I've just finished a three-week sermon series I've called, "Racism in America: What Presbyterians Can Learn from South Africa." I wrote about the series here.
Below is the written sermon. A number of people have asked for it. And there are some things, especially at the end that will need deeper reflection and sustained action.
“To Stand Where the Lord Stands”
Jeremiah 31.7-9/Luke 4.14-19 October 25, 2015
Third in the Series: “Racism in America: What Presbyterians Can Learn from South Africa”
1. A new confession
We Reformed and Presbyterian Christians in America have theological cousins in South Africa. Our Dutch Reformed cousins in South Africa are, just as we are, descended from European settlers. But there in South Africa, whites and blacks who read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus, have until recently worshipped in congregations segregated along racial lines. They did this because many of them believed that’s the way God wants it. And, until recently, our Christian cousins made their theology political. They not only participated in the government’s official policy of racial segregation, discrimination, and oppression, but they helped sponsor it theologically. It was, frankly, a policy, maintained by Christian theology, that kept people in their places. Whites at the top, coloreds and blacks below.
While America, as a whole, has never had an official, federal government-backed policy of racial segregation, we have had our own ugly history of discrimination, oppression, and injustice against non-whites. The Jim Crow laws in our southern states are as close to South Africa’s Apartheid as we’ve come. Let’s be honest with ourselves, we Americans have probably oppressed more people for a much longer period of time than did South Africa. And honestly, while we’ve had no official church policy of worshipping separately based on race, Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated time of the week in America. We are not so different from our South African cousins.
The decade of the 60s was our long season of struggle against racial injustice. Thanks to courageous people, black and white, we’ve come a long way since those days. But the events of these last two years, from the acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer to the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, makes us wonder how far we’ve really come. Both America and South Africa are struggling to disentangle ourselves from the deep entrenchment of racism and injustice that’s plagued both nations.
The 1970s and 80s was South Africa’s most intense season in its long, painful battle against Apartheid. Courageous people, black, colored, and white, wrestled to free the church from the shackles of racism. The Confession of Belhar, which we’ve been reading as a congregation, is a theological protest against the sin of Apartheid. Started by a small group of black Dutch Reformed seminary students in 1978, it was later adopted by the whole Reformed church, both black and white, as a way to confess the truth of the gospel against the heresy of white supremacy. And now, the Presbyterian Church USA is on course to adopt this confession of faith as a constitutional document guiding the way we American Presbyterians understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our adoption of the Confession is the right thing to do right now in America.
The question is, will it do us and America any good?
2. Echoing the core message of the Bible
We who are reading it know that the Confession of Belhar focuses on three main themes: unity, reconciliation, and justice. These three themes are the core not only of what Jesus did and taught, but of the whole message of the Bible, especially the prophets.
Three Sundays ago, we explored the first theme: unity. We realized that we’re one human race, though a mosaic of peoples. We also explored the way our instinctive fear of the other—so necessary for our early survival as a species—needs to be rewired today. If we are going to survive on this planet whose population may near 15 billion people by the end of the century, we have to learn to get along. We must rewire our instincts, evolve, catalyze a new consciousness. We must become more curious rather than suspicious toward those who are different from us—intrigued by our differences, honoring and valuing what we each bring to what it means to be fully human.
Stories about how you’re doing just this are beginning to roll in.
Last Sunday, one of you—a white man with white hair—told me about a flight home the week following that first sermon on unity. You were seated next to a black man. You got into a conversation and told him about this series at your church. You talked about life and race and the faith you share. And before you landed, you held each other’s hands and prayed for God’s grace to heal our land.
Two Sundays ago, we explored Belhar’s second theme: reconciliation. Reconciliation means we’re not being “saved from” something, but being made “whole for” the healing of God’s creation. The Bible teaches that we, the church of Jesus Christ, are entrusted with God’s ministry of reconciliation.
One of you, wrote me early this week about your response to last week’s sermon on reconciliation. You told me that you’ve put up walls between yourself and someone else. You felt your grievance against them was justified because of a few, what you called, smallish things that rub on you about this person’s personality. You wrote that “my hardness of heart just melted (with the help of a few tears) during worship on Sunday.” And knowing you’d have to face this person this week, you told me you “felt lighter inside, more open, less constricted in my heart.” A day later you emailed again. You said, “My interaction with this person was remarkable, warm, and restorative. Largely, I think, because of what was happening in my own heart.” And then you told me, “When I walked away, I looked up, and there in the sky was, I can hardly believe it, a rainbow.”
Week one taught us to become aware of our reactivity to our differences and move from caution to curiosity. Week two urged us to open our hearts to others and step across the lines that separate us.
This week, week three, the Confession of Belhar and our reading of scripture challenge us to right the wrongs that hold us all captive to injustices that are contrary to God’s desire for the creation. Justice flows from an understanding of our unity and from our commitment to reconciliation.
3. The Lord stands on the side of justice
In our reading from the Old Testament today we hear God’s voice through the prophet Jeremiah. It is a vision for a just world where the most vulnerable are valued, and where those on the margins of society are brought into the center. “For thus says the Lord, I am going to bring them, and gather them. I, the Lord, have become a father to them all.” The Lord stands on the side of justice. 2600 years ago, the prophet spoke this for God, but it has not come to pass. There is still work to be done.
In our reading from the New Testament, Luke tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and he began his ministry by preaching a sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. For his text, he chooses the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus picks up the prophetic message of the Bible and says that God wants to right all wrongs, and create a just and sustainable world where all people can find peace, meaning, and happiness. God stands with those who need justice and intends to bring it to them. And because this is what God wants, this is what Jesus did.
In Nazareth that day, Jesus took his stand where the Lord stands and he set out to set the captives free. And he calls the church to stand with him for there’s still work to be done.
In 1986, the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa—white, black, and colored—stood against the long and brutal history of racial injustice and confessed the truth that God is a God of justice and that the gospel calls the church to be a people of justice. Hear what Belhar prophetically declares:
We believe that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;
We believe that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
We believe that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged, that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Belhar echoes the prophets and stands where Jesus stands.
But the church, despite notable exceptions, has often stood on the side of power and privilege and ignored God’s demand for justice.
What will we do in the days before us?
What will our children do as they carry the world further into the 21st century—a century that demands that we find a way to get along, create justice for all, or there will be no future for us at all?
Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter to God.
Jesus took his stand on this truth. We the church must stand where the Lord stands—against injustice and with the wronged.
What will we do? What can we do?
4. What will we do?
First, we must recognize that despite our progressive history as advocates of racial equality, we are still a church that has no real awareness of how white privilege works and how it holds us all captive to the forces that harm us all. Those of us who are white are captives needing to be set free. And there are black people and brown people and some white people who “stand where the Lord stands” who can help the rest of us enter “the year of the Lord’s favor,” until we all can take our stand . . . where? “Where the Lord stands.”
Second, as we find our way out of captivity we need to repent. At the Rustenburg church conference of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa in 1990, the influential white theologian, Willie Jonker, made a dramatic and moving confession:
“I confess before you and before the Lord, not only my own sin and guilt, and my personal responsibility for the political, social, economical, and structural wrongs that have been done to many of you. Because of this, both you and our whole country are still suffering. I also dare to confess this vicariously in the name of the Dutch Reformed Church, of which I am a member, and for the Afrikaans people as a whole.”
Like whites in South Africa, many of us will have to step away from our blindness to white privilege and our complicity in injustice in order to find a place to “stand where the Lord stands.” We will have to repent—change our lives so that we can take our stand . . . where? Say it with me:
“Where the Lord stands.”
Third, we must persevere in our mission to set the captives free. Ending racial injustice is a long haul. It will require courage, sustained by authentic communities where we learn to foster real conversation, interaction, curiosity, inner transformation, outer and embodied action, and new expressions of life together that bring people together across political, ideological, religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and social divides. As we do so, we will learn to take our stand . . . where?
“Where the Lord stands.”
And fourth, we must be willing to examine every aspect of our life together as a church: the way we worship, the use of our property, the programs we offer, the way we think and behave and organize our life, the leaders we choose, the way we participate in the larger community. And we must root out and dismantle anything and everything that advantages and empowers one race or gender or people group over another. And as we do, we will come to take our stand . . . where?
“Where the Lord stands.”
And we will become agents of the gospel of Jesus Christ who stands where?
“Where the Lord stands.”
And the Lord stands on the side of justice.