A Sermon on Racism

Good morning Stone Church.  This is a sermon about racism. Believe it or not, in the fifteen years that I have been an Anglican Priest, I have not preached on the subject of racism.  But today I am. 

I’d like to start by sharing a couple of experiences with you— experiences that might give you a snapshot into my life growing up as a visible minority in New Brunswick. 

When I was fifteen years old— in the summer of 1994— a few of my cousins (two boys, roughly my age)  came to visit us in Fredericton: one was from Massachusetts and the other from Virginia.  One day, we did what most teenagers do when they’re bored.  We went to the mall.  So, there we were, three southeast asian looking kids, sitting on a bench in this depressing uptown mall in Fredericton when a lady came along and said to us, “What the hell are you three doing here, anyway?” …So, we laughed it off and went to check out a couple of other stores.  …A few minutes later, we were sitting around the front of the mall, waiting for the bus to arrive when this same lady came back again and said, “What’s the problem with you boys?”  Again, we probably all just laughed it off, got on the bus and went home.  But later, I wondered: Was that racism?  Was she rude to us because we were three brown kids loitering in the mall?  Or, was it just because we were three kids loitering at the mall?  A few days later, I told a friend about and I clearly remember her saying, “You’re over-reacting.  This had nothing to do with race.”  Was she right?  To this day I don’t know.  

The second story I want to share with you is sad.  There was church where I filled in  for a brief period of time (let’s call it, Saint Swithin’s).   I did a very short stint of ministry there and then, a little while later, moved on to my next posting. A couple years later, I ran into a young woman (a very honest and kind woman) with a connection to that parish.  That young woman said to me, “Do you remember Mr. So-and-So from Saint Swithin’s?”  Then she went on to say, “He was quite angry with you about a decision that you made and, last week, he was venting to me about it.  He actually said that you were a [insert racial slur here].” 

When she said this it felt like a punch to the gut.  I kept thinking to myself: Is that the way this man always thought of me?  Were there other people in that parish who felt the same way?   I could recount incidents similar to this one but I won’t.  

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t tell you these things to invoke your sympathies.  And I’m definitely NOT telling you these things to invoke your outrage.  I tell you these stories to communicate an idea to you; namely, that what’s happening right now south of the border is not abstract and impersonal.  And I’m sure that you— regardless of your race— can say precisely the same thing. This past week we have witnessed the brutal murder of a black man.  We have seen whole neighbourhoods engulfed in  fire.  We’ve witnessed whole communities being torn apart in a frenzy of grief, outrage, hurt and hatred.  I barely slept Monday and Tuesday night.  Why?  Because what I see unfolding on my computer screen terrifies me. I’m reminded of a famous quote of Winston Churchill— a quote that he made in a speech delivered shortly before the outbreak of the war.  He said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” I fear that we, all of us, are living in such times. 

Now here’s the thing (and this, I say, with some degree of reluctance and hesitancy).  There is, indeed, something that might pull us back from the edge of that abyss. There may, indeed, be a cure for this hatred. The problem is this: That cure is bitter.  That cure is difficult.  I’d go so far as to say that cure is scandalous.  That cure is rooted in a passage from the Bible that could be among the most— if not the most controversial  and problematic— in the whole of the Biblical  canon (and there’s a lot of controversial passages in there, believe me). The quotation is from Jesus.  These are words that he would have spoken during a time in history when his people were living under the suffocating oppression of the Roman Empire.  Their streets were occupied by a foreign military, their lands had been seized, they were brutally over-taxed and they had suffered much abuse.  It was during this time that Jesus said to them:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…” (Luke 6:27).  

When you heard me talking about a really difficult passage of scripture, you may not have expected this one— words that, in countless sermons, have been sentimentalized and tamed. But think about it:  Love my enemy? It sounds insane. So let’s say you’re a Jewish man in first century Palestine.  You’ve seen Herod’s soldiers loot your village.  They kidnapped your neighbour’s daughter and raped her.  They could do the same to your daughter tomorrow.  Love them?  Are you mad? 

Pray for those who abuse you.  You’re a mother of three boys— the oldest of whom died in the World Trade Center Bombing in 2001.  Eventually, your life goes on although the grief never truly leaves you.  You go to church one Sunday morning and, in the intercessions, the priest starts praying for Al queda.  You’re outraged, of course, and you have every right to be. All of this stuff (“Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”) is extremely difficult.  

Are the people who live in inner-city Minneapolis supposed to send care packages to a racist cop? If you’re a business owner in one of these neighbourhoods, and you long for a return to law and order, are you supposed to get down on your knees and ask God to bless the good folks at Antifa, as they smash the windows of your store? Tell me: Am I supposed to pray for racists?  Not the people who say, “Your English is good,” but people who would say, “You and your family have no place in Canadian society?”

…You’re beginning to understand, perhaps, why we needed to crucify this man.  He posed a threat that had to be neutralized.  And I’ll tell you why: Because if ever there were people foolish enough to actually enact such a teaching— people willing to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, pray for those who abuse them— then those people and the so-called Saviour that they follow would pose a truly grave threat to all of our human schemes— our greatest imperial ambitions; our boldest revolutionary plots.  Such a man would pose a threat to the status quo.  Such a man who pose a threat to our plot to overthrow the status quo and replace it with something of our own design.  A man like that could potentially wreck everything.  And so, he had to be stopped.  No wonder, then, that when it came time for the mob to pick one prisoner to be released— either Jesus or Barabbas— they made the most reasonable choice: Barabbas.  He didn’t say, “Love your enemies.”  He would have said something like, “Down with Rome!” or “Smash the empire!”  He was a freedom fighter— a revolutionary— a Che Guevara.  We can follow a man like that.  The one who said, “Love your enemies,” though.  Sorry, but such a man should be done away with. 

But here’s the thing. (And I don’t want to say this).   It may be that the one and only cure for hatred— the one and only way to avoid being swallowed by the abyss that we’re all descending into— is enemy- love.  But it’s so hard.  Scandalous even. 

But did you know that there are actually people crazy enough to do this enemy love thing?  We’ve seen glimpses of it amidst all the tear gas and smoke.  Fools for Christ, as our Orthodox friends would put it.  And you just may be a fool, too. 

Now, I hate doing hard things and I tend to avoid them.  So, when I feel I have to do a hard thing I start with a baby step.  For me, the baby step is usually prayer.  So, if you want to be fool— if we want to do this enemy-love thing— here is where you can start.  Take some time this week and pray.  Pray for your enemies.  Who is your enemy?  It’s easy to find out: Who stirs up within your heart a sense of fear or contempt or anger or revulsion?  Think about them.  It could be people of a certain race, people of a certain occupation, members of a certain political group or political movement, people of a particular religion.  It could be the coworker who made your life hell for five years.  Now pray for them.  I know, right?  Isn’t it hard?  So, let me give you some advise: Keep your prayer really simple.  Say, “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Note that, in this prayer, you’re not even forgiving them yourself.  You’re simply asking God to forgive them.  

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that police brutality and racism or, for that matter, any form of evil ought to go unchallenged.  The same one who said “love your enemies” also condemned hypocrisy, greed and unrighteousness in its many forms.  We are to do so as well. Only, in doing so, we should never be consumed by the evil that we oppose but, in the words of Saint Paul, “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). 

…The virus, I believe is hatred.  And the cure to that virus is a cure that we, as a culture, have possessed for centuries.  The cure is not so much “love your neighbour” (although, that’s good).  The cure is not so much, “Do unto others as you would have them do.”  Countless gurus have said something like this over the centuries.  The cure is “Love your enemy.” And that is a bitter cure indeed.  Only the exceptionally courageous can embrace such a cure. (Or the exceptionally foolish).  But that may be our only option.  It may very well be that the only way forward out of the abyss is enemy-love.

  • Terence Chandra (Stone Church, Trinity Sunday 2020)

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