RACISM’S UGLY UNDERBELLY

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In these days of recovery from the global pandemic of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the global spiritual pandemic of racism—perhaps a series of spikes in outbreaks—we are right to look first to see whether we have a board stuck in our eye before we note the dust we think may obscure the vision of others.  We are also wise to view the convergence of these pandemic outbreaks as an opportunity to examine ourselves to see if indeed we are all-the-way in “the faith,” and to watch over ourselves lest in our pride we fall.

As a follower of Jesus, I repudiate racism.  This is a matter of commitment to Jesus as Lord.  It strikes me as unthinkable that any trace of racism should lodge in my heart, mind, spirit, sentiments, tendencies, actions or reactions.  Truly.  As soon as I say/write this, though, I recall other attitudes, feelings, tendencies, responses that once lingered within me for some time before I even knew it and then remained for some additional time as I dealt with them and put them aside.  I’m talking about things that are unworthy and contrary to the way of Jesus, such as anger, envy, bitterness and unforgiveness. Likewise, there are things I once put off by the grace of God only later to resurface, sometimes worse than before.  So, I do repudiate racism, and yet I am asking what lingers in my heart that I never knew was there?  Could there be anything within me or about me that allows or aides and abets the racism poisoning our world and threatening, harming and killing people of color?   This has led me to more helpful reflection.

Some would identify “racism” as America’s original sin.  But I would suggest it was more likely white supremacy which then gave birth to the racism that has pervaded our historical and social landscape.  Most instances of the racism we’ve seen (literally) played before our very eyes in recent years has an ideology of white supremacy as its ugly underbelly.

Consider what the signatories of the Declaration of Independence expressed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,”  (my emphasis).  Most of us read this today and assume its accuracy, legitimacy and validity.  Most of us believe implicitly what they declared.  Most of us also assume that they meant what we understand their words to mean.  And, we believe that they actually sought to form a nation on these principles as we understand them.

“Most of us” assume and believe these things.  Many of our sisters and brothers of color, however, know better.  Because, in fact, many of the composers, approvers and signers of the Declaration owned slaves, and those who didn’t saw no problem with the Declaration as it was written.  At least, they did not find the enslaving of Africans incompatible with their Declaration.  So, what were they really saying when they wrote of “all men … endowed by their Creator … inalienable rights … life, liberty, pursuit of happiness?”

Another way to ask the question is this: to whom did “all men” refer?   Clearly it did not include persons of color who were then enslaved.   It also did not include women, white or of color.  The exclusion of women, in turn, confirms that their use of “men” was not a reference to all human beings.  They were excluding women and black people, and they were not declaring the equality and rights of either women or black people.

They were declaring the rights of white people, but especially of white men.  That they did not include persons of color suggests one of two things about how they regarded persons of color.  Persons of color are either not truly/fully human or have not been granted the God-given rights offered to the white men declaring their independence.  Whichever it was, they assumed the supremacy of white people.  They didn’t argue for it, they assumed it.  Then, on this basis, they fought to gain their independence and to form what they described in the Constitution as “a more perfect union.”

At its inception, our nation arose with the presumption of white supremacy, and “the more perfect union” they formed embraced (or enshrined?) the ideology that white people are superior to black people.  Sadly, the white church in America supported this either actively or passively, even within evangelical, revivalist, born-again, Pentecostal, Holiness churches.  Even in denominations which were abolitionist—it is possible to advocate for the freedom of slaves without pursuing their full equality, dignity, and opportunity as the Declaration champions.  It is possible to reject the evil of slavery while continuing to view yourself or group as superior.  Indeed, the presumed white supremacy of enslavers did not have to be renounced in order to emancipate slaves.  One racist practice and system was dismantled—the institution of slavery, but the demolition left its ideological foundation of supremacy largely undisturbed.  Racism’s ugly underbelly is this presumed superiority.  As with racism itself just a smidgen of such superiority corrupts everything it touches.

Therefore, it is not enough for followers of Jesus to repudiate racism (however they understand it).  Followers of Jesus must turn from, and repudiate, any and all forms of white-supremacy.

The reasons they must are legion.  Here are some of the most important.  To begin, in Genesis God did not create races, but one kind of being—the human-being.  What distinguished the humankind from all other creatures is this: humankind was made in God’s image and likeness.  The image was not superficial, only skin deep, but soul-deep.  At the core, to be human was to bear this image.  Different families, clans, tribes and nations would come to be, and they would inhabit different places throughout the world.  But they would not and could not become something other than image bearers.  All humans are distinguished from all other creatures by the image they bear.  All.

But, of course, humans rebelled.  All of them have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  All have effaced but not erased that image in which God made them.  Since all are in the same desperate condition, there could be no basis for any of them to claim essential superiority over any other of them. Ever.

The two great commands, which fulfill all the other laws, likewise reveal how wrong it would be for any person or group ever to claim superiority over others.  To love God and love others, as we do ourselves, make it impossible to consider our own selves better than others.  In fact, the love commands provide the ultimate guard against white-supremacy.  White followers of Jesus who love others as they do themselves, would by God’s grace love persons of color to the same degree and with the same expressions of love as they do themselves.  Thus, by definition, it becomes impossible to view self knowingly as superior to others.

While there are many reasons why followers of Jesus simply must repudiate white-supremacy, here is the one which in our current moment I find most powerfully and beautifully compelling.  In John’s gospel we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … .“ (Jn. 1:1). Then, John declares, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” (1:14).  As we marvel over this Word-become-flesh, let’s not miss this:  the incarnation of the eternal Word was as a person of color.  He loved the world, served the world, suffered for the world, died for the world, and conquered death through resurrection for the world—all as a Person of color.   He began with his own people, who were all persons of color, and then sent his followers, again all persons of color, to the ends of the world for all other persons.

In fact, early on, in a sense the first church had to decide whether they would remain a fellowship of persons of color only or would permit persons of other or no color to receive the good news.   The Spirit of Jesus led them into the full truth of Jesus—they were sent to all.  No false sense of superiority could hinder their mission to the ends of the earth.  Indeed, the early decades of mission were to persons of color in the Middle East, in Egypt, Africa, and India to name a few of the regions.  Eventually their movement and mission turned them west toward people of different and other colors and hues.  By and by they came to the places we would call home.

And, if we can believe the Bible, when the mission is complete the assembly around God’s throne—the citizenry of God’s Kingdom—will include persons of all colors from every people group, place, language and culture.  But that will happen because Jesus, a Person of color, loves us all and made sure we all got the message, and did so in the beginning exclusively through His brothers and sisters of color.

Around the throne of God the vast majority of the Kingdom’s citizens will be persons of color, but no one will think too much about it because the singular focus of all will be the One who sits on the throne.  But white people like me, should ponder this fact often in these days, and be forever grateful for the Person of Color and his initial follower-friends who insisted that Jesus meant it when he said “all!”

Until that great day, we must follow their lead in seeking to bring all of reality, and all its systems—here and there and everywhere—into alignment with this good news!

Comments 23

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    Thank you Bishop, especially for reminding us that despite our church art Jesus was not a white man when he walked the earth.

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    Well said…thanks so much for putting it into these words. May we all take tangible steps forward toward a humbled & healed/healing tomorrow in Jesus’ name…

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    Thanks for attempting to keep redemptive thinking going on racial issues. Hopefully, we can keep people’s minds working on understanding.
    I am a native Kansan, and you were also a resident there for a while. Kansas’ motto, “To the Stars Through Difficulty”, was because we fought to be a “Free State”. My Great, Great Grandfather, was a personal friend of General Sherman, and went with him on his march to the sea, fighting against slavery, and my Uncle, a dairy farmer, was also a community/political leader in Shawnee County; so, its natural where I would stand on these issues of equality.
    Your reference to the wording of the “Declaration of Independence”, to me, shows God’s direction in the wording of this document; that with God’s guidance, we could live up to that commitment—freeing of the slaves and women given full rights of citizenship. I think we need to be careful, not to add to today’s conflicts by inferring that the original document was a statement of “white superiority”; it was a God given stance, that brought about these God given freedoms.
    Life has also taught me, that the statement “all men are created equal” has a flaw also. My nephew has a very sweet little boy that was born with Down Syndrome, which will never allow him to be “equal”. They fought the medical pressure, in order to bring him to birth. He has had multiple surgeries and a totally different life, that will cause his parents much stress; however, they seem to be doing a great job with their three boys. I just hope they won’t do like a teen friend I know that is determined by his mother, that he can do anything anyone else can do—sure he needs challenging; but, he will never be equal to everyone else; however, he must still be honored with respect!
    I plan on listening to tonight’s “Learning to Lament” session; however, I have questions along these issues, as I just finished ,in my annual read through the Bible, the Book of Job and starting the Psalms—there were times of lament; but, God brought all through to His Victory! Anyway, lots to think about, and guide our people in proper redemptive responses; not just reactionaries!
    May God help us all!
    –Garth Betry, retired Elder, North Central Conference

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      Dear Brother Garth, thank you for these observations in response. The main point I wanted to make about the Declaration and the founders was that they reflect an assumption of superiority, that could be simply assumed, so that it did not seem strange or contradictory to declare God’s plan for all humans to enjoy the same basic rights, while at the same time possessing slaves. If slavery is wrong and an affront to God then I think we must conclude either that they did not regard black Africans as fully human or they did not regard them as worthy of the same God-given rights they were claiming for themselves. I think you are right that the words they used carried far more meaning than they likely recognized. God bless.

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    Good article, although I believe some assumptions have been made. They are very likely to be correct, but we don’t know that as fact.
    Also, in the paragraph before the last, please add the word “be” to “…focus of all will __ the One who sits on the throne.”
    Thank You

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    Dear David,
    Once again, you give the big questions clarity. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and God-inspired words. I am praying for a humble and contrite heart and ears and eyes open to ways I can be mindful of those who have been marginalized.

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      Thank you Donna. This is a prayerful openness the whole church might well seek, cultivate and express. God bless!

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    David, well written and I agree completely. One thing or one group that is missing from your document is inclusion of the native American. If ever there was a group that was left out intentionally from ALL, it was this group. In some early documents it even said: “all, except Indians”. Sad history that we have to deal with. Keep up preaching the truth

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    Beautiful, strong and convicting! I always love your thinking and ability to express what is also in my heart! Bless you!

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    Dear Bishop Kendall,
    You have
    once again, “spoken”
    words (logos) of life
    to my very soul (a mi alma)…
    Words that touch deep and hard and fresh
    with grief
    and truth
    and hope.

    As I read,
    I weep and lament…
    I remember.
    Epworth by the Sea…
    devotions about the seed, the patience, the long-suffering of God…
    Sovereign God
    centuries…millennia…day after day…

    And my heart cries again, “HOW LONG?!”

    How long YHWH?!
    will you allow my brothers (literal here) to remain blind –
    even in their goodness, in their kindness, in their view for ‘the nations’…
    and miss the very broken heart of this, our nation.
    My words to them are ineffective…
    My references to other resources, unheeded…
    I’m just “the little sister” – and they are more passionate than I.

    Yet just now, a 15 year old neighbor boy pounds on our front door…
    arrived on my front stoop.
    Panting, exhausted; having run through the woods to our home –
    avoiding the truck that had turned up the abandoned alley,
    seeming to follow him.

    I welcome him to this place where we are, “Learning to live and love like Jesus.”
    My tears well and spill for him, with him, as I share my own fear these days –
    for my own adult son.

    And Bishop, your words are balm
    the evidence of one who sees,
    and ONE who SEES.

    Evidence of hope.
    Clear and concise
    confirming
    challenging
    calling for the change…

    the change of stone turned flesh.
    words of Truth
    to set free
    really, truly FREE.

    “…and all Your promises are Yes and Amen!”

    Thank you, Bishop.
    ~alma~

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    Thank you, Bishop Kendall, for once again taking up your “pen” to teach us the way of God more accurately and fully. For the past several years, you used both your voice and your “pen” against sexism and I believe your influence in the FMCNA on that subject has taken root and is bearing fruit. May your insights on racism find fertile soil and be similarly used by God to pave the way for lasting positive change in our movement.

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    I am moved by your writing & much thought is now mine to ponder and pray and talk to the Lord about. He is so loving & patient with us.

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    I am not sure how much more guilt I am supposed to confess, but at least I can accept the reality that there is much for me to learn as I listen and enter into the suffering of others. Praying for healing of our nation, which we should perhaps describe as an imperfect union. Only by God’s grace will we be able to move forward. I am so thankful for my Central African brothers who looked beyond my faults and saw my heart.

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