“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Amen.
The Catechism teaches us that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” St. Paul describes it as the ministry of reconciliation, which Jesus has given to us to continue in his name. St. Paul eloquently describes his own willingness to go to any lengths to remove the obstacles that get in the way of overcoming our cruel divisions. Both Jesus and Paul endured dishonor, rejection, and death because of their steadfast commitment to the ministry of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is the central concern of Paul’s ministry, never more evident than in his letters to the churches in Corinth. The churches there were riven by divisions among competing leaders, rival political and ideological factions, and between rich and poor (sound familiar?). Hanging over it all was the racial and cultural divide between Jews and Gentiles, which Paul worked so tirelessly to bridge in Christ.
This is our mission: claiming and sharing the power of God’s love so that the human race can become the human family. But there are many obstacles to this work. So, each year, the Church sets aside this season of Lent as a time to identify and let go of the obstacles that get in the way of our being reconciled with God and one another.
This is serious business. We aren’t playing around here. It is too easy to treat our Lenten observance as a superficial ritual, just going through the motions, never touching on the things that really matter. We need to pay attention to the prophet Isaiah’s warning, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble yourselves but you do not notice?” Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate or even social media. It is about waking up, paying attention, and responding to the reality of a suffering world. Otherwise, we become like the religious hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes; who love to look good, but are unwilling to do the deeper work of vulnerability with God and self-examination.
This year, I invite us to view our Lenten observance as an opportunity to confront a serious obstacle to reconciliation: the reality of racism. Instead of giving up See’s Candy or Facebook, what would it look like to give up racism? Not just for Lent, but forever, to become truly antiracist? How might we address this most pressing need for reconciliation in our country?
I want to offer some reflections along these lines; a personal confession speaking as a recovering racist, beginning with a couple of caveats. First, I’m going to be speaking as a white person to other white people. White folks are responsible for doing our own antiracist work. People of color are welcome to listen in, but racism isn’t primarily about you even though it primarily affects you. Second, for simplicity’s’ sake, I’m going to speak about racism primarily as the expression of white supremacy over African-Americans, even though I recognize that other people of color experience similar, yet different, expressions of racism.
In offering a personal confession as a recovering racist, I do not mean confession as an admission of guilt. That goes without saying, but antiracism work for white people is not about groveling in guilt. I mean a confession in the sense of a confession of faith, a witness to the truth. In my experience, people of color are not interested in my feeling guilty. How I feel about racism is beside the point. They are interested in my acknowledging the truth of racism, and working to dismantle it.
Now, I know it is hard to talk about racism. The first reaction of many white people when the topic comes up is defensiveness. “I am not racist. I don’t hate black people.” We are uncomfortable being made to think about it. Looking back on my own life, I realize now that the first sign of racism was that I didn’t have to think about it. I took it for granted that I was the norm, and lived in a rigidly segregated world in which I didn’t have to think about racism, its effects, or what black folk’s lives were like. My racism was invisible to me, because black lives were peripheral to my experience. And that made it all the easier to believe the lies I was told about African-Americans, and I was served up every stereotype white culture has created.
So, white friends, we’ve got to let go of our “not racist” defensiveness. If you were born and raised in the U.S.A, you drank in racism with your mother’s milk. It is simply an unexamined foundation of our history and culture. We don’t see it because it is so ubiquitous. As historian Ibram Kendi points out, "There is no such thing as a ‘not-racist’ policy, idea or person. Just an old-fashioned racist in a newfound denial. All policies, ideas and people are either being racist or antiracist. Racist policies yield racial inequity; antiracist policies yield racial equity. Racist ideas suggest racial hierarchy, antiracist ideas suggest racial equality. A racist is supporting racist policy or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is supporting antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea. A racist or antiracist is not who we are, but what we are doing in the moment."
Any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way is racist. Social structures, policies, or practices resulting in racial inequities are racist, regardless of their intent. For example, since African-Americans account for 5% of the population of San Francisco, yet more than 50% of the inmates in the county jail are African-American, we have a racist criminal justice system in San Francisco. It is a result of policies that promote and protect over-policing of communities of color, prosecutorial discretion that favors white people, and judicial sentencing that punishes black people more severely. To believe otherwise, is to believe that African-Americans as a group are more prone to criminality. And that is a racist idea.
While racism certainly can result in hatred of people of color, it is not rooted in hatred. It is rooted in discriminatory policies that benefit some white people at the expense of pretty much everybody else. And white folks at the top of the pyramid are adept at stoking racial hatred to mystify the political and economic roots of racial and class inequities and keep people divided.
This can be difficult to grasp because it is the reverse of what we have been taught. We think that ignorance and hatred gives rise to racist ideas that lead to racial discrimination. But as Ibram Kendi has brilliantly argued in his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the historical record reveals just the opposite: racial discrimination gives rise to racist ideas to justify the discrimination, which promotes ignorance and hatred.
Being “not racist” isn’t good enough. “Not hating” black people is the tip of the iceberg. St. Paul, endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” for the sake of reconciliation. What would it cost white folks to get serious about antiracism work? I do know that in San Francisco, the cost of our inaction is, on average, about ten years of life for African-Americans. If my getting to live ten years longer doesn’t constitute white privilege, I don’t know what does.
Reconciliation requires two things: repentance and forgiveness. Repentance means acknowledging the harm done to others, and being willing to make amends for the harm, to set things right. When it comes to racial reconciliation, our work as white people isn’t really that complicated: acknowledge the harm done to African-Americans and make amends, including reparations for past harms and enacting policies that promote and protect equity and equality today.
For African-Americans, reconciliation requires forgiveness. Forgiveness beings with recognizing the reality of the harm done to them. One of the reasons we find talking about racism to uncomfortable, is because the harm done was and is so horrific. If it makes us uncomfortable as white people, please try to imagine how painful it is for our black sisters and brothers. For them, this painful acknowledgement is the necessary precondition for healing, so that eventually they are no longer defined by the harm done to them. Forgiveness is freedom.
Reconciliation is possible only when both repentance and forgiveness are present. It is possible. But white people cannot set the timetable for black people’s healing. Black people don’t need to just “get over it.” They don’t need us to help, fix, or control them. Our job is to acknowledge the harm and make amends. We must be willing to see, to notice the reality of oppression, before we can become repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.
The spiritual benefits of antiracism work for white people are tremendous. Self-centered delusion will give way to genuine self-knowledge. Ignorance and willful blindness will be illuminated by awareness, a capacity to be present to reality in all its pain and promise. Cruel indifference and fearful avoidance will be swallowed up by compassion, as we become allies in the work of antiracism; co-conspirators in the subversive ministry of reconciliation which Jesus has given to us.
How do we begin? “By purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and in dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.” We can begin, this Lent, by claiming antiracism work as essential to the Church’s mission of reconciliation, and by engaging in conversation with each other about the obstacles that get in our way. It begins, like all spiritual work with vulnerability and humility. We will create the path by walking it together, one imperfect step after the other.
In the name of God, the one, holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
 II Corinthians 5:20b.
 An Outline of the Faith, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855.
 II Corinthians 5:18.
 Isaiah 58:3.
 Matthew 6:1-6.
 Ibram X. Kendi, “This is what an antiracist America would look like. How do we get there?” The Guardian, December 6, 2018.
 Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016), pp. 8-11.
 II Corinthians 6:4-5.
 II Corinthians 6:6-8a.