Isaiah 58:1-12; Galatians 3:27-29
When you enter the National Museum of African-American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to get to the exhibition you go down a long escalator, then turn a corner into a dimly lit waiting area. With a group of strangers eventually you are herded into a very large elevator, also barely lit, and slowly you descend into the earth. It’s as if you’re in the hold of a ship.
When the door opens and you enter the room that begins to tell the story of the enslavement of Africans in America, a quote from John Hope Franklin on the wall in large letters greets you:
We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.
That quote would come to frame our month-long road trip through the South in January.
We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.
As I have preached about our American Pilgrimage and described the encounter with deeply-embedded racism in our land, people have asked what might be done about it. That’s a good question, and one I feel wholly unqualified to answer – but our faith will not let us get away without trying.
That’s essentially what the prophet Isaiah says to the Hebrew people in the sixth century BCE. The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon. Their job now is to re-build their nation in a way that reflects God’s intentions, unlike how things were before exile.
That sounds like the work that lies before us as a nation in coming to terms with the legacy of racism and the damage it has done.
The prophet Isaiah sees that the people of God in that ancient time are avoiding the difficult task that needs to be engaged, and instead are caught up in religious rituals, especially fasting. But the Almighty is not pleased. That’s not what God wants from the people. “Why do we fast,” they ask of God, “But you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3)
Isaiah points out the problem: they’re choosing the wrong fast. They’re not getting their religion right. In fact, God’s agenda does not center on religion at all; its focus is on building a human community that is loving and just.
“Is not this the fast that I choose,” God says to the people through the prophet:
“To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
The purpose of religion is not merely to engage in ritual piety, but also, and especially, to practice justice as a way to honor God. What good is our religion if it does not change the way we live and how we engage the world?
Scholar Amy Oden interprets Isaiah this way:
“The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement, and blindness to one’s privilege.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=793)
When God’s people live like that, when God’s people pursue their religion in such a manner, Isaiah says,
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:12)
There’s a phrase in Hebrew that describes what Isaiah is getting at: tikkun olam. It means repair of the world. That’s Isaiah’s hope for the Hebrew people returning from exile to a land wracked by inequalities and ruin. Repair of the world. That phrase was much on our minds during our American Pilgrimage last month.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow laws. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Decades of mass incarceration. Ta Nehisi Coates calls them America’s “compounding moral debts.” They will not be easily erased. And, yet, as a nation – and certainly as people of faith – we cannot ignore what has happened and the obligation to do something about it.
The first response to the reality of racial injustice in our country is simply to acknowledge it. When South Africa engaged the challenging work of racial reconciliation in that land, it began with people telling the truth to one another. It was not a perfect way to confront their past and open a new future, but at least it moved the nation forward.
The value of telling the truth about the sin of the past – whether personally or collectively – is not that we can then move on, as if we have left it all behind once and for all. On the contrary, honestly facing the truth allows us to move forward with it, carrying it with us, learning to understand how it affects us as we live into the future. Only then will we be able to create a new day, and new way, together.
Apartheid lasted 50 years; America has 400 years of systemic racism to address. It’s an overwhelming prospect, which may be why progress seems so slow. We’ve barely begun to understand where we’ve been as a nation and how we as a people are complicit in systems that continue today to shape our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens.
“The reason black people are so far behind now,” an older gentleman tells Ta Nehisi Coates, “Is not because of now. It’s because of then.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/)
Take housing, for instance. It’s no coincidence that our country’s neighborhoods are highly segregated by race. It’s an extension of the concept of white superiority that once made the enslavement of Africans possible in our land. Government housing policy and the practice of real estate may not have put chains on Black folk, but they kept African-Americans in their place.
It was called “redlining,” and we perfected it here in Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project demonstrates that our city’s housing policies and mortgage practices intentionally locked Black families out of home ownership, or limited where they could live in our town.
The film Jim Crow of the North tells the story. Between 1910 and 1955 more than 21,000 restrictive covenants were placed on white-owned houses in Hennepin County, prohibiting African-Americans from ever owning those homes. Today the rate of home ownership for white people living in Minneapolis is triple that of black residents. (https://www.mappingprejudice.org/ and https://metrocouncil.org/getdoc/03bd679d-21a4-455b-af7a-15309b0c71ae/Diving-Deeper-Understanding-Disparities-Between-B.aspx)
Across the country household wealth of African-Americans “is about 7% that of whites.” More than a third of Black families in America have zero or negative household wealth. The racial gap will last for generations. One study concludes, “It would take 228 years for the average Black family to catch up to the average white family in terms of household wealth.” (https://www.thebalance.com/racial-wealth-gap-in-united-states-4169678 and https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ and https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/the-average-black-family-would-need-228-years-to-build-the-wealth-of-a-white-family-today/)
Can we, in the words of Isaiah, “Raise up the foundations of many generations and restore the streets to live in? Can we repair the world when it is so off-kilter? Where do we begin?
On our journey last month, it was encouraging, as we moved through town after town, to learn of efforts that had been made by those who recognized the responsibility of white people to engage in dismantling the evil of racism.
In 1769, the Quaker John Woolman said,
“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us, and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/)
Quaker communities in the 18th century began requiring their members to free enslaved people and compensate them for their time of enslavement. They were helping in some small way to repair the breach that had been broken in the human family. They were enacting the claims of the letter to the Galatians:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
The bulletin insert today about the Presbyterian story in Princeton with a Black church there describes how our own denomination has struggled to acknowledge its own racism and to seek reconciliation with those we have harmed.
When we visited Savannah, we were surprised to learn about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s sense of responsibility toward African-Americans. Known mostly for his scorched-earth March to the Sea that helped end the Civil War, Sherman showed a different side when he entered Savannah on December 21, 1864. That very day he asked to meet with local Black leaders at the Second African Baptist Church and invited them to prepare a plan for the newly-free African-American community in that city and state – and for the thousands of formerly enslaved people who had followed them into Savannah.
Three weeks later they met Sherman again. We visited the house in Savannah where that meeting took place, and stood in the room where they met and imagined how the meeting went. The Union general, so feared across the South, asked the assembled African-Americans, all of them clergy and half newly-freed in the last week or two, what they needed to start their lives over. Their long exile in Babylon had ended; it was time to repair the world. (http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/savmtg.htm)
Sherman listened and took careful notes, and four days later he issued Special Field Order No. 15. The general had requested and received approval from President Lincoln to confiscate white landholdings along 250 miles of Atlantic coast, going 30 miles inland, from Charleston, South Carolina, through Georgia, all the way down to Jacksonville, Florida. The land was to be given in sections of up to 40 acres to African-American families recently freed from enslavement.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.
Within weeks thousands of Black families begin to relocate and start new lives along that coastal stretch of land. In addition to the land, some received surplus mules from the Union Army, giving rise to the saying “40 acres and a mule.”
That plan marks the first and only time the U.S. government has attempted to offer formal reparations to African-Americans. But we know how the story unfolded. Lincoln was assassinated and the new president Andrew Johnson, a southerner, was not sympathetic to the plight of formerly enslaved people. He rescinded Special Order no. 15 by the fall of 1865. Can you imagine the difference it would have made if the order had been fully implemented?
Twenty-five years later, a white man named Walter Vaughan, from Selma, Alabama, led an effort to introduce a bill in Congress to provide a pension to formerly enslaved people, recognizing that so many were older and had no means of sustaining themselves. The legislation failed to pass, and the idea of reparations lost momentum. But since the late 1980s a bill has been introduced annually in Congress to study the impact of the system of slavery and appropriate remedies. The bill never been advanced by either political party. Never made it to the floor for debate.
I remember John Hope Franklin’s words:
We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.
America was built by people enslaved for 250 years.
“Nearly one-fourth of all white Southerners owned enslaved people…In the seven cotton states, one-third of all white income was derived from slavery…In 1860, enslaved people as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/)
America decided long ago that whites were superior to Blacks, which entitled them to own and profit off their enslaved bodies for twelve generations. That racism is still intrenched in our land. It was not resolved by the Civil Rights Movement. It was not removed by legislation. The breach has not been repaired. The nation has not been restored.
It’s time for America to enter into serious and difficult conversation about the legacy of slavery, and about reparations – not because they will make the evils of racial injustice disappear overnight, and not because we will suddenly set things right, but because as a nation we need to repent of the claim of white superiority embedded in our national culture, and seek to make amends for what we have done, and take concrete steps toward authentic reconciliation.
Ta Nehisi Coates calls a public conversation about reparations “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens,” he says, “Is improved and humane.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/)
We cannot simply move on from our history, but by the grace of God, together we might move forward with it, and learn to live in new ways with one another. Learn to seek justice together. Learn to listen to one another.
And begin to repair the world together, which is, after all, what God wants of us.
Thanks be to God.
God of light and revelation, we are mindful that the darkness of winter is giving way slowly to hope and renewal, of which we can just see the thawing edge. For hilltop and sanctuary, for ocean bed and landscape, for all that creeps and flies, flutters and floats, we give you thanks and praise. We can barely comprehend the beauty and vastness, sublimity and hardship, order and disorder, all around us. We benefit from the wonder of your works and yet contribute to its rapid degradation. Help us realize the weight of our conveniences, and that those most vulnerable endure the biggest burden of ecological crisis.
We as the church bear present witness to your grace for us in Jesus Christ. Help us to reach out for the deep water, to look beyond our own familiar horizon, to take risks in faith and prayer, and to discover that you are by our side. We pray your righteousness be our guide, that we are always ready to see you in one another, but especially in those we are conditioned to believe are more different from us than alike. We are all created in your image, created in and for love, created to heal and to reconcile.
The gift of the Holy Spirit fulfills the work of that reconciliation in human life and pulls us along in creating and renewing community, enabling us to enjoy peace with you and each other. But there are so many places where there is no peace within or peace progressing. For those who are being killed softly and silently by systems and ignorance, unchecked power and prejudice, rain down your justice, shaping and moving us into the people of faith the world is crying out for us to be.
For those who struggle in mind and spirit, heal their pain and mend their broken hearts. For those who face a new diagnosis, a difficult course of treatment, or grief long into the night, may your mantle of care, rest upon them. We especially hold close this morning …. For those who flee and those quarantined, for those who seek to welcome and those who seek to cure, strengthen and guide them.
Each one of us is the church in the world, endowed by the Spirit with some gift of ministry. Help us realize our own integrity and call, with an urgency born of hope, that we might strive for a better world and be part of the common good. Let us be steadfast, to offer all glory to you, O God, to all generations. This we proclaim, as disciples of your Son, who invites us to pray together, saying, Our Father…