Scripture: GENESIS 18:1-15
On Friday, my wife Mary was out mulching our garden. As she was showing me what she had done, a local police officer rode by on his bike. He stopped for maybe five minutes, and we talked and laughed and shared stories. It was a highlight of the day, full of warmth and grace.
Danny Murphy is an African American minister in South Carolina. His is a different story. “[This was] my first encounter with white police officers. I was eight years old. I was playing in a vacant lot near my house with several of my friends on a Saturday afternoon. A patrol car pulled over to the curb. Two white police officers stepped out of the car and asked, ‘What are you all doing?’ I replied, ‘We’re playing.’ The officer stated, ‘Well, one of you [is] going to jail, today!’ Then the officer grabbed me by the arm, ushered me to the police car, opened the back door, and ordered me to get in the back seat.
“They got into the front seat of the patrol car and pulled off with me crying hysterically in the back seat over and over again, ‘Officers, I didn’t do anything! I don’t want to go to jail! Please take me home! I want my mama!’ The officers were laughing in the front seat. They drove me around for about five minutes and then dropped me off where they picked me up. They said, ‘If you tell anyone what happened today, we’ll come back and arrest you and take you to jail for real next time.’ All my friends had scattered. I stood there alone. While I was glad to be back in my neighborhood, I was traumatized by what happened to me that day. I walked home and never told anyone what those white police officers did to me. In fact, this is the first time I’m sharing this story” (email from Journal for Preachers, June 5, 2020).
We are, to say the least, in a raw time, a time that has demonstrated police brutality in a particularly vivid way. You can’t see the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd without seeing something terribly amiss in police responses to them, as well as to Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and too many others. As with so many issues, this is one that is colored in shades of gray. Many of us know marvelous police officers, to whom we would entrust our lives. And, at the same time, a good deal of brutish behavior by police officers has gone largely unchecked.
Of course, too, this is much bigger than just a problem with law enforcement. What we’ve witnessed of police brutality over the years is but the tip of a much larger iceberg—that we live in a society that makes such behavior possible and has, for too long, condoned it. We have, over the course of our nation’s history, far too often turned a blind eye to the racism that infects us at our core.
Another story: A younger friend of ours lives near Philadelphia. One day, he and a friend of his went to a Phillies baseball game. It turns out they had an extra ticket, so they sold it for $50 on the sidewalk before they entered the stadium. The ticket buyer gave them a $50 bill. After they had taken their seats, they went to get some food. When it came time to pay, they paid with the $50 bill they had just received. The cashier examined the bill and called the manager. It turns out the bill was counterfeit. So security was called, and when they arrived, they respectfully asked our friend what the guy looked like who had handed them the bill, and where the guy had been standing. Then stadium personnel said they’d pay for the food, and the two young men returned to their seats. If I asked you to guess the racial make-up of the two young men, you would almost certainly guess they were not black, and you’d be right. They’re both white. Had they been black, would they have been granted such a presumption of innocence and treated to a free meal? Perhaps, but not anywhere near as likely.
I suppose it would be pretty easy to make too much of this disparity, the disparity between my experience of talking amicably to a South Russell police officer and those two young men presumed to be innocent, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the African American minister Danny Murphy’s experience of being whisked away by police as an eight-year-old. It would be overly easy to conclude falsely that all white cops behave atrociously. And, in a similar vein, it would be totally inappropriate to imply that no black and brown people do things wrong. Such a conclusion would clearly be way off the mark.
What seems inescapable, though, is that racial disparities in this country are significant and insidious. Poverty among people of color is pervasive. Access to health care and education is far more restricted. Housing continues to be beset by segregated neighborhoods and red-lining. Job opportunities are far more limited. And treatment by law enforcement officials of people with darker skin is too often marked by suspicion and a presumption of guilt. This is not because of black inadequacy, we hasten to add. Black and brown people have no more character flaws than any of us. This unequal treatment is traceable almost entirely to one thing: white prejudice plus power—a racism that infects our entire system.
Our biblical story this morning from the book of Genesis may at first seem to have little to do with this whole matter. Abraham and Sarah have been promised by God that they will be the parents of a whole new nation, and they have gotten very old without this promise coming to fruition. So one day, three strangers arrive at their home. Without having any idea why these guests have come, or whether they’re friend or foe, Abraham runs—not walks, but runs—to get them water for their weary feet, and bread to tide them over. Then he rushes—not dawdles, but rushes—to Sarah to ask her to prepare some choice cakes. And then he runs—not walks, but runs—to ask their servant to prepare a calf for a special meal for their guests. And strikingly, all of this happens without Abraham and Sarah having the foggiest idea who these visitors are or what their motives might be or whether they are out for good or ill.
What a remarkable and vivid story of kindness and warmth and generosity. Abraham and Sarah are hospitality personified. They bend over backward to ease the lives of these strangers who are very much outside their normal social circle. They treat them like family, and rush to make them feel at home. There’s no question about who is at the center of Abraham and Sarah’s attention: it’s these visitors, these guests, these vulnerable pilgrims who are in need of some grace.
Startlingly, these guests also happen to be the presence of God. Sarah and Abraham don’t yet know it, but these guests are the embodiment of the Holy One. This is a repeated theme in scripture. In the book of Hebrews, for example, we’re reminded that, when we entertain strangers, we entertain angels unaware (13:2). In those we don’t know, in other words, in those outside our familiar circle of friends, and especially in those who have real need, the presence of God dwells.
What if we were to approach each other, and maybe especially, what if we who are white were to approach our black and brown siblings, as if they were manifestations of holiness toward whom we are to be hospitality embodied. What if we were to treat our black and brown siblings as grace personified.
“What about the rioting?” comes one objection. The answer undoubtedly is that we wouldn’t excuse rioting and destruction, but we would see that rioting, in Martin Luther King’s deft phrase, as “the language of the unheard.” We might well condemn the violence of that unrest, as King himself did. But we wouldn’t begin there. We would begin with the pain that lies underneath it. Think about your own family: if a relative of yours lashes out, or breaks something in anger, an appropriate reaction may well include a denunciation of the destruction. But our reaction is misguided and shortsighted and remarkably myopic about our own sin if we don’t also address the underlying pain. A spouse or child or parent who throws something in fury is broken inside. And while we all can agree that such destruction is out of line, if that’s all we see and talk about, then we’ve focused on symptoms and not causes. The real issue isn’t the damage done. It’s the pain that underlies the damage.
That’s something like where we are in racial matters. We can spend our energy denouncing rioting. Or we can address the real issues. Black and brown people have watched, in recent months, as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have had their lives stolen from them in brutal and completely unjustifiable ways. Sleeping in your bed or going for a run in your neighborhood or even passing a counterfeit $20 bill are not remotely close to being reasons to take another person’s life. So there is understandable agony and fury, what we might better term, not “rioting,” but “social unrest” or “upheaval.”
A profound call comes to us who are white. As have many of you, I have begun, in recent years, to come to terms with the privilege I have, privilege to which I am so often totally oblivious. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells this story: “In the spring of 2014 I found a small dog wandering around our urban neighborhood. Our streets were dotted with small brick houses and the nights were often punctuated with gunfire and drunken shouting. So when I coaxed the friendly Chihuahua into my arms and found he was tagged with an address just two blocks away, I decided to return the cute little thing to the owner. Given the high crime rate in our neighborhood, I didn’t know what kind of situation I’d find when knocking on the door. On the way I saw a policer cruiser parked on the street and thought I’d just ask the nice officer to keep an eye on me as I returned the dog. I did not know that they would roll up right in front of the house and stand by their police car. I also did not understand why, when a Black young woman answered the door, that she was not relieved and grateful that a nice white lady was returning her lost dog, as I had expected, but instead had a look of terror on her face when she saw a cop parked in front of her house.
“I had thought, ‘oh good! A police officer.’
“She had thought ‘oh [no]. A police officer.’”
And Bolz-Weber goes on to say, “what I did not understand was the way in which racist systems have harmed others while they have benefited me.” And she says, “as a white person I am significantly more likely to have parents and grandparents who owned their own homes—which means I am more likely to inherit money—which means I am more likely to own a home which means my children are more likely to inherit money. . ..
“This is white supremacy and I condemn it and yet the truth is that I have benefited from it every day of my life in ways that society tries to keep hidden from me so that I can keep believing that I deserve the life I have and so does everyone else—good or bad” (https://nadiabolzweber.substack.com/p/a-pastoral-letter).
Sarah and Abraham have been waiting decades to give birth to the child who will carry on their line. Finally, at the age of ninety, with menopause long past, Sarah is told she will bear a child. And she laughs. She laughs because she doubts. She doesn’t think it can possibly happen. And lo and behold, she has the child she was long past being able to bear.
This, too, is where we are. Four hundred years of slavery and discrimination on this continent may well make us think that nothing new is possible. And we would be wrong. When you who are white and I look around and see that we have untold advantages in the game of life, we are on the journey of new birth, on the pilgrimage toward righting wrongs, on the way toward recognizing injustice that simply has to stop if we are to be faithful children of the God who gave us life and breath. In no small measure because I’m white, I have excellent health care; I can easily get a loan; I can walk down the street without people crossing it to avoid me; I am never asked to speak for all the people of my race; the police are invariably nice to me; I am not assumed to be violent; I am never said to be a “credit to my race”; I can be sure that, if I need legal or medical help, my race will not make me suspect. To put it simply: I get to pretend in ignorance that we live in a society that is colorblind.
That is no small privilege. It gives me a huge leg up. And by God, I hope that recognizing that is part of a birthing that makes me more patient and understanding, that fills me with a justifiable and righteous anger, that engages me in the pursuit of justice. And when I recognize that privilege and join in the work of undoing its terrible talons and tentacles, then, with Sarah, we can all laugh, not in skepticism, but in that knowing way that sees the richness of the presence of God being born in the movement of history. And grace will take over. And justice will reign. And hope will transform us. And you know what? As that happens, God will laugh with us the laugh of joy and hope and love. And a new way of being will be born. Hallelujah! We shall overcome!