Tuesday, June 23, 2015

America's Original Sin

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
Sermon Preached at St. James Episcopal Church • San Francisco, CA
Sunday, June 21, 2015
Texts: Job 38:1-11 & Mark 4:35-41
The Rev. Ron Willis

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Satwant Singh Kaleka
Paramjit Kaur
Suveg Singh Khattra
Prakash Singh
Ranjit Singh
Sita Singh:
These congregants of a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, had gathered to prepare a free communal meal that would have been served in the Temple later that day, three years ago this August. All were slain by an American white supremacist in a terrorist attack.

William Lewis Corporon
Reat Griffin Underwood
Terry LaManno:
A neo-Nazi and former member of the KKK shot and killed these three last year simply because they were in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center of Kansas City and a nearby retirement center, Village Shalom. More violence is visited upon Jews and those associated with them than any other religious group in America.

Greg McKendry
Linda Kraeger:
They were shot and killed when a disgruntled man wielding a shotgun hit six other people attending a children’s performance of Annie at a Unitarian church in Knoxville 7 years ago. Their crime? The church supported liberals and gays.

Since 9/11 there has been a significant increase in property destruction, violence and death against those perceived to be Muslim, including many mosque burnings. According to the Washington Post, hate crimes against Muslims are still five times more common today than prior to 2011.

Carol Denise McNair
Addie Mae Collins
Carole Robertson
Cynthia Wesley:
These four young girls were murdered in a terrorist bombing 52 years ago when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Another 22 parishioners were wounded. The Klan’s aim was to terrorize the black community by striking at its very heart, the church that sustained them. By this point, the African American community had already endured another 21 bombings in Birmingham in just the eight years prior to this heinous act.

And today, half a century later, we grieve over another terrorist attack against parishioners in an iconic Black church in the South, a church that is no stranger to hateful and violent actions by white racists.

What part of the American character makes it possible for hate-filled violence to be so frequently perpetrated upon our fellow citizens? Although there are myriad contributing factors, I believe that the root can be summed up in a phrase that I have come across several times in the last few days:

“Racism is the original sin of the United States.”

Our Constitution says not a word about the entrenched institution of slavery, other than to declare that African descendants were but 3/5ths of a man. Our Declaration of Independence labels Native Americans, including my Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Cree ancestors, as savages, and our nation conducted generations of campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide against them. And women, over half of our population, were denied the right to vote for well over a century.

If we are honest, can we not say that America was founded upon a fundamentally sinful principle – that white males were destined by God to rule this land and to expand its bounds as far and wide as possible? Our national sense of purpose, exploiting to its zenith in the mid-19th century concept of Manifest Destiny, corrupted God’s economy, one based upon love, compassion, mercy, and obedience, and instead adopted a system based upon the privilege of the few (and the white) at the cost of the many. Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, all of the prophets, not to mention Jesus, provided millennia of witness that such a system, which ignored the plight of the oppressed, was inconsistent with God’s will.

As we know, the institution of slavery so grieved the souls of enough Americans that we fought our bloodiest war to abolish the laws of the land that allowed men to own other human beings. But in the aftermath of that devastating war, opportunities for healing and reconciliation were squandered. Competing interests kept the promises of Reconstruction from coming to fruition, ultimately leading to Jim Crow, “separate but equal,” laws across the entire former Confederacy. In the North and the West segregation may not have been written into law, but it became standard practice due to deed restrictions, financial discrimination and other blatantly racist policies.

At the end of the Civil War we had the opportunity to atone for our national sin of determining a person’s worth and inherent dignity based upon the color of their skin, but we were unable to rise to the occasion. Rather than attending to the wound in our national soul, we covered it in gauze and tape and assumed that it would heal. But in the absence of sometimes painful cleansing and treatment, covered wounds just fester and swell. So to, in the absence of sometimes-painful self-assessment and truth-bearing, it is absurd to assume that reconciliation will happen.

The first step in reconciliation is acknowledgement of one’s sin; the second is repentance. On a national level, we’ve never truly admitted how our racist roots fundamentally corrupted our national soul. Until we find a way to do that, each attempt at repentance will just be a ripping off of the bandage only to immediately cover the gaping wound once again lest we faint from the sight of the truth.

And it’s not just in violent acts like the massacre in Charleston that white privilege and the corrupt vanity of white supremacy break into our national life. While many hoped that the election of our first black President would move American into a “post-racial” era, just the opposite seems to have happened. No white president would have been subjected to the absurd claims made about President Obama, some of which persist to this day. Even before the ink had dried on the Supreme Court’s decision to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, Southern states were clambering to enact laws that disproportionately disenfranchise black voters.

Add to this the heartbreaking number of incidents of disproportionate use of force, at times with deadly consequences, by white police officers against black subjects, and we seem to be in the midst of a storm of racial violence. Like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel today, buffeted by the maelstrom, we cry out for Jesus’ protection and guidance.

But even as Jesus chided his disciples for their doubt, we need look no further than to the families of those murdered at Mother Emanuel to see faith in action. In the midst of their deep despair their deep trust and faith in Jesus is a profound witness to what it means to be Christian. Given the opportunity to rail against the one who ended the lives of those they loved, they chose instead to offer their forgiveness and to pray for his everlasting soul.

Like Job, our brothers and sisters in Charleston have been tested in their faith. Also like Job, they refuse to abandon their faith in their grief. They summoned the strength of their faith in Jesus to calm the storm of their despair by proclaiming the Gospel, the love of God, to their tormentor.

So what is our role in the light of this tragedy? How are we to address the festering wound of racism in our culture? How can we possibly make a difference against such an intransigent and deep-seated impediment to our national aspiration that all people are created equal?

Two heroes occupy my consciousness as icons for dealing with my own struggles. One, Desmond Tutu, is in my mind the greatest Anglican alive today. His remarkable work as the head of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission made enormous strides in bringing his country out of what many thought would be an impossible situation that would lead to decades of retribution and war. South Africa is far from being a contented democracy, and their issues are legion, but the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s work and the leadership of President Mandela brought peace where many expected violence. Unfortunately many, many generations have passed since the end of the Civil War, so that precise model does not apply here. But should we not, as a national church as well as the country as a whole be tapping into the mind of the brilliant and devoted saint while he is still with us?

 My other hero today is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the face and left for dead by the Pakistani Taliban for her advocacy of the right of girls to be educated. She happened to be John Stewart’s scheduled guest the evening after the Charleston terror attack. I don’t know how many of you caught Stewart’s comments about the murders, but it was an absolutely brilliant and brutally honest assessment of our national amnesia when it comes to seeing, much less dealing with, racism.

When asked by Stewart how one person can make a difference, she replied:

“Sometimes we wait for others, and think that a Martin Luther should raise among us, a Nelson Mandela should raise among us, and speak up for us, but we never realize that they are normal humans like us, and if we step forward, we can also bring change just like them.”

We are blessed to also have several resources that mean that we don’t have to feel like we must act alone. Our rector, Father John, has participated in reconciliation work in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown, as well as other activities locally and beyond. He’s a terrific resource right here at St. James.  Our diocese, and our national church, both have racial reconciliation ministries that can benefit from our participation. And interfaith reconciliation committees and ministries serve at the local, regional, state and national levels. We just need to raise our hand and say, “Here I am.”

I close with a prayer offered by our Presiding Bishop:

“For Clementa C. Pinckney,
For Tywanza Sanders
For Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,
For Cynthia Hurd,
For Ethel Lance,
For Susie Jackson,
For Depayne Middleton,
For Daniel Simmons Sr, and
For Myra Thompson;

Gracious and loving God,

May we recognize that you bind us together in common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice, truth, and healing to confront the evils of hate, racism, and violence that pervade the United States and the world.

Hold us as we remember lives of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and grandchildren of those who were killed.  Comfort those whose hearts and souls are broken.

We ask this at time when the people and community of Charleston and North Charleston are also grappling with the meaning of the police involved shooting death of Walter Scott.   We look to you while communities across the United States groan over the loss of too many people to gun violence.  You remind us of the dignity and humanity of all human beings.

Grant, O God that the hearts of those who remain may be moved through your life-giving Spirit to remove the barriers that divide us so that hatreds may cease, and divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.”  Amen 

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