A long time ago, just after I graduated from college, I cooked for a living.
I paid my rent and bought beer by peeling and julienning potatoes, dicing onions, frying calamari, mixing salad dressings, washing dishes, and doing a hundred other tasks around a kitchen. And we were a small crew, so I got to do a little bit of everything.
And I spent a lot of time with a chef’s knife. So, at some point, my chef taught me how to use a chef’s knife… and how to hold a chef’s knife.
You might know this, but…
A knife has a handle. And you can carry a knife by the handle, and you can grab a knife by the handle, but when you’re using a knife, you don’t hold the handle. Most of your hand might rest on the handle, but you grip the flat of the blade, and rest the bit of your index finger right near your palm on the spine of the knife.
And if you hold a knife that way, and you work in a kitchen where you are spending hours every day chopping and dicing and julienning and brunoising, you will get a little callus on the bit of your index finger right near your palm.
It’s been years since I’ve worked in a kitchen. I only cook at home now. And I still have a little hard patch of skin right there from all of the hours I’ve spent with a knife.
This week, we’re continuing our Sunday sermon series on being the church. By now you know that we’re going through that list of things that are on the banner in front of our church.
Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
And this week, we’re on this: be the church; reject racism.
And I’m going to start by saying something that I know is bold and controversial: racism—and stay with me here—is bad.
I know that doesn’t sound bold… or controversial. But here’s the thing: that doesn’t sound bold or controversial because we—and by we I mean white people—have defined racism in terms of things that are big and special and obvious; in terms of Klan hoods and burning crosses and Roman salutes and racist slurs.
But… Racism absolutely lives in things that are big and special and obvious. And racism lives in things that are little and banal and hidden. And racism lives in things that are staggeringly huge and perfectly normal and unnoticeable. We swim in a sea of racism. And we don’t notice… because it works for us… and, if you pinch a knife by the spine enough, you don’t even remember that there’s a little callus right there.
And now I am going to say something bold and controversial: one of the foundations that this country was built on is racism. Straight up. No doubt. It was baked in when the Declaration of Independence called our indigenous neighbors savages and our Constitution reduced people who were not white to three-fifths of a person. For generations, racism has been part of our laws… and our customs… and our language.
It is so ingrained in the unnoticed everyday that we don’t even need to talk about race to make it work. That is the curse of racism that is systemic. That is the curse of racism that is structural. That is the curse of racism that is baked-in. Even if everyone agrees that racism is bad… even if everyone says that we don’t care about a person’s race… the systems that we have built… will still produce racist results.
I shouldn’t have to give an example, but…
For four hundred years, Black people in America have been subjected to a combination of slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, redlining, plain old-fashioned informal bigotry, and a thousand other things designed to keep Black people from gaining wealth.
The result, according to the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, is that the median net worth of a white non-hispanic family was $171,000 in 2016; and the median net worth of a Black family was $17,150.
Now, let me be clear about two things. First, that means that half of those families made more than that amount; and half made less. Second, that was net worth, which includes bank accounts and houses and life insurance policies… and mortgages and student loans and credit card balances… all of the assets minus all of the debts.
Which means that even if race was off the table—even if explicit racism disappeared forever starting right now—the typical white family could afford to live in a good school district with AP classes and International Baccalaureate programs and fine arts classes and extracurricular activities and well-stocked libraries, among other things. And the typical Black family absolutely could not.
Even if no teacher saw race. Even if no administrator noticed race. Even if no-one in the PTA cared at all about race. The deck would still be stacked… because history has stacked it.
And when you add in implicit bias and plain old-fashioned informal bigotry… and you start stacking those systems on top of each other… it just gets worse.
Even if most of us agree that racism—and stay with me here—is bad.Our reading today is from the book of Revelation. And it should sound familiar. A few weeks ago, on what was supposed to be Confirmation Sunday, we read a longer bit of that book. But that longer bit included this: a vision of the river of the water of life, and on either side of that river the Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.
It is easy to imagine that the promise of our faith is heaven. It’s easy to imagine that all of this is about me, personally, getting into the good place. And it is true that God loves you and me and every else as individuals, in all of our particularity.
But the promise of our faith is not personal salvation. All of this is not about me, personally, getting into the good place. It is about so much more: the redemption of the whole world… of all of creation. The healing of the nations.
And let’s face it: our nation is in desperate need of healing. And not just the go-along-to-get-along just-learn-to-live-with-it let’s-all-be-civil kind of healing. No. The we-have-to-operate and keep up with our occupational therapy and relearn basic skills and change our lifestyles kind of healing.
You see, rejecting racism isn’t about resisting the urge to put on a Klan hood or burn a cross or give a Roman salute or utter a racist slur. At least, it isn’t just about that sort of thing.
It is about seeing the things that are little and banal and hidden—like commenting about someone’s name, or wondering why some people don’t pull their pants up, or touching someone’s hair—and addressing them.
And it’s about seeing the things that are staggeringly huge and perfectly normal and unnoticeable—like the racial wealth gap, or how the prison system works, or why all those Jesuses are white—and changing them.
It’s about knowing that sometimes, racism is the quick slash of a knife’s edge. And, more often, it’s the constant pressure of a knife’s spine, hardening a little patch of skin on the bit of your index finger right near your palm.
Except it’s not a little patch of skin on the bit of your index finger right near your palm. It’s whole bodies… and hearts… and minds… and ways of being.
And I know… addressing the little things and changing the big things are uncomfortable things for us to do. I don’t say these things lightly. My father’s ancestor—the first Warfield in America—came to the country in the mid-17th century as an indentured servant. And after his term as a servant ended, he became a captain in the Maryland militia and a vestryman at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis.
And he bought land. And he bought people.
And I know that he bought land because he left it to his children in his will: Warfield Plains and Warfield Forest to John, Warfield Addition to Richard, Brandy to Alexander, and Warfield Range to Benjamin and to Elinor.
And I know that he bought people because he left them to his children in his will. He left Jenny to Benjamin, Pasholet to John, Tobey to Richard, Chango to Alexander, and Hannah to Elinor. I don’t know if those names were those people’s real names or if those names were forced on them. I don’t know if they ever stood on Africa’s shore or if they only heard stories. I only know that my ancestors claimed to own them, and sell them, and give them away as inheritances.
And the history of white people and Black people on this continent goes from there.
(And that doesn’t even touch the history of white people and indigenous people in this land. I have land grants hanging in my house: records of the federal government giving Sauk land to Randall Davis in exchange for his service in the War of 1812.)
What I know is that my family’s fortunes on this continent are inextricably tied to racism. Straight up. No doubt.
Rejecting racism means coming to a new understanding of my family’s history. It means reimagining the structures and systems—the very foundations of the society—that they helped build. It means learning a new way of moving through the world. It means working towards the healing of the nations: we-have-to-operate and keep up with our occupational therapy and relearn basic skills and change our lifestyles kind of healing.
And that is a big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled thing. But thank God I know some people who can do big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some people who can be leaders in doing big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some folks who can be the church.