I heard it, piercing through the usual noise of kids playing during recess at my elementary school. One student was yelling it at another. Both of them were white. One of them had done or said something that made him the target of the other. To this day, I remember both the phrase, and the response of the one it was yelled at, clearly. He looked up at the red face of the kid who yelled at him and said, “Am not!”
And so it was that they both agreed in that moment that one thing neither of them wanted to be was a person who loved Black people.
I grew up in a place and at a time when it was not unusual for me to hear racial slurs like the one above. For some of my friends and acquaintances…and relatives, the “N-word” rolled off the tongue with the same ease as the word “Y ‘all.” It was just part of the vocabulary of the culture.
I look back on those days with thanksgiving that my mother, going against the cultural grain, told us she better never hear that word or any other racial slur escape our lips. But just because I never said the word doesn’t mean I didn’t drink in the culture of white supremacy that surrounded me and lay within me.
It’s painful for me to write that, but true. White supremacy was part and parcel of my culture growing up.
I have spent the better part of the last fifty-plus years learning the contours of that upbringing, coming to terms with it, and paying attention when I fall back into patterns that subtly convey that the color of my skin is somehow of more worth than someone else’s.
Over the last several years, and prominently in the last few months, I have had to confront structural racism. At times I have been resistant to see racism as structural. After all, I thought, racism is an individual, moral problem. If individuals could overcome their own racial biases, one at a time, then racism would be a thing of the past. When I start thinking that way, I am thankful for voices throughout my life who have reminded me that race is not just an individual failing. It is a systemic failing, one that intersects with gender, class, sexuality, and other dynamics to create an environment in which some lives are valued more than others. Looked at this way, I can stop being so defensive. To say there is such a thing as systemic racism is not a personal attack against White people; rather, it is an acknowledgement that we are one community of human beings, and that this is a problem that has to be addressed as a community.
Or as Paul wrote in Corinthians, “When one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it.”
Whenever someone talks like this in church, they are often met with the line, “Politics doesn’t belong in the church.” I admit I have often said the same. But as a Presbyterian Christian, I know nothing could be further from the truth. Presbyterians have always valued education and a deep engagement with the culture, bringing the Gospel to bear on real life. Politics, insofar as it is the means by which we determine how we will structure our common life, is vitally important to us all and cannot be separated out from our faith lives and our spirituality.
When I came to this church in the summer of 2004, we were heading into a presidential election. That fall, just a few months into my time here, we decided to have a series of Wednesday Night Live sessions entitled, “Politics and the Theology of the Cross.” I remember being so inspired by the ways you all came together to talk politics, to express both agreement and disagreement, and to discover what it looks like to love one another across differences. I will never forget the night that Hugh DuPree, then the Chair of the Williamson County Republican Party, debated Jim Mahurin, who said he was there to represent the Democrats of the county – both of them. What we learned form both of these friends is that our faith doesn’t deny or silence our politics, but it gives us a framework to talk about them without becoming partisan and mean-spirited and self-righteous.
After all, if we all worship the one God of Israel, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, then we know we must guard against the idolatry of imagining God as either a Republican or a Democrat. God is God, and we, and all our ideologies, are not.
When we look at the world that way, we discover ways of being with one another that lift up and not tear down, that speak with respect and not derision, that always embrace the humility that knows there is so much more yet to learn.
This week in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) we are engaging in a Week of Action. It is centered in the conversations that have been happening across our nation regarding race. I pray that each of us can engage with this week in ways that recognize Black Lives Matter not as a partisan exercise, but a deeply faithful attempt to talk politics in church in ways that recognize the work still to be done so that all our human siblings, no matter their color, can flourish in the ways God intends for all.
Paul had it right – “We are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” May it be so.