A Vision of Racism and the Cross
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31 through 46.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I visited West Hills Friends Church in the fall of 2017, my first day in Oregon. Mike brought the message that day. He read the Parable of the Talents and then shared his own parable. The lesson he was taking from the Parable of the Talents was that those who are entrusted with a little work and are faithful will be given more work to do for God’s Kingdom. His examples were all related to antiracist action: speaking up about hiring discrimination, protesting, and simply acknowledging the importance of protest, even when it’s inconvenient. That last one complained about how inconvenient protests are. That last one corresponded to the servant who buried the talent instead of putting it to work. That last one closed their heart to doing the work for the Kingdom of God.
An interesting thing happened that day, though. As we settled into silence before Mike rose to speak, I had a vision. I saw Christ, on his hands and knees, bleeding from the scourging, in the middle of the meeting room. And then Mike gave that message about doing the work of antiracism for God’s Kingdom.
I believed there was a significance to that timing. It is easy for white Americans to be lulled into gradualism. It is easy for white Americans to tell ourselves that Martin Luther King, Jr solved racism; that’s practically how it’s taught in school. It is easy for white Americans to view racism as the rare actions of a few “bad apples,” and to think of it only in terms of a glass ceiling. But this sin touches everything in our society, and it is a matter of life and death. White supremacy is urgent.
I had never told anyone before that I am someone who has religious visions, but the gifts of the Spirit are given to be used. Two weeks later, I returned to my yearly meeting, which the teens and young adults were pushing to commit to antiracism, having had a painful annual session. It was a difficult business meeting. There was a lot of pushback against the idea of being antiracist. I shared the vision with them. I was not composed. I’m not sure everyone necessarily made the connection, but the clerk did. She didn’t let the conversation end. Another meeting was called to continue talking about antiracism. Eventually, we made the commitment to be antiracist and devised antiracist queries to use in our decision-making.
Today’s reading is what ties together that vision with Mike’s message. The meaning I took from it is found in Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Christ is suffering along with all who are oppressed in our society. As Christ was killed as the innocent scapegoat for humanity’s sin, white America has killed and continues to kill our Black siblings as innocent scapegoats for all the fears and anxieties we hold about our society.
In the introduction to his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H Cone writes:
Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.
Christ is being crucified again and again, in the bodies of our Black siblings. Christ has been crucified 5000 times in this country. How many times has Christ been imprisoned? How many times has Christ been assaulted?
Christ’s one death was supposed to be enough.
After the 1963 church bombing in Alabama that killed 4 little girls, James Baldwin went on the radio with white theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to talk about it. In response to Niebuhr saying something like “not all white people” to him, Baldwin responded, “I don’t suppose that all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself.”
That crime of silence is one our Quaker institutions participated in 200 years ago. While some European American Quakers went on the road giving abolitionist lectures, yearly meetings insisted it was wrong to do anything political. They deemed the use of politics to be coercive. Like other churches, Quaker meetings refused to allow abolitionist meetings to be included in the after-meeting announcements.
There’s a new abolitionist movement: police abolition. This time, at least one Quaker institution is not being silent. On Friday, the American Friends Service Committee joined the national call to defund the police and instead invest in communities. To take a phrase from George Fox, these investments would “take away the occasion” of so many things in which we currently expect police to intervene.
Then and now
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally killed by a pair of white men, on a white woman’s word that he’d whistled at her. Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmett’s mother, had an open casket wake and funeral. She explained, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” 600,000 people came to the funeral. Photos of his body went around the world. Today, we’d say his killing went viral. That was the spark that lit the fire of the Civil Rights Movement, which culminated 9 years later in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, 6 days of rioting, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
We are 6 years into a new Civil Rights Movement, the Movement for Black Lives, sparked by the same viral publication of Black death, of the lynching of Michael Brown. Actor Will Smith is on record as having said, “racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” If any of us felt we could deny the reality that the Civil Rights Act did not solve racism once and for all, we surely cannot deny it any longer. As we have put our Black siblings on the cross repeatedly, it’s time for the rest of us to take up our own crosses.
Taking up our cross
In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus says,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
For European American Friends, taking up our cross may mean losing our carnal family in favor of our spiritual family when we speak up. Yet, we must speak up. And so, I’m going to propose some new queries, in the style of those in Jesus’ story.
When did we hear you being disparaged or disrespected and “keep the peace” by ignoring it?
When did we see you on the playground at recess and conclude it was a bad school?
When did we see you moving in next door and worry about the neighborhood and our property values?
When did we see you walking or jogging down the street and decide your mere presence was suspicious?
When did we hear you calling out for your life to be valued and respond with cliche?
When did we see you dying and do nothing to stop it?
When did we hear you mourning your son and say he was no angel?
When did we hear you crying out for justice and demand you keep a calm, even tone if you want to be taken seriously?
When did we see you angry at injustice and death and show we value possessions over your life?
When did we see you lash out in anger at the murder of your siblings, as you lashed out at the economic injustice in the Temple courtyard, and treat it as equal to or worse than 400 years of imprisonment, enslavement, rape, and murder?
Friends are often proud of the abolitionist work of our spiritual forebears. In the style of George Fox, it seems fitting to ask: “you may say John Woolman sayeth this, and 19th century Quakers say that, but what canst thou say?”
What will we say? What will our actions say? What will our budgets say? In the words of James, the brother of Jesus, “faith without works is dead.”