Monday, June 30, 2014

Racism and Spiritual Growth

Gracious God, forgive our small-mindedness, our assumption that the way we see the world is the only or best way to see it. Give us a glimpse of your perspective; help us see through your eyes of love and grace. Amen.
Our recognition of Juneteenth in worship this year was a powerful experience for me. Rev. Darnell Fennell’s sermon spoke volumes—he articulated beautifully both why and how, in Christianity, there is no separation between our spiritual lives and the lives we lead in the here and now. To think of the importance of our spiritual lives solely in whether we end up going to heaven or hell misses the whole point of Jesus’ life and ministry among us. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly—in the here and now!

How do we experience abundant life? I think we experience it by courageously deciding to follow Jesus Christ, to undertake a spiritual journey to become more and more like Jesus, who was and is the Christ. This spiritual journey of following Christ entails a whole range of decisions, times of sufferings, times of bliss, a commitment to deep reflection, and true engagement with both issues of the soul and with issues of our time, that is, the issues that confront us culturally and socially. One of the most important of these current issues is racism.

After worship, Rev. Fennell led a “conversation on racism,” sponsored by H4PJ. One thing that struck me in this conversation was a word of hope about how many young people today have been raised in a culture that is much more diverse than in the past, and how these young people feel so comfortable in environments that are rich in racial diversity. That is indeed hopeful. As I listened, it occurred to me to wonder about a fundamental human anxiety: fear of the other, fear of difference.

I learned about this fundamental anxiety in an ethics class taught by Dr. Darryl Trimiew. I recall him saying to the class, “We are all racists.” My liberal consciousness rebelled at that idea, and it took me many weeks of study and questioning of myself to understand what he meant. Yes, we are all racists in the sense that we all carry this basic fear of difference—our first ancestors survived, it’s assumed, by learning to fear those of other clans and tribes, and that fear is passed down through our DNA. I don’t know how anyone could be sure of that—and even if it’s totally accurate, perhaps when young people are raised in a milieu of racial difference, this basic fear is ameliorated.

Still, I think it might be helpful spiritually to assume a kernel of truth in this idea, that we have a deep, perhaps unconscious, anxiety about differences in other people. It could be helpful spiritually because it means that part of our spiritual journey of becoming more Christ-like entails examining and making conscious this anxiety. When we become more aware of it we can confront it, and in that confrontation lies a seed of powerful and beautiful transformation.

I’ve always loved the story of the Canaanite woman who had the courage to confront Jesus about his biased attitude. She asked him to help her daughter and he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She immediately countered with “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” She was saying, Look at me! I am a human being, created in God’s image! Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” I think this woman’s confrontation allowed Jesus to transform, to see beyond the “only” to an “all” way of thinking and loving.

And this is our example—to be like Jesus, who, when he allowed himself to hear this different point of view from a woman of a different group of people, had the courage to allow the truth to transform him. In recognizing the humanity of another being, I think Jesus grew more authentically into his full humanity.

I’m fond of pointing out that “we’re all more alike than different,” which is true and valuable, I think, but it’s also just as true that “we are all different.” And our differences—racial, sexual orientation, gender, able-bodied or not, age, etc.—must be acknowledged and valued. They must be valued because these differences give us a unique point of view, a unique experience of the world, and if we dig deep for the courage to allow a different point of view/experience of the world to actually change us, then, like Jesus, we too might move more fully into our full humanity.

Racism is an evil in the world that can take many forms, some blatant, others subtle and hidden. If we want to grow in our faith, if we want to be more like Jesus, then we must do the heavy spiritual work of making ourselves aware of the subtle ways that our fear of “the other” entangles us in the ugly web of racism.

One way to do this work is to join with others in a “Sacred Conversation,” a group that will soon be offered through the Cathedral Academy for Life and Learning. I hope to learn much in such a group, and I invite you to join me. It’s not always the most comfortable place to be, but in my experience the discomfort is a powerful portal to spiritual growth.

Gracious God, forgive our small-mindedness, our assumption that the way we see the world is the only or best way to see it. Give us a glimpse of your perspective; help us see through your eyes of love and grace. Amen.