Our Racist Legacy of Fear – Chuck Rush 2/7/16

Our Racist Legacy of Fear
Numbers 14: 18; 1 John 1:4
The Lord is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love and mercy which is needed for the Sins of the Fathers are visited upon the Children unto the 3rd and 4th generation
There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear

The novelist William Faulkner set most of his novels across generations in Mississippi. He would typically open a chapter with an extended dialogue between two people. Often you had to read several pages without a clue as to who was actually speaking. It could be grandfather and slave in 1855, father and the help in 1900 or grandson and tenant farmer in 1935. Like Franz Kafka, he made it intentionally blurry to show how the actions of our ancestors fate us with a kind of tragic destiny. Southern history was especially filled with irony and pathos as we both fulfill the timeless contradictions of race and atone them at the same time.
Once when he was asked why he was so fixated on the past, Faulkner remarked, ‘the past is never over… in fact it isn’t even past.’ He recalled the profound moral insight that we read in our first scripture this morning. It says, “The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generation.” It is an observation of moral fact. The consequences of our actions not only radiate horizontally, effecting our extended family and friends all around us. There are also consequences that radiate vertically, things broken and not fixed in one generation come to haunt and hobble the next generation, sometimes directly, sometimes almost surreptitiously. But their effects are very real.
I thought of that reading Ta-Nahesi Coates “Between Me and the World”, an extended letter he wrote to his son in the aftermath of the protests that we have had around our country in the Black Lives Matter campaign. His son is 9 or 10 and is just coming to awaken to TV news and the wider social world that he has been born into.
One night, they are watching the news together and his son is in front of him. The case was Eric Garner, the 40 year old man who was arrested for selling loose cigarettes in front of a bodega and was choked to death in a tussle with several officers that was caught on videotape.
The videotape was pretty damning in retrospect. The crime was petty, the use of force excessive to the point of real tragedy, unnecessary and out of bounds. Certainly that is the way it looked to a kid.
The grand jury had convened to see if criminal charges would be brought against the officers and the press corps was all gathered outside the courtroom. The grand jury brought no charges, no reasons given of course, because these hearings are sealed in the state of New York.
Father and son sat there looking at the TV, agape. After a minute, the kid turns and walks to his room in silence, not speaking to his father. It was the prospect of his son, sitting in his room all alone, interiorizing a deep sense of fear and alienation that prompted him to write this long letter on being a black boy in America today and why the past matters so much.
The spiritual legacy he unpacks revolves around the pervasive fear that still haunts and defines the internal psyche of African-Americans and the prospect of that fear instilling itself in yet another generation just filled this father with a rage that he had to intentionally channel to keep it from swamping him.
That is the way that the legacy of our racist past is transmuted down the generations. It recalls the glaring injustice that Harper Lee captured so poignantly in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the middle of the Jim Crow era when the South was defined by a sharp two-tiered social order, black people up in the gallery only able to watch in silent desperation while an all-white jury took the testimony of a white woman, any white woman- however unstable or compromised- over the testimony of a black man- any black man, however virtuous and full of integrity.
There was no recourse, no court of appeal. And if you bucked the system too much, you could be beaten or lynched. Indeed, it is a grim statistic to review but from 1885-1915 there were almost a hundred black people lynched by a mob in our country every year.
You may be interested to know that in the same years there were almost as many white people lynched, a reminder of how simple and violent our country was then, with people willing to take the law into their own hands with regularity that we would find disturbing today.
That fear that African-Americans lived with routinely was so crippling to their souls. It didn’t have to be like that, but that is what happened.
The Southern historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out that at the end of the Civil War in 1865, just after slaves were emancipated, there were many examples of integration for about 10 years in the South. I found it surprising to learn. Colonel Thomas Wentworth wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly in 1878 about a trip he took to Charleston, South Carolina in which he noted that the fire department was integrated, the trains were integrated. He saw a black policeman arrest a drunk and disorderly white man without incident, integrated theaters, drinking establishments, ice cream stands.
His article suggested that more progress had been made in certain parts of the South than in most towns in New England where there were hardly any African-Americans.
Of course, during those ten years, after the defeat of the Civil War, after the destruction of the economy in the South, political power in the South was anemic and weak. But, as they started to take back control of their states again, the racial class system was re-born and enforced by law. African-Americans were politically disenfranchised with a series of laws that curtailed their right to vote- literacy qualifications, property qualifications, and the poll tax (all ruled unconstitutional later on); special exemptions were made to protect white people’s ability to vote like the ‘grandfather clause’ (even if you couldn’t read and owned no property if your grandfather had been registered, you could be too.), the ‘good character’ clause (if you could find another white guy to testify that you were a good old boy, you could register even though you were illiterate).
By 1910, all southern states and Texas, Oklahoma had such restrictions that something like only 5% of blacks could vote, even though they were a majority of 26 parishes in Lousiana for example.
And it was during this period that we instituted strict segregation laws, primarily that African-Americans were only allowed to live in certain sections of town that you can still see today in Baltimore, in Atlanta, in Birmingham, in Jackson and throughout the south.
Steamboats, street cars, amusement parks, even prisons and hospitals were completely segregated.
The intention was clear enough. We wanted to create a perpetual servant class. Whites monopolized control of the legislature, the police force and the entire economic infrastructure from banking to farming to all small business.
Lawyers will recall that in the Plessy v. Ferguson case the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that ‘legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instinct.’ That was the predominant American attitude at the time. Thirty five years later, when the Nobel sociologist and economist Gunnar Myrdal did a study of the South, he concluded that the Jim Crow laws were actually creating and fostering racial prejudice. That was how other Europeans viewed us.
Fortunately, we recognized the contradiction at the heart of our country and we started to correct it in the Civil Rights movement. We realized that if the American Dream is not open to everyone, then it isn’t a real social virtue. We began dismantling segregation, first at the polls, then in education, jobs, the police force, more slowly in housing and other areas…
But the spiritual legacy that remains palpable after slavery and a century of Jim Crow discrimination is that sense of “fear” that still haunts the African-American psyche, says Ta-Nehesi Coates. It strikes me as very real, even if it is difficult to quantify or measure.
I can remember images of the overt fear from the Jim Crow era from my own childhood. I was eight years old when the Civil Rights bill was passed, so I have the memories of a child from the old South because my grandparents lived in Memphis. Maybe because I was just a child that expression of fear was palpable. Adults often acted back then like kids didn’t exist.
I remember the way the (all black) ambulance drivers and orderlies snapped to when my grandmother entered the room as the Director of the Hospital.
I remember my uncle, probably 25 at the time, only high school educated, foreman at the warehouse interacting with the dozens of black guys that worked for him. I remember the way that those exchanges could switch from easy joking to anxious and fearful deference just like that.
I remember sensing that in black guys as a kid. Probably because I was just an innocent kid, I was embarrassed by it. It took a long time to assume the dysfunctional attitudes of racial superiority (that permeated everything in the South then) and I was just too young before the whole era started to really shred. But I have a palpable memory of grown black men stammering with internalized inferiority, having to placate this imbalance of power.
Fear and anxiety permeated so much of that world. I can only imagine what it was like when they had to deal with the cops. The police force back then was not integrated in the least.
Thank God that era is over. But I can certainly understand how young black men, especially those that still live in the hood, have that same sense of psychic fear induced each and every time we have another over use of violent force. I can understand that collectively young black men are, so to speak, re-traumatized. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
We used violence and brutality to enforce slavery. That trauma was not healed, so it was transmuted to the next generation. Our country continued the trauma through Jim Crow laws, creating the slums, the under-education of four/five generations and the economic under-development of five/six generations.
We had some noble efforts to address some specific issues in the “War on Poverty” in the 60’s and opening education and employment opportunities through the 70’s and 80’s but we never directly addressed the specific injustice that was done to African-Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow. We simply lifted the overt restrictions against them.
What we have socially today are these remnants of fear that have not been healed, especially not in the hood where poverty and race still have crippling symptoms. As we have gotten further away from overt racism of our past, as our society has become more complex, it has gotten harder for us to craft legal solutions like Affirmative Action in a way that meaningful addresses the very real handicaps African-Americans have uniquely experienced as a people. At the same time, our world has become much more complex, so that we now live in a multi-cultural pluralistic world where literally we have people from all over the world
I taught on these subjects for 8 years and I know how complex the arguments actually are. We aren’t going to solve them this morning. But I come back to this at the beginning of Black History Month after a year of protests that have spontaneously developed across the country. We haven’t done enough to redress the wrongs that African-Americans have labored under and the way you know that, spiritually, morally is that sense of fear, that sense of anxiety and inferiority that black parents and children share.
And we know this. 1 John says, “There is no fear in love. For perfect love casts out fear.” We cannot legislate love. But we do know this, that every time a black child in our country thinks to themselves, “I am not as good as”, “I am not as loveable as” we have failed that child. What we are doing in our world is not good enough. Not yet.
We Christians follow a God who taught us “You are a child of God.” “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.” We know that love is the way and that driving back fear in the name of transcendent love is the real spiritual path towards redemption, towards healing salvation.
We know that toleration is not enough. We must move towards genuine acceptance, respect and love which develops the inner potential that we see in every child. Our perspective is a fuller transcendent view than legal justice because this is what we understand God’s will to be for all people.
We have to do better in police enforcement, in criminal justice reform, sure… More broadly, we have to drive back that fear and inferiority that children learn without ever being taught about it. We have to transcend that fear with love. And we will know we are making progress when that nagging sense of fear is largely a relic of the past. As a society, we still have a long way to go.
In the meantime, a word of thanks to our congregation for becoming a spiritual community that is more and more diverse. I have to tell you that I am grateful to be a pastor to such a group. I grew up in an extended family that was led by the tail lights of history, always looking back to our racist past with nostalgia.
When I grew up, I hoped to be part of a spiritual community that was guided by the headlights of the future and what we could become if we realized our potential through each other. We may not be changing the world, but we are healing people, one child at a time. I don’t take it for granted.
In 1955, when the bus boycotts started in Montgomery, Alabama Dr. King addressed the very first group of protestors for change. I couldn’t help but think how relevant his words are for us today. He said, “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people- a black people- who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility”. Amen.

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.