Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 11, 2018
“Memorial of White Privilege”
Note that today is Racial Justice Sunday in the UCC
Mark 9: 2b-9a – The Message
Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain. Right before their eyes, his appearance changed from the inside out. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them.
They could see Elijah, along with Moses, in deep conversation with Jesus.
5-6 Peter interrupted, “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.
7 Just then a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and from deep in the cloud, a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love. Listen to him.”
8 A minute later, the disciples were looking around, rubbing their eyes, seeing nothing but Jesus, only Jesus.
9 Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t tell a soul what you saw until the time is right.”
“Follow Me” in the Rise Up devotional by Traci Blackmon
Whenever I read the gospel accounts of how Jesus organized The Discipleship Movement, I am reminded of how important it is to understand the roles of both leader and ally.
“Follow Me,” Jesus proclaims over and over again as he invites others to help change the world. Some of his actions may seem illogical. He is a carpenter from Nazareth telling fishermen to “follow him” and he will make them fishers of men.
Who is he to tell others how to fish?
Later, Jesus issues an invitation to a tax collector to “follow him” in the Movement with no promise to make him treasurer. Time and time again, Jesus invites others to join him. The invitation is broad, and the directions are minimal but consistent. All who are willing to join are welcome, but you must “follow me.”
Isn’t it just like Jesus to teach us so much with so little? The organizing skills of Jesus remind us that true movements of liberation are best led by those who are being oppressed. This is why it matters that Jesus did not come as a person of great privilege, but rather as an Afro-Semitic Palestinian born on the wrong side of the tracks. It is from this context that Jesus begins a Movement, and it is from this context that Jesus invites others to follow.
And allies begin to show up, with their bodies and their gifts and their skills, to follow.
Even when the plan does not seem to make much sense, even when some think a more aggressive agenda is needed, over and over again, they agree to be Jesus’ allies in the struggle and they follow. There are moments when the disciples struggle with the leadership style of Jesus, yet they still follow. Most of them were oppressed themselves. They knew what it felt like to be hurt and marginalized in varying ways. But they followed.
I offer Jesus’ example to us as we continue to strive together in the Movement work of our time.
The invitation to the ally is always to follow the leadership of those who are at the center of the pain.
The story matters. And choosing to work toward liberation of any kind requires a commitment to support the narrative of the ones who own the story.
The role of the ally is not to lead or to fix. The ally holds the story and amplifies the voice of the storyteller.
“Follow me,” Jesus says. Perhaps this simple invitation is the hardest of them all.
ALL PEOPLE OF COLOR: As a person of color, every day I see examples of white privilege that most white people do not recognize.
Karen: As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
My African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact, in this particular time and place, cannot count on most of these conditions. For example, I can easily arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: I can go shopping alone most of the time, assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
Smokey: I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented in a positive light.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: If I am the only member of my race, it is likely my voice will be heard in a group.
Amy: Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
Priscilla: I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.
Lucy: If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: I can go home from most meetings of the organizations to which I belong feeling connected, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
Mollie: I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
Eileen: If I apply for a job and get turned down, I can be pretty sure it was because of my lack of experience or connections and not my race.
ALL WHITE PEOPLE: I acknowledge my white privilege, or unearned power, and will work to dismantle racism and white supremacy.
ALL PEOPLE OF COLOR: We seek a community of faith that wants to dismantle racism. Follow me.
That last line is profound. “We seek a community of faith that wants to dismantle racism.”
You’ve heard it before how Martin Luther King, Jr. said that 11 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. But he said that 58 years ago, so things have certainly changed since then. Barely. According to studies, upwards of 90% of churches in the U.S. are of one single race or ethnicity. That doesn’t mean there are no people of another race, but no more than 10%. For example, in a church of 100, fewer than 10. 90% still seems too low to me. And sure enough, if you break it down further, only 2-3% of mainline churches like ours are racially or ethnically diverse. 20% of Catholic parishes are.
But worse, the motivation to change that is pathetic. LifeWay Research is a respected organization. In 2015, on the weekend of Dr. King’s birth, they did a national poll of church goers. Only 40% said their church needs to become more ethnically diverse. Remember, 90% are not. But two-thirds said their church has already done enough to be diverse. People are OK that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.
I understand some of that. Immigrant churches provide safety and a common language, potlucks with familiar foods, familiar customs in a completely foreign land. However, those same churches have difficulty holding on to the second, and especially the third, generation who no longer even know the language which once bound their community together.
I understand why African Americans would want to be part of a Black Church. Yes, foods and customs, but after a week of insensitivity and outright discrimination, church is the last place you would want to experience even, what I call, accidental racism. Well-meaning white people who either don’t get it or want to prove something.
But why would white people, who are the majority everywhere, why would we need or prefer or simply find ourselves in a single race church too? Certainly, there is some measure of tradition and ancestry and upbringing; we go where our parents brought us – and because of that we recognize certain styles of worship, and especially music, as being the way “church is supposed to be.” But it also says that, for many, church is more about comfort than challenge. But what did Jesus say? Follow me. Where? Out of your comfort zone.
It got me thinking about today’s scripture text from the Gospel of Mark. There’s a lot of bizarre stuff in the story of the Transfiguration. Some of the details seem unnecessary – like what does it matter if the clothes of Jesus are whiter than they could be bleached? But there was one thing that stood out for me. Peter’s impulse. Let’s build something. Whether it was so they could stay in that moment forever or to remember this moment. When Peter didn’t know what else to do or say, he blurted out, “Let’s build a memorial.”
Or, at least, that’s Eugene Peterson’s interpretation. The word Peter used clearly had multiple meanings because various translations can’t agree what he meant. King James says, “let’s build three tabernacles;” the NRSV, our pew Bible, says, “dwellings;” which was an update of the RSV, which spoke of “booths.” Other translations speak of building houses or shelters. The other translation we often use in worship at Park Hill, the Common English Bible, calls them “shrines.” That’s a wide range of meaning – houses, dwellings, shrines, or memorials…
But on this Racial Justice Sunday, it was the word “memorials” that spoke to me, like the memorials to white privilege increasingly being called into question. And disputes over what history should be remembered. You can’t take down a statue of Robert E. Lee because that would be erasing history, denigrating a whole culture. But many see building memorials of slavery, or the proposed memorials to lynching victims, as too divisive, too ugly for children to have to encounter. Why one and not the other? Who gets what memorials is another application of white privilege.
When I was in Cambodia last year I visited the Killing Fields. It was brutally and horribly honest. For example, this is the tree against which the heads of infants and children were smashed. Those are bone fragments leaching up from beneath the soil. A three-story building in the shape of a shrine was filled from top to bottom with skulls, tens of thousands on the spot where one million were killed, labeled by age and sex, such as a section filled with the skulls of 5 to 10-year-old boys, or girls between the ages of 10 and 15. It made me more than sick to my stomach. I was dizzy. My head hurt, my heart ached. But I was also fascinated as I watched busloads of school children, hundreds of young children guided through these gruesome horrors and being told over and over, don’t forget this. Don’t let this happen again. Look at what your parents and grandparents lived through, and in some cases, look at what your parents and grandparents did. The scale of the atrocity is staggering. But the honesty was instructive.
Which is why I think there needs to be a memorial in the middle of Stapleton of the KKK celebrating his election, whether the name changes or not. Actually, especially if the name changes. Memorials don’t have to mean we celebrate or glorify what happened here, but that we can’t forget it. Ignore it. Cover over how he filled City Hall with fellow Klansmen – from police chief to city attorney to manager of safety and other key positions. Yes, memories like that bring pain. But pain brings healing.
Art and I hiked on South Table Mountain a few weeks ago and wondered where Stapleton and the KKK did their celebratory cross burnings or planned and celebrated the completion of more torment and torture of Jews and Catholics and Chinese and immigrants and people of color. There should at least be a plaque on South Table so we don’t forget. Just like the effort Bryon Stephenson and the Equal Justice Initiative is spearheading to build a memorial at all 4,000 sites of lynchings. Yes, memories bring pain. But pain starts the healing.
And dismantling racism starts with honesty about our painful history and working to change our present and future path. The Cambodians were certainly determined to keep doing this for each generation. And I agree.
I also don’t just want a church that knows our history and knows we have white privilege but one that is then dismantling it. If we truly want to be a multi-racial, multi-cultural church, we must be a church that takes apart our own privilege.
But I am cautioned by Traci Blackmon: “The invitation to the ally is always to follow the leadership of those who are at the center of the pain. The role of the ally is not to lead or to fix. The ally holds the story and amplifies the voice of the storyteller.”
For people accustomed to privilege, perhaps this simple invitation is the hardest of them all. To follow.
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 This is adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack, which includes 50 examples. We added room for People of Color voices missing from the original. http://www.ywca.org/atf/cf/%7B6EDE3711-6615-4DDD-B12A-F9E0A781AE81%7D/White%20Privilege%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf