanic struggle and God calls us to be leaders and marchers in that struggle together. I believe we, as a community, have hard work and a long journey ahead of us, but we are already on the way, and we are building on the heritage of conscious struggle of those who came before us. And, I believe in the possibility of beloved community. As Rev. Dalton proclaimed last week, “At this table of the Beloved Community, no one is left out, no one is more powerful than the other, we are all at the table equitably and equally.  At this table, we see the risen Christ blessing our bread, breaking it and offering it to us bread, and realize that we don’t have to be bound by the old paradigms of empire and oppression, but we can be FREE knowing that there is new possibility, and a new reality with each other and for each other.” I believe that if we continue on this journey of building beloved community with honesty, vulnerability, a willingness to risk being wrong, and a commitment not to walk away from each other, we can build something powerful together. We are called by God and we have the potential to become a beacon of hope in the world. On this journey together, we will need to care for ourselves and love one another. We will have to find ways to hold each other accountable. We will have to learn to ask for, give, and receive forgiveness. We will have to learn how to care for past wounds and present pain. And, in the midst of doing this holy work, we will have to learn to take time to rest from the struggle and simply enjoy being a community together. The journey is long. I am so grateful to be on it with all of you.