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Overcoming Racism: Reaching In

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. -Romans 7:15-25 Read the whole chapter.

As we begin this morning I want to give you a little...perspective of what we're going to be talking about over the next couple weeks. Those who participate in the Tuesday Bible studies have had a little bit of a preview. For all of the things going on in our world, the civil unrest that's still continuing in parts of our country is something that as the church, we need to actually spend some time thinking and talking about. Our faith isn't just something we do in private. It's not just something that we do in the pews and around other Christians. But how we live our Christian faith is where the rubber meets the road when dealing with social issues.

I've delayed talking about this because I know we had a little flare-up of some unrest in Fort Wayne. I know for many people, it was kind of shocking because well that doesn't happen here. And yet it did. Thankfully it was short-lived and as far as I know, things have been very civil. I don't even know that there are any protests that are still continuing. I wanted a chance for us to kind of be able to feel a little bit further removed from it to be again talking about it. So for the next 3 Sundays, I'm doing a series that I've titled Racism. I thought about different titles. I looked at resources through the Methodist Church and other things online. I thought about well confronting racism or addressing racism but I didn't feel like that went quite far enough. Because we can confront or address something and really affect no change. But overcoming implies that there's an intentionality. I kind of like that word. Overcoming. Because it has some association to me anyways, a connection that civil rights song "We Shall Overcome". Because racism isn't something that we want to continue to have persist in our midst or in our culture.

So I'm trying to be sensitive. I'm sure there will be some who will disagree with some of the things I may share. And we can agree to disagree. I think that's one of the things that we've lost in our civil discourse and particularly in our politics. We throw names and we attack one another rather than talk about the issues. So what I'm hoping that we can do is begin a conversation and a reflection about the issue. Not for the purpose of making anyone feel guilty or ashamed. But for us to genuinely reflect upon it. So the three segments of this series are going to be reaching in, which is what we're going to look at this morning, reaching up: what does God have to say about what's going on, and reaching out: how do we make a positive contribution in what's going on in our world today. So that's just a little bit of a basis for you as far as where we're at and what we're going to be talking about. So as I get ready to start this morning, will you bow with me as we pray?

God, we come to you this morning acknowledging that there's some brokenness in our world and probably in our lives. There are probably ways that we're unaware that we contribute to the perpetuation of the problems. So we pray that through your Scriptures, you would open us up to hear the Word that you would speak to us. That your Spirit would open us to hear you and to reflect honestly. And to see things as you do. So may that Spirit move in our midst this morning that as your Scriptures have been read, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you. For you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

So I feel like there are going to be a number of definitions I almost need to print off a glossary of terms for us to use this morning. That word racism is one that I think most people would agree has a negative connotation to it. There are a lot of words that we attach that suffix -ism to. Not always in a positive way. But -ism is something that has a theological or doctrinal type of thought that is attached to it. It's held in esteem and used as a kind of guide. There are positive things about that we could talk about religion and say well there's Protestantism: of embracing that body of protestant Christian beliefs. There's Catholicism. Or we could attach it to a word like optimism, which generally I think people would say is a good word.

But then we have these negative connotations where the -ism implies embracing an ideology and using the ideology to lift one group of people over others or more importantly to use it to suppress and keep others down. So we could talk about racism, sexism, classism, or ageism. All of these things are distinctions and differences that we make between one another. This group, that group. Part of that is fueled by how we are made. That as human beings we have these brains that are incredibly complex organs that process so much information and receive so many inputs. I was reading an article where they were talking about the human brain. When you imagine all of the nerves and all of those different signals that your body is constantly firing and sending to your brain about: are you hungry? does this hurt? is that cold? All of that information that's coming in at any given moment our brain is receiving 11 million messages. Now could you imagine that each and every moment if you had to stop and consciously process and sort and evaluate every one of those 11 million signals that your brain received? We couldn't do it. They estimate that at best we're consciously aware of about 40 of those processes coming to our brain at any given time. Which still seems like a lot. And of all our emotional responses: we're only consciously aware of about 2% of them. So there's a lot that's happening up there that happens in the background.

Think about it. There are times when you become aware of this. If I ask you right now how does your left big toe feel, you probably weren't thinking about it until I asked that question. Unless it was hurting really bad but now that I've asked that question, you're thinking how does my left big toe feel? Well, I guess it's okay. My shoe's a little tight or whatever it might be. But there are things like that. There may be signals that our brain is receiving but it's not important enough for our brain to do anything about it. I don't know if this happens to any of the rest of you but you go on vacation. And you're away from your house for a week or two. You come home, walk in the door and you go in your house. And you think, what's that smell? Does my house really smell like this? Well, guess what? The answer is yes. It does. But your brain gets used to it and files that way as unimportant information. That yep, the house smells like that but we're not going to tell the brain to do anything about that consciously because well that's just the way it is and it doesn't matter.

So our brains take in all of this information and have to figure out what to do with it. Another researcher referred to the human brain as a difference detecting machine. A difference detecting machine which is how we learn and categorize and sort things. For people my generation and give or take a few years, you probably grew up watching Sesame Street. You may remember those little clips that they had on there of one of these things doesn't belong here. One of these things isn't the same. They'd have four blocks on the screen and you'd have to figure out which one was different. Not that they were teaching children to be racist, I'm not implying that. But just that when we teach children part of what we do is help them learn to sort and categorize stuff.

Well, a law professor by the name of Jerry Kang has done some research into biases that people have. One of the things that he discovered is that we have associations with things that are built into our brains that help us to sort and to categorize things. A little exercise he did in a TED talk he gave a few years ago was that he had 3 columns that had just a random assortment of letters. They weren't actually words. They were red words, green words, yellow words, blue words, and purple words. So he asked the audience to look at this first column. Go down the list and tell me the color you see. Now there were no words there but people looked at them and you heard the audience calling out red, yellow, blue, green, and purple. In the next column they had them in a little bit different order: yellow and blue, yellow, and red and green. They did it in the third column. He said all right, now we're going to change it up a little bit. On the next slide he brought up it was red. But the letters were red. Then it was green, the color green and the letters g-r-e-e-n. So he had people go down again. He said tell me the color you see. They went down and again they sorted them. But to make his point fact that we have things associated and categorized in our brains, he said all right on this last one we're going to do the same thing. Tell me the color you see. And in yellow letters, it said red, in blue letters it said green. You could hear the audience struggling because even though it was right there. Even though their brains could recognize that color, they also had the association of the word. It kind of jumbled things up on them.

I bring all of this up to say that these brains that we have, file away a lot of information that we're often unaware of. When it comes to something like racism, it is a bias, it is a prejudice, a preferential treatment view, whatever you want to call it, of a certain group of people. When it comes to race we often associate that with the color or skin tone that a person has. When it comes to these biases, sometimes there are explicit biases. These are ones that people are aware of. These are the ones that people may not necessarily want to admit to people around them, but they're aware of them. So when someone goes into the post office and sees someone who is dressed in foreign clothing we make an assumption. Maybe some people are a little put off by that. Maybe there's a difference that you recognize or detect in other people that just makes you think I'm just not sure I trust them. We have all kinds of stereotypes that we use. The media uses them to help us not have to really spend a lot of time figuring out who a character is in a television show. A classic one would be any show that is based upon or around high school life. How do you recognize the jocks? Well typically in every episode they're wearing their letter jacket. How do you recognize the cheerleaders? Well unlike any school I ever attended those cheerleaders are in their cheerleader uniform pretty much the entire show. The nerds. Well, again we have these categories in these stereotypes.

Last week I was listening to an interview on NPR. They were interviewing Al Roker, the weatherman. They were saying you know you've done so many things in your life Al. You've written books, you've had all these different programs, you've got your own production company and things. The interviewer said to him, I understand that early in your career as a weatherman you experienced some racism on the air. Would you mind tell us that story? Al said, well it was an evening news program. We had come on and the program had started. We did the introductions of everybody. Then he was right away to give kind of that brief overview of what the weather report was going to be. He said before I could even get to it he said the anchor who was a white man interrupted me and said Al, I don't know if you've heard but I was assaulted by one of your people last night. Al said there was a long awkward silence for a moment. He said I looked at hime and said why would a weatherman do that to you? He made light of the situation but the reality was that the implication that this man was making, and this was decades ago, but it still doesn't make it right that these generalizations are things that we've heard. They're things that we've allowed to sit and rest with us. We've been formed by them.

All of you probably have your own experiences throughout your life, depending on where you've lived, depending on the family you came from, depending on the friends you've had. All of those things have an influence on us. I served in Marion, IN a number of years ago. Actually my friends the McDealies now live here in Fort Wayne and they had attended Marion First when I was there. But Marion, if you don't know was the site of the last public lynching in Indiana. The last lynching in the Northern state. It happened in 1930, so 90 years ago but that still looms large in that community. There were a couple of young black men accused of a crime, of multiple crimes. Some of them later were found to be unfounded and fabricated. But a mob broke into the jail and lynched two of these three young men. A crowd of five thousand people is estimated to have been present for this. We could say that's a different time, a different place. But for that community as much as they'd like to forget it and move on. They still struggle with it because it cast a shadow over that community.

Why don't we confront those things? Because most of us would say we're good people. We're not bigoted. We believe that everybody matters. Yet when those moments come up, sometimes it's easier to just let them slide by because we don't want to rock the boat or ruffle feathers. Paul says, "I know the good that I should do but I fail to do it. I know the things I shouldn't do and I still do them anyway. We have a tension and a struggle going on within us. If we take the time to recognize it. Again it just needs to begin with honestly stepping back and saying, alright there are things that maybe I don't understand. So how can I learn? How can I grow? Begin reaching in is to take time to start thinking about why do I think the way that I do? Why do I feel the way that I do about whatever group of people? It may be we're talking about differences among race, but in our country, it's issues of race primarily between whites and blacks because of that history. But it could be issues of race towards Japanese Americans, towards Mexican immigrants, towards whatever group of people that may be different from you. Some of those things may have been taught. Some of those things may have just been accepted because our culture has shifted. Most of us at some point in our life were probably present when someone told a joke. They had a person of another gender, or another ethnicity the butt of it. Maybe even at the time, we knew that it wasn't quite right. But it's our boss, or an uncle, or a co-worker and we just kind of chuckle and let it go by. But we're complicit in allowing racism to perpetuate and to continue.

Why don't we confront those things? Because most of us would say we're good people. We're not bigoted. We believe that everybody matters. Yet when those moments come up, sometimes it's easier to just let them slide by because we don't want to rock the boat or ruffle feathers. Paul says, "I know the good that I should do but I fail to do it. I know the things I shouldn't do and I still do them anyway. We have a tension and a struggle going on within us. If we take the time to recognize it. Again it just needs to begin with honestly stepping back and saying, alright there are things that maybe I don't understand. So how can I learn? How can I grow?

I know that I'm not going to help us overcome racism in these next three Sundays. I know that some of you may not change your minds based on anything I share. What I hope is that maybe each of us begins where we have the potential and the ability to make a difference and that's starting within. Starting with ourselves. Maybe if we all begin doing some of this work together, we'll start to see the needle tip. Maybe we'll begin to see some of the change that people are really looking for in our world today. A world in which, well, all people are treated fairly and equally. Where systems that have been oppressed and held people down for generations would finally be undone. Where we could come alongside as allies to people who are struggling and help them to bear their load until they no longer have to bear it. But we're part of the solution. We're a part of the solution. We may be a part of the problem at times but hopefully, we can become more aware of our actions and lean into doing more of the good and less of the bad because God is calling us to be a part of sharing His love with all people. So let's address the attitudes within us that might stand in the way. It begins with relationships. It begins with reach out and we'll talk more about that in the weeks ahead but think about what it is that you need that you might know more so you can love more.


Read Part 2 and Part 3

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