A Call to Confession
Sunday 10 July 2016
At the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 Nelson Mandela and other leaders made a radical decision. Believing that vengeance generates only more violence and vengeance instead of seeking vengeance, tracking down, trying and imprisoning the perpetrators of torture and murder of those who fought to end apartheid, the country would engage in truth and reconciliation. Those who had murdered and tortured could come forward, confess and seek forgiveness from the families of their victims. The perpetrators would then go free. Peter Yancey tells this story: At one hearing, a policeman named van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an 18-year old boy and burned the body, to destroy the evidence. Eight years later van de Broek returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen killed her husband. The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. ‘What do you want from Mr. van de Broek?’ the judge asked. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. With his head down, the policeman nodded agreement. Then she added a further request: ‘Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.’ Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing Amazing Grace as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.’ [This is taken pretty much verbatim from http://nagasawafamily.org/matthew_dev_09_01-08c.htm which cites Yancey’s Rumors of Another World.]
In today’s text Jesus challenges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The scholar wants to know just how far he has to go. He wants a limit. He wants to stay with what will make him comfortable. He doesn’t want to be challenged. He is, I think like many of us, looking for an easy answer. Jesus tells the story. It is easy for us to hear this story and imagine we are the Samaritan, the Good Samaritan. Isn’t reality different? Aren’t we more like the two pious religious people who cross over to the other side, who want to avoid getting involved. How often have I turned my eyes away from the mother asking for change to feed her child, the dirty man with the cardboard sign saying “Hungry--Vietnam vet.” How often have I made excuses? How often have I ignored the homeless, the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely?
The news this week has been horrific. Innocent black men gunned down by the men paid to serve and protect them. Innocent policemen protecting Black Lives Matter protesters gunned down by men seeking vengeance. Who is my neighbor? What can I do? I want the easy answers. I want to cross over to the other side of the road. I don’t want to get involved.
The Belhar Confession which some of you have studied was adopted as a confession of our denomination, a part of the constitution of our church. Belhar was a response to the apartheid of South Africa. The white controlled Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa decreed that the church should comply with the doctrine of apartheid. Coloreds and Blacks must worship in their own churches, segregated from each other and from the white churches. Belhar declares that the church must be one in unity--that it cannot be divided by race. Belhar challenges the church to stand against oppression and injustice so that justice may roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Saying that we must stand against oppression and injustice and actually doing it are two vastly different things. The first hard questions is where to begin. How can we even begin to think about this issue. Our new stated clerk, The Rev. J Herbert Nelson II, has said regarding our adoption of Belhar and in reaction to the events of this week, “The assembly actions [in adopting Belhar] will have no meaning unless we as people of faith act to eradicate racism in our nation. Our efforts must begin in our own community and require courage Racism is a cancer that has historically pervaded our society. It blatantly disrupts the flow of building Jesus’ call for the Beloved Community.” [http://www.pcusa.org/news/2016/7/7/pcusa-stated-clerk-speaks-out-police-killings-alto/]
The Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, our newly elected co-moderator posted a suggestion for our response on Facebook: “For those of you who ask ‘How long?’ or ‘How many times must this happen?’ I'll tell you precisely when it will stop. It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness/white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color). To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness. As necessary as this is for the well-being of society, it is also an uncomfortable undertaking and there is literally nothing forcing white people to do it. White people, then, will likely have to create the force.” She continues: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don't talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. . . . It’s confession time.”
It’s confession time. My first reaction is that I have nothing to confess. But the reality is different. I don’t want to examine my reality because deep down I know, even after all these years, there is something within me that says I am better because I am white. Rationally, I know this is not true, but my gut tells me it is.
It is also important to think about white privilege (and easier for me than my own racism). We whites are like fish in the ocean, we are unaware of the water we swim in, the water of our privilege. I grew up in the South. My family owned slaves. A couple of years ago I visited Latta Plantation near the church my family attended in the 18th and 19th centuries. I noticed a plaque near the granite steps. The steps were cut by a stone mason owned by James Latta. The slave cut stone for many of the 18th century buildings in Charlotte. Latta profited from the work of his slave. On a visit to a plantation in Louisiana, the docent said that in the years before the Civil War, 80% of the millionaires in the US lived along the Mississippi. They, too profited from the work of slaves. My family profited from the work of their slaves. Northerners profited too from slaves, their own slaves and from the slave trade. The South and our country as a whole has never had a conversation thinking about the wealth created for whites by slave labor or the wealth denied those slaves or confessing the evil of owning human beings as slaves.
White privilege. I could go to any college I wanted to. The first African American was admitted to my college the year before I enrolled. I can live any where I wanted to. My house was not fire bombed because I wanted to live in the Shaker School District. No one suggested to me that I might want to file a lawsuit to make sure that housing covenants restricting sales to whites would not be enforced against me as was suggested to Dr. Winston Richie when he decided to buy a house in eastern Shaker Heights. I have never been stopped by the police as I slowly rolled down a street on a dark winter night, trying to find the house number of the house where I was to go to a meeting as was former County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones. My life expectancy is longer than that for Black or Hispanic women simply because I am white. I have never had to tell my son he shouldn’t flirt with or even look at certain women. I have never worried that my son would be killed. I have never been awakened in the middle of the night and told that my son had been gunned down while he was walking down the street in his hoodie. White privilege is a fact.
I don’t ask the whites among us to examine your lives for white privilege so you will feel guilty. There is no more guilt about white privilege than there is about the privilege that comes with being over 6 feet tall. It is simply a fact. I do ask you to recognize what being white has done for you and to imagine how your life might have been different had you been born into a poor African American family.
Jesus tells us to love our neighbor. That neighbor includes the families of the men killed this week--all of them. That neighbor includes the men who killed this week. That neighbor includes the one sitting in this church who disagrees with you. That may be the most uncomfortable of all. We don’t like conflict in the church. We have seen what conflict does to churches. If we begin with our own confession, with our own fears and misgivings, we may be amazed by grace just as was van der Broek. Amen