Harrowing Of Hell
July 12, 2015

Mercy and Truth

Preacher: Diana Bender

Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

Psalm 85 from today is one of my favorites, and it closes by saying: “and peace shall be a pathway for our feet.” And yet, peace has not been a pathway for our feet lately—especially with the violence and pain of racism, which feels societal as events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston show. But it also feels personal in the way it interrupts relationships with people I love.

We’ve had some powerful preaching at Epiphany about racism in the past year. Emily got us started after Ferguson with her wonderful Racism is Real sermon and Doyt continued a few months later with a useful frame: “To talk about race is not necessarily to talk about politics. I am not making a democratic statement or a republican statement. Racism is real, and it has no place in the kingdom of God. We are all about the kingdom of God here at Epiphany. At Epiphany relationship is primary, and racism inhibits relationship.”

I would say especially racism unexamined inhibits relationship. We have got to talk about racism outside of politics, and I too am not seeking to be political today. It seems to me we are so far away from mercy and truth meeting together and righteousness and peace-kissing each other. These words rattle around in my head: Mercy and truth.

So, let’s look at some data—one way to look at truth so helpful in considering racism: The truth is that proportionately more black babies still die every year than white babies in the US, even controlling for income and education. The truth is that if African Americans selling their homes leave up pictures of their families or display “African-American” art, research has found they will get significantly lower offers from buyers.

The truth is that when researchers sent out over 2,500 matched sets of identical resumes – with the only difference being that one resume had an African American sounding name and its pair had a white sounding name, they found that African Americans need to send 50% more resumes to get one call back! The truth is that people of color have loans turned down more often. And perhaps most shocking truth, and most indicative of the institutional and inter-generational nature of racism, the net worth of the average Black or Latino family hovers around $12,000 compared with $110,000 for an average white family. That’s 10 times higher!

I’ve seen this in my own family. During World War II, although there were many more German spies than Japanese in the US, my German grandparents did not lose everything by being shipped off to an internment camp as the grandparents of my Japanese friends did. As a result, years later, my grandparents could afford to help my husband and me buy our first house.

Black and Latino kids are disciplined more severely than white kids for the same infraction in Seattle Public Schools. Qualitative analysis of these statistics shows that similar behaviors such as speaking out in class, generates a different response from teachers depending on race. The data is clear, and the children feel it. At age 10 Tieran came come from his Seattle Public alternative school troubled by the fact that the kids of color didn’t seem to get away with the things white kids did. The kids acted the same, but the teachers didn’t, despite efforts of adults at his school to attend to these issues.

In King County, researchers blind coded case notes by Juvenile Court Counselors so the name and race of the child in detention was removed. White kids’ case notes consistently described their problems as due to coming from troubled homes, or not having the support they needed.Counselors decided the white kids were in juvie due to no fault of their own. Case notes on kids of color described them as having personality flaws which caused their problems. They were described as having anger issues or were “belligerent.” Kids of color were there because something was wrong with them according to the counselors. These are counselors whose job it is to help these kids. And all of them probably believe there is no bias in their minds because we all want to believe we are fair. The UW researchers concluded this difference in perception is probably part of why white kids are overwhelmingly more likely to be assigned to community service for the same infraction that gets black kids sent to prison.

This data is hard to hear. It’s hard to digest. I thought teachers and counselors treated me fairly and I want to believe fairness is real in our country. But we can’t get to righteousness and peace-kissing each other unless we acknowledge these truths and find ways to let mercy in and begin to change our systems.

You may know that I co-facilitate the Racism is Real group at Epiphany. Perhaps this is why one of my Epiphany friends emailed me recently to see if I thought racism was getting worse or just more visible. I thought it was an interesting question. I think racism has been visible to people of color for a really long time. I think it’s becoming more visible to white people now.

Once I started diving into the data, I’ve found that pretty much every single institution in the United States is systematically channeling power and privilege towards white people and away from people of color. This system of power and privilege produced that young man in Charleston who felt he could study the Bible with people then pull a gun and shoot them.

The shooter grew up in a culture where all these institutional differences played out every day. Growing up, his black classmates were treated as ‘less than.” Black people in his town had fewer financial assets. His black co-workers were treated as less valuable in the workplace. I suspect he absorbed all these messages until he felt he could and did take all those lives. So, if I believe that “Truth should spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven,” I have think about how that same system of power and privilege manifests in me and affects my life.

And when I start thinking about that, I can easily fall into self-blame or shame. Why was I granted this privilege? Why is it fair that my son gets easy access to resources and my beloved friend must battle in the courts to achieve the same access for her son? The shame can get really big when I make the kinds of inadvertent mistakes that white people make which are painful for my friends of color, even when I really try to be aware of these things.

And then I am reminded, at Epiphany, we are invited to a shame-free zone. I remember Doyt’s invitation: whatever shame we carry around on our backs, we can hang up on the wall as we enter.

All the racism is not my fault as a white person. I didn’t ask for this privilege. But I have it. And if I believe in mercy and truth meeting together and righteousness and peace-kissing, then I need to take responsibility to act towards undoing it, to work to ensure that the children of color in my life have more opportunities to look forward to, more equity with my son.

Just like that shooter in Charleston, I have been bathed in racism my whole life. And that environment has to have had influence on me. So, I have to work hard to be aware of how bias and privilege can so easily skew my thinking and my behavior and lead me to hurt a friend or colleague, or make decisions at work or in life which don’t lead to greater equity. Over and over, I have found that when I am not vigilant, not careful, I hurt people. But when I do make those mistakes and the colleagues or friends around me give me the gift of telling me when I have hurt them, and when I then take immediate responsibility and apologize (even if didn’t 100% understand), when all these things happened, I have received such grace and seen such change. Mercy and truth really did meet together!

When I worked at the city of Seattle, a group of us started to look at how race was playing out in human services-in our office and in our community. As a white person trying to be an active player in this work, I had a lot to learn! When I was able to stop talking and begin listening, and take responsibility for the ways I and others were inadvertently perpetuating racism, either through my own behavior or policies we were developing, trust grew in our workplace and deeper relationships formed. We began to change our practices and outcomes for the people we served got better.

In our Racism is Real group at Epiphany, other gifts emerged. Some have found that talking about race with family members– especially across race lines—has opened doors. Conversations about race deepened relationships, rather than inhibiting them. I think our fear keeps us from talking about race, but things will never change unless we are open to talking, open to listening, open to apologizing when we make mistakes—even if we don’t quite understand what we did—and most importantly open to action.

I think peace is a pathway for our feet, but we have to look hard at our path and make the choices that lead us not into temptation, but delivers us from the evil of racism. Jesus was pretty clear about race and racism. You’re supposed to talk to the people who are different from you, like the woman at the well. You’re supposed to cross race lines and help each other, like the Good Samaritan. Just like the psalm today, Jesus calls us to justice.

I believe God wants something better for us than we are in the US right now. Perhaps it starts with seeking the truth in our personal situations. When you look around your workplace, how many people of color are in leadership positions? When you look at your child’s classroom, are half the kids children of color? That’s the proportion of children of color in Seattle. If your child’s classroom doesn’t match that number, why do you think that is? What’s causing that inequity?

When you are in line at the store and you look like me, how many times does the clerk pass over the person of color next to you and try to serve you first? I live in Columbia City. This pretty much happens to me every week.

We are all about pilgrimage at Epiphany this summer. I invite you to a yet another kind of pilgrimage to explore and better understand the reality of a racial or ethnic group that is different from your own. Maybe read media outside the mainstream like The Root or the International Examiner. Or review the research that unveils the systematic nature of racism in books like The New Jim Crow or Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

I think a lot of people who look like me want to believe that we are in a post racial world, that with the progress of the civil rights movement, truth has sprung up from the earth and righteousness is already looking down from heaven. But I have to say, it’s easy for me to miss racism. I have to look for it, because our society helps make it invisible to me. So if you do look like me, consider asking the question, “How might the forces of racism be at play in this situation?” Everything isn’t’ racism, but I find that starting to acknowledge that “this might be racist” is very helpful for getting to that deeper truth that Psalm 85 calls us to.

It may not be about race, but if you take the time to think about how race might be playing out, you can better rule it out. Basically I’m inviting you to let yourself be shaken up a bit. To get to peace on our pathway, I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. And we can bear it, we can stand it to be uncomfortable because we have God to give us strength through it, and we have our community to help each other with it. We have been given this beautiful vision of “righteousness and peace kissing each other.” I hope we can live more fully into it!

The Racism Is Real group has taken a break during construction. But a sub group of us are going to go deep this fall. We’re going to attend training together about how racism was created and how it can be undone. We’re going to reflect together and we are going to come back to you with some opportunities for learning, growth, and change. Come learn about racism with us, either this fall or when our deeper study is complete. Help us create that kingdom of God where racism is less likely to inhibit relationship, where peace truly is a pathway to our feet.

Racism Resources and Citations