Monday, June 22, 2015

White Privilege

We have been working on this big project at St. Andrew's, to generate your next generation of leadership. Last week we churned out some newsprint about that. I intended this week to bring those of you who missed it up to speed and continue.

But then. Wednesday. Nine people died at Emmanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They included a high school track coach, a state senator, a librarian, a barber who had just graduated from college, a clergy spouse, the janitor, a counselor, a pastor, an 87-year-old member of the Eastern Star, whose nephew dived in front of her and asked the young man with the gun to shoot him instead. But he shot them all, except for two others who pretended to be dead, and survived.

They had gathered for prayer and bible study, when a young man wearing the flag of Rhodesia on his sweater, that sorry leftover of the world's nightmare, apartheid, entered the church. The flag of Rhodesia notwithstanding, they welcomed him. Because that is what Christians do. We reach across the barrier.

We are here for one thing. We have one job on this planet, reconciliation, the healing of the breach that sin creates among ourselves and consequently, between us and the God who will do anything to reclaim his children from our madness.

This congregation of St. Andrew's has one reason to generate new leadership and to open its doors on Sunday morning. And that is to train for the task. And that is why Emmanuel Church opened its doors and its arms to a young man with a flag of Rhodesia on his sweater.

On Thursday, I read just the headlines. I had a sermon to finish, and race was not on my agenda. I didn't think it was on yours.

All year long, race has not been on my agenda. And if I never preached on it, I don't think you would ever notice.

I don't have to preach about nine people who were murdered by somebody who wanted to start a race war. I can just tell my story about David and Goliath.

And you know, that is a really good example of something called white privilege. So that is why I am going to talk about it today, because I don't have to. The fact that I do not have to deal with race, even in the face of nine people murdered at a bible study, is just such a clear example of my white privilege.

The first thing I have to say, and if you hear nothing else this morning, hear this: White privilege is not racism. Not a sin. It is not racism.

White privilege is this little gift I received on the day I was born. I didn't ask for it. I didn't deserve it. My mother didn't teach it to me.

My mother did everything she could to raise me to respect the dignity of every human being. My mother raised me to reject prejudice, to approach difference with curiosity, not fear, to pursue experiences of a wider world, so that I could be a bigger person.

My mother raised me to fight to defend the rights of others. She taught me that this country is about freedom. And freedom isn't free. We have to defend it. And a gun is not the best way to do that. This country of ours cannot live up to its promise unless we stand up for the rights of every single human being in it. That's what my mother taught me. She did not teach me racism.

That doesn't let me off the hook. Because I am an American, and I love my country, and it hurts my heart -- this deep, deep would of racism in our nation's soul.

And I am not off the hook, because I am a Christian. I didn't sign up for white privilege; but I am a Christian, and I signed up for this. I signed up for God's team, to address what hurts God's heart. And it does hurt God's heart -- this deep, deep wound of racism in our nation's soul.

So. White privilege. It's not the same as racism. But it is a consequence. It is a package of perks, advantages, one step up that I have, because I am white. For every way that the institutions of this country are set up to disadvantage black people -- that's racism -- they are set up to make my life [sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot] easier. That is white privilege.

When my blood blue-eyed brother was fourteen years old, a police officer found him in a city park, after midnight, drunk. The police officer brought him home, but did not wake my mother. He took my brother downstairs to his bedroom, took off his shoes, and put him to bed.

I have another brother whose father was black Irish. So in the summer, he has a darker complexion. One summer day when this brother was six, middle of the day, in the Mexican part of town, he was walking home through a big empty field. Not a field under cultivation -- he was walking through weeds, when a police officer stopped him, who was six, yelled at him, and threatened to arrest him for trespassing on private property.

That was my first introduction to white privilege, that my blood blue-eyed brother could count on the police to serve and protect, even when clearly breaking the law, and my younger brother who could be mistaken for a Mexican would be harassed by the some police force for walking across an empty lot. We had to explain to the six year old what private property was.

Then there came the day when my son was fifteen years old. Or rather, it was night. The police called after I had gone to bed.

Now I am immensely proud of my son. But when he was fifteen, he was... mouthy. That night, his mouthiness contributed to his arrest. Which made me irritated with him.

And that is white privilege. I could focus on my irritation, and boy I did, and boy he heard about it, because it did not occur to me to fear for him. In his encounters with the police, he was safe. He would always be safe. I never had to teach my son where to put his hands if he was stopped by the police, not to reach into his pockets, not to pull out a wallet or a cell phone.

Even if he was mouthy, if he did argue back, he was safe. I did not have to fear an encounter between my mouthy fifteen year old and the police. That is white privilege. That doesn't mean there is anything wrong with me. It's not my fault that other mother's children have such different outcomes for walking down the middle of a street, for being mouthy, for playing with a toy gun on a playground. It doesn't make me a racist. But it does mean that my experience of being a mother is far different from that of some of my friends.

One less thing to keep me up nights. One step ahead of the game. White privilege means when I have to go to the police station, they all look like me.

White privilege means when I apply for a job, I spend the interview concentrating on my qualifications, not wondering what the interviewer things of my race.

White privilege means people don't get nervous if I sit next to them in the airplane.

White privilege means when I went to school and studied the great thinkers of the past, all those great thinkers looked like me. Even if they weren't white, their pictures were. Like, for example, Jesus. And every single one of these guys who surround us?

White privilege means nobody is going to come in and shoot up our bible study.

White privilege is not a sin. It's the way it should be for everybody. What is a sin is if I think and behave as if I earned it, and they didn't.

What is a sin, now that I know, is if I choose to be blind. Because I am a Christian, and I signed up for God's team.

And God, I hate to preach about this stuff. I hate to talk about race in American. I woke up yesterday and felt so inadequate.

But there on Facebook was a post written to white clergy, about why we had to rip up our already written sermons and preach about race instead. The writer said, You don't have to do it perfectly. You just have to step into the deep water and begin the conversation. And remember who is standing next to you when you do.

So I took courage, and I invite you to take courage. Because when we step into the deep water, like so many generations before us in this book, we find somebody at our side to hold our hand.

So what can I do, standing here with my white privilege?

The first thing is to see it. Its power comes from being invisible. To work for a better world, first we have to see it. Pay attention to where people get seated at the restaurant, who the clerk helps in the store, who the clerk ignores, who the clerk follows, how different children are disciplined differently at school, the way a politician squirms and changes the subject, the way newscasters and tv shows pander to our fears.

At the very least, when people of color point these things out to us, we have to believe them. We are like fish who cannot see the water. We have to believe them.

I personally recommit myself to a resolution I made when we did that first work with the baptismal covenant. What would I do to fulfill my promises? I said I would expand my view. I would read more books by African American authors, open my eyes to their experiences.

I want to go a step further now, with that image before me of the track coach, the librarian, the clergy spouse, the state senator gathered together to study the bible. I want to hear the words of Scripture a they might have, gathered this last Wednesday to -- what -- study the lectionary?

David and Goliath? Dylan Roof was not their Goliath. The Goliath they face is bigger than any human being carrying any weapon. Paul says our battle is not with human beings, but with the powers and principalities of our present age. Racism is one such principality. We need to rediscover how the principalities have power over us.

But in the Name of the Lord of hosts, they shall fall.

Emmanuel Church surely recognized Paul as one of their own, through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, having nothing, yet possessing everything. When in the face of these troubles, I fear I have nothing, indeed, I possess everything.

And when they wade into the deep water, when they find themselves in the storm, they repeat to themselves what Jesus said to his frightened disciples, Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

Have you heard what the family members said to Dylan at his arraignment? They preached the Gospel. I claim their faith. I claim the power of Jesus to give me courage in the deep waters, in my efforts to be a Christian, to strive for justice and peace and healing for us all.


Know Their Names graphic from
USA flag from, free download
photo of police car in public domain
photo of baptism by Malaura Jarvis, used by permission

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