Feb 13, 2019
|Photo by Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States |
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
It wasn’t until high school that I started to see what was in front of me from the beginning of my school years. Mr. Vasellas, our high school AP US history teacher, began to openly talk about issues of race, particular our small town of Red Lion, PA. He was driving with one of his colleagues from York College. She was an African American professor there. As they drove through Red Lion, she locked the doors and rolled up her window. He asked us why she would do that. We couldn’t understand it. Sure, we do that driving through inner city York - that’s a “dangerous place”, but little ol’ Red Lion? Why? Then he proceeded to tell us about the dark history of the KKK and its place in Red Lion. We were shocked. In all of our years in Red Lion, we had never heard the stories or seen the relatively recent pictures. We assumed that, because we were in the North, any of that kind of stuff would have been well in the past. Then, he continued, “by the way, that KKK is still active here. The grand dragon lives down the street. And their meeting place is just two blocks from here.” Just two blocks from my high school. I had no idea. As far as I’m aware, that’s still true. Just this past summer, there were KKK recruitment flyers left all over York County, including in little ol’ Red Lion.
It’s easy to say - “well, that’s the KKK, they’re the extreme.” Not long after this, I was in my church. The church that I had grown up in - where I came to find not only my faith, but my call. I had been part of a partnership with a diocese in Tanzania, and as part of that, I used to spend time with the Tanzanian students at Gettysburg Seminary. And we’d bring them to church. I overheard, one day, “Why do the Witts keep bringing those n-words to church?” These were my friends. I was crushed to hear them being spoken of in that way.
Then, it’s easy to say, they’re stuck in their ways. That’s just how they were raised. But them, for this reflection, I had initially intended to read a reflection by an African american theologian to amplify their own voices. I didn’t have a particular reading in mind, so I scoured my bookshelves. In all of the books I own (well over 200), I have less than ten written by a person of color. That realization horrified me and pointed to how racism has creeped into my life. I have already come to see my own racism in a number of ways - how, while riding the CTA in Chicago, I felt less comfortable being alone in a train car with a man of color than with a white man (though statistics tell me that I’m far more likely to be harmed by the latter). We have to see our racism to work to challenge it, to grow, and to work to change our world.
Yet looking at my bookshelf, I’m reminded yet again that I still struggle with the racism that I have learned - by watching TV and movies, and from being in a society that is still steeped in racist attitudes. It reminds me that, even in academia, the ones already with power too often get to tell the story, to get their voices heard, and to have their work recognized. It reminds me that I too have privileged some voices over others. Racism isn’t just found in the obvious words and actions grounded in hatred, but racism has affected our society in more subtle ways - ways that reflect the systemic nature of racism - in where we put interstates, in which schools get funding (or funding cuts), in whose books end up on my bookshelf and whose voices are valued.
What does all of this have to do with Isaiah? Isaiah powerfully connects the wholeness and the health of Israel to the wholeness and health of its members. As long as the people suffer under the bonds of injustice and oppression, as long as the poor remain poor, and as long as the hungry remain hungry, Israel cannot be whole.
Isaiah uses a word that is notoriously hard to translate into English. He says “if you offer your nephesh to the hungry, and you satisfy the nephesh of the afflicted...” Nephesh is a word that originally/ literally meant something like throat. But it comes to have a more metaphoric meaning. The throat is where air travels through the body to the lungs, it is where food and water travels to the stomach. Through these processes - eating, drinking, breathing -, people find life. Thus, nephesh gets a meaning like “that which gives life.” So Isaiah says something like “if you offer that which gives you life to the hungry, and you satisfy that which gives life to the afflicted” then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noonday.
When I was in Tanzania, my African friends taught me another word for this idea - ubuntu - which loosely means something like “I am because we are.” While this is a common idea in African nations, it was popularized by South Africans who opposed apartheid. I cannot be whole unless my neighbor is whole. My community cannot find wholeness unless every member of it is whole.
Isaiah helps us imagine what the world looks like when all find healing and wholeness. “Your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong. And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” He invites us to vision with him that world; who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Racism - and all other isms and phobias that divide the body of Christ - keeps our neighbors from wholeness. Racism harms people of color, keeping them under the bonds of oppression. The body of Christ, to use Pauline imagery, is not whole unless our neighbors are whole.
As Lutherans, we believe that Jesus frees us from any need to justify ourselves to God. That’s a free gift - not even our sin - even the sin of our own racism - separates us from God. To be clear, God doesn’t excuse the sin or say that it is okay but rather God in Christ frees us from it so we can grow into the people Christ calls us to be, so we can see Christ in all whom we meet, especially those who are most vulnerable, in this case, those struggling under the weight of racism. That free gift frees us to do our own internal work of facing and struggling with our racism. That free gift from frees us for the work of restoring that which gives life to our neighbors. It frees us for breaking down prejudices (within ourselves and our communities), stereotypes, systems, and other barriers that divide the body of Christ so that we all may find wholeness in this world here and now. In other words, we are freed for the work of loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, and letting the oppressed go free.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m working on this too. But I trust that God’s vision for the world is one where all find wholeness. And as we continue through black history month, I trust that God is inviting us to vision with Godself - to see the world that God created as it God intended it to be. A vision that draws us in so we can say - “who wouldn’t want to be part of that?” And I trust that God invites and equips us to work to bring that into reality, through confession and absolution, through the sacraments, through the hard conversations, and through the people that God puts in our lives.