Five Smooth Stones

This is the sermon I preached today, the fourth Sunday after the Pentecost.   I used the David and Goliath story, today’s lectionary reading (1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49), to comment upon Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston.

Wednesday’s shooting in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina horrified this nation. Nine people, including its pastor, were shot dead by Dylann Storm Roof. But let’s not dignify Mr. Roof without dignifying the nine who died: the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.

By now we know the details. He sat with in Bible study with his victims for an hour before shooting them. He wore a jacket with white supremacy symbols. He didn’t shoot everyone in the room; he left a few to tell others of his horrendous deed.

Let’s call it for what it was. This was a racially motivated attack. It was a hate crime. It was a terrorist attack aimed at black members of a black church, which holds special and historic significance in the black community. Let’s also not say that the shooter was mentally-ill or a loner or a lost soul. He was a racist who intended to kill black people.

And the public wept. Spoken words expressed outrage and sorrow. Politicians said some variation on, “That’s not who we are.” South Carolina’s governor talked a lot about the need to be in prayer and made a point to say that all of its officials will be in prayer. Others saw hope in that people regardless of race came together for prayer vigils or to express collective sorrow.

But this is what people say after tragedies like this. To say otherwise would sound out of synch. But we’ve been saying this too much. It’s said so often that I feel it has become part of the public ritual that plays out across this land to take away the hurt. Yet, after our public ritual, we return to life as normal, and we ignore race and its weight that bears down upon us.

Race in America. It’s real. It’s in our faces. It was the hot discussion around Rachel Dolezal until the shooting bumped it off the front page. Race in America and its repugnant and ugly children, racism and privilege, are our scourges. Race is a problem, even for people who are not racists. Race is a problem, even for people of color, like me. Race is a problem no matter where someone sits on the political spectrum. Race touches practically every aspect of our lives no matter how we identify ourselves racially. Race is not their problem, but our problem, and if we don’t own this problem, it will consume us.

Race is our Goliath. It looms large over us. It taunts us and we can’t confront it. We’re Saul’s army. Like them we dither in the face of this giant. So, we spew platitudes and say the appropriate things and promise that we will do better, and then we go back to our lives.

In the last twelve months we’ve had shootings by police and Islamists. During the same period we saw street violence in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore. The dramatically different perceptions of those events between whites and people of color expose our racial problem. Note that I’m not saying which side was right or that they were justified or unjustified. My point is that our perspectives and the way we interpreted those events tracked closely with race and that’s our problem.

Consider how the media portrays these events. When a crowd of blacks commit violent acts, they are thugs, but their white counterparts are rowdy. When a gunman of color shoots people indiscriminately, he is a terrorists, but a white gunman is a loner or is mentally ill. When Islamists shot two people outside an art exhibition of images depicting Mohammad, it was characterized as a terrorist attack, but Wednesday’s shooting was a hate crime.

Listening to the talk about terrorism threats, we instinctively look abroad. We look at dark-skinned people with suspicion. We think that terrorism will come from Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but this past week a survey issued by the Police Executive Research Forum reported that last year police departments around the country found that domestic anti-government extremism was almost twice the threat than groups like Al-Qaeda or similar organizations. The New York Times noted that since 9/11 about 20 Islamist terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States causing 50 fatalities whereas right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year accounting for 254 fatalities.[1] And here’s where I get sick. Some quarters of our media portray right-wing extremists as heroes who stand against encroaching government overreach rather than people who are angry that the president is black. As evidence, consider the increase in the number of anti-government Patriot groups since 2008. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 149 in 2008 and is currently at 874, which is down from the high in 2012 of 1360.[2]

But let’s not think that race is not some abstract problem which has no bearing here and now in this time and place, especially in this little corner of God’s creation. Take the article this past week in the Berkshire Eagle about Pitt Park. The local NAACP chapter wants the basketball courts fixed in time for the West Side’s Gather In festival at the end of July. The city says it can’t work that fast due to the competitive bidding process, but it could make some temporary patches. It all seems reasonable, except that Pittsfield’s West Side has gotten too little attention from the city for years. It’s been the city’s step-child who isn’t quite loved enough to get even the crumbs which fall from the table. Pitt Park is the stand-in for our racial divide.

I don’t often talk about race from the pulpit as I am today. It comes out from time to time in the way I see contemporary issues, such as proposals for immigration reform which advocate deportation or building a wall, which, I’ll be blunt, I see as racist. But on a whole I don’t make it a defining part of my ministry. Yet, I am fully aware that I am often the only person of color in most of the congregations I visit. Last week at the Massachusetts Conference Annual Meeting Amy saw a vendor who made religious jewelry out of stone. As her birthday is today and she was fairly confident that I hadn’t gotten her anything, she picked out a piece. She then told him that when he saw a Chinese man to tell him this is what she wanted. He found me because I was the only Chinese man among 300 people.

It’s not that our congregations, our association, our Conference, or even our denomination is racist, but the absence of people of color is another example of race as our collective problem.

We’re not even aware that race taints almost every aspect of our lives in this nation. Recently Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute traced the way government housing policies segregated this country’s metropolitan areas.[3] When we use property taxes to fund our schools, academically struggling schools track closely to poor communities where the student body is predominately not white. Our jails and prisons house black men at a rate far exceeding their percentage of the general population. Sociologically, this has decimated family structures in the black community.

The black scholar Cornel West wrote, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society – flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as a ‘them,’ the burden falls upon blacks to do all the ‘cultural’ and ‘moral’ work necessary for healthy relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American – and the rest simply ‘fit in.’”[4]

David went to the wadi and chose five smooth stones. Let’s pick up the stones from the wadi through which love runs. Love made them smooth. But these stones are not just any stones. Our stones have names:

  • Compassion – this goes without saying. We have to approach race and each other with open hearts.
  • Empathy – we won’t begin to strike down Goliath unless we have empathy for each other. We cannot begin to close our divide without knowing and understanding the cultural, historical, and sociological contexts of each others’ lives.
  • Courage – We have to have courage to listen to words and perspectives that might hurt us because they overturn what we have always thought about ourselves.
  • Forgiveness – which is not just what we might have personally done or not done, but also to forgive for wounds inflicted in the past, especially the sins of omission.
  • Atonement – we cannot move forward without acknowledging and reconciling the sins inflicted in the past. Furthermore, what steps moving forward must we take to rectify the damage that was incurred?

The Goliath that is race in America will taunt us and diminish us as a people if we do not step forward to take it on. It is far more damaging than any external threat from beyond our borders. We must talk, ideally in settings where whites and people of color can sit together, but even if it is all one race, we must talk.

[1] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer. The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat. The New York Times. June 16, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/opinion/the-other-terror-threat.html

[2] http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism

[3]http://www.npr.org/2015/05/14/406699264/historian-says-dont-sanitize-how-our-government-created-the-ghettos

[4] Cornel West. Race Matters. Vintage Books:New York. 1994 Pages 6

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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