Black Lives Matter: Ending systemic racism

 

I’ve never understood Matthew’s pairing of the two parts of this morning’s gospel reading.[1]. If another Christian sins against you, confront that person directly. If that fails to fix things, take another one or two Christians with you as witnesses and again confront the person. If that fails, then treat the sinner as a tax collector or Gentile, i.e., love the person from afar, no longer accepting them as a member of Christ's family. Frequently, this latter course of action becomes a hurtful shunning or shaming, whether formalized as the Roman Catholics and Amish do or informally practiced, as we Episcopalians and others have done. The passage begs multiple questions. Who defines sin? What if the alleged sinner is innocent? How serious must a sin be to trigger this process? How can we avoid politicizing or otherwise distorting the process? And, most decisively, if anytime two or three agree in prayer, God will grant their request, why not simply pray for the sinner to repent?

Thankfully, this morning’s first reading is simpler to grasp.[2]

When I was the senior chaplain for a Naval Air Station in Alaska, a petty officer asked me to lead a Passover Seder, the annual commemoration of the event chronicled in this morning’s first reading. I explained that if I led the Seder, the event would be Christian. If he, a Jew, led the Seder, then the event would be Jewish. I offered to obtain the necessary supplies, to find the required minimum number of attendees, and to coach him on his role. We enjoyed a great Seder.

Contemporary Jewish understanding of Passover differs substantially from how most Christians understand Passover. Christians unhelpfully tend to emphasize blood smeared on the doorposts of each house. Jews emphasize that repeating the ritual meal, annually reenacting the narrative, incorporates each successive generation into the Jewish community. The emphasis is on incorporation. Indeed, Jewish theology – in sharp contrast to Christian theology – offers no evaluative judgment about non-Jews or other religions.

Twenty-first century American Christians need to hear a similar message of incorporation. For example, our society is polarized between supporters and opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement. Well-intentioned but misguided interpretations of Christianity have substantially contributed to this polarization. The seventeenth-and eighteenth-century preachers whose attempt to revitalize Christianity birthed evangelicalism – Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, and others – overemphasized individual commitment to Jesus and interpersonal forgiveness. They largely ignored Christianity’s inherent communal nature. Never forget, we collectively are the body of Christ; no piece of the body exists independently. Recent sociological research demonstrates that evangelicalism’s individualistic focus allows white evangelicals to feel warmly toward individual Blacks while blinding those same evangelicals to systemic racism. Evangelicals thus do not perceive a systemic problem in police killing Blacks at two and a half times the rate that police kill whites, or the hurt Blacks experience in displays of Confederate flags and others symbols.[3] Restoring a consistent Christian emphasis on community and social responsibility is vital to ending systemic racism and social polarization.

Pray that the blind have their eyes opened to the systemic and social forces of racism and injustice; Go to the sinner and say, See, your warm feelings toward individuals mean little while our social systems and structures oppress people of color. Amen.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2020



[1] Matthew18:15-20.

[2] Exodus 12:1-14.

[3] Michael Luo, “American Christianity’s White-Supremacy Problem,” The New Yorker, September 2, 2020.

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