Sermon from Sunday, December 7, 2014
I wrote this sermon on Thursday. I started the day by walking down the hill to church. There was a brief lull in the rain, and I can always use the exercise. And while I was walking, I was very aware of how totally safe and secure I felt. Yes, of course I could have tripped and hurt myself, it was possible that a meteor might have fallen from the sky and landed on my head, but I was willing to take that chance. I felt safe as I walked down Walsh St to church.
I felt safe for several reasons. I felt safe because this is Grass Valley. A small town, a place of low crime, even though the local Police Department deems it necessary to have an armoured tank to help it enforce law and order against the jay walkers and those who overstay the in-town three hour parking limit. I felt safe because I am a man 6’2” tall and 220 pounds, and therefore less likely to be mugged than if I was physically frail. But, most of all, I felt safe because of my skin colour. If a police patrol car had happened to pass me on Walsh St, it is very unlikely that the officer would have stopped me, very unlikely he would have searched me, very unlikely he would have pulled a gun and shot me, very unlikely he would have got me in a choke hold if I had challenged his right to accost me for no apparent reason. In fact, I have been stopped by the police once and only once. While driving late at night in Adelaide, when in my twenties, I was stopped and breathalysed. In Adelaide the police conduct random breath tests. They set up a station and stop maybe one car in ten. I had not been drinking. I had no reason to be fearful. The episode was courteous and proper. I was sent politely on my way.
Here is the thing. All my life, I have lived in a world made and governed by people like me, for the express benefit of people like me. All of my life, I have lived in a world in which I have enjoyed every privilege and advantage. I am male. I am heterosexual. I have had a strong, healthy and fully-abled body. I was born in a country of affluence and prosperity and political order, fortuitously at a time when, as a strong, healthy, heterosexual man, I was not expected to go to war to kill or be killed to satisfy a politician’s whim. I am intelligent, and have had the benefit of an education at one of the world’s premier universities. And though, during my childhood my parents were financially strapped, I was never hungry, never homeless, never without, and now I am blessed with an abundance far, far beyond my due. And, more than any other factor, I have had the benefit of my skin. All of my life, I have lived where my skin has been a suit of armour, protecting me against prejudice, granting me privilege and access. Yes, I am a foreigner in this land, but nobody knows that until I open my mouth. There have been no barriers placed in my way because of the accidental particularities of who I am. Doors have not been closed to me, they have always been opened.
All of my life, I have been able to breathe. I have been able to breathe the fresh air of privilege and power, and the immediate companions in my life have been breathing that same fresh air with me. All of my friends, the people I know and love best, are middle class, educated, cultured, affluent, propertied, comfortable and content, for the most part share my political leanings, and all of them are white. I do know and love some whose sexual orientations differ from mine, but that is pretty much the limit of my emotional stretch, and even with that I have had a journey to travel which perhaps might be the subject of a sermon at another time. I did not intentionally set out to live in such an exclusive, isolated bubble, but there it is. I have and I do.
I suspect for all of your lives, you also have been able to breathe. You have felt protected, privileged, even pampered by a society made by people like you, for the express benefit of people like you. Perhaps, like me, you have been in a bubble all this time. And what makes living in a bubble so dangerously seductive is not to realise that you are in a bubble. To assume that your limited one-dimensional experience of the world IS the world. Like The Truman Show, not to be able to see beyond one’s own limited perception, and therefore to assume that your perception and experience is the objective reality.
From my lifelong position of privilege and power, living now in the cosy comforts of Grass Valley, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to be an African American or other oppressed minority in this country, particularly in a city torn by economic hardship.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to live in a country whose every message is that you are not worthy.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to be afraid every time a patrol car cruises by, every time you walk down the street, every time you encounter an institutionalised bureaucracy, knowing that you will be regarded with fear, suspicion, dismissiveness and scorn.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to have your voice so systematically silenced, I, whose role it is in part to speak.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to know that you have a strong chance of being incarcerated for long, long periods of time for doing what, if you were white, you might receive a mild slap on the wrist.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to be caged by the colour of your skin in a country which touts itself as the land of the free.
I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like to have doors slammed in your face, again and again, to be excluded, to live on the margins, to be told you are unworthy, a menace, an embarrassment.
I find it difficult to imagine the exhaustion, the despair, the frustration and the rage which a lifetime of being treated thus must engender.
I find it difficult to imagine not being able to breathe because of the choke hold society had around my neck, even as the choke hold around Eric Garner’s neck squeezed the life out of him, a choke hold in plain view of a camera, seen now by millions, but not enough to indict a white police officer who was, after all, only murdering an unarmed and innocent black man.
And, perhaps hardest of all, I find it difficult to imagine how for so long I could not have been more aware of my own bubble.
I find it difficult to imagine how I could not have known that, while I could breathe so freely, others could not.
I find it difficult to imagine how, even though I did know, yet I have largely remained silent and self-satisfied.
And because I find it difficult to imagine each and all of those things, I must not presume to judge the actions of those for whom that is their experience.
I must not presume to be the voice of the otherwise voiceless, for whom riot is the only language they have still at their disposal.
I must not presume for others.
I must not presume that I know best.
These past few weeks have borne tragic witness to two outrageous examples of white police officers being granted immunity to kill black men; two outrageous examples of justice not being done; two outrageous examples of the societal message being reinforced yet again.
If you are black, you do not matter.
If you are black, you are not safe.
If you are black, you have no voice.
If you are black, the system which is supposed to protect you will be the very system which will not only deny you protection, but will be that from which you need to be protected. The system that can punish and persecute and even murder you with impunity.
These have been only two such examples, but they have caught the spotlight. In 2012, no fewer than 313 black men, women and children were killed by armed police officers, security personnel or self-appointed white vigilantes, and in all cases their killers have not been convicted. Why? Because black lives don’t matter. Because a black man, by virtue of simply being black, makes us afraid and therefore we are entitled to “stand our ground” and kill him, our instinctive self-generated fear justifies us even if he is unarmed, even if he is guilty of no crime, even if has done nothing other than being himself.
And there have been voices, voices of white men, voices of powerful white men, voices of powerful white men who make the rules, calling for peace, calling for calm, calling for order.
This is not a time for peace. This is a time for disruption.
This not a time for restoring order. This is a time for changing the order.
And, most especially, this is not a time for those who are so used to speaking, and pronouncing, and pontificating to continue to do so. It is a time for those with voices to stop talking and to start listening.
Two thousand years ago, there was something known as Pax Romana. During the Roman Empire, those who lived in Rome had a very clear understanding of what constituted peace. They wanted to live in the secure knowledge that they need fear no external enemy, because the Roman legions which dominated all of Europe would keep such enemies at bay; and that they need fear no internal disruption because the forces of government would quell any civil disobedience. As a free Roman, of the patrician class, you could enjoy your Pax Romana to your heart’s content.
But, your peace was secured only at the price of others’ suffering. Your prosperity was bought with the economic subjugation of other peoples who paid a heavy price to their Roman masters. Your freedom was bought by others living under the yoke of slavery. Your security was bought by others living in fear of invasion and domination. Your reliance on the judicial system was based on the assumption that the system was designed to protect you and your property.
The adage says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I cannot remember who it was, but someone in my living memory said that what really corrupts is not power, but fear of the loss of power. The system of white male supremacy has held sway for a long, long time, and those who fear its decline will inevitably retreat to the bunker and become more and more desperate in their attempts to shore up their crumbling power base.
All of us are beneficiaries of a system loaded totally in our favour. How willing are we to relinquish some of our power and privilege? How willing are we to examine our own prejudices that sees a black man instinctively as something to fear and therefore to put down, marginalise, even to kill if we so choose?
I am not immune. For many years I have had an interest in the judicial/penal system. At various times in my ministry in England, I have been a volunteer visiting prisoners, a volunteer for the probation service, a volunteer assistant prison chaplain, and most recently a magistrate who, in the UK judicial system, is a lay judge. I recall one particular incident. It was my first time as an assistant chaplain in a medium security prison. How many of you have ever been inside a prison? If you are like me, at least initially you enter with some apprehension. Perhaps your mind is full of scenes from movies about what you might expect. Anyway, I entered this prison, I went through all the security checks, and I was led to the chapel where I was going to lead a discussion with about thirty prisoners. I had assumed there would be warders in the room to protect me. Instead, I found myself in a room with no windows, one door, the nearest warder at the end of a long corridor, and thirty prisoners. All of them black. Some of them very large and very formidable looking. I am not proud to admit that little scenarios about my imminent demise instinctively ran through my head.
And what happened? Nothing, of course. My biggest challenge was keeping order in the discussion, so keen were they all to participate. I have led many an adult RE class in my time as a minister, nearly all of them with people like you. Educated, intelligent, cultured, privileged. Let me tell you, no class I have ever led with the likes of you has come close to having the power of that class. I have no idea why those men were in prison, I made a point of never finding out, but for them faith was not something to be politely discussed over coffee and cookies, faith was what kept them whole; it was what kept them human in an environment which did everything it could to strip them of their humanity.
What is there for us to do in the wake of Ferguson, in the wake of Staten Island, in the wake of every time the system perpetuates an injustice which has been centuries in the making? There is much which needs to be done, and it will not all be done overnight. But perhaps, perhaps, one small first step for people like you and me – privileged, powerful and protected as we are – is to realise that the problem is not just the occasional trigger-happy rogue cop; not just a prosecutor who performs with such blatant bias and a judge who allows him to do so; not just anything pertaining to a single instance. The problem is that we are part of a system that allows and condones and even encourages such things.
Quite a few years ago, Plato observed that “Justice will exist only where those who are not affected by injustice are filled with the same amount of indignation as those offended.” And in more recent times, James Baldwin wrote that “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Well, we do have power. We were born to it. So the question is, Are we willing to remain ignorant by wilfully remaining within our bubble? Are we to be the enemies of justice, or its friends?
I can breathe. You can breathe too. While, all around us, others are suffocating. Others are dying the long, slow death of injustice and oppression. Just as long as I have breath, just as long as you have breath, what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about it?