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Services and special presentations from
Houston Mennonite Church in Houston, Texas.

1-17-2021 Sermon Text "Turning Anti-Racism From A Noun To A Verb"

Jan 18, 2021

Turning Anti-Racism From A Noun To A Verb

Sermon by LaTayna Purnell

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day—a federal holiday which first was proposed on April 8, 1968, just 4 days after Dr. King’s assassination. While support for the holiday at the state level grew in the 70s, as a federal holiday it wasn’t until 1979, under the Carter Administration, that it came to the floor for a vote. It failed by 5 votes. Then, in 1983 President Regan signed a law naming the 3rd Monday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And it was first celebrated as such in 1986. 

 Every year at some point during MLK Jr. Weekend, I reread his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.   A little history: On April 16, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned the now-famous letter from Birmingham Jail on the margins of a smuggled newspaper while in solitary confinement. He was writing in response to an article by eight white clergies who denounced Dr. King’s protest movement as “unwise and untimely” in a published piece called “A Call to Unity.” In the article, the White Clergy recommended that “Negro Leadership”/Dr. King, an outsider, should’ve just waited for Justice to move. Let’s review the history. Dr. King was arrested on April 12, 1963, for leading a peaceful nonviolent protest of the abhorrent conditions of African-Americans, or Negroes as they are referred to in Dr. King’s letter. This was a time of great unrest. Dr. King was invited and planned to come to Birmingham which at the time was the most segregated city in the South~really in the US. He wanted to help bring awareness of the harsh treatment of African-Americans, and to promote social change in Birmingham and subsequently, in the nation. As I studied the contents of his letter, I wondered, how Dr. King was able to have such hope that change would happen in Birmingham when it looked like a hopeless cause especially with Bull Connor firmly in charge. I encourage you to read his letter in its entirety. It is a manifesto of what nonviolent direct-action protest should be. It is all there: fear, despair, discouragement of and hope to improve the Black experience-waiting was not an option. It is as relevant today as it was in 1963.

King writes, “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the {Negro’s} great stumbling block in [t]his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Ouch. The greater stumbling block to racial equality is not overt racists with a white nationalist agenda, but a complacent and complicit white moderate.

He goes on to say, “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Here King points out that racial inequality, and all forms of inequality, are rooted in structures and systems that privilege some and oppress others. His point, I believe, is that even if we were able to eliminate racists, that is even if there were no more individual people holding overtly racist views, eradicating racism in society is still another project altogether. The same could be said of misogynists and the structures which uphold misogyny, homophobic people, and systems that insist that heterosexuality is normative and everything else is somehow other, or abnormal. Certainly, one task is changing the hearts and minds of individual people and yet still another is recognizing our place in the systems and structures that perpetuate inequality and oppression.

I applaud Pastor Marty and HMC as we embark on doing the difficult and challenging work of looking squarely in the face of what it means to live in a culture where white privilege exists and continues to benefit some at the expense of others. To name the reality of benefiting from white privilege is not to say that individuals who happen to be white have not had to overcome tremendous difficulties and challenges to get where they are. It is, instead, to note that race was not one of the things they had to overcome. And, no doubt, benefited from their racial background.

If we are to get to that place where our society more closely resembles the kingdom of God, we must first be honest about how far we are, in some ways, from being there. One of the things I admire most about Rev. Dr. King was his ability to simultaneously name injustice and still see hope for transformation. His best and most revered writings and speeches cast a vision of what could be, what kingdom living really could look like, and naming the very real roadblocks in the way of achieving that vision. Dr. King frequently drew on biblical metaphor, story, and imagery when painting a picture of what a truly free and equal United States could be. His quote, “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity” is a clear reference to verse 2 of Psalm 40, our reading for today.

Like our Psalmist, Dr. King knew what it meant to have been mired down in the bog, to find oneself in the desolate pit. And so, do all of us. Who hasn’t found themselves in a situation they didn’t know how to get out of? Who hasn’t searched every option and reached the inevitable conclusion that none of the options is a good one? And yet, how many of us can also look back and say, I’m not sure how I got out of that place, that state, that situation, but I know I didn’t do it on my own. Call it divine intervention, call it serendipity, call it perseverance, call it a God Thing, call it dumb luck, call it strength from an outside source or greater power, call it whatever you want but we know if we are honest, that we cannot and do not do it on our own.

Today the psalmist reflects on the bad times and uses the experience of overcoming those bad times as the spark of hope needed to recognize that things do change. They do, and we do, get better.

I’ve titled this sermon “Moving anti-Racism for a noun to a verb” because just as being an ally requires action (otherwise, you're really just a bystander), being anti-racist also requires action, making it a verb and not a noun. I believe this is needed to make real and lasting change—in our lives as individuals, as a community, and our society, and the wider world.

There is an urgency in the truth that we cannot wait one more day to name injustice and oppression when we see it. There is an urgency in the truth that our earth is in grave danger from the effects of the human-caused climate crisis. The urgency in the truth that as Dr. King says, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” To wait, to not cry out, to not respond is to be complacent and complicit. As King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” And yet we need to be patient with the pace of change. We cannot expect a radical change to happen overnight. It has taken decades, centuries, millennia to get where we are. If we are in this for the long haul, if we are to be changed and transformed, we must remind ourselves of the long arc of history.

The bad news is that the world is a mess of knotted thread where everything is tied up with every other thing. So, unraveling the knots will take both persistence and patience. But the good news is that everything is tied up with every other thing. Or to quote King again, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The good news is that whatever thread we begin to pull on will have an impact and effect on every other thread. Our work on climate change impacts our work on racial injustice. Our work on homophobia impacts our work on misogyny. Our work on our misperceptions and misunderstandings will impact our ability to help others see their misperceptions and misunderstandings. The good news is we can start anywhere and know that whatever mantle of injustice we confront, it will reverberate out like ripples on a pond.

Our psalmist today reminds us to remember the past. To remember the pit and the desolation, to remember the struggles we have come through, struggles which have made us stronger, smarter, more compassionate, and more willing to offer grace to others, knowing the grace and mercy we have received and experienced. Our Psalmist reminds us that we can and should trust in God. That God’s steadfast love endures forever. It is not burnt offerings and temple sacrifices that God desires from us, but the transformation of our hearts—that the laws of God, be written there.

In a 2018 Christian Century article titled “myths white people believe about racism” it listed 8 myths for individuals to consider.  I was struck by the first myth that “Racism is not our (white people) problem. This perspective can be seen in the question “Why do we need to talk about that?” The assumption is that we, in our faith community, are not racists. Racism is everyone's problem as we experienced on Jan 6th at the United States Capitol (I would be remiss if I didn’t name the attempted government take over as having a home in racism).  Until we start naming racism when we see it or inadvertently participating in it, we cannot eradicate it.   Starting next Sunday we as a church are embarking on a 6-week all-congregation anti-racist training that will allow us to learn to form each other.  I could talk/preach about this all day but we will have the opportunity to share in the future.  But in closing, I ask for all of us to embrace feelings of uncertainty and discomfort that may arise during this training and journey. This is complicated.  There’s no such thing as getting it right.  Dismantling racism is an ongoing process, in the world and in our hearts.  When we work toward racial justice, we risk slamming into some perspective our privilege has shielded us from or being knocked on our ass by a story someone tells that indicts us.  It’s going to be messy and you may be confronted with some difficult personal truths that you make you feel vulnerable.   But that’s where the Holy Spirit does her thing.  This is the most important thing you can model: wading in because God calls us into the deep water.

May God grant us the ability to move anti-racism from a noun to a verb as we embrace our journey, as we do the work it will take, to make real the truth that the kingdom of God is among us.