Racial Justice Part 2

Racial Justice 2


Richard Rohr’s daily devotional is reflecting on the process of transformation: Order—Disorder—Reorder.  Before Covid-19 hit and we needed to shift gears, I was preaching on the stories of transformation in John’s Gospel and reflecting on how this pattern was present.  This pattern is also present in institutions, societies and communities as well, and we are now in a moment of national disorder and are in search of the way to reorder our community.


Rohr rightly states that transformation is never a move BACK to what was, but is always s a move FORWARD into the new way of being.  The hard part is that ‘we cannot yet see what we shall become’ as the Apostle Paul states it.  So, it is difficult for us to anticipate and somewhat fearful to contemplate.


Last week’s sermon and blog began reflecting on the inherited Caste system of the US and how like other caste systems in the world it is founded upon 8 shared pillars which support this hierarchical division of people into more and less valued groups within the society.  We looked last week at the first pillar, Divine Will and Natural Law, or the religious and philosophical arguments that re used to justify the stratification for persons into various caste groups.  Our own scriptures were and still are being used to justify this division of people into castes of greater and lesser value.  How shall we transform this reality??? 


This week I read this quote by author Austin Channing Brown:

“Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort. It’s not a comfortable conversation for any of us.” 


It is NOT a comfortable conversation, but it is an ESSENTIAL conversation–despite the discomfort–if we are to understand the origins and begin to recognize that the structure in place now was intentionally built by human ancestors, and which can be dismantled and rebuild by us in this generation if we have the stomach for it.


Understanding this Caste System requires us to grasp the difference between the invisible structure of the hierarchy (which is caste) and the factors used to categorize persons within that hierarchy (race, skin color, ethnicity of origin). 


Caste predates the concept of Race.  Caste is the structure, the ranking, of people.  We must look beneath Race to “Caste,” which is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt and human kindness on the basis of their perceived place within the hierarchy.  Casteism (as opposed to Racism) is the investment we have in maintaining the hierarchy for our own personal benefit or, in order to prevent the benefit of another we perceive to be in a lesser caste.


WE did not build this broken house, but we have inherited it, and now must decide whether to hand it along to the next generation in its broken state or to invest what is needed to address the fractures in the structure.

Today I want to look at the second pillar of Caste as described by Isabel Wilkerson-Heritability


During the time I was recovering from a broken leg I started playing a video game called Civilization.  Like many video games, you start by getting to select ‘who’ you will be in the game…what their relative strengths and weaknesses will be.  Additionally, you got to select the ‘level of difficulty’ you would attempt for that particular round.  I’d like you to think about Caste and its impact on people’s lives with this same framework.


The game is difficult…for all players.  But it is more difficult for some than others, due to their familiarity with the rules, the options etc.  The characteristics of your assumed personality for the game can assist you to overcome your deficits or exacerbate them, depending on ‘who’ you choose to play as.  In video games we get to select our identity, to pick a lower level of difficulty or to select a player identity that can mitigate our weaknesses.  In life such choices are not available thanks to the Hierarchy of the Caste System into which we are born with no choice.


That fact is the nature of Heritability…we inherit our caste from our predecessors.  We do not get to choose it.  Consider the difference between a child born into the Royal Family in England vs a child born into the ghettos of London.  They both are playing the game of life…they both must apply themselves, but the level of advantage for the one over the other is clear.  Royals are of one caste…commoners are clearly of a different caste.  In England, one’s status was determined by the status of your father at your birth.  In India, the same is true.  Your caste is determined by your father’s at your birth.  Once defined, it is unchangeable.


This is the legal precedent that American colonists knew and lived by…until slavery.  In 1692 in Virginia, the law was changed so that race of a person was to be defined by the mother’s status, not the father’s.  Why would the colonists make this change?  Because the new law meant that white slave holding men could sire children by their black slaves and each of those children (and all of their children) would become slaves for life!  The black womb became a profit center for multiplying the enslaved workforce.  This also created a deep fear of black men having sex with white women because the child could then be declared ‘white’ even though it was the child of a slave.  Thus, this mixing of races raised other issues…like how to define ‘whiteness’ since only white, land-holding men were allowed to vote. 


In 1790 Citizenship in the United States could only be granted to Free Whites, but ‘whiteness’ had not yet been defined.  So, early in our nation’s history laws were passed to begin to specify how much black blood was enough to disqualify one from being ‘white’ and thereby acquiring the privileges of the upper caste in America.  These laws came to be known as the Blood Laws and varied somewhat from state to state and changed over time. 


By 1934, during the Jim Crow period of the Southern US, these blood laws had come to be very specific.  For example: in Virginia in 1924 the Racial Integrity Act declared that even one drop of non-white blood meant you were not able to claim ‘whiteness’ as your heritage!


In Louisiana, as late as 1984 there were laws that gave names to every variant of white/black blood mixtures from 1/32 all the way to full blooded blackness.

Most striking (and disturbing to me) about Wilkerson’s research was the discovery that in 1934 when the newly elected Nazi’s (who only won with 38% of the vote) sat down to begin defining their own blood laws—to be called the Nuremburg Laws—which would set out how much Jewish blood was required for one to be considered a Jew, and thus subject to the lower caste restrictions and penalties.  Nazi researchers turned to the most well-developed blood laws known–the laws in the United States of America.  Moderate Nazi’s wanted 50% to be the guideline (ie. one Jewish parent); other, more radical members of the party advocated for a 1/16th Jewishness law that would mean any Jewish great grandparent.  But NO members of the Nazi regime felt that the American “one drop” rule was fair or reasonable.  In this aspect the Americans had gone too far!  I hope that information shocks you as much as it did me.  Our US blood laws that determined a person’s place in the American social hierarchy were more stringent than the Nazi’s could accept.


Heritability, then, in the US meant that a person could inherit their lower caste status on the basis of ANY previous ancestor being of non-white lineage.  This is the nature of the second pillar of the Caste system, and it is inescapable because you are placed in it by nature of your birth.


Wilkerson also states that while many aspects of Social CLASS can be overcome or lost by personal effort—getting an education, making more money, becoming a star athlete or performer; the humiliations that accompany being of the lower caste are inescapable.  Witness for example recent stories of a Black Harvard professor being arrested for trying to get into his own home, the humiliation of black NFL and NBA athletes being thrown to the ground by police officers during a routine traffic arrest, or the experience of my friend Jonathan, a black professional counselor who is regularly ‘followed’ when he is in a store because he is ‘suspicious.’  It doesn’t matter their educational achievements, their income or star-power they are still subject to the treatment of those destined to the lower caste because of the color of their skin.


As Brene Brown said recently, “The system is not broken. It was built this way.” And because it was built this way by people…it can be unbuilt.  And Jesus shows us how to do it.


Jesus himself lived within a caste system of social hierarchies.  There was a hierarchy created by the Jews own conviction of their “chosen-ness by God” which divided the world into two castes…Jews and Gentiles or non-Jews.  There was also the caste system defined by the roles of the Levite clan of priests (Aaron’s descendants) and the rest of the tribes of Israel.  And then there was the Roman system which valued people differently…Roman citizens were of the higher caste and occupied people like Palestine were on the bottom of the system.


As we saw last week Jesus intentionally chose to violate the rules and expectations of his caste system by serving the Gentile Roman centurion and by serving a woman of a different ethnic and religious community.  And Paul, who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth came to see no distinction between Jew and non-Jew, slave or free, male or female.  Rather for Paul it was in Jesus Christ that all of the divisions of human societies dissolve into a common bond as family of God.

But if there ever was a great Caste System division, it was the division between Divinity and Humanity.  Divinity being the superior Caste and Humanity the inferior.  And here is where I want to look at Jesus as the Great Caste Breaker. 


We read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2: 4-8

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.


Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself.”  This act, the disregard of the privilege of his caste, to empty himself of that privilege so that he could extend the presence of God to the entire caste of humanity is the great pathway to our wholeness. 


I learned in community organizing training that people in power never willingly give it up.  They must be required to do so.  The history of our nation is one in which the upper caste has only relinquished the power of the vote, the power of rights, the power of equality because others have required it of them by struggling for the right to share that power.  That is what makes Jesus’ example all the more striking.  He willingly gave it up, and invites us to do the same when we find ourselves in positions of power that are not equally shared.


Today, we are in a moment when the powerful of our society are not exactly willing to share equality of privilege, whether economic, educational, health care, or even the ability to vote easily and without obstruction.  As followers of Jesus, we are to follow his way…his path…his example…not simply to ‘believe’ in him.


For me, as a follower of the great Caste Breaking Christ, this means I support initiatives like Affirmative Action, even if it means that some white kids won’t get into the college they want…even if they are my own kids.   Or that I or my kids might not get the first look for a job because a person of color has priority in an effort to redress the discriminating effects of 400 years of caste discrimination.  It is a relinquishing of privilege.  It is a way for me to support a leveling of the playing field.


In our PCUSA denomination, for many years now we have had as a constitutional requirement a Committee on Representation that seeks to ensure that at all the upper levels of the church there are persons in decision making authority on every committee who are Black, Asian, Latinx, and indigenous.  We require even distribution of men and women, of clergy and laity.  Why?  Because we believe that following Jesus’ example requires us to listen to ALL voices and perspectives in our decision making.  And we further believe that we will make better decisions because we have all those perspectives at the table.  Often those conversations are difficult, and the white members of the committees hear for the first time how their ideas discriminate unexpectedly.  But as I quoted Austin Channing Brown at the beginning of this reflection, if “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.” Then it will not be a comfortable conversation for any of us. But it is a conversation we MUST have.


The way forward from the current disorder to a reordering of our lives is only possible when we with upper caste status open our eyes to see it for what it is and, like Jesus, refuse to exploit it for personal advantage…and even dispossess ourselves of it in favor of the elevation of those in the lower caste.


The Body of Christ should have actually be at the FRONT of this battle for equality not at the rear.  Black Christians (and many other Christians of color) have truly understood this for a long time.  White Christians still have a lot to learn.