The Third Thursday in Lent, year C
March 3, 2016
Lesson: Luke 11:14–23
What I want to present today is not a thesis about the causes and effects of racism, or a step-by-step guide for making our churches more welcoming to people of color, or even a call to action. Instead, what I have to offer are simple field notes, so to speak, of my own experience as a White Christian encountering the pain of exile, but also the power of the Resurrected Christ, in the work of dismantling racism. I will call these field notes “dispatches from the desert.”
Dispatch 1: The Moment I Realized I was in the Desert
Before we can begin to heal, we must admit that we are wounded. Before we can find our way home, we must realize that we are in exile. As a white person, it took me a long time to realize, and I am still coming to see, all of the ways that racism has harmed me. Of course, the overwhelming pain and burden of racism falls on people of color, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But what I have come to understand is that the illusion of superiority that racism endows on those of us who are white is not only toxic, but hurls us into a state of exile that separates us from others, and from God.
Someone whose life and work and faith has been essential to me as I’ve grappled with racism is a woman named Anne Braden. Maybe some of you are familiar with her story. Anne was born in 1924 to an elite white Southern family, and grew up in the rigidly segregated town of Anniston, Alabama. A longtime member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky, Anne devoted her life to ending racism, and she did so by taking risks. She is best known for a single act: in 1954 Anne and her husband Carl helped a Black family, the Wades, buy a small house in an all-white neighborhood of Louisville. Within days, wooden crosses were burned in the house’s front yard, bricks were catapulted through the windows, and eventually the house was altogether blown up by dynamite. The Wades were not home when the explosion occurred, but a later investigation showed that the dynamite had gone off in the bedroom of their three-year-old daughter.
Following these events, the Bradens were threatened by their white neighbors, put on trial by the State of Kentucky for sedition, accused of being race traitors and Communists, blacklisted for jobs and betrayed by many of their white friends and family members.
But long before Anne took this risk, something fundamental had to shift in her perspective. She describes a moment in her childhood – what I will call the moment she realized she was in the desert, and it’s a moment that I think set the tone for the rest of her life. Anne’s family had a Black housekeeper who would often bring her daughter with her when she came to clean the house. This girl got all of Anne’s hand-me-down clothes, but as Anne recalls in an interview, the girl was bigger and taller than she was, and the clothes never quite fit. What she later said was that something would happen to her when she looked at this little girl. “I knew something was wrong,” she said, “and I [became] convinced that what was wrong was the [entire] reality of our lives.”
I want to pay attention to that moment in Anne’s experience when she said that something would happen to her when she looked at this little girl, wearing her ill-fitting and worn out hand-me-downs, and in part because this has been my experience, too. That unease, that feeling of being completely dislocated in your own home, that sense that reality as you know it has been built on a distortion…that, I think, is exile.
The distortion of reality that allows us white people to believe (even subconsciously) that we are inherently superior to people of color is damaging to us in that it cuts us off from relationships, prevents us from being vulnerable with ourselves and others, and damages our ability to think boldly and imaginatively about what our society might look like if we were not given priority over others. Braden likens this process to developing a photograph in a darkroom; over time, the image becomes more clear, but in truth, just like the image in a photograph these injustices, these distortions, have been there all along. For me, the more I learn and listen to the voices and histories of people of color, the more my world is turned inside out as I see with greater clarity how my own view of myself and the world has been shaped by racist ideologies, and how those ideologies have left me parched and isolated.
As Anne Braden wrote, “I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in.”
Before we can come home, we must realize that we are in exile. Before we can address the racism that we all agree exists, we have to believe that there’s something at stake for white people; that when people of color get free, a part of me, a part of you, gets free, too.
Dispatch 2: Casting out Demons and Cooperating with the Devil
As we follow Jesus toward the Cross in Lent, we find ourselves in dry deserts and other landscapes of isolation. We come face to face with the devil, we encounter doubt and temptation and divisiveness. Today I chose to preach on the text assigned by the lectionary for today, the third Thursday in Lent; perhaps lesser known, but Lenten, indeed.
The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus is casting out demons, making a person who was mute speak. People in the crowd accuse him of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, but Jesus reiterates that it is God’s work he has been sent to do. “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house.” Jesus says. He goes on: “if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?”
A simple interpretation would be to say that racism is a demon that must be cast out of our hearts and of our world. And to the extent that we understand sin as our propensity as humans to deny the humanity of others, and to deny our own humanity in turn, I think this interpretation holds up. When our lives are at odds with God’s desire for us to be reconciled to one another, they become deserts. The passage also invites us to think about how we cooperate with evil; by what we have done, or by what we have left undone; by complicity, complacency or collusion. Without our consent, how could the evil of racism thrive, we might ask? Are we here to scatter, or are we here to gather?
Jesus says that he casts out demons by the finger of God. As I think again about my motivations for getting involved in the movement to end racism, I have come to see that doing so through politics or scholarship or activism alone still leaves my soul parched. If I get involved from a place of guilt or shame, I reinforce my own isolation. If I get involved because I want to be good, or because I think I know the answers, I fail to perceive how the Spirit might be doing surprising or unexpected things around me and within me, and I also fail to bring my whole self, isolated and parched as I am, to the work.
I want to turn again to Anne Braden. I mentioned earlier that she was a devout Episcopalian, and I did so less because I want to claim her as one of us, although I am glad count her as one of the saints of the church, and instead because I think her life modeled a theology that might give us something to ponder in the desert we find ourselves in.
She writes, “Human beings have always been able to envision something better. I don’t know where they get it but that’s what makes human beings divine I think. All through history there’ve been people who’ve envisioned something better in the most dire situations, and that’s what you want to be a part of. You won’t see the fruits of it but that that’s what you want to be a part of.”
That’s what makes humans divine, she says. The ability to envision something better. You won’t see the fruits of it, but that’s what you want to be a part of. I think that is what it looks like to cast out demons by God’s finger. In a political season when the phrase “make America great again” is appealing to the fears of white Americans who can’t bear to see their superior station in life jeopardized, who wish to uphold the world as it has been and as it is, Anne Braden’s faithful witness to the Gospel, her risk-taking and her refusal to cooperate, remind us of the beauty of the world that could be if we imagine together with God.
Dispatch 3: Finding Our Way Back Home
We like to think of ourselves as Easter people living in a Lenten world. But we also understand that we cannot know Resurrection without traveling through the pain and brokenness and despair of Good Friday. In the same way, as much as we wish we could skip right to a happy and harmonious day when racism no longer brutalizes bodies and disrupts the lives of people of color, white people, myself included, are called to grapple with the brokenness of our history, and the racist ideologies (however subconscious) that force us into exile. And as a Church, if our desire is to embrace diversity, and for our doors to be opened ever wider, but we do nothing to grapple with the ways that racism shapes our history and impacts our communities, we will only wind up replicating harm. Instead, I think, we can anchor ourselves in our faith as we commit to participating in the work of dismantling racism.
Jesus’ journey toward the Cross during these forty days is not a linear path. We don’t follow Christ with the expectation that one day we’ll have this whole Resurrection thing figured out, that we’ll be able to check off a box that says “good Christian” and put our faith up on a shelf to admire from afar for the rest of our days. We follow Christ because Christ represents possibility.
Likewise, our desires to end racism can’t be about learning how to be “good allies” and then feeling as though we’ve arrived and can rest. Anne Braden reminds us, we might not even see the fruits of our labor. But if we root ourselves in the mystery of our faith, and if we acknowledge that part of what makes us divine is our capacity to imagine a world that has never been, and if – with God’s help – we take risks to make that world a reality, I believe we will find our way home.