The reinvention of slavery and why our faith shouldn’t be bifurcated

Despite having the best movies in the world, the U.S. leads the world in these less-desirable categories too:

  • The highest rate of illegal drug use.
  • The highest rate of crimes (including the most reported car thefts, murders, and rapes)
  • More cops than any other nation.
  • The largest prison population in the world. It holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and only 5 percent of its actual population.

And when we speak about the U.S.’s incarceration rate, it’s important to note that black people, followed by Latinos make up much of its prison population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4.8 percent of black men are in change, two percent of Hispanic men are, and .7% of white men are. According to census date, 40.2 percent of the U.S.’s prison population is made up of black men, too.

My point in bringing this up is that I actually believe in some sense that slavery has been reinstituted in the U.S. and that the so-called progress that the giants who came before us made seems to be disintegrating. In fact, according to an Ohio State law professor named Michelle Alexander, there are more black men in prison now than were slaves in 1850.

Incarceration rates since about 1975 have skyrocketed. I’m not prepared to say that individuals consciously imprisoned more blackPicture1 people to bring about a new Jim Crow or something, but these events that surround these statistics are probably more than coincidental.

Between 1954 and 1968 black people were getting organized and advocating for their rights and succeeding in an incredible way. We call this the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Power Movement also got going during a similar time.

Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and right in the middle of the Black Power Movement, when the Black Panthers and Malcolm X were getting organized, Richird Nixon coined the term “war on drugs.” It is centerpiece to this mass incarceration.

One result of the war on drugs is the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1968. Not only did this turn federal release into punishment, it also enacted new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, including marijuana.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 made it law that one possessing five grams of crack cocaine faced five-years mandatory minimum prison sentences and whereas one would have to have five hundred grams of cocaine in order to face that much time. When the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010, the ratio went from 1:100 to 1:18 (that’s still unjust, if you ask me).

When we look at the state of the U.S. incarceration, I think that many of us are either paralyzed by anger, or so indifferent to the fact of this. Some of you might even be wondering why the “pastor” of this “church” talks so much about stuff like this.

We want to move from merely anger or merely indifference to action. I want to get us motivated to do something about the systemic racism in the United States.

The question that I think we need to answer is why should we care about race and race relations?

I think we could go through the scripture and find countless reasons to care about systemic racism in the United States—bur rather than doing that, I think we can just reduce the whole think does to three verses.

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22)

We need to care about our neighbors and in Philadelphia, or neighbors are affected by this modern-day slavery. City Paper called Philly the most segregated city a few years ago. As of 2010 44 percent is black, 39 percent white, 12.5 percent Latino and 4.7 percent Asian. The demographics alone should make us interested in race relationships, and I think God calls us to actually be interested and engaged in our local population—bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth, but starting with our city.

I really think our passion for Jesus and his mission needs to come first. I think our passion about systemic racism might lead us to Christ, in fact, but I think we are fully fighting for justice when we are doing it with Jesus.

I think you develop prophetic eyes when you are filled with the Holy Spirit and I think you can speak great truths. I want to offer the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman as examples of individuals who were able to prophecy with the utmost clarity.

Picture2Harriet Tubman, called Moses, was born into slavery. She took care of his young brother and a baby when she was a child, since her mother was assigned to “the big house.” Whenever the baby would wake up and cry, Tubman was whipped. She was a rebel though, wearing his scars and resisting her slaver owners as much as she could—she ran away for five days once, and another time decided to wear layers of clothing to protect herself against a beating.

Her faith in God become passionate after her head injury. She went out to get supplies from a store one day—she encountered an escaped slave on the trip. His overseer demanded that she stop him from running away and she refused. He ended up through a two pound weight at him, missing, and hit Harriet in the head. She was neglected and offered no health care for two days and eventually went back to the fields.

Tubman was more motivated by the stories of the Israelites escaping their Egyptian oppressors than anything else in the scripture. The Exodus story, of course, was a model for Tubman and a motivation for her to lead slaves to freedom. In 1949, Tubman’s owner, Edward Brodess tried to sell her. She was ill at the time and he couldn’t manage to sell her. If she was sold, she’d be separated from her family—she prayed that God would either change his heart or end his life. A week later, Brodess died, which almost guaranteed that her family would be broken up.

Shortly after this, Harriet escaped from the Brodess estate. Determined to free slaves along with her, she developed the Underground Railroad and journey over twenty times from free states to slave states (about a 90 mile journey). She freed nearly 300 individuals and never lost one along the way. Her network is credited with saving 6,000 slaves (and possibly up to 100,000 who escaped to Canada).

She was a strong-willed woman, who loved God, and really believed in her mission. She made sure (with a revolver) that everyone that started the journey with her made it to freedom to. She worked with many others to fight slavery—included John Brown, whom she helped perform a raid on Harper’s Ferry to acquire arms to sponsor an armed slave revolt. Frederick Douglass and Tubman worked together too—he praised her widely in print.

She was a nurse in the Civil War and treated men who had suffered with smallpox—she never contracted herself, which led more people to believe she was protected by God.

The Lord has filled Tubman up so much that she was just obviously just committed to His work even if it moved beyond slavery and black oppression. In example, she actively worked alongside of Susan B. Anthony to advocate for women’s suffrage rights.

The lesson we are continuing to learn is that when you have the voice of a prophet and God gifts you with passion to love your neighbor, it bleeds into every aspect of your life.

Harriet Tubman was in a process. She’s a giant on whose shoulders we stand.

Martin Luther King was an individual who stood on her shoulders. He strived to have a movement that was above reproach. Most Picture3significantly, he advanced civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience. Truly modeling His life after the crucified Christ, whose death is the ultimate symbol of nonviolence, King was truly loving his neighbor and loving his enemies, on top of it. He stood on Gandhi’s shoulders as he modeled much of the civil rights movement after Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to Indian freedom from the British Empire.

There is so much to say about Martin Luther King—from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ended segregation on Alabama buses and started the whole movement, to his Letter from Birmingham Jail where he responded to the idea that one should use “legal” channels for social change to partnering with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to his I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He never forgot that his faith was tied to a great degree to his civil rights work—in fact he might not ever state that they were different.

In fact, when he gained the favor of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he virtually forfeited it all when he actively spoke against Johnson’s Vietnam War—one of the longest and deadliest wars in the U.S. history. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech he claimed the U.S. was trying to occupy Vietnam as a colony and he referred to it as the greater purveyor of violence in the world today.

In 1968 he organized the Poor People’s campaign, isolating himself further—declaring that Congress had shown hostility to the poor by spending military funds excessively. Even some members of the black civil rights movement, thought that the campaign was too broad and the demanded unrealizable. Individuals thought that the progress they had made would be wasted if King pushed things further.

He wanted strong and real revolution declaring that the evils of society were racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. His multifaceted approach to justice should be something that we learn from in this day-in-age.

For us, the difficult with this work comes in the fact that we may very well not feel like we can do something, practically, against the evils of this world. That our jobs, our relationships, our influences aren’t enough. We criticize ourselves and end up feel overwhelmed by the powers around us. That’s why it’s important to know the history of King and Tubman, to know they weren’t born revolutionaries, and furthermore that they need faith and community to accomplish what they were doing.

I hope we can really get to a place where we believe that God is on our side, and following and serving him, gives us an opportunity to be free to do his good work. Part of loving your neighborhood is loving yourself. And I believe we are learning how to do that as a community—in fact, we invest quite a bit of resources into the mental health of individuals in our congregation and we use our compassion fund to do that.

We think people caring for themselves frees them up to be compassionate.

If we are in the business of liberation, let’s free ourselves. Free ourselves of burden, addictions, enslavements, and entanglements. We are the church, you are stakeholders in it, you are part of God’s body—let us discern together what He is calling us to do.

Ask yourself what enslaves you?

What prevents us from doing God’s work on earth today? What’s holding us back? How much of it has to do with what we think of ourselves? How preoccupied are we with our own problems, our own limitations, our own scarcity? How dominated by fear are we?

And if we aren’t afraid, do we just think that the work that Tubman and King did is good enough? Are we so worn out that the prospect of standing on their shoulders and doing something just seems completely overwhelming?

I really believe that we have a shot to stand on their shoulders and do something great together—even if it isn’t end the drone warfare, revolutionize our prison system, close the income inequality gap. The key to it all is doing it in prayer and in faith and in community—in one like this one.

Living a whole life, just like King and Tubman did, one that doesn’t end at racial reconciliation, but one that takes Jesus’ call for peace and justice seriously. We are whole Christians, and for that, we believe in prayer, living in community, evangelism, simple life, racial reconciliation, peacemaking, and so on. We equally weigh social justice and incarnational mission—we care about the poor and we care about spreading the Gospel. For too long those ideas have been mutually exclusive, and so today, I want us to change that. To stand on both shoulders of King and Tubman, but also Paul, John, James, and Peter. Let’s be on a mission together.

We are striving to believe and act upon the fact that Jesus is the solution to the great evils that Martin Luther King lists. And not just faith in Him, but the fact that faith in him calls us to act and change the world. If our plans are going to mean something, we need to be communing with one another and God.


2 Replies to “The reinvention of slavery and why our faith shouldn’t be bifurcated

  1. In his encyclical Reconciliation and Penance, John Paul II says that systemic sins are always rooted in the acts of sinful individuals, and are never completely impersonal.

    I’m not completely sure about that. I’d argue, for instance, the reason black youths are 10x more likely to go to prison for drug offenses even though blacks and whites deal drugs at equal rates (and whites abuse drugs at a higher rate) isn’t because of any particular racists in the system (although I’m sure some of them exist), but because of the broad discretion that we grant to prosecutors and judges — U.S. v. Armstrong held that a defendant who suspects racial bias can only prove it by evidence of conscious, intentional bias on the part of the prosecutor.

    That is insane. What kind of person even has conscious intentional biases anymore, Much less writes them down for defendants to discover (not to mention you can’t discover this evidence until litigation begins, and litigation can’t begin until you offer the evidence)? Racism today is largely the result of implicit biases and unconscious attitudes. No one will cop to hating a black person, it’s not the 60’s anymore. But they might still feel uneasy when one stands behind them at the ATM, they might be less inclined to offer a job to a Jamal or Jazmine than a Mark or Sarah.

    When we give prosecutors free reign to indulge these implicit biases, it’s no wonder that we’re going to have a system that prosecutes blacks more than whites. Is this the result of the attitudes of sinful individuals, as JP2 would argue? I don’t know. The implicit association test tells me that I have a moderate automatic preference for white people over black people (and that’s the most common result of the test!). Aggregate these unconscious attitudes against blacks and for whites over the population of the country and you start to get a sense of how systemic racism can exist without “racists” in the KKK sense. The police are more inclined to stop or arrest a black person than a white person, a prosecutor is more inclined to put one in court, and a judge is more likely to give that black person a harsher sentence.

    Again, I don’t know if I can agree with JP2. I have a hard time saying that this is a “sin” I should be held responsible for when I never consciously chose to have racially discriminatory attitude. It’s human nature to perceive differences and attach positive and negative meanings to those differences. At the same time, maybe it’s true my very nature is sinful. Either way, I believe in the power of Jesus Christ to save me from my sinful nature, and to break the system that’s allows these attitudes to oppress and persist.

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