Scripture: MATTHEW 20:1-16
RACIAL JUSTICE SUNDAY
Hello. My name is Hamilton, and I’m a recovering racist. I wish it weren’t so, the racism part, but it is. I’m not the slightest bit proud of that fact. It’s not something I’m aiming to do. It’s just that I’m part of a culture that has made it possible for me to have a place and a privilege that so many of my Black and Brown sisters and brothers don’t have. And I’m way too often oblivious to that truth. I’m a racist. My sense is it’s unavoidable. And, at the same time, I hope to God I’m seeing and learning and recovering.
When I was growing up in the small city of Bangor, Maine, I would never have said I was racist. Then, as I believe now, Maine was the whitest state in the country. I grew up almost entirely among white people. The only black family I knew had two boys in it, both of whom were standout athletes. One went on to captain his college football team at the University of Massachusetts, the other starred on his team at Boston College. I would have said then that this was a family of grace and warmth. And I would have said then that I simply didn’t see race.
But that wasn’t really true, I can see now as I look back. Yes, I held them in high esteem. Yes, I was wowed by their athletic exploits. But my sense is I always looked at them as different. With distance, I can see that I objectified them, that I didn’t entirely see them as “one of us.” Though I wish it weren’t so, I may even have had what I can see in hindsight to be the now-appalling thought that they were “a credit to their race.” I wince with the memory of that.
And I certainly didn’t see the myriad societal forces that kept people of color confined to boxes of white people’s making. I didn’t see my unconscious biases, the biases that led me to adore Mickey Mantle more than Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, or John Havlicek and Larry Bird more than Bill Russell or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. And I was light years from seeing the economic disparities and redlining and hiring practices that served to restrict and constrain the freedom and possibilities of people of color. Though the phrase was undoubtedly true of me, I was then totally unaware of it: I was born on third base and almost certainly thought I had hit a triple. In my own eyes, I’m sure I thought that everything I had had come to me by own efforts and abilities.
I would likely have thought, as well, that racism was less insidious than it was and that the power to break its surly bonds lay, not with the culture and with us who are white, but with individual Black people. I’m sure I absorbed the culture’s perspective: if only “they” tried harder; if only “they” did what was necessary to succeed. How deeply wrong the culture and I were.
The scholar Marilyn Frye “uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the interlocking forces of oppression [for Black people]. If you stand close to a birdcage and press your face against the wires, your perception of the bars will disappear and you will have an almost unobstructed view of the bird. If you turn your head to examine one wire of the cage closely, you will not be able to see the other wires. If your understanding of the cage is based on this myopic view, you may not understand why the bird doesn’t just go around the single wire and fly away. You might even assume that the bird liked or chose its place in the cage.
“But if you stepped back and took a wider view, you would begin to see that the wires come together in an interlocking pattern—a pattern that works to hold the bird firmly in place. It now becomes clear that a network of systematically related barriers surrounds the bird. Taken individually, none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because they interlock with each other, they thoroughly restrict the bird. While some birds may escape from the cage, most will not. And certainly those that do escape will have to navigate many barriers that birds outside the cage do not.
“The birdcage metaphor helps us understand why racism can be so hard to see and recognize: we have a limited view” (quoted in Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 23). We white people don’t see all the varying forces that interlock and limit the options and possibilities for people of color. We tend to assume we’ve all begun the race at the same starting line. On the contrary, we have begun the race at different points, and we whites, starting at a point further along the course, benefit from advantages that people of color don’t share. Housing, loans, club membership, employment advantage, schooling: on so many fronts, we whites receive benefits of which we may be only dimly aware, if at all.
In her stimulating book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo reminds us white people of something I have found strikingly helpful. This racism that infects us all is not, she says, so much an individual moral failure as it is an enormous cultural failing. As have many of us, I have so often thought that if someone labeled something I did or said as racist, then I was an abject moral failure, that I was somehow evil. So, perhaps like many of you, I have been defensive about being labeled racist. What DiAngelo has helped me see is that I am inevitably going to say and do racist things simply because that’s the water in which I swim. That’s not at all an excuse to keep saying or doing those things. It’s only to say that, when I say or do them, I have been shaped to do so by this culture’s distorted lenses. And perhaps, when such behavior of mine is pointed out, I can get to the point of saying, non-defensively, “Ah, there it is again.”
A parallel may help. Not long ago, someone told me about some surgery they were anticipating, and mentioned how grateful they were for their particular surgeon. I then asked “his” name. Now I know as well as anyone that not all surgeons are male, and yet I still made that assumption. It turns out the surgeon was a woman, and I was reminded yet again that I have been shaped by a world in which mostly men were able to become surgeons. Rather than get all defensive about my lapse, though, this was an opportunity for me to be reminded of the sexism with which we are all infected (a sexism, it should be pointed out, that the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg made it a point, on a legal front, to excise and erase).
The same is true with racism. If I say or do something that reflects racial stereotypes and dismissal, then rather than beat myself up over my moral failure, my work is to notice, to confess, and to be much more aware the next time. Rather than wallow in guilt, maybe we can just say, “Ah, there’s one more example.” Paradoxically, the less defensive I am about what is so often my unconscious racism, the more willing I am to be able to face it and to move past it.
One of the things we’ve all become so much more aware of in recent years and especially in the last few months is the struggle so many Black people have with regard to law enforcement. I mentioned a few weeks ago that my wife Mary has a Black clergy colleague who, every morning when he leaves home, wonders whether he will return that evening.
And he, of course, is far from being alone. Many of us have come, in the last few years, to know friends at Mt. Zion United Church of Christ in University Circle and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Paul H. Sadler. Not long ago, Paul was interviewed for a podcast, and he recounted for the audience some of his experiences when he was growing up. As a child and as a teenager, he says, “[I was] brutalized by the police. I can’t tell you how many times I was thrown against a wall, had a night stick jammed into my back, how many times the police went through my pockets on the streets, just because I was standing on the corner hanging out with my friends, all of them good kids. [None of my friends] ever got in trouble. Not one of the kids I grew up with ever went to jail. So I’m not talking about people who were a threat to the community or a threat to the society. I’m talking about productive citizens. All our parents went to work every day and they were trying to raise us right. But we still experienced the brunt of police brutality.
“Here’s the reality: racism and injustice in America is alive and well. It didn’t just pop up in the senseless and brutal murder of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. It didn’t just pop up. It’s been there always. It’s been a part of the fabric of this country for four hundred years, as long as we’ve been here. We came here by way of brutality. We came here by way of violence.”
Paul goes on to say, “I was pastoring the most prominent church in New Orleans. And I was driving home from dropping off my babysitter. And the police pulled me over, pulled me out of my car, made me put my hands on the trunk, went through my pockets, threw everything I had on the back of the trunk.” It was, he says, a painful, “debasing” experience. And he says, “That happened to me in three cities I lived in. It’s a daily reality with which we all live.”
We all know that’s not the way all police officers are, of course. We all know officers who are sources of light in their communities. But Paul Sadler’s experiences are far too common for us to blithely dismiss them as rare exceptions. And when I hear Paul say these things, I think: That’s not remotely like the experience I’ve had living in Boston or New Haven or Providence. Living in Bangor or East Montpelier or Williamstown or here in Chagrin Falls, I have never had an experience that is even remotely in that universe. My experience is light years from the experience of even what we so inappropriately call “good” Black families. And if I don’t take that in, I am ignorantly failing to acknowledge that I have the sort of privilege that so much of the world has been denied.
So when Jesus tells a story about workers in a vineyard who are paid the same whether they work a mere hour at the end of the day or they have toiled through the heat of the entire day, there are resonances with this bedeviling issue with which we wrestle. Jesus’ story, of course, is, on its surface, a ridiculous story. Any kindergartner would know it reeked of unfairness. Try that just once, as an employer—paying everybody the same, no matter how much or how little they work—and you will never again get people who are willing to work an entire day. They’ll just show up at the end of the day and take what will seem like extremely generous pay.
This story, though, isn’t an economics lecture. It’s not a lesson about motivating workers. It’s an evocative picture of the way God is with all of us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve earned or not earned, the story conveys. What matters is only that God showers unearned grace on all of us, and that we all deserve it equally. The ones who worked all day grumble because they want to have more grace than the ones who showed up at the end of the day. Jesus, though, wants the ones who worked all day to know that everyone everywhere is equally deserving of God’s grace and favor.
And so it is with us. We, too, are not immune from wanting more grace than others. We want to think we have worked hard for a long day, and that we deserve a certain reward for our diligence and commitment. We have started our own business or sacrificed a great deal for success, and we want our bonus. And what Jesus seems to say is: others, too, deserve that same grace and favor. No matter how persistent and able and dedicated you and I have been to our work or our family or our church or our community, others are equally deserving of God’s love and care, and of our love and care. That is what is bottom-line in God’s world.
As white people, if we fail to take in the extraordinary benefits we have received simply because of our race, we have neglected a crucial dimension of our place in the world. If you and I insistently turn a blind eye to the enormous privilege we have received, and to which so many others are not privy, then we are failing to embody the grace of God that is intended to shower all of us with blessings too numerous to count.
There is something presumptuous and ultimately inadequate about seeking to preach on “racial justice,” as though we can cover the entire subject in one go. We can’t. What we can do is remind ourselves of the remarkable advantages that have come to us. We can vow to be ever more aware of those benefits. We can promise to listen to the experiences of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. We can offer to God and to those we’ve hurt our genuine confession. And we can commit ourselves to doing our part in reversing the racism that is endemic in this beloved and flawed country of ours.
What’s crucial, says DiAngelo, is our openness “to talk about [our racism, and our willingness] to repair [it]” (p. 146). And as she says at the end of her book, “It is a messy, lifelong process, but one that is necessary to align my professed values with my real actions. It is also deeply compelling and transformative” (p. 154). Grace has bathed us. May it and we shower our Black sisters and brothers, as well, with boundless blessing.