on the Lectionary Texts
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
of The African Methodist Episcopal Church have asked all Christians to make
this coming Sunday, September 6, 2015, a day to preach about racism and call
for acts leading to its eradication in the United States.
It’s a bold call. And it’s one United Methodists are already committed to, both
in our baptismal covenant and in our official resolutions. In baptism, we
pledge to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers
of this world, and repent of our sin” (not just feel sorry, but change our
ways), and, “accept[ing] the freedom and power Christ gives us, … resist evil,
injustice and oppression in every form in which they present themselves”… “in
union with the church which Christ opens to people of all ages nations and
races.” If that weren’t enough, we say, flat out, “The UMC is committed to the
eradication of racism”, and we call for “every annual conference, district and
local congregation within the US have a strategy and a program which educates
and supports systemic and personal changes to end racism and work
multiculturally,” even requiring those preparing for ordination to participate
in multicultural education and anti-racism training (Resolution 3374, 2012 Book of Resolutions, pp. 453-454).
And we even have a general agency, the General Commission on Religion and Race,
to lead the way in helping us all acknowledge dismantle racism wherever and
however it manifests itself.
On paper then, at least, and in our baptismal commitments, we are “on this.”
And this Sunday, so is the Revised Common Lectionary.
This Sunday and these readings provide a reality check to see whether we are
actually on this, and what next steps we need to take to become more on this
than we currently are.
Our Full Communion Partner, the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has developed additional worship resources you may find helpful.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Where the Proverbs speak of “rich
and poor” they also speak of privileged and oppressed. Racism in America is in
part a system to maintain the privilege of those already privileged, primarily
those of British and Western European descent, and to ensure those who are not
in the privileged caste, primarily persons of African and indigenous American
descent, can never have access to the full benefits of the privileged that
racist systems protect.
does exactly what Proverbs 22:22 calls us not to do. It robs the poor (whom we
have systematically made poor) because
they are poor, and crushes the afflicted at the gate.
This is what policies and processes that make it harder for the poor to escape
poverty systematically and effectively inflict. Reducing investments in public
transportation, increasing barriers to getting needed assistance (medical,
financial or psychological), and both gerrymandering and restrictions on voter
registration system all lead to keeping the poor stuck in poverty and making
their voice to reverse these possibilities increasingly unlikely to be heard.
On top of that, in many places we, in effect, criminalize poverty. Requiring
drug testing as a condition of receiving financial support treats all the poor
as if they were criminals. Laws or
enforcement policies that disproportionately target the lives of the poor make
it much more likely more of the poor (African American, Hispanic/Latino, and
Native American) will be arrested. And the penalties assigned to those of the
poor found guilty are often far more stringent than those assigned to persons
of privilege (Euro-descended, middle class and up).
Look around you. Who are the poor and afflicted? In the US, the largest number
of the poor are in fact of European descent1, in part because the largest
number of people who live here still are. But the percentages of African
Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans who are poor or in
prison are dramatically higher. The 2014 Current Population Survey Data show
that while 9.6% of persons of European descent live in poverty, 23.5% of
Hispanic/Latino and 27.1% of African Americans do2. This is not the result of a
defect in the character of persons of these ethnicities. It is the result of either
blatant disobedience or appalling ineffectiveness in fulfilling our baptismal
calling to renounce, reject, repent, and resist the evil of racism in the name
of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today is a day to renew our commitment to our baptismal calling. Renounce,
reject, and repent of the evils of racism in which you participate. Receive and
use the freedom and power Christ gives you to resist this and every form of
evil, injustice and oppression. And commit to making sure your local
congregation, district and conference are actively working to dismantle racism
where you are.
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Racism as we know it did not exist as a phenomenon during the time of Jesus and
the early Christians described in the Bible. Racism is a social construction
that developed to underwrite and support European supremacy during the era of
international European colonialism over the global South beginning in the 16th
century. In the US, it has manifested as a caste system to ensure the supremacy
of the mostly Western European colonizers of North America, particularly
against the indigenous peoples (Native Americans) and the African slaves bought
and sold to reduce the labor costs for its expanding agrarian-industrial
economy for the benefit of the upper castes.
did not exist in early Christianity. But James makes clear that prejudicial
treatment against the poor (who in our context in the US are also
disproportionately the targets of racism) and preferential treatment of the
rich did exist even among early Christians. And he makes it equally clear that
both are sin.
Indeed, James indicates these sins of preference and prejudice call into
question whether we are Christian at all. “My brothers and sisters, do you with
your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
(James 2:1, NRSV). James is not playing. He’s quite serious. If we give any
preference to the privileged (in the US setting, “white privilege” and the
privilege of those who are wealthy) and treat the poor (in our context, both
the targets of racism and the poor in general) we have “become judges with evil
thoughts” (verse 4).
We aren’t believers. Our thoughts are evil.
James doesn’t stop there. We’re lawbreakers, too, having broken the “royal law”
(2:8) of loving all neighbors as ourselves by showing partiality to some and
supremacy over others (2:9). Indeed, he says, this sin makes us accountable for
having broken all of the law (2:10).
And James still doesn’t stop. If we expect to have mercy shown to us by our
Judge, we must show the same mercy to all, and especially to those who need it
most (2:13). And we must actually show it, not simply have good intentions, or
offer words of blessing to those in need. Unless we are actively supporting our
neighbors who are poor, overcoming the effects of racism in their lives (and
ours!) and dismantling racist systems where we can, whatever faith we think we
have is dead.
We have work to do.
We must follow the royal law, and actually love our neighbors, all of them, as
We must end the deference to the privileged and all actions and attitudes of
supremacy over the poor and the targets of racism in this country in our own
hearts and congregations.
We must show mercy to all, always, and especially to those who for whatever
reason find themselves in the most vulnerable position—the poor and the targets
We must actually believe what we say we believe, that “God has chosen the poor
in this world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that [God] has
promised to those who love him” (2:5, NRSV).
We must honor the poor, and all those whom racism actively dishonors.
And to do any of this, we must entrust ourselves to the mercy of God, that God
may enliven our dead faith, free us from the power of racism and predisposition
to honor the wealthy and dishonor the poor, and convert us into conduits of
mercy to every neighbor as each has need.
Mark 7:24-30 (31-37)
Racism as we know it did not exist in the time of Jesus
and the early church, but sexism and nationalism did (and still does). Sexism,
like racism, builds social systems that elevate one group (in this case, males)
and oppress or subjugate the other (in this case females). And nationalism
asserts people of one’s own nation or tribe are superior and worthy of greater
attention from God and the wider world than those of others.
We see both of these at play, and we see Jesus ultimately acting to dismantle
both, in the first part of today’s gospel lesson.
While on vacation in Tyre, a Gentile city in the Gentile country of
Syro-Phoenecia, an ancient enemy state of Israel, a Gentile woman, also
Syrophoenician, asks Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon.
Even Jesus struggles with this, it seems. He puts her off with the typical
nationalist answer, that his own people deserve his attention before he deals
with the needs of the Gentiles (Mark 7:27).
But she does not let him get away with that. She rejects the nationalist
excuse. She presses on, noting that in fact even the dogs are fed at the same
time as the children as crumbs fall from the table of the children (7:28). In
other words, nationalism may treat some as less than human, but God makes sure
all are fed.
We do not know why Jesus said what he said, other than that he really didn’t
want to be bothered at all on this trip. He was genuinely trying to get away
from everyone for a while (7:24). What we do know is he saw this Gentile woman
had remarkable faith in the very kingdom of God he had been proclaiming
elsewhere, a kingdom in which salvation was in fact brought to all people, not
just a chosen, privileged few. And he announced the child was delivered from
the demon. Indeed, when the woman arrived home, she found her daughter was set
Jesus broke at least two socially constructed barriers here. He broke
nationalism, by announcing the deliverance of a Gentile. He broke sexism, by
ultimately responding to the need brought to him by a woman—the first time we
see that happening anywhere in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus healed Peter’s
mother-in-law, this appeared to be at the request of Peter and the other male
disciples, not her request (1:30). And when the woman with the issue of blood
was healed, it wasn’t something he apparently had voluntarily chosen to do
(6:30). He’d even refused to deal with a request from his own mother after she
had tracked him down because she was concerned about him (3:31). Now, for the
first time, confronted by a foreign, pagan woman asking for help for her
daughter, he responds directly to her, and deliverance flows.
Perhaps Mark told this story in part to that Jesus grew in awareness of the
scope of his mission, message and ministry over time, just as we see the early
church growing in its awareness in Acts.
If so, then this story can be good news for those of us who may have been
unaware of the scope of our own baptismal calling, and that it includes taking
direct action that resists every form
of evil, injustice and oppression as part of a church that Christ has opened to
people of all ages, nations and
When the woman pressed her case, challenging his nationalist rhetoric and
sexist dismissal of her, Jesus acted, breaking both.
If we accept the freedom and power he offers us, as we promise we will at
baptism, we, too, can, and will, do the same with racism.
While we have no word at this point from other partners about specific follow
up actions to this observance on September 6, Lent marks a wonderful time to do
extended work around this theme. Lent, after all, is the season for preparing
candidates to live out the baptismal vows, and, as we’ve seen already, our
baptismal vows address racism and all other forms of injustice and oppression in
a direct and powerful way. Several United Methodist churches in the Atlanta
area are already in the beginning stages of planning a seven week Lenten
weeknight series to address racism there, and there is some discussion about
theming these weekly gatherings to address hands-on, practical applications of
our baptismal vows.
Certainly, one day to call attention to racism in worship is not nearly enough
to fulfill our stated commitment as a church to dismantle it at all levels,
including our congregations, districts, and conferences. If your church doesn’t
currently have a plan and a program to work at this, perhaps your next step is
to take the next several weeks or months to begin to develop one. If you have
one, perhaps from now through the end of the Season after Pentecost you may
make particular efforts to draw more attention to it and make it work more
effectively than it now does.
As disciples of Jesus, we have no choice but to confess, repent from, resist
and seek to dismantle racism wherever and however it appears. As persons filled
with many gifts from the Holy Spirit, we have the resources among us and our
neighbors to accomplish much.
So, let’s do it.
Or, as our General Conference theme for 2016 calls us: