“Matthew 25: Dismantling Structural Racism: Part One”
Isaiah 65:17-20, Galatians 1:6-9
Racism? Who is responsible?
Crystal Fleming, in her book How not to be Stupid about Race proposes this question: “How could the same country that twice voted for an Ivy League-educated black president end up electing an overt racist who can barely put together two coherent sentences? Americans are largely stupid about race and its impact on society”.
Through words, hate, actions, and labels we have created a society of racialized ingroups and outgroups. Some have said that these divisions have gotten worse over the last four years. I disagree. Some have suggested that Trump is to blame for all the racial unrest we see today. I disagree with that too. Donald Trump isn’t to blame, we are. Trump simply tapped into what was already there and made it more visible and accepted. Racial tension is not worse than it ever has been before—racial injustice has been a part of our system ever since we were founded as a nation. The fact that we had an African American president for 8 years is not proof that we are a post-racial society—just look at the lack of racial progress and the increased economic inequity that occurred under Obama’s presidency. Obama is not to blame for inaction. We are.
Racism is deeply embedded into the life and history of the U.S. We have created a society where “hate” is a core value. And our system and structures that we know so well, including the church, promote this hate. We see this value of hate in:
- Housing discrimination that limits where people of color can live and steers them to rental markets rather than home ownership.
- Laws and policies that deny people of color access to quality education, employment and adequate health care.
- Food apartheid — areas deliberately devoid of quality, affordable fresh food.
- Mass incarceration and criminal justice systems that disproportionately target people of color with lengthier sentences, “stop-and-frisk” laws, the over-policing of communities of color, the school-to-prison pipeline, etc.
- Environmental racism — the dumping of hazardous waste, inadequate infrastructure, and lack of access to clean water that results in a range of serious health problems in communities of color.
- Our current pandemic where people of color are 4x more likely to die from COVID-19.
I have come to believe that the work of dismantling racism is the central work of God’s people. We must confront racism because racism perverts the gospel.
Let me explain. Back in Seminary, as a result of taking a year of Greek and an exegetical course in Galatians, I could translate the entire book of Galatians. I learned a lot about this particular letter of Paul. There is no beating around the bush here. Paul gets right to his point in this letter because of what is at stake to the gospel. Let me read it again here: Galatians 1:6-9—Paul says:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”
Ouch! Accursed! What does that even mean “let that one be accursed”? Who talks like that? Our tanslations today like to clean Paul up a bit. But the more accurate translation of that last verse is, “let that one be damned to hell!” How would you like to get a letter that starts with such strong warnings and then says “you are all damned to hell if you continue to pervert the Gospel!”
So, what exactly are the Galatians doing that is perverting the gospel? Simply, they want to be circumcised. That’s it. The Gentile Christian wanted to be just like the Jewish Christian. The “circumcision faction” believed in the ideology that to be a true child of God one had to become a Jew. In this debate of being a “true child of God”, we are not just talking about religious membership but a social membership. In those days ecclesial reality was social reality, spiritual reality was political reality. To say to one person, you are “God’s people” and to another, you are “not God’s people,” was to say that one was accepted in the society, and the other was rejected, one was valued, the other was worthless. Are you a Jew or are you Greek? Are you valuable or are you worthless?
Perversions of the Gospel
The early church struggled with the same divisive issues that we do today—the same issues that pervert the Gospel we hold dear. Today, in America, white supremacy has become more visible as an ideology but let’s be clear—it has always been a part of our story. Daniel Black who was being groomed by David Duke to be the next Klan Grand Wizard, but had a true conversion, says:
“The reason white supremacy is attractive to most Americans is because it is our American history. The constitution says that only the “white man” can vote. It was embedded in our policies, is embedded in our policies, and it is our consciousness. It is the demonic power and principality that usurps Christ’s supremacy in America.
And Paul says, “that is a perversion of the Gospel”. The good news is that there is a growing awareness among Presbyterians that racism is a crisis and must be addressed now!
Let me give you one example of how insidious and how early the mindset of racism can be found. Some of you may remember the doll experiment that was first conducted in the 1940’s. Three-year-old children were shown a white doll and a black doll and asked which one is pretty and good, and which one was ugly and bad. Every kid said the white doll was good and the black doll was bad. What does this do to the white person? Even black kids said black dolls are bad, and as they said that, you can see tragic sadness setting in their eyes as they partially realize what they were saying. And what does this do to a black person? —The Mindset of Three-Year-Olds! This study has been replicated hundreds of times over the years with very similar results.
Dismantling white supremacy and structural racism shouldn’t make you defensive as a white person. It is about your liberation to the gospel of Christ too! It is about our freedom. Let me say that again: Dismantling racism is about FREEDOM! James Baldwin writes this in his essay in New Yorker titled, A Region in My Mind, where he shares his coming of age, specifically as a black person in a white world:
“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
James Baldwin wrote this as one no longer in the Church and one who knows the complexity of the race issue, and yet says that the fundamental problem is the inability to love. The Christian church needs to rediscover the gospel of God’s love—love meant for everyone not just a select few. We need to ground our being on who we are to God and not on whiteness.
As we seek to speak the truth of our history of racism as Presbyterians, at Southminster, and in the United States, as we seek to find ways to become a Matthew 25 church and usher in a New Heaven and New Earth—we must address racism within the system and within ourselves. It is important for those of us with privilege to take risks, to make ourselves uncomfortable—to take a stand—and as Barack Obama has said, “we need to vote with our actions and our voices”.
And for us as progressive Christians at Southminster, if we are to reclaim the power of the gospel of love to change the world, we must reform our church from being a religious arm of white supremacy. Yes, even our church has been co-opted into the value of hate and otherness by the dominant culture around us, especially in ways that we are not aware of. We need to commit to the hard work of expanding our awareness.
Let’s not allow ourselves to be co-opted anymore Let’s not continue to pervert the gospel as the Galatians did. But as the Apostle Paul declares later in Galatians, let us remember: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.