That Can’t Be Right
Sermon Title “That Can’t Be Right” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! As I mentioned earlier, this is the first Sunday of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.
During Lent, we remember the difficult path which Jesus took to the cross: while some who heard his message responded with enthusiasm and belief, others were skeptical, defensive, dismissive or hostile. I’ll be asking you to journey with me and your sisters and brothers at Creekside this Lent. I am going to be preaching about faith and race, and what it means for us as people and as the church to live in a society which has been infected by racism. This might be a rough journey — it has been for me so far, and I am just getting started. So I want to share some ground rules which I have committed to for myself, and which I invite you to consider as you listen, and hopefully participate in discussions in Sunday School classes, during Lent or after Lent.
Here are some things I am not going to do. I am not going to call you names. Specifically, I am not going to accuse anyone of being racist, or characterize them as a racist. I know that you all bring a variety of experiences and beliefs to the table: you have co-workers and friends who are people of color; you have guests in your home or members of your family who are black or brown. I am not going to pretend that I know the contents of your hearts.
I am going to make some assumptions, based on pretty reliable observation. I am going to assume that you are good people; I regularly experience you as good people in any number of ways. I assume you never have and never would participate in acts of hate against anyone, of any color. You are probably courteous and respectful to everyone you come in contact with, especially people of color who you encounter in the grocery store aisle or check-out line, or in a restaurant or at the doctor’s office. If solving the problem of racism was as simple as everyone being nice to other people, I bet you all would do great. But I believe racism is more complicated than that.
Finally, I am going to assume that we’re all white. I don’t mean that to be facetious, and certainly not as a put-down, but its something we need to unpack a bit. I don’t know the contents of your DNA any more than I know the contents of your hearts. Physical characteristics such as skin color, facial structure and hair texture are biologically determined — they are what we inherit from our birth parents, and I believe these are ways which each person is created in the image of God. Skin color is not a measure of intelligence, talent, interests, or work ethic. We may make assumptions about ethnic groups of people, and those may be demonstrably accurate–young black men are 21 times more likely to die of gun violence than young white men — but that reality has been shaped by culture, not biology. Our identity is shaped by what we believe about ourselves, but also by how other people treat us — whether we want to be treated that way or not. This is true for everyone, no matter what skin color you have. I know there are individuals who don’t fit neatly into these cultural categories — white folks who grew up on the mission field in Africa, black children who have been adopted by and raised in white families — but even these folks are likely to be treated according to their appearance, and not their cultural upbringing.
Finally, I’m going to focus on the context I know best, which is my experience in the United States. And although there are many ethnic groups in our country and even in this county, I don’t want this conversation to become about immigration. That’s an issue for another time. I’m mostly going to be using examples from American citizens, English-speakers whose families have been in this country for generations — black Americans.
I want to tell you about my first experience with anti-racism training. I’ll tell you right up front that it is not a profile in courage or insight. This was 2005, at student orientation for AMBS. I had been out of school for 20 years, mostly at home with young children, and I was pretty intimidated by signing up for graduate-level classes with classmates who were a decade or two younger than me. I got to the Orientation session, and they announced we were going to have anti-racism training — maybe they told us in advance and I missed it. In any case, this was the first I’d heard about it, and I thought, Nobody here knows me, and they’re just going to assume I’m racist? That can’t be right. And my next thought was, Well, if they’re going to test us on this material, I will pass with flying colors, because I might be older than all these other students, but I have never done a hateful thing to a black person in my life. I’ve hardly had contact with black people since I moved to Indiana.
The sub-text in my head throughout the training was That can’t be right. One of the black presenters said racism is worse now than it was in the Jim Crow Era. And I thought: we had a civil rights movement in this country, we have anti-discrimination laws. That can’t be right. I did have sense enough not to say that out loud. It was bad enough that I was automatically suspect just because I’m white, I wasn’t going to open my mouth and say something which would be used against me. But I left that session upset and questioning whether I had made a mistake signing up for graduate-level classes. I remember that it was a rough day, and I’m not sure I handled it well. I hope you will do better than I did.
I still have a ways to go in learning about racism and anti-racism. But here is something I believe, and where I think this conversation intersects with today’s text about Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We cannot address a problem — whether it’s a systemic social issue or a personal sin — until we acknowledge that a problem exists. The theological word for this acknowledgment is confession. Confession has two parts: first is a confession of sin, separation, or wrong-doing: forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned. The second part of confession is a statement that Jesus has the power to heal hurt, brokenness, and shame: every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I will remind us to hold those aspects of confession in either hand through this season. Those are the guardrails which will keep us from veering off into the muck of “Oh, I’m such a terrible person, there’s nothing I can do” on one side of the road, and cheap grace on the other. The grace of Christ is a powerful thing; but we cannot receive it until we have gone through the pain of realizing that we need it. Grace is not a way to avoid responsibility, it is an instrument of transformation.
In the time we have left to consider this text from Genesis, I want you to remind you of two sayings — possibly based on this story. The first is What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You, and the second is Ignorance is Bliss. The Rosanna response to both of these is That Can’t Be Right. Who would ever raise their children or send them off to college and say, “Shhh . . . we’re not going to tell them anything, and that way they’ll be safe!” Or, “Don’t learn anything, you’ll be so much happier!” Those statements — what you don’t know can’t hurt you, and ignorance is bliss — those only work if you’re living in the Garden of Eden. And I don’t know if you’ve looked around lately, but that is not where we live. Adam and Eve made sure of that. We live in a place where sin has come and taken root in our neighborhood.
God told the first woman and man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. When the serpent saw Eve eying that fruit, it said, “Oh go ahead, take a bite” and Eve replied, “God told us not to touch it, or we will die.” And the serpent said, “Nah, you won’t die.” So Eve ate the fruit and gave some to Adam too. And you know what? They didn’t die. What did happen is that their eyes were opened: and for the first time, they realized that they were naked. And they were ashamed. That was the end of ignorance as bliss. Because there are some things that once we know them, we can’t un-know them. And by the way, Adam and Eve did die. Not immediately, but the serpent was a liar and God was true to what God told them. What they did know did hurt them and everyone after them.
Ignorance is not the same as innocence. We may not have realized the impact of racism — either on ourselves or on communities of color — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t our problem. When we hear stories about the death of black people in this country — Tyre Nichols, Ahmad Aubury, Brianna Taylor, Michael Brown, George Floyd, and we think That Can’t Be Right, we are correct: that can’t be right. That can’t be right for God’s children to be beaten, shot, or suffocated for being in the wrong place or encountering the wrong people. That can’t be right in a country which prides itself on liberty and justice for all. That can’t be right for communities of faith to ignore injustice, to wonder what the victims did to deserve it, or hope that if we act like it didn’t happen and don’t talk about it, it will go away on its own or someone else will take care of it. That can’t be right. That isn’t right. Ignorance may have been bliss, but Genesis tells us that knowledge has consequences.This Lenten journey is a rough path. I hope we can be gentle with one another along the way. Facing and discussing difficult realities doesn’t make it OK to be arrogant or mean; it doesn’t mean that if you disagree with me or anyone else that you are a bad person. But if we are committed to being a community of Christ, we need to be able to love one another through difficult discussions. If we are committed to following Christ, we have to walk on rough paths in order to get to the hope and promise of new life. We need to confess that the love of God is greater than the troubles of this world, and the love of God can lead us to place where things can be made right. Amen