Ash Wednesday: On Racism

Feb 10, 2016

Isaiah 58:1-12

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I want to take Isaiah’s words as the basis of my Ash Wednesday message. Of course each of us will choose our Lenten discipline – what we give up, whether sugar or alcohol or unkind thoughts or worry – or what we take on, a more faithful practice of prayer or generosity or spending time with the lonely or whatever.  But I have been inspired by Pope Francis’ suggestion this year, that we give up indifference towards people in need.

Because that is a large area, and the need of this world can seem sometimes too big, sometimes too distant, I thought I would talk about one aspect.  I want to talk about racism.  First of all, because it matters, because the people matter.  And also because it may teach us something about the nature of sin.

Racism was supposed to be something we were done with.  We are all old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights movement.  We were supposed to have solved this back then.  Except that, although we have come a long way, it hasn’t solved racism, any more than ending slavery in the South 150 years ago solved it.

It is still with us, and indeed is very much in the news again.  The rash of killings of young black men by police in the States have galvanized the black community.  It is a community under siege, brutalized by the trauma of having so many of its children killed. And it is not just the killing. The cycle of stop and frisk policies, the stopping of black motorists for the smallest of infractions, the everyday humiliations.  The fact that blacks are hugely overrepresented in the American prison population.  The constant limitations of employment opportunities, the often invisible racism by which jobs are given by many employers to less qualified whites, perhaps even unconsciously in many cases.

Nor should we think this happens only in the States.  The harassment of black motorists is alive and well in some parts of the country – I have lived in Montreal.  And while our police fortunately don’t tolerate the trigger-happy yahoos that seem so common in the US, I know of black families who have lost children to unnecessary police shootings.

And then there is our own national shame, our own original sin: the treatment of First Nations people. We have heard from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the suffering of the Residential Schools: about the crimes of the abusers in the schools, but more than that how destructive the whole system was to Native children and their families – a system set up by people who may have had the best of intentions, except they were blinded by racism.  We have learned that child welfare programs on reserve, serving the very families devastated by the legacy of the residential schools, have been chronically underfunded.  We know of unimaginable levels of poverty on some reserves, and of conditions (the lack of drinkable water, for example) that would be considered unacceptable in any other community.  We know of horrendous rates of suicide among first nations youth, and that First Nations men and women are hugely over-represented in the prison system.

Now all of this talk of racism can seem a bit abstract, a bit far away from our life in the Valley.  We are good, decent people here; Nova Scotians are really nice; surely there are no racists here.

I would suggest that the problem is not primarily racists, not people who embrace their prejudices and nurture hatred towards others.  Sure, they’re a problem too.  For example, somebody keeps vandalising the black history museum in Birchtown.  But real, intentional racists are fortunately  rare.  The bigger problem is racism itself, bigger than any one racist, bigger than any of us.

What do I mean by this? Well, I just read about an interesting psychological study which illustrates the point beautifully.  College students were shown pictures of objects, and asked to categorize them in a split second decision as toys or weapons.  The signal that the picture was about to appear was the face of a five-year-old child flashed across the screen.  Guess what: when a black child was shown, participants were far more likely to see an object as a weapon; when it was a white child, they saw a toy.  They were, subconsciously, already seeing five-year-old black children as a threat.  Five-year-olds!  It would be almost comical — except that when the children grow into young men, it can be deadly for them.

Were they racists, these college kids taking the test?  Probably not, not on any conscious accountable level.  They would probably stand up for the ideal that all races are equal, they would never consciously discriminate, they may well have black friends. But unconsciously, they have been primed to react with fear.  Would I have passed the test?  Of course I would! Except I don’t really know that, nor do any of us.  I like to think I would, but why should I be exempt from the general poison that is in the air?

Because that is the thing about sin the church has always taught: it’s not just the bad decisions we make, the sinful thoughts and desires we push away and yet cling to, the habits of meanness and selfishness.  Sin is also something that was waiting for us when we arrived in this world, the distortions and injustice of the culture we were born into, which we absorb with our mothers milk, which becomes part of us.  Original sin.  Racism may be connected with our most primitive fears of what is other, it may be our reptile brain speaking.  But it is also nurtured by all kinds of cultural assumptions about what other people are like.

We have names for these kinds of sins: racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, militarism, classism.  All the “isms”. Our names are ugly and abstract.  The Bible has names for these things too.  It calls them powers and principalities, and associates them with demons and fallen angels and Satan.  This language may seem naive to us, even alarming, but it has the advantage of being concrete and close to home.  When we in our baptism renounce Satan and all his works, this is what we are talking about.  Not a fairytale figure with horns and a tail, but the real-life reality of hateful, unhealthy social attitudes that are both bigger than us and part of us, even as we hate them.  We renounce them, but they are still in our cultural DNA in ways we cannot even see.

What can we do?  Well, as Pope Francis says, we can practice giving up indifference to people for Lent.  Now I don’t for a moment think that anyone here is actively indifferent to the plight of others, any more than that anyone here is a real racist.  When we hear others’ stories, we react with compassion and try to understand.  But there is also a passive indifference, that consists in not actively seeking out the stories of others and trying to understand them.   The simple fact is that because we do not have to experience the prejudice that others experience, we have a choice about whether to worry about it.  This is called white privilege: white privilege has many forms, but at its most basic level it consists in the fact that concerning ourselves with racism can seem optional to us.  The way to give up this kind of indifference is, then, to actively seek out the stories and experiences of others, to actively try to understand and care.

Fortunately, there are enough voices speaking out that it is not hard to educate ourselves.  The Black Lives Matter movement, or the aboriginal Idle No More movement here in Canada – these are  signs of hope to me that we may be at a point in our history where things might be changing.  I can only encourage you: look for their stories, their perspectives, their opinions.  If you are active online, they are not hard to find.  You find them on the TV news, on the radio. Listen.  Try to put aside the defensiveness that so easily comes up, the temptation to judge or dismiss.  Try simply to understand.

And when you hear voices blaming or complaining about different ethnic groups, be suspicious. When you hear the voices complaining about Muslims, for example, realize you are not hearing the whole story. Understand that issues like the niqab are complex, that intelligent, liberated Muslim women are themselves divided.  When you hear of a pool in Halifax offering women-only swim times to reach out to Muslim immigrants, try to be compassionate, try to see things from their perspective.  And make sure you get your facts straight.  And if your radio station is constantly drumming up suspicion and intolerance – get a new radio station!

And pray!  It sounds deceptively simple, but there is a lot in it.  It is one thing to look upon others as brothers and sisters in the abstract, as children of the one God.  In prayer – as in relationship – we put this truth into practise, entering into the experience and perspective of others by listening, caring, empathizing in the very presence of God, and so let our minds and hearts be changed. We are not all cut out to be activists, to stand up in front of others and try to change their minds and hearts.  But we can take responsibility for our own minds and hearts, we can educate ourselves, we can practise giving up indifference.  This is the fast that God chooses:

to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.        Amen.