FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Isaiah 58:6-7.
Last week’s lesson from Micah posed the question: what does the Lord require of the chosen people? The answer: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Micah 6:8. This Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah spells out exactly what that means. The bonds of injustice were made painfully clear to us this week with the release of police body cam videos showing the brutal, fatal and unprovoked attack by several police officers upon Tyre Nichols. This, the latest in a string of such attacks, underscores the cultural assumption woven into the fabric of our justice system that black men are inherently dangerous and that the default approach in dealing with them is a readiness to employ lethal force. That the officers in this case were all African Americans only serves to demonstrate how deeply ingrained that assumption has become in the mentality of law enforcement.
As horrible as these graphic instances of overt violence against black Americans surely are, more disturbing still is the corrosive effect of the more subtle, but quite real discriminatory actions and comments black persons experience on a day-to-day basis. Douglas Jacobs points out in his editorial in the New York Times that “[m]ore than 700 studies on the link between discrimination and health have been published since 2000. This body of work establishes a connection between discrimination and physical and mental well-being. With all of these effects, it is no wonder that more than 100,000 black people die prematurely each year.” “We’re Sick of Racism, Literally,” New York Times, November 11, 2017. Jacobs concludes by observing that “[w]e shouldn’t need the specter of disease to denounce hatred in all its forms. Racism, bigotry, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, should have no place in our society. But the illness associated with discrimination adds injury to insult and magnifies the suffering of these times.”
Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement warning of the alarming detrimental effects of racism on children:
“Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families. Although progress has been made toward racial equality and equity, the evidence to support the continued negative impact of racism on health and well-being through implicit and explicit biases, institutional structures, and interpersonal relationships is clear. Failure to address racism will continue to undermine health equity for all children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.” See “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health,” Pediatrics, Vol. 144, Issue 2 (August 2019).
Almost daily young people are exposed to images of police beating defenseless black men and boys, public expressions of racial hate by white supremacy groups and open hostility by government representatives like Florida governor Ron DeSantis to any mention of their ancestors’ role in our nation’s history. It is hard to imagine how, in this environment of fear and violence toward people of color, black children can possibly feel safe and secure. For these children, our streets, playgrounds, schools and workplaces are areas of danger.
Those of us who have lived our lives as white, straight males find it easy enough to view America as the land of opportunity where the degree of our success is determined solely by our strength, intelligence and ambition. That is what we have been told by our parents, our churches and our schools. Because we have never had to worry about how a classmate, team member, neighbor or perspective employer might react to our race, we cannot imagine what it is like for those who are compelled to consider these questions every minute of every day. Because we have always breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of a uniformed police officer when passing through an unfamiliar neighborhood, we cannot begin to fathom how that same uniform strikes terror in anyone’s heart. Having eyes, we do not see and having ears, we still do not hear. It is as though we were tone deaf to the minor chords in the musical score that is our national history and culture. Until we learn to see the world, ourselves and our churches through the eyes of people of color and, particularly, black people, we are hardly in a position to “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…”
For those of us who identify as white, the first step to breaking the yoke of white supremacy and racism is acknowledging its existence. It is a seemingly small step, but a necessary one and one that too many of us have refused to take:
“We fought the bloodiest war this nation has seen to set them free. They have nothing to say to us but, ‘thank you.’”
“We got rid of Jim Crow in the sixties.”
“We elected a black president. That proves we aren’t a racist country.”
“The government bends over backwards for minorities.”
“I’m sick of being made to feel guilty for being white.”
These are all statements I have overheard at synodical assemblies of my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-a place where one typically finds lopsided representation of progressive members. When people of color hear remarks like these (and I have no doubt that they do jjust as I did), what else can they conclude but that this church still does not hear them or believe their stories? That goes a long way toward explaining why, in spite of strenuous efforts to achieve more racial and cultural diversity, my church remains one of the whitest in America. After all these years of talking about race, antiracism training, social statements and diversity protocols, we still don’t get it.
Sometimes change comes from changed hearts and minds. But I think just as often hearts and minds change with changed directions and new habits. Sometimes the church needs leaders like the Apostle Paul who made concrete his conviction that there is no distinction between believers of different origins and cultures by challenging his gentile congregations to contribute generously to the relief of believers in Judea. As a matter of equity, Paul argued, the gentile churches, so richly blessed by the gospel grown from the fertile soil of Israel’s history and traditions, should be eager to share their material wealth to meet the needs of the church in Jerusalem. Romans 15:26-27. By the same token, we who have been enriched by the deep well of black spirituality, hymnody and prophetic theology-influences that shaped theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer-should not be reluctant to contribute materially and substantially to African American churches in the trenches and on the front lines of the battle against white supremacy and systemic racism. We might call this a model for reparations that should rightly be made by our government for centuries of slavery, decades of segregation and the continuing effects of systemic injustice.  In so doing, the American church might truly become what Jesus terms “a city on a hill” or a lamp shedding its light over a dark room. Matthew 5:14-16.
Here is a poem by Christopher Soto that speaks to the reality of life on the receiving end of systemic racism more eloquently than any set of statistics.
All the Dead Boys Look Like Me
Last time I saw myself die is when police killed Jessie Hernandez
A 17 year old brown queer // who was sleeping in their car
Yesterday I saw myself die again // Fifty times I died in Orlando // &
I remember reading // Dr. José Esteban Muñoz before he passed
I was studying at NYU // where he was teaching // where he wrote shit
That made me feel like a queer brown survival was possible // But he didn’t
Survive & now // on the dancefloor // in the restroom // on the news // in my chest
There are another fifty bodies that look like mine // & are
Dead // & I’ve been marching for Black Lives & talking about police brutality
Against Native communities too // for years now // but this morning
I feel it // I really feel it again // How can we imagine ourselves // We being black native
Today // Brown people // How can we imagine ourselves
When All the Dead Boys Look Like Us? // Once I asked my nephew where he wanted
To go to College // What career he would like // as if
The whole world was his for the choosing // Once he answered me without fearing
Tombstones or cages or the hands from a father // The hands of my lover
Yesterday praised my whole body // Made angels from my lips // Ave Maria
Full of Grace // He propped me up like the roof of a cathedral // in NYC
Before we opened the news & read // & read about people who think two brown queers
Can’t build cathedrals // only cemeteries // & each time we kiss
A funeral plot opens // In the bedroom I accept his kiss // & I lose my reflection
I’m tired of writing this poem // but I want to say one last word about
Yesterday // my father called // I heard him cry for only the second time in my life
He sounded like he loved me // it’s something I’m rarely able to hear
& I hope // if anything // his sound is what my body remembers first.
Source: Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, (c. 2017 by Christopher Soto) Christopher Soto (b. 1991) is a poet now living in Los Angeles, California. In 2022, he was honored with Them’s Now Award in Literature for representing the cutting edge of queer culture. He was also honored as part of Out100 celebrating the year’s most impactful and influential LGBTQ+ people. Boston Globe named his debut collection, Diaries of a Terrorist, one of the best books of 2022. Soto currently works at UCLA’s Ethnic Studies Research Centers and teaches at UCLA’s Honors College. You can learn more about Christopher Soto and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
 The findings on African American mortality were published in the National Library of Medicine, Public Health Rep. 2001 Sep-Oct; 116(5): 474–483.
 I am using the pronoun “we” very intentionally. I don’t pretend to understand or comprehend fully the experiences of people of color, nor am I suggesting that my own judgment is free from the systemic grip of white supremacy. I am, as much as anyone else, in bondage to this sin from which I cannot free myself. At best, I am a “recovering racist” following something like a twelve step program toward sobriety.
 For a specific proposal, see Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe.