Sermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, Memorial Church of Harvard University, July 05, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Any seasoned preacher will tell you, never begin a sermon with the definition. Beware of the sermon that begins with, "well, I consulted Merriam Webster." Friends, that is exactly what I'm going to do, so please bear with me.
A 22-year-old black woman from Missouri named Kennedy Mitchum wrote to the editors of Merriam Webster in late May, as the protests against racism and police brutality swelled across the country. She shared that the dictionary's current definition of racism was inadequate. She wrote "racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person's skin as it states in your dictionary. It is a prejudice combined with social and institutional power, a system of advantage based upon skin color."
An editor replied to Kennedy's letter the next day, writing, "the usage of racism to specifically describe the intersection of race based prejudice with social and institutional oppression is becoming more and more common. While our focus will always be on faithfully reflecting the real word usage of a word, not on promoting any particular viewpoint, we have concluded that omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself. It also does a disservice to readers of all races."
This is just one example of how our national conversation about race and racism has deepened over the past two months. White Americans are learning about the embedded structures and systems in place that uplift their wellbeing at the expense of black Americans. Racism is interwoven in the DNA of our history and our being. It has dictated where we live, how schools are funded, who gets jobs, who has clean water to drink, who has access to medical care, who can vote, just to name a few.
Many white Americans are seeing for the first time or admitting for the first time that racism is strangling the breadth of liberty and justice out of our country. America has never fully recognized racism as a complex system that depends upon the cooperation of its institutions to prevail, institutions that are academic, political, commercial.
I once read about an increase of one way streets put into city centers during the 1980s and 90s. The often cited reason for the installation of these one way streets was to help with traffic flow and alleviate congestion. Another and less publicly shared reason was one way streets increased the number of potential traffic violations. This provided police officers with the opportunity to pull people over for a pretext stop.
A pretext stop can be thought of as a stop and frisk for drivers. A police officer uses a traffic violation such as turning down a one way street as an excuse to stop a driver, when the officer actually wants to stop them for other reasons, such as a suspected drug violation. A police officer has the freedom to pull over anyone they deem suspicious, often targeting people of color.
Our public infrastructure has been changed to accommodate racial profiling, and sometimes leaving people of color at risk of police violence, such as was with the case with Philando Castile. This practice is just a tiny cog in the machinery in what has been described as the prison, industrial complex.
Michelle Alexander in her seminal book, the New Jim Crow, addresses the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. She explores how new modes of racism have led the United States, not only do they have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also a disproportionately large rate of imprisonment of black men. The prison industrial complex, specifically targets people of color and then relegates them to "a second class status analogous to Jim Crow."
It is easy for the American public to pretend that the incarcerated do not exist. We lock them away and discard the key. However, I can no longer drive down a one way street without wondering why it is there.
As the national conversation turns to better understanding how laws and institutions perpetuate racism, it can divert white Americans attention away from how we personally have been complicit, how have we benefited from racism? How have we perpetuated it? What is being done in our name? Systematic racism becomes something to discuss in a book group, yet when we leave it as a subject to be studied, we remain off the hook. We do not hold ourselves accountable for changing it.
The direction of the one way street of systemic racism might feel like it is out of our control, yet the road has been paved by our collective sin. Our sins are the bricks that lay the path we travel along and determine where we are headed.
Recently in a mural, Memorializing George Floyd was painted in my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, against a rainbow backdrop, is the portrait of George Floyd accompanied by these words, all mothers were summoned when he called out for his mama. These words haunt me as a mother. Yes, the protests had been about systemic racism, white supremacy and police violence. They have also been about personal grief and trauma. The injustice about the death of a man who reserved his last breath to call for his mama. No mother wants their child to die that way. Any preservationist barrier I created between, George Floyd and myself tumbled down when I saw that mural. It was my responsibility as a Christian to love him as a neighbor, and it was my responsibility as a mother to protect him as a son.
These days, many of us who are white are examining how we have been complicit in systemic racism, for the first time or more deeply. I think about my white friend who just had a baby. It was heartbreaking for her to realize that her unborn child would inevitably participate in a racist system merely from the fact that she was born into a society that was structured to privilege her over black and brown babies.
Paul's conception of sin helps us to better understand the dynamic between systematic racism and individual racist acts. Our first scripture lesson for today, read by KMarie Tejeda comes from Paul's letter to the Romans. In our current context, his words can be particularly difficult to hear. "I do not understand my own actions for I do not what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. Sin dwells in me. Evil lies close at hand."
Paul understands that there are two dimensions to sin. There are lowercase sins, that is, individual wrongdoings or transgressions that a person performs, for example, using the N word or disregarding someone is unintelligent based upon the color of their skin. That would be that kind of sin.
Then there is sin, sin with a capital S. This sin is a proclivity towards alienation, separation from God and one another. It permeates our collective existence. It is so much more than individual actions. Paul describes it as an underlying condition to the human experience. Individual acts of sin or sins or the symptoms or manifestations of capital S sin. This underlying proclivity towards alienation.
Paul's understanding of sin is that it is much more than the son of misdeeds. Sin takes advantage of a person and compels one contrary to one's best understanding in actions. This understanding of sin speaks to our country's systemic racism, designed and maintained to uplift white Americans by standing on the necks of black Americans.
Many of us who are white know that racism is real and white supremacy reigns. We realized that it shapes the contours of our very beings, yet, we continue to perpetuate these conditions, even though we denounce them, because they dwell in us.
I appreciate Paul's blunt and simple words because they shorten the distance between systemic racism and our personal responsibility to dismantle it. His words pull me up short, much as the words on the George Floyd mural do too.
A response to sinfulness that Paul offers is repentance. Repentance has two meanings. First, repentance means to be remorseful or to seek forgiveness. It looks a lot like confession. This understanding of repentance, however, does not necessarily mean that one alters one's behavior. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace, because you are forgiven, you can stay as you are and enjoy the constellations of forgiveness. There is no call for discipleship in this interpretation of the gospel.
The second meaning of repentance is to turn around or to change direction. Here, the question becomes, how do we repent for the sins of racism, both systemic and individualistic. Perhaps these questions have a particular resonance for us this year, even more than other years, as we celebrate the 4th of July and consider a new how we might form a more perfect union.
Have you ever looked at Harvard yard and seeing the places where the grass is worn and well-trodden, despite the presence of paved walkways? These are called desire paths. Desire paths are the trails that pop up in public space when enough people take the same shortcut. If you found yourself tracing a track of dirt, cutting across an otherwise green lawn or pleasing your boots in the snowy footprints of those who traveled before, you were on a desire path.
A wise soul once told me that we shaped the road and then the road shapes us. Despite designer's best intentions for us to follow the paved path, we find these invisible walkways and sometimes create them ourselves. They become a new way. Where are the desire paths that depart from the road paved by systemic racism and oppression, and that take us to a new destination? What are the first steps? Are we willing to take them? And who are our companions in this journey?
Holidays are an occasion to remember, and it is only when we are truthful about how we got here, that we can begin to imagine another way forward.