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"Glass Walls"

Pride goes before destruction,

and a haughty spirit before a fall.

It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor

than to divide the spoil with the proud.

~Proverbs 16:18,19.

The other day, I paged through a book entitled “Say the Wrong Thing: Stories and Strategies for Racial Justice and Authentic Community,” by Dr. Amanda Kemp. In her introduction, the first thing she asks is: “Risk saying the wrong thing.” She writes:

Recently, I led a training where folks listed the reasons why we don’t have authentic conversations about racism. The number one answer was fear of saying the wrong thing. White-identified people feared looking stupid or offending. People of color feared losing professional opportunities and alienating other people of color…

But, she goes on to assert, if we take a risk, and say something even if wrong, we chance breaking down the barrier of silence, and we have a chance of building relationships that are honest, and that can heal us… and it’s worth it.

On our church’s recent Seminar on Wheels, we traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, and back on a bus, stopping at as many relevant sites as we could to steep ourselves in the history of Slavery and Racial Injustice. One of the things that happened early on is that we didn’t talk to one another enough. We watched some films, and read from some primary sources. We started going to sites, which brought up a lot of gutting history. That history was pointedly about the different experiences of race, and we were a racially various bunch. Perhaps partly because we didn’t know how to start talking about it, we didn’t… until someone finally did.

“I am angry,” this young black woman said to the bus. “I am angry that no one is talking about what we are seeing. I am angry that we have visited the torture of my ancestors and no one has asked me how I am. I am angry that you are all so silent.” And with that, the real conversation began.

It was only this past week, as I thought about what topic our confessional Lenten sermon should cover, that I realized I have been maintaining this same silence. It’s now almost exactly a month since we left on our Seminar on Wheels, and I haven’t really spoken about it yet. I have all kinds of reasons for keeping quiet: I haven’t really fully processed it yet. I don’t know exactly how to preach it, because I don’t know, at this point, if I can see the good news clearly. I want to tell the history we witnessed as well as the monuments and museums we saw told it to us… and I know I can’t do that. I don’t know if I’m the right vehicle to tell the stories that mattered most to me. “The number one answer was fear of saying the wrong thing. White-identified people feared looking stupid or offending.” I do. But then I hear that voice on the bus saying, “I am angry that you are all so silent…” so the book, and her voice, and my instinct, and our God are pressing now, telling me to speak anyway. We have to risk speaking if we ever hope to break down the separations between us. In a TED talk, Verna Myers says, “We don’t need good people, we need real people.” Or, to put it theologically: if we aren’t real, we can’t be good. “If I give away all my possessions, and hand over my body to be burned, but don’t have love, I am nothing.”

Pride goes before destruction,

and a haughty spirit before a fall.

It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor

than to divide the spoil with the proud.

It’s Lent. It’s time for Confession. It’s time to be real -- so that someday, maybe, on the other side of correction and humiliation and mutual listening and lots of truth, we might have a chance of becoming good.

Here are some of the brutal facts and realizations I had on the trip.

  • When slavery was officially ended, it did not end.

  • There is a direct line of connection between yesterday’s explicit slavery and today’s mass incarceration.

  • That direct line is not accidental, nor societal, nor cultural, nor post-traumatic, but cruelly calculated and completely deliberate.

  • When confronting matters of race, I now believe that it is amoral to approach the question intellectually. At the beginning of the trip, I wanted to. I was full of questions about where, who, how many, and how much, even while I was weeping at everything. ...On the last full day of the trip, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there were figures etched into one room’s walls, with the names of slave trade vessels, the year they set sail, how many abducted people they started their voyage with, and how many remained alive when they reached their destination. The more the ship started with, generally, the more were lost, though the final number upon arrival might be higher. Some ships lost nearly everyone: the “Nossa Senhora Madre de Deus”--translate that for yourselves for some horrible irony--started with 100 and ended with 7. The Badine, from France, started with 700 and ended with 14. All those lives lost. As I stared at these, a genial white person came through, and commented to a friend, “Terrible percentages.” I don’t think he meant to be cruel, but it was so off-hand and casually mathematical. I repeat: I now believe that it is amoral to approach race intellectually. We can consider the fact that Americans lynched over 4,400 black people in the years following slavery; but we cannot consider it morally without understanding who those people were, and what stupid circumstances resulted in their being tortured.

  • I believe white people have been terribly damaged by the terror of racism, and that NOT ALL but many of the very individualistic, private, silent, proper mannerisms we keep are a cultural suppression of a shameful history.

  • 9/11 was NOT the first major act of terror on US soil. Slavery was, and Black Code and Jim Crow were--and these were far worse, far more durable, and far more terrifying. Yet eleven days after 9/11, Congress created a $7 billion dollar fund to compensate family members of its victims. Slavery ended, and slaves were emancipated penniless and unequal, and have never been compensated since.

  • All wealth in the USA is built upon the stolen labor of black people. Maybe not every dollar came from that labor, but every dollar was built upon it--it was our sole economic foundation when we began our history, and none of us is exempt from being its profiteers.

  • On this trip, I wanted desperately to excuse myself and my lineage from the history we saw. Half my personal ancestors came from Canada and Germany, long after slavery was ended. The other half, I wasn’t sure, but they lived in Pennsylvania, at least: “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence!” All these excuses were ways in which my brain tried to relieve my heart of the pain of participation. I wanted to believe I held no truck with any of it. I wanted to believe that my own personal history was clean of the business. There’s no way that it is.

  • I learned, on this trip, that America’s traditionally simplistic, happy optimism is ignorance. I don’t think I am quite so buoyant, since the trip, as I feel I was before. I imagine some would think that was a loss, but I feel, personally, that having found myself to be a part of our country’s grief, I am also more in touch with love.

I was driving home this past week and thinking about how to express all these things to you, my friends here in church -- how to say them so that they could be considered and not rejected, honored and not feared, grappled with and not brushed aside as our history but not our present. The weather was wonderful, and I thought also about how, soon, I would be on my scooter again. I thought about how free and open my scooter feels, or my bicycle--when I ride in the open air, I want to wave at people. I smile at car drivers. I feel like an integral, communal part of the world. Inside my car, I am encased--I am alone--the air is at my temperature, the sounds I hear are from my own radio only. That’s when road rage happens--it’s only possible from inside a car. Driving, I want everyone to follow the rules and leave my path untouched--but not from a bike. When I travel without glass walls, I feel empathy with everything that is around me.

I have always heard about the glass ceiling for women. Someone accomplishes something of distinction, and a glass ceiling has been shattered. Someone is honored, really respected in their role, and the ceiling has been raised. But on that car ride, I started to think about glass walls: what they do to us, and what they mean.

On the issue of race, we tend to live in our cars. We set our temperature and listen to our music. We’re comfortable, we’re going somewhere, we try to be polite and follow the rules so we won’t hamper anyone else as we go on our merry way. We buy the nicest ride we think is reasonable for our station. We might smile and wave at others as we go, but we are within our glass, and they are not, so for the most part we feel we can travel unseen. When things don’t go exactly as we expect, we become at the least judgmental, at the most enraged. Empathy generally fails us, or is at least an afterthought. We talk about “that stupid car,” or “that reckless driver,” but we aren’t thinking of them as people, worthy of compassion.

On the issue of race, I think we live in glass walls--and they need to be shattered. They are shattered by us all when we risk saying something, even if it is wrong. The glass walls are lifted away when we make the extra effort to bring up race, to open the conversation like a window of a quiet car being cracked just a little. The weather may not always be perfect, but you’ll be surprised by how fresh the air is.

It is humbling. It is dangerous. It does not always even feel good, but it is real, and it IS good--existential good, good in a way that goes beyond our feelings and is a quality of the world around us, filled by, made by, blessed by God.

Back in “Say the Wrong Thing,” Kemp writes:

Humans require love, connection, and safety. When we let the fear of saying the wrong

thing rule us, we may get a semblance of safety but we do not experience deep love or connection. What’s especially deadly is that regular withholding from others actually compromises our connection to and love of ourselves. We become habitually inauthentic and unmoored from our center. We wage war on ourselves which gets projected out to other people and groups.

Without honesty, however hard, we cannot learn to love.

The Bible says:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

But, if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins,

and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Let us confess our sins before the Lord God. Let us pray...

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