Race and Religion.

18 Jan

Race and Religion
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 18, 2015

Those of you who have been around First Unitarian for a while know that today represents a first for me here: the first time getting to preach on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Because I usually take January as a time of renewal and study leave, I have watched from afar as others fill the pulpit. But since my sabbatical ended at the beginning of January, this is the first time in my years here that I have had the pleasure of being around during this cold month, and thus the first time that I have the privilege of preaching on this auspicious day.

And what a year for it!

With the horror of the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and countless more black boys and men demanding that we pay attention, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

With a fox news commentator lamenting how hard it is to tell if one is a terrorist if one is wearing a face-mask that hides their skin color, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

With the contoversy around the movie Selma centering on the portrayal of a white man, and with that controversy derailing an amazing movie from being nominated for awards, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

When thousands chant “Je Suis Charlie” in response to the terrorist murders of17 people in France, and no such solidarity is shown for the hundreds killed by terrorists at a marketplace in Nigeria, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

And when some people respond to the #BlackLivesMatter movement by claiming that “All Lives Matter” , which is true but misses that black lives have always counted less than white lives in this country, that it is enshrined in our founding documents, and that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is about naming the lives that have not mattered as a corrective to this historical context, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

Nope, no we don’t. We do not live in a post-racial world. But how did it get this way? How do we live in a country, in a world, that has allowed continuing oppression based on the color of one’s skin? Why skin color? Why not something else, like height, or eye color, hair texture, or any of the other multiple random characteristics that distinguish human beings one from another?

Though the concept of race as simply a distinguishing characteristic goes back much further, our more modern view of race as a way of assigning value to a human being can be traced back to the time of Columbus, to a worldview and set of laws called the Doctrine of Discovery. Not only have these laws been used, and continue to be used to justify the conquest of land, it is in this doctrine that we find theological justification for the concept of race.

In 1493, after many an exciting adventure, Columbus returned to Europe and told people what he had found. The stories sparked visions of greed and expansion in the eyes of those in power. In order to increase the spread of the church, Pope Alexander VI declared that Catholic Kings had “natural law and right” to claim any lands not already claimed by another Christian monarch. Furthermore, the pope said that lands that were inhabited by non-Christians were to be considered as having been discovered when found by Christian explorers. This set of rules came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery.

In his paper We’ll Build a Land: The Invention of Race as a Tool of Empire, my colleague the Rev. Dr. Michael Tino shares that “The Doctrine of Discovery was used to subjugate, enslave, and slaughter non-Europeans all over the globe in the name of Christianity, claiming the authority of God for monarchs hungry for empires to mine and exploit. The legacy of this Doctrine in the United States includes not only the lingering effects of centuries of slavery and the theft of a continent from Native Americans who became subject to campaigns of mass murder. The Doctrine of Discovery also became the legal justification for European monarchs—and their sovereign heirs in the United States, Canadian and Mexican governments—to draw borders by mutual agreement through the lands of indigenous peoples, and to enforce immigration restrictions on peoples who for thousands of years had freely roamed across those borders.”

But a problem arose with the doctrine, and that was that missionary priests had begun converting indigenous peoples to Christianity. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, this meant that the lands could not then be conquered. So a new category had to be created to continue to justify the conquest, genocide and enslavement of people. And so the concept of race evolved – skin color would be the means to classify who had worth and who did not.

On the white end of the spectrum were Europeans and those considered suitable for conversion to Christianity such as the Chinese and Japanese. In the middle of the spectrum, depending on what was wanted from them at the time, fell Indians from Asia and Native Americans. On the black end of the spectrum were those who were considered to be incapable of salvation through Christ – Africans, Muslims and Jews. Now, salvation is supposed to be available to all people, so by saying that Africans, Muslims and Jews were incapable of salvation, the church denied their very humanity.

In The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings (as quoted by Tino) points out “While social or theological ‘otherness’ was not a new concept in the history of humanity…the power given to the category of ‘race,’ as defined along a black-white spectrum, was.” Before it was anything else, the concept of race “was a theological form—an inverted, distorted vision of creation that reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies.”

And because the core of the argument was theological in nature, it stuck in a way that few other types of laws would. Tino points out that “The stubborn persistence of the category of race in our society, despite the absence of any scientific or biological rationale for it, has everything to do with the lasting power of the original, theological, concept of race—and the power inherent in defining people as inferior in the eyes of God.”

We can trace the damage of this worldview all the way through to today. In their work to bring the issues of the Doctrine of Discovery to Unitarian Universalist congregations prior to the 2012 General Assembly held in Phoenix, the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote: “For more than five centuries, the interpretive framework of the [Doctrine of Discovery] has been institutionalized and used to assert a presumed right of dominance over originally free and independent indigenous peoples. The [Doctrine of Discovery] was used by European nations to justify their conquest of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas. It was the justification–theological and political–for the appropriation of the lands and resources of indigenous peoples and efforts to dominate native nations and undermine the sovereignty of indigenous nations and peoples. Among other things, it formed the basis for the slave trade, the partition and colonization of the Near East, the colonization of the Americas, and the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas.”

We are not able to fully tackle the racism in this country without addressing the religious arguments in which it was founded. Religious institutions must work towards dismantling the racist systems they helped create. It is necessary to say yes, black lives do matter. As Tino puts it “In order to work to reverse the damage wrought by centuries of misguided theology, it is necessary to decolonize our theology.”

This may sound like an enormous task. And in the face of this type of overwhelming work, it might be easy to sit and say to ourselves “Well, that wasn’t us. We are more enlightened than the people were back then.” And there is some truth to that. Certainly, as I was watching Selma the other day, I took pride in knowing that both the white civil rights workers who responded to King’s call and were subsequently murdered, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, I took pride in knowing that they were both Unitarians. And yet, at the same time, our faith tradition has consistently not supported African American ministers – the number of ministers of color is barely above what it was 30 years ago, even as the number of women ministers and gay and lesbian ministers has skyrocketed.

This paradox is found on a smaller scale here at First Unitarian, as well. On the one hand, we are were known as a white church that supported the civil rights movement. But the minister during that time, Rev. Robert Weston, installed his wife as a greeter because the other greeters were suggesting to black people who came that they might be looking for the church down the street.

The damage from the Doctrine of Discovery is built into our very fibers – it is in how our society is constructed and we are, necessarily, a product of that society. And so religious institutions, including our own, must work towards dismantling the racist systems we helped create.

So how do we do that? Where do we begin with dismantling these old, ingrained systems? The first and most important thing white churches, and white people, can do is listen with humility. Truly listen to the experiences of those who are oppressed, even, especially, when it clashes with our own experience or sense of the world. It is not uncommon for whites to think most everything is fine based on our own experience, even while we hear people of color reporting that their lives are filled with daily prejudices and discrimination. When we dismiss the stories of people of color as untrue or exaggerated because we haven’t had those experiences or because they seem so foreign to us, we devalue the lived realities of those with whom we hope to stand in solidarity! We must listen, and accept that our experience has not painted a big enough picture to encompass the experiences of all people.

Listening might sound easy, but oftentimes it is anything but because it challenges our bedrock assumptions of who we are and how things work. If we do not have close friends who are people of color, we must actively seek out stories. And when we hear or read them, we cannot look for reasons to dismiss them, we cannot look for reasons to distance ourselves from them.

How can we hold up James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo as martyrs to the cause of civil rights, and not have our hearts also broken because Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by a state trooper that same month? Do the deaths of white people mean more than the deaths of 12 year old Tamir Rice, shot and killed while playing with a fake gun on a playground? Or more than John Crawford, the young man shot and killed while shopping for a BB-gun in Walmart? If we listen, with humility, we realize it does not matter whether Mike Brown stole the box of cigars as some people still try to assert. Brown’s character is irrelevant – he does not have to pass a test of worthiness for us to take issue with the brutality of his death. He does not have to pass a test of worthiness for the citizens of Ferguson and beyond to take to the streets to protest the issue of constant over-policing, racial profiling and unfair and unjust treatment. These are policies that come out of our history of devaluing black lives, a history that traces itself back through racial profiling, mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and slavery. Back to the Doctrine of Discovery and the invention of race to justify conquest and annihilation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Dana McLean Greeley, and Homer Jack, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association Department of Social Concerns, at the 1966 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Hollywood, Florida. Dr. King delivered the Ware Lecture to this annual denominational assembly.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We must listen to these stories, and then we must ache for we know that we are connected to these victims, that we are connected to them just as surely as we are connected to one another in this room. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, in his 1966 Ware lecture, “a world perspective…This is the inter-related structure of all reality.”

Religious institutions have been part of the problem since the beginning, and we must be part of the solution. This is the best task of religion: to connect us to one another and to that which is greater than ourselves. It is religion, at its best, that makes me my brothers keeper.

Our faith tradition is bound up in this messy history, with moments of uplift intertwined with moments of degradation. But a church that stands for freedom must not be shackled by fear of losing privilege. A church that stands for justice cannot stand idly by while justice is denied to so many.

A church that stands for equity cannot be content when people are denied the tools and resources they need to achieve a basic standard of living.

A church that stands for compassion cannot be immune to those who bravely share their soul-wrenching stories of oppression.

A church that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person cannot stand by while white lives are continuously demonstrated as having more worth and dignity than the lives of people of color.

Instead, we must work towards dismantling the racist systems religious institutions helped create.

In this work, we will break each others hearts. We will fail more times than we can count. We will stick our feet into our mouths, be chagrined, embarrassed, and ashamed. But continue to work in spite of failure is what has and what will allow us to keep growing, to keep challenging the status quo, until such time as we truly honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, until such time as we can boldly claim that black lives do matter as a counter to years of being told otherwise. May this important work ennoble our lives, and may we not sleep through the revolution. Blessed be.

One Response to “Race and Religion.”

  1. Judy Welles January 18, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    Preach it! This is an excellent sermon. Have you read “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche? It gives a new perspective on race in America. Excellent book! See you soon…

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