The Emerywood Pulpit
“Confessions of a Repentant Southerner…”
Luke 10: 25-37
Week before last, on June 25th, our national somnambulance was once again shattered by the bullets of a deranged gunman. This time, however, it was in our own beloved Carolinas — Charleston, South Carolina — to be exact. The details we know all too well — they are ever with us. On that fateful Wednesday evening twelve African-Americans were engaged in a Bible Study of Jesus’ parable of the “Sower and the Soils” when a young, white male, Dylann Storm Roof, entered the room. After speaking with them for over an hour, he pulled out a pistol and started firing. Nine of the twelve were brutally murdered — he reloaded at least twice — and then he calmly left the church and the premises. He was captured the next day in North Carolina and presumably has seen the last freedom he will ever know.
Once again our nation has been turned upside down as the issues of race and gun violence have raised their ugly heads. I will leave the issue of gun violence for another day. My concern this morning is with the underlying racism that drove him to such lengths. Mr. Roof not only displayed racist photographs and videos on the web, he even told his victims that he was killing them as an act of racial revenge. “I wanted to start a race war” is what he is said to have told the police and justice officials.
Racism is the proverbial ball and chain around our leg as a nation — and particularly as a region. No matter how hard we try we just cannot seem to be set free. As a native of the Deep South for most of my early years — New Orleans, La. by birth and Alabamian by residence — and then in the South for most of the remaining years, I have lived with racism, both open and hidden, my entire life. (To be honest, I also lived in Portland, Oregon and there encountered racism just as in the South.) Racism is not limited to our beloved South, though it certainly has its tentacles deep in our red clay soil. However, it is here — and we can no longer ignore it.
For decades racism was socially and culturally acceptable. In my youth I knew otherwise “good people” who used the “n” word just as any other word; their excuse was simple — “that’s what you called those people.” However, I must say that we were never allowed to say the “n” word in my home of origin, nor have I ever allowed it to be said in my presence without challenge.
As a Southerner I have heard incredible rationalizations as to why racism and bigotry were ordained of God. I have witnessed systemic racism bury itself within the fabric of our culture and work its dirty business unseen and unknown. If America is ever to live up to its calling as a bastion of freedom and liberty, then we must do our due diligence to recognize incipient racism in all its manifestations; we must work together to eradicate every last remnant of publicly acceptable racism.
What does it mean to be a racist? Most of us do not consider ourselves to be overtly racist, and for the most part we are not. We do not hate another person because of the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the slant of their eyes or any other physical characteristic. However, not being overtly racist does not comprise the totality of racism — it is only one expression of racism. Racism is the preference for persons of our own tribe. PLU’s is the commonly acceptable acronym: “People Like Us.” To be sure, racial tribalism or cultural “clannishness” is a common, human, cultural trait but that does not mean that it is of Christ. Just because something seems to be hardwired into our cultural DNA does not justify it one iota.
There is a deeper aspect of our racial preference that we do not always identify. Racism involves the tendency to “see” another racial group in terms of the worst characteristics of the worst members of that group. Simultaneously, racism sees ourselves and our group in terms of the best members of our group. For instance, in my youth in the deep I was told (by persons other than my parents) that all blacks were lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, dishonest and uneducable. Obviously that was not and is not the case, but it was convenient for our white majority to think thusly as it gave justification for discrimination, Jim Crow laws, etc. Central to this subconscious racism was the development of “slang” terms for persons of other races, terms which insidiously move us toward seeing the other as beneath us, or less than human. Wop, Chink, Spic, Dago — the “n” word…these are just a few of the terms we use which dehumanize another. These are not just innocent slang terms, but epithets which devalue and degrade a fellow human who also bears the image of God.
Why do we act in this manner? Simply put, as humans we live with a certain level of residual inferiority, the belief that, at bottom, we are not good enough. One of the ways for us to it is a way for us to justify/feel good about ourselves is to denigrate the other as less than human. You may object that what we see in racists is a “superiority,” but we know that such arrogance is really a covering for deep “inferiority.” As humans we are driven by fear much more than we are compelled by our faith. Racism, at its core, is fear based — as it all evil.
This is seen quite clearly in the Confederate Flag controversy. For the most part, those who wave or display the Confederate battle flag are white people for whom life has been at best a struggle. Economically they are on the bottom rung — or close to it. Educationally they are usually there as well — those often go hand in hand. For them this flag is a symbol of their defiance of a governmental system which they believe works against them and for others, particularly African-Americans. In the early years of the 20th century poor whites and poor blacks often had the same economic struggles. The sole comfort for these poor whites was that “At least I’m not black.” Now, as education has offered persons of all races opportunities to grow and develop, the anger and frustration of these who occupy the lower socio-economic rungs has focused on a flag as their symbol and on race as their enemy. These may claim it is heritage and not hate, but rarely is that the case — and we know it. For those who want to fly this flag I have only one question: given its history as the symbol of the Lost Cause — of a racially motivated rebellion against our country — would Jesus fly this flag?
Racism is subtle, rarely presenting itself as evil. Rather, racism, like all sin, masks itself as that which is good. Many of those who owned slaves or later perpetuated racism in our culture did not necessarily consider themselves to be “evil persons.” Many were active in churches, worshipped God, loved Jesus and sought to share what they understood as the gospel, as truncated as their version may have been. They were people who were doing what they thought to be right in order to “preserve their way of life,” which they assumed to be ordained of God.
The specific translation used this morning is one by Clarence Jordan called “The Cotton Patch Bible.” He translated most of the New Testament into the language of the South and in so doing personalized these stories and teachings for us. Here we have the familiar story of “The Good Samaritan.” What is shocking about that story is that the usual “good guys,” the persons Jesus’ listeners assumed would stop and help, did not. Their fellow Israelites crossed over and went on by, even after seeing this one in distress. When Jesus said that the one who stopped and helped was a “Samaritan,” I can imagine that you would have heard the proverbial pin drop. This was the last person any Jew expected to stop or wanted to stop. Samaritans were half-breeds, the result of “inter-racial” families from the days of the Babylonian Exile. No self-respecting Jew would ever say anything good about a Samaritan. Yet, Jesus does, because Jesus wants to show his questioner just what it means to be a person of God.
Salvation (the original question posed) for Jesus is not about keeping the law, but about loving one’s neighbor, i.e., for Jesus the neighbor being the one whose need presents itself to me. Further, by making the neighbor a Samaritan — or in our cultural node a black man — Jesus shatters all our pretensions about our goodness and righteousness.
To grow up in the South is to grow up as a conflicted person: loving the people and heritage of which we are apart, yet feeling quite deep shame at the entrenched racism of our past and present. A prime example of this is one of my personal heroes, General Robert E. Lee. As a son of the South I always felt badly that we fought the Civil War, much less that we lost it. I became a history major — and in particular a Southern history major — due to my desire to understand more and more about this region of my birth. General Lee was the salvation for most of the South, particularly the more educated Southerners. He was the classic figure of a Southern gentleman in every way, not to mention that he was an incredibly good general (other than at Gettysburg where his vanity and pride overran his wisdom.) Yet, in reality he was a slaveholder and a traitor to his country. He violated his own oath, taken at his induction as an officer in the US Army, to never take up arms against his own country. Yes, he stipulated in his will that his slaves should be freed upon his death — but he allowed his wife to keep what she needed until her death. As I have studied his life through the years I have come to see that he is, at best, a flawed hero.
In the South (and nationally) we have used up all the cliches and metaphors possible to explain away what is really residual racism. Here we are in 2015 and we still send each other racist emails as supposed “jokes.” When I replied to some of these with the statement that these were un-Christlike, I was quickly deleted from some lists, and gratefully so. Who wants a spoil-sport pointing out our racism to us? We live by the myth that we’re not racist anymore, yet it refuses to go away. When fraternities on college don blackface for parties we know that racism lingers deep within.
Last year a pastor and good friend of mine married his daughter to a man whom he said was one of the finest young men he knew. What was unusual about this was that she married an African-American man. I saw the pictures and I thought, “How would I respond if I had a daughter who did this? How would I have responded if one of my sons had married a girl of another race? Would I be as loving and accepting as my friend?”
Jesus Christ came to set us free — and part of that freedom is to be free from the constraints of racism which is anti-God, anti-Christ and sinful in all its manifestations. If we cannot see all persons as created in the image of God…if the color of skin or ethnic background keeps us from seeing them in the love that flows from God, then we are living in sin and are in need of the grace of God. To participate in or acquiesce to any manner of racism — whether in jest or in seriousness — is to participate in sin and evil.
Are we racists? Not really…not in the angry, vengeful way. Would we ever think of putting another person down for their race or making crude comments about another over their racial characteristics? I don’t believe so. Why, we even welcome people of other races when they attend!
Yet, I must confess that as a proclaimer of the gospel for now 40 years, I have failed my congregations. I have failed to help us see that racism needs to be confronted and eradicated whenever possible. I have allowed us to be comfortable with our congregations being 99.9% white and thinking that this reflects the Body of Christ. I have allowed us to look the other way when racial issues came to the fore in our community and nation. I have been at ease in Zion, at peace with a culture that is not close to the Kingdom of God.
Why did I not focus on this residual sin that will not go away? Because it is too close to home, that’s why. Because when we start preaching and teaching about this sin, church people get uncomfortable and say things like, “We’re just not spiritual anymore.” Why, they may even go to another church if I say too much about it. So, I just throw it out there once in a while in a sermon, but never in a challenging or confrontative fashion. This is why I say that I have failed you. I have let you think that our congregational life as we know it is pleasing to God, when in reality it is anything but.
So, what can we do?
Confess our sin to God and ask for forgiveness. Confess not only our individual sin, but our cultural sin. Ask God to forgive us for tolerating theological heresy and sin and accepting them as normative.
Develop a primary value which says that all persons are created in the image of God and as such deserve to be treated with dignity, acceptance, respect and love, regardless of how they treat us in return. Until we get our values right, our lives will never be right.
Do not be a party to or go along with racism in any shape or form. Challenge racists statements when made in our presence. Refuse to laugh at or be party to racist statements or jokes of any kind. If someone had confronted Dylann Roof we might never have known of a “Charleston Nine.”
Ask God to use us to not only combat racism, but to be integral in working for and building up a community of faith which goes beyond racial and ethnic identities. To this end we need to intentionally seek to make friends across racial lines. Develop fellowship meals and “Dinners for 8” with persons of other races and ethnicities. Have conversations with persons of other races about their experiences; seek to understand what transpires in their lives.
Can we do this? Yes, but it will take the grace and power of God, for we cannot do it on our own; we are too weak. Tuesday evening I attended the “Community in Unity” service at St. Stephen’s AME Church. There was a decent but not great attendance — about 125 or so. The music was wonderful, the preaching was great. However, I was blown away by the Rev. Kinston Jones, a young African-American minister who organized the service. In his remarks he said: “A lot has been said about the Charleston Nine, but not much about the One. I want us to pray for Dylann Roof, for the salvation of his soul, that he might turn to Christ and know forgiveness and healing.” Then he proceeded to do just that — to pray for the perpetrator of these horrendous murders. How do you do that? How do you pray that prayer when that man has just stated that he wanted to start a war so that all black people would be killed?
You can do that when your heart is surrendered to God in Jesus Christ, when your primary motivation and purpose is not self, but allowing God to love others through you. Years ago there was a man named John Newton whose life was characterized by rebellion and chaos. He worked aboard a British Naval vessel, but rebelled against the discipline and deserted. He was captured, put in irons and flogged. He later convinced the captain to discharge him to a slaving vessel. Later while at sea he went through a tremendous storm and feared for his life. Providentially someone had given him Thomas A’ Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. In the bowels of that ship he prayed and asked God to save him. Later he worked on a slaving ship, knowing that what they were doing was wrong, but hoping through his presence to curb its excesses. Some forty years passed (1787) during which time he grew in his faith and became a minister of the gospel — he had long since left the seas. It was then wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade for the express purpose of helping his friend and member of Parliament, William Wilberforce in his campaign to outlaw the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire. Ultimately they were successful.
During his time as minister he led a Thursday evening prayer service. Almost every week he wrote a hymn for that service — 280 to be exact. It was in this stage of life that he penned the hymn for which he is most well-known: Amazing Grace. In his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, "I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”
Amazing grace…how sweet the sound…can we sing that song knowing that it is only by grace that any of us are acceptable? Can we sing that song knowing that as we have received grace, so we are to extend grace…to all God’s children? As I sing this song today I am singing it in repentance, asking God to forgive me for not being more bold and true to the gospel I know and love. “Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far…and grace will see me home.”
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
Emerywood Baptist Church
1300 Country Club Drive
High Point, North Carolina 27262
July 5th, 2015