Sunday, February 12, 2012
Healing Racism: 2 Kings 5:1-15
*Prophetic sermons are sometimes difficult to preach, but it is often necessary to tell the truth. This sermon was no exception. It was preached with some "fear and trembling" on Sunday, February 12 at a white congregation by a white preacher.
When Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president of the United States, there was a lot of talk about the US becoming a “post-racial” society. Supposedly racism was now a thing of the past along with slavery, white hoods, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discrimination. How could our society be racist when we had elected a black president? But, I, and others, didn’t fall for this line.
Usually the ugly face of racism is more subtle, hidden, or disguised under a mask of concern for the equal rights of everyone, including whites, who have more than our equal share of benefits and privileges in our society. Recently, in the Republican primaries, racism blatantly showed its ugly face again. Now, I don’t exclude Democrats from racism. Just a few examples being, Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps, Robert Byrd and other democrats’ membership in the KKK, democratic filibustering of the civil rights act, just to name a few. Democrats are equal opportunity offenders! I use incidents during the Republican primaries primarily because they are very recent, sustained, overt and public examples of racism that are usually exhibited with a bit more subtlety and more often couched in coded language within the public square.
On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday beneath a Confederate flag flying over South Carolina, Newt Gingerich unapologetically put Juan Williams, a conservative black journalist, in his place for being an “uppity negro" when he asked Gingerich about the racist overtones of calling Obama a “food stamp” president and suggesting that black people are lazy and their children should be given mops and brooms to learn the value of hard work. Newt’s condescending backlash at “Juan” drew the applause of the audience.
This was one of a number of more overt examples of racist political rhetoric during the Republican primaries. Ron Paul argued that the landmark federal legislation that dismantled Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s was a moral evil and a violation of white people’s liberty. And we could go on about his other comments about most black males being criminals. Rick Santorum told white conservative voters that he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” meaning “white people’s money.” Yet, the fact is 84% of welfare recipients in Iowa, where he made the comment, are white. Mitt Romney used the phrase “Keep America America” reflecting the Ku Klux Klan’s phrase “Keep America, American.” And it doesn’t take a genius at breaking codes to understand that in the phrase “Keep America, America” the second America equals “white.” And finally, Michelle Backmann stated that black families were stronger during slavery than in freedom. Again, racism is just as much a part of the Democratic party, but this recent sustained barrage of public racism, along with thousands of other ongoing examples since Obama’s presidency, reveal clearly that we are not living in some kind of “post-racial” society.
Racism is still alive and well. Whether or not we are prejudiced against people of color, racism is a reality that permeates North American society. In this post-civil rights era we are encountering a far more ingrained, deeply rooted, subtle form of racism that is more difficult to recognize and to heal. The story of Naaman and his healing from leprosy can serve as a narrative metaphor to address another kind of healing needed today----the healing of racism.
The story of Naaman begins in the land of Aram. Naaman was the commander of the Aramean army, a mighty warrior held in high honor and esteem. He was afflicted a skin problem; leprosy. Even though his "leprosy" was probably only a mild form of skin disease, it must have caused him untold moments of social embarrassment. Naaman's wife heard through her slave girl of a prophet in Samaria, who can cure him. She told her husband. Naaman decided to send a letter to the prophet through the official royal channel of King Hazael of Aram. Naaman was able to use his power and privilege to get what he wanted. I could comment on how that works for whites in American society, but I’ll let that one pass for now.
Upon receiving an official communique from the king of Syria asking that Naaman be healed King Joram of Israel ripped his clothes. He couldn't heal Naaman of leprosy any more than having an African-American president can heal our nation’s racism. Elisha informed the king that Naaman needed to come to him. Surely this bruised Naaman's ethnic ego.
Naaman's skin problem was bad enough to cause him to take the risk of stepping over to the other side of the tracks. Naaman gathered his entourage and headed south of the border. He was probably singing, “I’m proud to be an Aramean, where at least I know I’m free.” As he halted his chariots in front of Elisha's house the coins he brought jingled. Still wrapped up in a flag of ethnic and nationalistic pride, Naaman didn't even get down from his chariot to speak directly to Elisha. Elisha, who was a dignitary in his own right, must have considered this a slap in the face, something akin to calling an African-American man a “boy.” So, he responded in kind by sending out a messenger to Naaman to tell him a thing or two. Elisha's messenger told Naaman that he must go and wash himself seven times in the muddy Jordan River, another big blow to Naaman's ethnic ego. This demand raised the hackles on Naaman's skin and he stormed away infuriated.
In our story we find Naaman infected with an ethnocentric worldview. Admittedly, he did have to eat a slice of humble pie in order to cross the border into a foreign land and to stand before a foreign prophet of a foreign God. Naaman wasn't looking for any long term relationship with another ethnic group. Maybe all he wanted was to be able to say, “Hey, I’m not prejudiced. Why, I even know some Israelites.I’ve been to their country.” Naaman wanted to do his deed and get the heck out of there. This was kind of like the hit-and-run approach of short-term mission work. Go to some ethnic community, do your thing, and then go back to right side of the tracks, with no long term commitments.
Naaman figured his healing wouldn’t take too long. He expected Elisha to come out to him, like one of the priests of his own religion. The prophet was supposed to call on his god's name, magically wave his hand over Naaman's spotted skin, and abracadabra, he would be healed. Then, he would be on his merry way. Instead, Elisha told him to go and wash himself in Israel's Jordan River. "What? Are you nuts? Aren't the Arbana and Pharpar rivers, the rivers of my land and people, better than the waters of the Jordan? Why can't I be healed in my own land, among my own people?" What did Elisha's Jewish land and rivers have that were so special? Naaman didn't get it. He had trouble understanding how washing in a foreign, inferior river was going to heal him. Naaman, the river is not the issue here. It's your ethnocentric attitude that needs to get washed away.
Our process for healing racism may begin with overcoming our ethnocentricity. Ethnocentricity is a viewpoint and attitude which says, "My race, my ethnic group is superior to others." In order to understand Naaman's actions and attitude toward another people we need to understand his actions in collective terms more than as an individual attitude. Let's think of Naaman as part of a larger social system of a people displaying prejudiced attitudes toward another people group. Ethnocentricity says, "My people, my nation, my land, my ethnic group is better than yours." Ethnocentricity keeps us from healing relationships. As long as we cling to white superiority and privilege, we will not be able to nurture those relationships which can be healing balm to our lives. Dealing with our ethnocentricity can become the first step on the road to healing racism.
Ethnocentricity blocks the power of God's healing streams that flow through all races, ethnic groups, and nations. To consider our race, our people, our land as better than everyone else's fosters xenophobia, the fear or hatred of the stranger or foreigner. Ethnocentrism has dominated our white, European culture and history. It has resulted in a nation wounded by imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, racism, and violence. Ethnocentrism is, in reality, one of the first words that must be written on the pages of American history. As European Americans we need to be reminded that the land on which we live was not our land to begin with. The death of millions of Native Americans, their ghettoization, and the destruction of many indigenous cultures in the process of taking this land was fed by ethnocentrism. There is no record that any of the white intruders into these native lands looked positively upon the Native American peoples, their religion, or culture. The Naamans who took this land of America thought, "What do the streams of Native American life have to offer to us Europeans? Aren't the cultural streams of our own native lands much cleaner?"
In our own day ethnocentrism still permeates the land founded upon "liberty and justice for all." It has resulted in systemic white racism. One of the ways we blind ourselves to the presence of racism is by thinking of it only in individual terms as racial prejudice. Racism is not about personal prejudice. When we say, "Well, Black people can be just as racist as white people," or throw around ideas like “so-called “reverse racism,” we are thinking of racism in individualistic terms.
Racism is not just a matter of personal prejudice. Mennonite Central Committee's Damascus Road Antiracism training defines racism with this formula: Racism= prejudice + abuse of systemic power. Trainers are adamant upon this analysis in understanding racism, even when white people don't get it. No other ethnic group in our society has the power to enforce their prejudices upon another group, no matter how many individual exceptions we might conjure up to try and negate this systemic reality. Therefore, with this definition racism is primarily a white problem. If anyone still doesn't get it, I suggest that they take the Damascus Road training, another small step into the stream of healing racism.
The disease of racism causes us to break out in a skin condition called "white supremacy." I'm not talking about white supremicists like the KKK marching down the streets in white sheets unashamedly yelling "white power!" I’m talking about the pervasive, prevailing, but unrecognized problem in white American society where white people, white culture, and white religious expression are seen to be the norm. Our ways, white ways, are not only normal and standard, but are superior. White is our social norm. Just look at a “flesh colored” band-aids or crayons. Look at Jesus’ color in our Sunday School pictures. As a collective group white, European Americans hold the most power and privilege in our society. Whites hold economic, judicial, educational, political, and social power. Whether or not we are overtly prejudice or racist in intent, all whites, including myself, participate in and benefit from a racist system, which subordinates and oppresses people of color.
White racism is still with us. Racism is not exclusive to the KKK, the Aryan Nations, and the Skinheads. That's why electing a black president has very little to do with systemic racism. Systemic racism exists in the systems and institutions of our whole society. Racism shows up in pocketbooks, politics, and perceptions. Take, for instance, these findings from some recent surveys and studies. A Census Bureau study from ten years ago revealed that the average college-educated African American man earned less than the average college-educated European man by $10,000 a year. That gap is most likely the same or wider today. Another survey revealed different perceptions among whites and blacks about work among the races. Two-thirds of the whites surveyed believed that African-Americans get "equal pay for equal work," while two-thirds of blacks believed just the opposite.
In another study, for whites an integrated neighborhood is a community with at least one Black household out of fifteen, while for African Americans it is a fifty-fifty ratio. Also concerning housing, another survey showed that 55 percent of whites said blacks are not worse off concerning their homes than other groups with comparable education and income, but 64 per cent of the blacks surveyed believe they are worse off. One survey showed that more than one-third of whites still think blacks tend to be "less ambitious," "breed crime," and "have less native intelligence than whites."
Naaman had a skin problem. Racism is, in a real sense, a skin problem; the problem of power and privilege that comes with having white skin and judging others based upon the amount of melanin in their skin. It is disease that has infected our institutions and infected our social arrangements, including education, housing, job opportunities, economics, legal and judicial systems. Ethnocentrism, white supremacy, and racism block the healing streams of God's power that flows out to all nations, races, and peoples. And we remember from last week how Jesus broke through these types of barriers to allow God’s healing streams to flow to a Samaritan woman.
Healing racism will require that we step into God's healing streams. It will require a religious and social conversion; a baptism against the strong currents of racism. Naaman was cured of his leprosy only as he obeyed the word of God from the foreign prophet, Elisha, and washed himself in the Jordan River. He was not only healed physically from his leprosy, but also personally and spiritually from his egocentricity, and socially from his ethnocentricity. He stood face to face with Elisha and confessed his faith in the God of Israel. A religious and social conversion took place within Naaman's life. His new perspective caused him to act in a rather strange way. He asked to take some dirt from the land of Israel to worship on! Naaman even asked to be pardoned when he bowed within the house of worship of his former god, Rimmon. Naaman missed the point by focusing on the land, like some who wake up to racism and advocate "cultural awareness" or "multicultural training" as a solution to racism. They are missing the point. It’s more than simply appreciating other cultures. It has to do with dismantling the structures that keep the healing streams of life from flowing to all people.
The story of Naaman can point us to the healing waters. Our own spiritual and social healing from the disease of racism will require that we listen to the Word of our universal God that comes from the prophets of other races. We will be called upon to bathe in the living streams of other races and peoples. In order to be healed of our racism we will need to listen to and take seriously the prophetic voices among African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. Their word may open blind eyes and set captives of racism free. We will need to trust the leadership of people of color to show us the way to the healing streams and not think our way of doing things is always the right or only way. But, be prepared. Our white communities will probably be far more resistant to following the word and leadership of people of color than Naaman was in following Elisha's advice. Yet, the word of our brothers and sisters may be just the Word from God's that we so desperately need to hear for our own healing. The streams of lives and communities different from ours may be the water we need that cleanses us of America's original sin.
To be healed of our skin problem will require stepping into God's healing streams. We can put our toes into the stream by educating ourselves and our children about the dynamics of racism and the cultures of people of color. One of our white privileges is that we don't have to know anything about other cultures or think about race or racism, which is a daily reality for people of color. We can step into healing waters by making long term relations with people of color in our communities, like with Bridging Cultures. We can go waist deep by dealing with racism on a congregational level. Both my wife, Iris, and I have been involved in antiracism work through MCC, Mennonite Mission Network, and MC USA and will continue to advocate for the institutional dismantling of racism, so God’s healing grace can flow freely.
And what does this all mean for Zion? Racism is admittedly a tough topic to tackle in white congregations. Where do we even begin? I don’t suspect Zion has openly and intentionally intended on becoming a “white congregation.” It is not in your constitution, any confessions of faith, or mission statements. But, have you ever sat down and seriously explored the simple question, “Why is Zion a white congregation?” Hopefully, it would be more illuminating than guilt or justification producing. As with most white congregations, this is not a question we have ever had to ask ourselves or would feel comfortable asking ourselves. It’s not a topic we care to or would find any real reason for discussing. If we honestly answered the question, “Why are we a white congregation?,” we would have to explore the historical, traditional, community, social, economic, religious, familial, and attitudinal roots and the boundary markers that have formed us into a white congregation? Just asking and discussing that question among ourselves might be the splash of cold water in the face needed to wake us up.
Or even before discussing that question, we might first begin by recognizing and naming ourselves as “white.” Not so much as a description of our pigment, but as a classification of our racial group’s privileged social and economic status. You see, we have the privilege, unknown to other racial groups, of never have to think of ourselves as a race, let alone as “white” or as a “white congregation.” When have we ever had to be identified like this, “My friend, Dave, he’s a white guy,” “I go to a white church over in Hubbard,” “Yeah, I attend a white school in Canby” “In seminary I studied white theology.” Naming our whiteness and its privileges and problems may be just putting our little toe in the river, but it might be a start toward healing our racism.
Some of us may still be wondering what in the world the story of Naaman has to do with ethnic/racial issues. Isn't this stretching the application a bit? Well, a precedent for applying the story of Naaman to ethnic issues was once set by a well known preacher. When he was in his early thirties, just starting his ministry, he preached his first sermon in his home church. He read the scripture text for the morning service and started to preach. The congregation was amazed at the eloquence of his sermon. That was until he got to the part where he applied the Scripture text to their lives. He applied the scriptures to some ethnocentric viewpoints and attitudes of his audience. The preacher simply referred to the familiar story of Naaman and let its meaning bubble up in the well of their consciousness. He said, "There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” The congregation shifted in their pews and tugged at their collars. The implication was right there in their own Holy Scripture. God is free to choose another people, nationality, or race above their own, through which to act and to bring healing. When the sermon was over the congregation didn't come up to the preacher after the service, smile, and say, "Nice sermon, preacher." Instead, they went into a rage, drove him out of town, and were ready to throw him off the edge of a cliff! Who was that young preacher? Jesus! (Luke 4)
If we are to be healed of our disease of racism, like Naaman we will need to listen to the Word of God coming from unexpected sources and strange sounding requests. Today's prophets are telling us to go and dip ourselves in God's healing waters, however foreign and unfamiliar the streams. It’s time to step into the healing waters.