To Set the Captives Free
For many reasons racial equality has been on my mind recently. The unwarranted killing of black men and women by police is part of it, certainly, but not all. My oldest friend, who is black, has taken a stand within his denomination, a stand not likely to win him many friends. I’m reading a book I’ve inherited from a recently retired pastor friend titled The Black Christ, by Kelly Brown Douglas. Over my fifty-plus years of teaching I witnessed firsthand how many students of color suffered from systemic racism. All these have influenced my thinking.
I’ve decided it’s time for me to take a stand. It’s time we end this scourge on our country’s—and on Christianity’s—history. Jesus didn’t support racism. Paul didn’t support racism. Neither should we.
Recently I preached about racism. .After worship, one of the elders in my church sent me an excerpt from the PBS program Fresh Air, the August 4 broadcast. It’s an exchange between Terry Gross, the host, and author Isabel Wilkerson.
GROSS: I know a lot of people say, I'm not responsible for racism in America. My family was immigrants, or I always lived in the North. I've never owned slaves. I'm not a racist myself. What do you say to that?
WILKERSON: I say that when you buy a house, you are not responsible for how it was built unless you had it built yourself. But if you buy an old house, you are not responsible for how it was built. You did not build the beams and the posts and the pillars and the joints that may be now askew. But it's your responsibility once it's in your possession to know what it is that you now occupy. And it's your responsibility to fix it.
No one had anything to do with the creation of the caste system that we've inherited. But now that we are in it and we recognize it and we are here however we got here, whether we were brought over and - where we came over in ships either of our own choice or not, whether we have recently arrived, we are now in the structure in the old house that now belongs to us. And it's our responsibility now to deal with whatever is within it. Whatever's wrong with it is now our responsibility, those of us alive here today.
Wilkerson’s book, as this excerpt indicates, is about the caste system in America. We might not believe we have a caste system. We proclaim loudly that in our country everyone is equal—and we may believe it’s true; but it isn’t.
Equal before the law? The richer you are the better lawyers you can afford. My wife and I recently observed firsthand how little success poor and nonwhite citizens have in navigating our legal system.
Equal access to quality health care? Our black, brown—yes, and Asian—brothers and sisters are suffering and dying in disproportionate numbers from Covid-19.
Equal access to a good education? Inner-city schools plod along with inadequate resources, dated textbooks, and in too many cases, second-rate teachers. Even the good teachers find the pressures make it almost impossible for them to do their job effectively.
Our most serious inadequacies are the results of systemic racism. More than a century after slavery was abolished our black citizens still have not achieved equality. As much as I feel the pain caused by the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters of color, I fear it’s not the root of the problem. As Kris Kristofferson says in his song Jesus Was a Capricorn, “Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on.”
The late George Aiken put it this way: “If we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed, and color, we would find some other cause for prejudice by noon.”
In the Nazareth synagogue Jesus said he had come to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the captives free. This was not some “pie in the sky bye and bye” freedom, but freedom here and now; not just spiritual freedom, but physical, psychological, emotional and social freedom.
Two thousand years later it’s time for us to fulfill Jesus’ promise.