I confess to you my brothers and sisters in Christ, that I am racist.
I participate in a society that gives preference and privilege to white people, while denying those things to people of color. I receive the benefit of the doubt, the assumption of innocence, the assumption of competency, and many other things.
While we’re at it, I’m also sexist. I participate in a society that values male leadership over female leadership. As a man, I benefit from that unfair reality. If I go up against a female for a job interview, I know I have an unfair starting advantage. I also know most of us men are unaware of this advantage. We think we got the job because we’re most qualified or the hardest workers. I acknowledge that because we don’t personally experience the belittling comments women so often do, the condescension, the inappropriate touching, the sexual innuendo, and veiled threats. Because we experience these less or not at all, we don’t know they exist, and often don’t believe women when they tell us about them.
I confess to you that I’m also a classist. I participate in a society that gives preference to people who have money, over people who do not, no matter how they got their money. I confess that I have at times judged people based on what they wore, ignorant of the fact that they might not have the options I did.
I recognize that even the fact that I was elected bishop, was made considerably more likely because I am a straight, white, middle-class, educated, male pastor, and not necessarily because I am more qualified for the job.
I do not apologize for being who I am. Like most of us, I did not choose to be white, male, or even a U.S. citizen. It was a matter of circumstance. I, like others, am a beloved child of God. I only acknowledge, and seek to be aware that my station in life offers me some social advantages that others have not received. I strive to remind myself of that often, so that when the opportunities and invitations come, I remember to invite others to come along.
Racism, sexism, and classism: these are not new problems. In fact, they are addressed directly in the Bible.
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)
Jew or Greek: Race
Slave or free: Class
Male or female: Gender
To deny that these offer advantages is self-deception. Anyone can see that one who is born into slavery is at a considerable disadvantage in life, vis-à-vis someone who was born with a billion-dollar inheritance. It might be easy for the rich to brag about their accomplishments, downplaying their obvious social advantage.
So racism, sexism, classism, and the other “isms” are unavoidable. They are not always outright bigotry or prejudice, though we all have these too. Sometimes they are simply part of the system. To deny them is to fool ourselves. John put it like this:
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 to forgive us from all sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 4)
To deny prejudice, bias, or that we participate in social inequity is absurd. Our best move is to acknowledge them, confess them, and work to combat them.
Imagine a picture in your mind of someone who is racist…
Many people envision someone in a KKK hood. We immediately think, I’m not like that. I don’t hate people of other races. I actually wish them well. So we deny the reality of racism. But these realities are often built into our social structures, unconscious impressions, and even laws.
The Bible deals with these three “isms” I have mentioned, frequently as it happens. The Bible is very concerned with social justice. The people of Israel were told not to go over their fields twice, but to leave some for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the migrant. Families were asked to share a tithe (tenth) of their harvest for the priests and the poor. There are so many passages they could not possibly be listed here. Consider a sampling:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:11-14)
Jesus constantly trenches his followers to be aware of where they are on the social ladder and to reach out to those who are valued less by society’s standards.
Here is how James addresses class when talking to the church.
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4)
If we think our people, and even ourselves, don’t evaluate people based on the clothes they wear, the car they drive, or the house they buy, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. It is very human to do this. We must not deny it or pretend it doesn’t exist. The way forward is to recognize this tendency in ourselves and others, confess it, and work to neutralize it.
Classism is nothing new. Those with money, whether inherited, stolen, or earned fairly, are treated with great deference. The poor are too often called lazy, freeloaders, and entitled. Jesus had a different approach to those in poverty and those who are rich:
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)
Why are the poor blessed — loved by God? Does God not love the rich? Of course. God loves all people. But the rich already feel blessed. It is the poor who are treated with contempt. Jesus warns those with privilege to care about those without it.
Passages like this make those of us in developing countries nervous. We tend to downplay them and spiritualize them. What if Jesus means what he says? What if he is saying to the have nots in our world, whose go to bed hungry every night, and lack basic necessities, “It may not seem like it, but you are beloved of God.”? And what if Jesus is saying, “You who have everything you need, who spend money on what you don’t need while others starve to death, beware. God is not pleased.”?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:8-9)
How then, should the followers of Jesus view the poor in our day and age?
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and making her stand before all of them, they said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. (John 8)
Anyone who has ever studied this text deeply knows the problem here. A couple has been caught in the very act of adultery, and yet only the woman is on trial; the man is not there. This is an old, old story. Just ask Eve. Jesus could see the unfair, sexist application of the law. The woman is often seen as a scapegoat. Many cultures value a man who has female conquests. A woman who has male conquests is given derogatory names, then stoned verbally and sometimes physically.
In today’s society men have advantages and privileges not afforded women. If two applicants, a man and a woman, are equally qualified, most of the time the man will get the job. People just “feel” the man will be better.
The church is not exempt. If given a choice between and male and female pastor, most congregations will choose the male. Even if the female pastor is more qualified, they will choose the male. We’ve had congregations ask us for more male candidates. They’ve never asked us for more female candidates. It’s not a level playing field.
Men are often blind to these realities. They don’t experience them personally, so they don’t think they actually exist. They’re unaware. They don’t get grabbed, hugged, or touched without their permission. They’re not afraid of being raped on the way to their car at night. So these things are off the radar.
Throughout the gospels Jesus acknowledged women in ways that were not normal in his society. Just sitting with the woman at the well, in John 4, was scandalous. Even Jesus’ own disciples were “astonished” that he was speaking to a woman in public. (John 4:27)
The earliest writings of Paul reflect this egalitarian understanding, as in Galatians. In Romans 16, Paul greets female church leaders. Later, the church reverts to a male-dominated organization, like the society around it, as reflected in the deutero-Pauline corpus.
How then, should the followers of Jesus view matters of gender our day and age?
The Bible is filled with racial slurs. The Edomites, the Moabites, the Jebusites, and other groups are derided in the Old Testsment. The deeply flawed so-called heroes of the Bible have their problems too. In the New Testament the tension between Jews and Greeks is palpable. Paul’s vision was that for God in Christ, there was no longer any distinction, therefore, for those “in Christ,” there could no longer be distinctions either.
In today’s gospel reading, a Syrophonician woman asks Jesus for something. He responds, “Is it fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs?”
To her credit she comes right back. “Even dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” He praises her and heals her daughter. Is this a racial slur? Jews often referred to Samaritans, Gentiles, and other outsiders as “dogs.”
Is it a sexist remark? Women were often referred to as dogs, female dogs, as they still are to this day. Some have suggested that Jesus was “kidding” or speaking tongue-in-cheek. She knew how she was viewed in society. Perhaps he was intentionally shocking those around by acknowledging her status before he healed her daughter. Others believe we are seeing Jesus’ own evolution in his relationship to women or foreigners.
However we read this text, it is interesting that throughout the gospels, Jesus seems surprised to find faith in Gentiles. “In all of Israel I have not seen such faith…” In Mark’s gospel it is only a (pagan) centurion at the cross who finally recognizes and announces Jesus’ identity, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Jesus and the gospels wrestle, and ultimately transcend race. The good news of the gospel is for all.
Jesus spoke openly against the religious and politicos leaders of his day. He spoke against the excesses of King Herod and the Saducees. He spoke against the legalism of the Pharisees. With a whip, he drove from the Temple the moneychangers, who were milking the poor in the name of God. He spoke on behalf of those despised, those in need, and outcasts. He critiqued the rich and powerful. In the end, it cost him his life on the cross.
In his ministry, Jesus taught about a God who loves us unconditionally. This God loves those who appear to have gotten the short end of the stick in life. This God loves those who have made mistakes and been broken by the power of sin. God is closer to the humble, who recognize their sin and repent, than the arrogant who act as if they have no sin.
In his resurrection he promises new life to all who through faith; follow in his way, now, and in the life to come. In Christ there is a new creation. We are confident that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Because of this confidence, we are free to live into the new creation. We know that when we challenge the existing social structures, those who benefit from those structures will rise up. There will be anger, stonings, and crucifixions. Because of the promise of new life, we are bold to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and walk the way Jesus in this world.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, be not afraid. Confess your sins, receive God’s forgiveness, live in the never-failing love of Christ, and allow yourself to be led by the Spirit. Let this be a house of prayer for all people. Even though society makes distinctions, we can tip the balance by treating those who are despised with greater honor. In so doing we are given the opportunity to be witnesses to the greater truth revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are free to burst through barriers of race, class, and gender. We are free to embrace our brothers and sisters from all walks of life without fear. We follow a God who welcomes all to the table. All means all: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.