I Am a Racist

This post also appears in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s GraceNotes

I am a racist. I was born to it. So were my parents, and their parents before them. The potential for racism is woven into my humanity. The presence of racism in my life is as pervasive as the air I breathe.  

First, racism is an expression of one of the most basic forms of sin: self-justification. “Us and them” dichotomies are always about improving my standing at another’s expense. Racism is an “us and them” construct that is based on the lie that the color of your skin is constitutive of your humanity. As Merriam-Webster defines it, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates defines it more broadly: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”  My capacity to be a racist (or misogynist, or elitist, or any kind of “-ist”) is grounded in my desire to divide my world into us and them for my own benefit. “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

Second, I can’t escape the racism of the culture around me. An old Hasidic proverb says: “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” If you live in America, racism is like the horseradish surrounding the poor worm. You just don’t know anything different. You can’t even see the sin, unless you get to the edge of the jar and can somehow look to the other side of the glass. Even then, escape is nearly impossible.

The truth of our racism as a nation is inescapable. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Award winner, professor, poet and bestselling author, says, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Jim Wallis, author, pastor and leader of Sojourners, in his book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America states the truth in a way that always shakes me to the core: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”  Imitating Isaiah 6:5 – I am a racist, and I live among a racist people. (Isaiah 6:5)

I want to be clear. I am not a White Supremacist actively seeking the destruction of other races. Neither am I one who rationally believes any of the nonsense about how racially different people are, inferior, flawed, lazy, stupid. I have confronted racist behavior in public, in my congregations, and in my personal life. That said, I have also failed at times. I have failed to say “NO!” when I get offered something before a person of color standing in the same line. I have remained silent when someone utters the racial epithet or tells the cruel racial joke. I have been the recipient of grace and blessing when I didn’t even realize it was taken from someone who had darker skin.

Just because my best friend is black does not mean I’m not a racist. It is simply that by the grace of God (which this friend embodies) I’ve been able to transcend the sin of my people and my soul in what is a small step for humanity, but a big leap for me. Dealing with racism begins with admitting its strangling hold on our culture, our nation and my own soul. Dealing with racism starts with my own repentance – every day – as I resist and reject falling into the cultural notions about my “inherent superiority” because of my color (or lack thereof). Dealing with racism is becoming aware that telling people to “go back to where they came from” is a hurtful and historically racist thing to say and stopping myself from saying it for that very reason.

Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor writes in his book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America, “Passivity is the new engine of systemic racism. You just have to believe that this is the way things are.”  Being an active racist who utters inflammatory words or engages in hateful, violent behavior and being a passive racist who does nothing or ignores the truth fuels the same sin and feeds the evil that still works to destroy us.

I am a racist. I am called by my faith every day to beat back the lies and evil that try to tell me I am superior to someone because of my skin color; to resist racist speech, thought, violence, injustice in my own life and the life of the world. My place is to stand with those victimized by racism and against those who perpetuate it. Of this, I am certain, because Jesus is my Lord (a Palestinian) who told me to love everyone – no matter what.

“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them”
― Elie Wiesel

Pax Christi – Tim Olson, Lead Pastor

I Don’t Believe in (G)od

I recognize that for a pastor’s blog, the title of this article might seem like click-bait. I cannot claim total innocence on that front. I can, however, say more precisely that I do not have faith in the (G)od discussed in current debates about whether God is real or not.

I have friends who are self-described atheists. They ask me to prove that God exists as an objective reality. Some measurable, mathematical, physical accounting must be made in order for God to be tangible; to be real. I understand the request. I also have friends, colleagues, and people of faith who want me to make a “case for God” because they are absolutely certain that objective arguments exist and can be made. They want me to help. I understand the desire.

Writ larger than my own world, there is the neo-atheist movement of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al. who assert that with no objective proof of God, religion is a childish means of manipulation or an ignorant means of explaining big questions. On the other side, there is the Creation Museum in Kentucky which takes on the challenge and builds an objective argument for the existence of God, offering explanations and theories that point to a creator who is an objective player in the grand scheme of the universe.tillich

My problem is that, if I am to talk about God in the most general terms (which is not really my wheel house – I’m a preacher and speak of God in particularities, mostly), I don’t believe in the God creationists and fundamentalists are sure exists. Nor do I believe in the objectively provable God that atheists demand.

Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, points to the gods they seek and worship saying,  “(God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:27-28) The very fact that we are points relentlessly to a ground for that being. Paul’s roots in Hebrew scripture, which posits the name of God as the mysterious, I Am (Exodus 3:14) lead him to a God larger than objective reality.

St. Augustine said, “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Existence itself rests beyond our finite limits. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Objectifying God makes a lower case god, who is, in fact, largely about manipulation and denial as the atheists insist and as the fundamentalists forget.

In the fact of our existence and the consciousness that our existence is beyond us, Paul Tillich points to God as being: “The fact that man never is satisfied with any stage of his finite development, the fact that nothing finite can hold him, although finitude is his destiny, indicates the indissoluble relation of everything finite to being-itself.”

The reawakened contemplative tradition is reconnecting with this understanding of God through the teaching of people like Father Richard Rohr, who says, “This utterly grounds our deeper notion of God as Being itself, rather than God as a Being, alone and apart.”

David Bentley Hart is a professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and an astute (if not sometimes a little arrogant) voice for this classic understanding of God. He asks this question of those who demand – on both sides of the question – an objective proof of God. How, after all, could the existence or nonexistence of some particular finite being among other beings provide an ultimate answer to the mystery of existence as such?” ― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As to what this has to do with Jesus Christ, well, that is a word for another day. I will say that this deeper, non-objective understanding of God leads to an encounter with Jesus Christ that is far beyond what the materialism and objective world can offer. That Christ is the incarnation not of some objective force within creation, but of the ground of being itself — well, that is ultimate good news.

Let me leave you with a quotation from Hart which summarizes what I’m getting at much better than I can manage: “God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.”
― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Pax Christi, Tim Olson

 

copyright © 2019 Timothy V. Olson