A Priest's Confession: I Am Racist

You are racist, too.
08/13/2017 02:19 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2017
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My siblings in Christ, after the events that have been unfolding in Charlottesville, the Spirit has moved within me and compels me to share with you an important and serious confession.

I am racist.

It’s not something I’m proud of.

I like to consider myself woke. I like to consider myself a good white person. I was born and raised in multicultural Northern Virginia. I went to a high school in which there were more kids of color than there were white kids like me. My life partner is a beautiful dark-skinned man.

But I am still racist.

Rarely does a day go by when I am not confronted with my own internalized racism.

When I’m walking my dog early in the morning or late at night, I have to consciously be aware of my body’s reaction when walking past a black man.

When I am around other white people and occasionally hear a racist remark—whether in the form of a sincere opinion or an attempt at humor—I don’t always speak up to condemn such talk.

When I am in a setting where I am the only white person, I am uncomfortable. I may do a convincing job of not showing it (or so I think), but internally I am analyzing every move I make and every thing I say to try and convince my company that I am a good white person.

Even still, I am racist.

And whether you think so or not, I’m sorry to tell you: you are racist, too.

As columnist Courtney Martin writes, “If you are white, if you’ve been socialized in the United States of America in the twenty-first century, you are racist. You will be racist until the day you die. There is nothing you can do to escape that fundamental fact.”

There may be nothing we can do to change this. But there is plenty we can do in response to this.

I think step one is confession. Admission of guilt. It’s easy to criticize someone like President Trump for failing to acknowledge what’s happening around him. The racism of the white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville yesterday is easier to spot. It’s out in the open.

But our racism? Our racism is bottled up on our shelf next to all the books we’ve read about racism, or the prison industrial complex, or Alexander Hamilton. Our racism is kept hidden in the faces of all our friends of color on Facebook, or the diploma on our wall from a good liberal university, or the people we march beside at protests.

Yes, self-confessing neo-Nazis or members of the Klan are easy to identify as racists. But it’s not so for you and me. For us, it’s well hidden. We don’t like to show it. But we’re still racist.

And to those reading this who are black or brown, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I have to preach a sermon like this. I’m sorry for the ways that I have failed you. I’m sorry for all the times I’ve been too weak to relinquish the ways that my life is easier because I don’t look like you. I’m sorry for the ways our world demonizes you, hurts you, calls you names, and kills those who look like you. I’m sorry you have to worry about your children’s survival each day. I’m sorry you have to have “the talk” with them at such a young age. I’m sorry for the ways our Church has failed you.

But I’m here to say that despite the ways we humans fail constantly, God does not fail. God’s steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 136).

Last night I recalled a conversation I recently had with a client at Charlie’s Place. (Charlie’s Place is our parish’s feeding and social services program for the hungry and homeless in our community.)

This conversation I’m thinking of is exemplary of a number of conversations I have had with clients who on the whole, despite the poor hands they have been dealt in life, remain quite resilient and firm in their faith in God.

This is true for Franklin, originally from Nigeria, who in response to my asking if he missed his home told me, “I find God no matter where I am. And I know that God is with me.” Later he added “It’s so simple yet so difficult for many people to accept. Jesus is Lord. Once you accept this, everything else follows.”

This was like Franklin’s confession. The kind of confession Paul advocates in his letter to the Romans.

Now I want to talk about this Romans passage. Because I think it has something very relevant for all of us and contains part of the ways that we can respond to our racism. The main point Paul is trying to make here, which some argue is in fact the main point he’s trying to make in the entirety of this massive epistle to the Romans, is this:

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

The end.

Or, as Franklin put it, “It’s so simple yet so difficult for many people to accept. Jesus is Lord. Once you accept this, everything else follows.”

So it occurs to me that if we progressive Christians struggle to admit we’re racist, then I think we sometimes also struggle to think about confessions of faith. And we don’t like to talk about our path to salvation. That kind of talk we’re used to hearing from other kinds of Christians. But not in an Episcopal church!

But Paul simply says: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Simple maybe. But that’s not the same as easy.

It’s simple (maybe) to accept the fact that we’re racist, and that we have no control over the ways that internalized racism shapes our daily lives. But it’s not easy to know how to respond to that.

I think Paul is challenging us to set aside any queasiness we might have about his assertion, and to trade in our own self-righteousness about who’s right and who’s wrong in the cultural and political wars of our day. Then we can truly consider what it would mean to believe Paul when he writes that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, there is no longer slave or free, or male and female,” (Romans 10:12; Galatians 3:28). Everyone who confesses that Jesus is Lord will be saved.

My friends, we need Jesus to be Lord. Because if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord, then white supremacy is not.

Racism and white nationalism cannot and will not have the final answer if Jesus is Lord.

So confess with me first: I am racist.

Then confess your faith in Jesus Christ. And trust that because of Jesus’ lordship, the rest will follow.

Notes: A version of this message was originally preached at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, on Sunday, August 13. “Franklin” is a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of the individual mentioned.

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