Justice For All?
Because February is National Black History Month in the United States, I was asked me to preach a sermon based on my experience with anti-racism work. The following sermon was given at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids on February 20.
Reading #1: Leviticus 19:1-2a, 9-18
Reading #2: Jimmy’s Case (see previous blog, Points of Discretion)
Good morning. Happy Black History Month. My name is Alan Headbloom, and I am a racist.
Of the many things I learned in a 2009 Institute for Healing Racism, the most profound thing was that I was an unintentional racist. Most of us in this sanctuary are racists. That is, we make judgments based on race. We take action—or avoid action—based on race. We’re not trying to, but we do. And once we realize that about ourselves, we have a decision about what to do with the rest of our life. After that, we know that there is no such thing as racist or non-racist. There is only the choice of racist or anti-racist.
When I was young, I was surrounded by the same sayings and platitudes that most of you grew up hearing. I know you can fill in the blanks if I get you started. “God helps those who… [help themselves].” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are… [created equal].” Or this one: “No exceptions. Everyone follows the… [rules].” This morning, I’d like to examine these slogans in the light of the texts our liturgist just read and through the lens of U.S. history and two personal stories.
In the opening of the 1979 comedy, The Jerk, actor Steve Martin—who is white—begins his narration, “I was born a poor black child.” After the absurdity of that statement sinks in, Martin goes on to recount his life story of rags to riches to rags in a tale that is both charming and improbable. While the movie dances humorously around the issue of race in the United States, it reminds us that the color you are born and the place you are born matters. A lot.
I was born into a Scandinavian-American household in the affluent suburbs of Oakland County, MI. And as I grew up, I heard all the patriotic catch-phrases you helped me recite a moment ago. “America,” we learned, “is the land of freedom and opportunity.” “In this country, if you believe it, you can achieve it.” And because all this was working for my white, suburban, upwardly mobile family, I bought into it.
Oh sure, there were annoying questions that came fleetingly into mind. Why were all the waiters at the country club black and all the diners at the linen-covered tables white? Why didn’t I see any black folks in the metro Detroit area until I drove south of Eight Mile Road? Because nobody talked about it, it just became the natural order of things. And that natural order stated that one gets ahead by working hard and following the rules.
Following the election of a biracial President, we hear protest cries of Take Back Our Country or a nostalgic longing for the “good old days.” For them, I invite a closer look at those good old days. Shall we return to the years before a woman could vote? How about the days when we abducted, chained, transported, beat, raped, and forced labor upon 11 million Africans? What about that halcyon year 1830 when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the forced march now known as the Trail of Tears, and the death of 4,000 Cherokee men, women, and children. Maybe there were better days when employment policy was represented in signs: No Irish Need Apply, or in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, or last year’s Arizona state legislation SB-1070? No, I think if you ask people of color, the only “good old days” are the present moment and the hopeful future.
“You shall not render an unjust judgment,” proclaims the reading from today’s lectionary. “…with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” In light of our history, we are forced to ask, who makes (and enforces) the laws in the land of Liberty And Justice For All? By now, you may be getting discouraged and wondering, “How can I change national institutions of power and prejudice? Where can I advocate for justice?” I believe the answer resides in two places; the first of them is attitude.
But everyone here believes in freedom and justice for all; we’ve said it hundreds of times. But justice can only come when we move beyond theory, beyond words, and into practice. And that’s not easy. For most of us here, myself included, are not challenged by diversity—not in our church, not in our restaurants, not at work. In most cases where we are exposed to diversity, we are in a position of power and unrecognized privilege.
Black people, on the other hand, have to adapt to a white world every time they leave the house. They have to walk differently and talk differently and act differently. White folks don’t understand because we walk out the door and continue to be who we were at home. We buy “flesh-colored” band aids for our skin and “normal” hair-care products for our heads. And every magazine on the check-out racks (except Oprah’s) has people of our race on the covers. It gets wearying for people of color to have to teach (yet one more day) the dominant-culture people in their lives about race. It’s time our white brothers and sisters took a turn at the heavy lifting.
So, what do well-intentioned white people do with their change in attitude? As someone who has studied and worked with numerous cultures all my career, I can tell you that intercultural conflicts are prickly. We are all raised within the confines of a culture. Within that culture, our parents, neighbors, and teachers are constantly enforcing the rules. This way is right, that way is wrong. This style is good, that style is bad. For example, what’s the culturally approved way of behaving on Sunday morning in the UCC? For the most part, we sit contemplatively in the pews (unless sharing the Peace) and admire the special music or chancel choir, we keep still (unless the worship leader beckons us in responsive prayer), we smile or nod when the pastor makes a good point (or maybe we jot a note for later reference), we sing three hymns, and then we leave the sanctuary. Takes about an hour. Shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out, we may comment on a poignant moment of the sermon. All pretty normal and comfortable and familiar.
However, if you’re from the Pentecostal tradition or an AME church, there’s a different etiquette. For one, there’s more singing. There’s clapping. And swaying. Lifting up your arms. And if the pastor gets on a roll, you roll right along with him. “Amen! Uh-huh! Praise Jesus! Tell it, preacher!” This culture supports full self-expression. And don’t think about leaving after an hour. Heck, after 60 minutes, we’re just getting warmed up. So then, if a person from Church Culture A attends worship at Church B, what is the reaction? “Boy, these people sure are noisy! Why are they interrupting the pastor? I can’t hear. This is not very meditative. What a bunch of rude people. They don’t know how to worship.” And on and on the judgments go about “those people.” It’s part of the human condition.
Recently, I started attending an inter-racial men’s fellowship hosted downtown at Mel Trotter Ministries. Pastor Chico Daniels once joked that the mission of this men’s group was to teach the white brothers to clap on time and the black brothers to be on time. And this really gets to the crux of it, doesn’t it? We judge people by our own standards: how slavishly—or casually—we relate to the clock and by how important music and self-expression is—or isn’t—in our lives.
When we allow our own personal judgments to influence our public and professional lives, then we are entering a danger zone known in the legal profession as “points of discretion.” Points of discretion are moments when a person in authority has the opportunity to make a judgment about a behavior, a chance to view and act differently. In the story that Bill just read to you, there were 10 people in authority over young Jimmy’s life: his mother and grandmother, his classroom teachers and his special education teacher, the 7-Eleven guard, the arresting officer, the juvenile case worker, the public defender, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge. If we were in a workshop, I’d give you all the chance to discuss the multiple points of discretion in Jimmy’s story. For now, I’d like to say that perhaps the security guard or the police officer could have taken Jimmy aside, said “Hey, kid, take these two bucks, go pay for the chips, and don’t do that again.” You might have other suggestions concerning a critical point of discretion. In the church, we sometimes call it discernment, or just grace.
The second place we need to look for justice is access. As a white, suburban male somewhat late to this conversation, I can tell you, if there is no access to the table for people of color, there will be no equity. If there is no equity, there will be no justice. So, how do we create access? How do people truly feel like they belong?
Let me tell you about a local teacher named Ruth Jones. A career Grand Rapids educator, Ruth was offered the principalship of a failing elementary school in the mid-1990s. She wanted to turn it down, but in her words, “God wouldn’t let me go.” When she started at Henry Paideia Academy, she saw anger and despair in her young students. Past history showed 3/4 never went on to finish high school; college was out of the question. Between the 80% black students, 10% Latino students, and 10% white students, they had one common denominator: poverty. Seeing that many were the product of parents who themselves were neglected, Ruth committed to teaching these youngsters leadership and self-respect. When she saw them coming to school in dirty clothes, her first thought was, “How can these parents send their kids to school like this?” As she prayed about it, she realized, “Yes, it’s terrible they are sent to school like that, but it’s also terrible if I see it and do nothing about it.” From there she mobilized the community; local businesses and churches donated four sets of washers and dryers so that the kids could come to school and learn in clean clothing. “These are not THEIR children or YOUR children, these are OUR children,” she has said on more than one occasion. “We will reap what we sow. If we consider these children throwaways, that’s what they will be. Wouldn’t it be a shame if God had planted the cure to cancer in one of their little minds, and they ended up dead in the streets or locked away in jail.”
Now I can hear the voices of the elite saying, “It’s not our job to wash their clothing.” America’s comfortable will say, “Why don’t these people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” when in fact, some boots don’t come with straps, and some kids don’t even come to school in boots. These European American bootstrappers are the same people who decried Affirmative Action as “special advantages” because the playing field for them had always seemed level. In reality, many were born on third base but believe they just hit a triple. If you’ll allow yet one more sports metaphor, let me share a favorite analogy of Ron Jimmerson. You’re part way through a baseball game, your team is down 20-0, and you discover that the other team has been cheating. When you confront them, they acknowledge they were cheating, promise not to do it again, but refuse to change the score.
In American history, we can’t turn back the clock. There is no 500-year do-over. Today, in 2011, access starts by us asking who gets into the rooms where decisions are made. It’s about whom we choose to network with, to worship with, to give business referrals to. Thirty-four percent of this nation is made up of people of color. Is 34% of our address book people of color? Is 34% of our dinner parties people from a different ethnicity—or, heaven forbid, a different social class? How about 34% of the job candidates we interview? If they speak English as a second language, do we invite them to contribute to the conversation? And do we wait patiently for them to finish talking? Do we sit with people in the cafeteria who don’t look like us? What about the diversity of our children’s daycare? Our exercise facility? Our book club?
We are not going to overturn centuries of bigotry and racial domination tomorrow. But tomorrow we can make a small, conscious step to change up our very safe, very same, very comfortable life. We can make the determination to become intentional, to be accessible, to be an antiracist.
Again, from the reading in Leviticus: “You shall not defraud your neighbor; …you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not render an unjust judgment; with justice you shall judge your neighbor…you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And then, you shall invite him or her to lunch. Amen.