Silent at Our Own Risk

It amazes and bothers me that we in this country are so reluctant to talk about race and racism.

I spoke this week at an event which I thought would be predominantly white; the sermon was about how we who love God ought to choose God and serve God over racism, sexism, militarism, materialism, homophobia …I didn’t say it, but those things in the list could be, and should be, classified as “sin” since sin is anything that separates us from God.

The audience turned out to be predominantly African-American, and I am more than sure that, while the message resonated with the African-Americans, many of the white people in attendance were probably offended.


I know by now that we all see things through different lenses, lenses tinted by our life experiences, but in this, the 21st century, where racism is as ugly and as blatant as it has always been, shouldn’t we be able to try to see through a more common lens so that we can graduate from the halls of racism to a graduate school of peace, understanding, and reconciliation?

In the sermon, I mentioned the feeling of sadness I have as concerns the Trayvon Martin case; I mentioned that I am saddened at the news that at least 40 public schools in urban Philadelphia are scheduled to be closed; I mentioned that it is difficult to listen to people talk about being pro-life when their definition seems only to extend to unborn fetuses and not to children already born, living in horrible situations with horrible education and little to no health care.

I mentioned that the treatment of President Barack Obama has been sickeningly racist, evidence of our still-sick society as concerns race.

I mentioned the horrible chasm that is only widening between the haves and the “have-nots,” relaying disturbing insights about our economic recession that I learned on PBS’s Frontline program, the first part of which aired last week and the second part which will air May 1,  Money, Power and Wall Street . In that program. I shuddered as I listened to the narrator share that in the mortgage crisis, some people with sub-prime mortgages paid as much as 42 percent interest.

I was floored…and I said as much. That has to bother somebody, right? It has to at least bother those who say they love and serve God…or so I posited.

My point was that people who say they believe in God in general, and in Jesus specifically, have a moral code that we should follow; we are mandated to take care of “the least of these,” and because doing that involves challenging political systems, we should choose to serve God and what God would mandate, so that we have the strength to challenge social and political systems which will not change without such a challenge. We get tired of pushing against the powers and principalities which push us right back.

We are not, however, allowed to be tired to the point of inaction. That’s what I shared.

I believe in what I preach; I believe that Christians miss the boat when we are silent about systems, belief systems as well as social and political systems, which permit people to be oppressed and treated unjustly. While, according to Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, it is understandable that our society (and in fact, any society) is more immoral than the individuals within it, the way I have learned and internalized Christianity is that we are to work on our personal salvation so that ultimately, we can influence yet another person to take the person and presence of Jesus seriously and get him/her to work against oppression, from whatever source it may come.

I am not sure many agree with me. I sat down yesterday I was not sure where the message had fallen. The African-Americans in attendance, and many of the whites, seemed to understand what I was getting at, some whites, I noticed, avoided my gaze.

Recognizing injustice is hard; fighting it is even harder. It is work that makes us come face to face with our feelings and beliefs, and sometimes, that just doesn’t feel good.

One of my colleagues will share with me the “white” reaction to what I shared yesterday.

My prayer is that one day, there won’t be such a division between races in hearing words about realities that still sit with us, like racism. It has had a dominant place in our society for far too long.

A candid observation …


11 thoughts on “Silent at Our Own Risk

  1. Your “candid observation” s right on target. Ignoring the two ton gorilla of residual, subtle, unconfessed and unreported for racism in our country’s living room has been going on, however, since before we were a country, Pastor Smith. So what’s new?

    1. As I read your piece I thought of all that I’ve learned from Rev. Wright and other beloved mentors. And sadly, in my experience, I’m not sure many with my hue have “ears to hear”–because we haven’t been listening. As long as my kids have a decent school, why should I care about the kids in Philadelphia? Besides, Jesus’ words made for much better sayings on refrigerator plaques made in China rather than actual life prescriptions. Would that we all champion the life that’s been born . . .

      1. It’s so unfortunate that the level of defensiveness in so many people is so high that they WILL NOT hear that perhaps there’s another way to see the world and its issues, especially as concerns race. It just all makes me very sad.
        Thanks for commenting.

  2. Your comments are spot-on, but I am afraid that not unlike your sermon audience, America has perfected denial. Pastor Wright once said that racists know that they are racists, so calling them out only congratulates them–they a calculating in that sick evil. It is sad that the president has been blatantly disrespected.. As awful as some of his predecessors were, they were never called liars in meetings and blocked at every turn. As Don King says, but for a different reason “only in America!”
    Ozzie Smith

  3. I attended the service on Sunday at which you spoke and I felt that the message was very moving and very timely. In fact I was so moved that I purchased your book Crazy Faith
    PS I got it and I’m white

  4. Richard, thank you for commenting. I didn’t know what to make of the things I felt afterwards…The intention was to inspire (well, challenge, too, but inspire), not offend. I was flabbergasted! I am glad, though, that you found the message moving …and on the book, THANK YOU for buying it. Hopefully, one doesn’t have to be African-American to enjoy it! Let me know what you think!

    1. Susan
      I finished your book last evening “Crazy Faith” and I thought it was very well thought out and done. I’m going to recommend our church use it as a study on faith and what it means. I especially liked the Crazy-Faith Challenge at the end of each chapter I thought they were very thought-provoking. And I definitely agree that there are miracles all around us.

      1. Hooray! I am so glad! I am at a “crazy faith” place in my life right now as I work to raise money for our Freedom School. It feels like I imagine Moses must have felt at the Sea of Reeds, or like Mary McLeod Bethune felt as she worked to raise money to build her school. Can’t write about it if I cannot try to live it!
        Thank you!

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