The Unceasing Pain of Racism
Early on in this pandemic, in the first weeks of the initial quarantine, I went out for a walk in the early morning with our dog Max. It was maybe 6:30 in the morning. I walked up our street and turned, as I usually do, into the alley that runs behind the businesses on Magnolia Blvd. The alley is lined with high cinderblock garden walls on one side and mostly chain link fence topped with razor wire on the other. As I walked into the alley coming toward me I saw three young men, wearing masks, walking toward me, talking with one another. Two were black, one was Latino I think.
In that instant, I was reminded of a different time I encountered three young men walking toward me. 38 years ago now, when I was 19, walking along Woodlawn Ave. in West Philadelphia where I was going to college. It was early in my sophomore year. For that year I and a group of friends had moved out of the dorms and rented a house on the corner of 40th and Baltimore Avenue. It was a Friday afternoon. Classes were finished for the week. I was walking to the only video store in the neighborhood, a little one on the corner of 43rd and Woodlawn I believe. In the display area of the store stood simple wire racks with row upon row of VHS movie boxes—all empty. To rent a movie, you picked the empty box and brought it to the clerk who sat on a stool behind a wall build of counter and massive thick sheets of bullet-proof acrylic that reached to the ceiling. In the middle of the bullet-proof glass was an exchange window, with a deal tray for you to squeeze your money through, and a lazy susan pass-thru where the attendant would put the movie cassette that matched the box you held up to the glass. It was going to be movie night that night in our house, and it was my turn to go get the movie. I remember it was a lovely fall late afternoon as I walked down Woodlawn Avenue with my hands in the pockets of my jeans. I could feel my Driver’s license in the one pocket, and my money in the other. I didn’t take my back pack or a purse with me when I went shopping. It made me feel like too easy a mark. When I was about a block away from the video store, I saw a group of three young black men walk toward me. They were about my age. They were talking and laughing. They were dressed in the DJ Jazzy Jeff style of the day—oversize baseball jerseys and baseball caps turned backward, baggy shorts or sweatpants. As we walked closer to one another, I don’t think they were paying me any mind. But my mind was only on them. If they had been white frat boys, I don’t think I would have paid any attention to them. But they weren’t. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in West Philly, and these three black guys were just walking down the street talking, hanging out. But I was this white girl from the Washington suburbs walking down Woodlawn Avenue in West Philly by myself. And all I felt was fear. With every step I could feel fear rise up higher inside of me. As we got closer to one another, I pulled my hands out of my pockets in case I needed to run or fight—I thought. I remember holding my breath as we passed one another, exhaling only after I stepped past them. And then I heard one of them call out to me. “Yo!” “Yo, you!” I kept on walking. “Yo, you, lady! You dropped something.” I stopped and turned around as one of the guys bent down and picked up the crumpled $5 bill that must have fallen out of my pocket when I pulled out my hands in fear. He walked over and handed it to me. I barely managed to say “thank you.” He said “no problem,” and caught up with his friends. I kept on going to the video store, with the feelings of fear mixed now with deep embarrassment and shame.
I hadn’t thought of my encounter on Woodlawn Avenue for many years until I walked up the Burbank alley a few months ago on that early morning in the quarantine, and I again found myself walking down a street with a group of three men of color walking toward me. As they walked past we said good morning and went on our ways. But I thought of the encounter on Woodlawn Avenue that morning in Burbank, because still, 37 years and a lifetime of public ministry addressing poverty and inequity in our cities, still the first feeling I had when I saw the three men walk toward me in that Burbank alley was fear. Not joy, not curiosity, not disinterest. No, my first feeling seeing this small group of black and brown men walk toward me was fear. And then my fear gave way to anger and I was so angry that I started to cry. How can it be that an old white, pretty damn “woke” woman like me was still infected by a racist attitude that had entered into me probably still in my early childhood. Despite the fact that I grew up in a pretty liberal family and world, despite the fact that I was well and progressively educated. Despite years of building relationships and working with people of all different races in different urban contexts. Still, I was infected by the virus of racism, latent as it is. As I stood in that alley angry and crying, the words of Lady MacBeth, crazed by her complicity in the murder of the King of Scotland, came into my head “Out, out damn spot.” Like Lady MacBeth, I want to be rid of the sin of complicity in the racism that I consciously reject.
“Why is my pain unceasing, my wounds incurable, refusing to be healed?” These words were first spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” as he spoke truth to power, as he spoke the truth about life in the Kingdom of Judah and its future. Jeremiah foresaw that the Babylonian Empire would conquer Judah and take them into exile, but the Jewish political and religious leaders did not believe him and threw him into a pit to die.
“Why is my pain unceasing, my wounds incurable, refusing to be healed?” When I read those words from the prophet Jeremiah this week, living in the US, I hear the cries of a black man in America.
“Why is my pain unceasing, my wounds incurable…” When I hear Jeremiah’s words, I also hear the powerful, painful words wept this week by LA Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, speaking about African Americans in the US: “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
“Why is my pain unceasing, my wounds incurable…” When I hear those words, I hear the words of the Rev. Al Starr. Some of you may remember Pastor Starr who came and preached at my installation more than 5 years ago. On his Facebook page this week Pr. Starr poetically and prophetically wrote: “Does my black skin remind you that you failed to destroy me and stir you to try all the more to wipe me from your memory?”
It’s been another painful week in America in which the reality of racism has again been exposed in the shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent unrest and shooting of protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
What is racism? Racism is the unequal judgement and unequal treatment of other people on the basis of skin color. Harmful, sometimes violent unequal judgement and treatment on the basis of skin color. Unequal treatment by individuals, by institutions, by powers and principalities. The unequal treatment and judgement that are racism are repulsive: a black man gets shot 7 times, a white man who just killed two people and wounded another with an assault rifle is left to go home. A black man allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill has the life crushed out of him by a police officer’s knee; yet when an officer approaches the young white Lutheran man in his car who murdered 9 black elders at a church prayer meeting the day before, the officer puts his gun away in his holster before approaching him. We are left asking once again: Why Is the distance between non-violent enforcement and lethal force so much shorter when a Black person is involved, and so much longer in an incident involving a white person?
I cannot imagine what it is like to be Black in America right now. Other than to imagine it must be excruciatingly painful—like the crucifixion that is at the center of our faith. For not only do you experience the behaviors and attitudes of racism, and harm to Black and brown bodies and lives. You are also experiencing denial. Hearing people in power say that racism does not exist. A statement that invalidates the experience not only of the long list of names of black men and women who have been killed in police shootings and have yet to know justice—I think this morning especially of Breonna Taylor. Statements that racism doesn’t exist in America or that America is not racist invalidates the experience of most of the people of color in this nation, certainly the experience of most of the people of color that I have met in my life. And saying racism doesn’t exist in America invalidates my own experience of my own sinfulness.
I can say: racism exist, and has not been eradicated from our behaviors or attitudes. I can say that because I have examined myself and know it to be true despite all my good intentions.
Racism exists. But so too does God’s promise of redemption. In answer to Jeremiah’s anguished cries, in answer to Doc Rivers tears of betrayal, in answer to Pr. Starr’s convicting words, even in answer to my anger over the residual virus of racism in me, God says: they will fight against you, / but they shall not prevail over you, / for I am with you / to save you and deliver you. I will say it again: God says: they will fight against you, / but they shall not prevail over you, / for I am with you / to save you and deliver you.
Racism is the unceasing pain, the incurable wound refusing to be healed in our nation, in our communities, even in our church. And yet—into that pain, onto that wound God pours the balm of a vision of love and justice that calls us through the suffering, into a now and future of equitable and abundant life together. God promises to save and deliver us from racism. And we, who seek that deliverance, we are called to collaborate with God, to be God’s co-workers in that redemption.
But how? Here is one way to start: read and when you are ready, take our church’s, take the ELCA’s anti-racism pledge. I have pinned the link to the top of St. Matt’s Facebook page and it is on my page. And then use whatever power you have to do #racial equity in whatever spaces and places you can. Including in yourself. Examine yourselves, and be the balm. Be the vision. Be equity. Be the bright golden haze on the meadow. Let the night of racism pass away. Be the beautiful morning of equity on the meadow of our communal life. Amen.