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

Religion is Evil?

religionsIt has become popular to lay all of the suffering of the world at the feet of religion claiming, “It’s all you fault!” Check in with any of the various neo-atheist or “spiritual but not religious” voices you may hear and you are likely to hear this criticism laced with various degrees of vitriol. After all, it is said, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and colonial conquest were all carried out under the banner of religion. Religious fundamentalism as expressed by Branch Davidians, Jonestown, and radical jihadists have created violence and suffering in the name of God. The Church has done significant harm to individuals and whole groups of people because they were deemed inferior or unfaithful. All this is true. It is shameful.

Lillian Daniel, in her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, says this line of argument seems a little like saying that all roads are bad (and should be banned) because of the helpless creatures that fall victim to traffic. “…don’t point out roadkill and then tell me that `the road’ has it in for bunnies, deer and armadillos.” (p. 17).  Yes indeed, people have used the name of God to justify all sorts of suffering and evil. But then, people have found ways to slaughter millions in the name of not believing in God, too.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three substitutes for religion emerged as the basis for new identities. One was the nation-state. A second was the ideological system. The third was race. The first led to two world wars, the second to Stalin’s Russia, the Gulag and the KGB, and the third to the Holocaust. The cost of these three substitutes for religion was in excess of a hundred million lives.” 

The source of evil in the world is not religion, government, or any other human institution in and of themselves. It is the human element that corrupts. Our innate desire to have power over others and to justify ourselves at the expense of someone else, what the church calls “original sin,” is what corrupts. While the Crusades were taking place, St. Francis of Assisi was helping birth a reform of the church. The punishing fundamentalism of the Inquisition finally gave way to the Reformation. The struggle between good and evil does take place on the world stage. Through fundamentalism and manipulation, many co-opt the traditions of the faithful (which is religion), for evil purposes. The war, however, is rooted in every human heart. All of us are capable of great evil in the name of something. Religion is neither ultimate evil or ultimate good. The variable is that, as Luther taught, humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, good and evil, all rolled into one. So, human institutions will be the same.

To think that evil and suffering would abate if religion disappeared is to believe that something other than human will drives a great deal of the suffering of the world. I think this is naive. The appeal to science and technology as the “salvation” of humanity is to ignore that every great advance and progress humanity claims has also been co-opted to kill and destroy. Industrialization was manifest in the trenches, tanks, chemical weapons and machine guns of the First World War. Nuclear fission paved the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second

Finding our human identity as beings rooted in the source of being; releasing ourselves from the tyranny of constant comparison, self-justification and self-hate is the only way to address the evil and suffering around us. For more time than we have measured, that undertaking has been a healthy religious undertaking.

Peace to you.

 

copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

 

Whip-Wielding, Table-Turning Messiah

For most folks, “Gentle Jesus” is the image we carry of the Messiah. The whip-wielding, table-turning, angry Jesus who cleanses the temple seems to be an aberration. When Jesus finds that the noise of livestock and clatter of coins is louder than the prayers; when he sees that the name of God is being used for personal gain, he gets angry, righteously angry. We do the same kind of things today. So, what does “cleansing the temple” mean for us?