The Great Awakening: Racism in America

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the only Sunday in the Church Year that focuses on a doctrine rather than a specific Bible lesson. The doctrine tells us that we have a Three Person Godhead – called the Holy Trinity, which is composed of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. At the heart of the Trinity is concept of relationship and equality.

None of the Persons of the Trinity dominate the other. They are all equal, a three-person God united in one. The first mention of the Holy Trinity in the Bible is found in the second chapter of the Bible, where God said, “Let us create humans in our image.” The words are plural, “Let us” and “our image.” Every brown and white body, Hispanic and Asian body in the world is created in God’s image. These insights from Scripture provide a good model for us today as we speak about what’s been going on across our nation and the inequality that is behind the most recent events.

And just as you would hope that I would listen respectfully to what you have to say about important issues, I hope that you will return the favor. Most of all, I hope that this sermon will be the beginning, not the end, of a long, fruitful conversation for our parish.

We now know that are two viruses shutting down and affecting our nation and taking lives. One is coronavirus and the other is structural racism, most recently seen in the death of George Floyd. We must fight both viruses. Coronavirus has taken over 100,000 American lives. Structural racism has taken countless lives over more than three centuries. In order to minimize the deaths of Covid-19, we came together as a nation and took extreme measures. We must do the same to save even more lives from structural racism.

Coronavirus is a pulmonary disease; that is, it affects your lungs and in severe cases you need help to breathe. In Minnesota, George Floyd called out sixteen times “I can’t breathe.” Finally, he called out his mother’s name. After he became unconscious, a police officer tried to get a pulse for George Floyd but couldn’t detect one. But the knee remained on George’s neck for two more minutes while people yelled, “You’re going to kill him.” He was not arrested for a violent crime, but for passing a counterfeit $20 bill. What has this nation come to that the police would kill him for that? Yesterday, at a protest here in Greenwich, we were invited to take a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the exact amount of time that the police officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. It seemed like an eternity to kneel let alone on a human being’s neck.

Thousands of blacks have been brutalized in the name of domination. We are 30 years out after Rodney King was brutally bludgeoned by police officers in Los Angeles and it feels as though we’re back to where we started. The stock market may soar but it will be meaningless if democracy unravels. While our economy has gone forward, we as a nation have gone backwards to the 1960s in terms of our moral compass, civil unrest, police brutality, injustice, and division across our country. We are witnessing the largest number of people protesting on the streets of the United States in decades. This problem has been brewing for decades. This moment calls for compassion, not domination. This is a moment that begs change, moral clarity, significant action, and for effective leadership. We must choose the way of love. Racism won’t go away, unless we do something dramatic about it.

Criminals are not determined by their race, ethnicity, gender or class. Not all whites are racist. Not all police are abusive. Ignorance can be found in anyone. This pandemic has prepared us to see and hear things that we have not seen and heard before and to ask, “Why do so many African Americans get sent to jail? Must a person’s zip code define their destiny? How can we have two schools systems so close and one is so strong and one is so pathetic?” The black average household net worth has not increased in seventy years in our country while the average white household net worth has soared. Inequality knows no color. There is an increasing number of whites who are economically descending into poverty and despair. We’ve come to a moment of clarity. We need to form a political will. Something must be done. Our nation has been rocked by the needless and brutal death of one man, and by the needless and brutal death we must unite to heal and reform our nation for all persons.

A black person is three times more likely to be shot for a crime. Black Americans were nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to be unarmed before their death. 10% of all black men in their 30s are incarcerated at any given time. Over 100,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 and African Americans have been much more likely to be affected by coronavirus. African Americans make up 13% of the US population but possess only 2.6% of our nation’s wealth. Black Americans with a college education earn only two/thirds of what whites with only a high school diploma earn. We have to dismantle racism, and there will never be a convenient time to do this.

What Africans Americans are calling out for is to be treated by police and by others just as whites are treated. Is that too much to ask? Is that wrong to demand? If you were born black, would you want anything less? But they are so often denied. In my last parish, I knew a lot of white men who are shocked and appalled by the idea of an athlete disrespecting the American flag by kneeling during the national anthem. But I wonder are they sufficiently appalled by a white man kneeling on a black man’s neck.

Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout the US as he did research for his book Democracy in America. He wrote that you can judge a country by how they treat the least of their people, namely their prisoners and criminals. He wouldn’t find much that is positive about the US today in this regard. Slavery is the original sin of our nation. It won’t go away. Not unless we do something dramatic to change it.

People on both sides are angry. We don’t listen well when we’re angry. We need to listen, learn, commit to change and carry it out. A lot of us say, “I don’t see color.” We need to see color. We need to see and acknowledge the pain that color bears and the history that comes with it. We need to listen and learn from one another. It’s no longer enough to say, “I try not to be racist.” We must do more. Whites must stand up and demand equality for African Americans. For years, blacks have marched alone, spoken out alone and cried alone. We must stand in solidarity and demand change.

We need a compassionate moral voice that calls forth our better angels and unite us.

In these past weeks, some police commanders have spoken with protesters and listened to them, shown them respect and empathy and even knelt with them. The protesters listen to them and respect them. This kind of leadership can unite us.

If there’s going to be lasting change, it will only come because white leaders and white folks like you and me take time to listen and be willing to stand up and to challenge our peers to go about life in different ways, to see things that we have refused to examine, to read things that we have not bothered to read, to listen to stories that we did not think were worth our time to hear, to walk side by side with our brown brothers and sisters, to roll up our sleeves and work together for justice and a better world.

On Monday, the President held a Bible in front of a church. The Bible calls for social justice, caring for widows, orphans, immigrants, prisoners and the poor. It could have been very powerful if the President had opened the Bible in the Oval Office on national television and said something like this, “I’ve been reading this book a lot during this trying time for our nation and I’ve found immeasurable wisdom in this. It’s consoled me, calmed me and inspired me to lead and care for all the people of these nation, people of every color, race, religion and economic class. No one has all the answers. These are complicated times, but I’m trying to express my compassion and to see how we can care for everyone in this wonderful country and be united as one.”

But instead police were ordered to break up a peaceful demonstration composed of clergy, students, and protestors, using Flash Bang grenades and riot police. The Church must speak to the conscience of our people. If it doesn’t, who will? It’s the mandate and the responsibility of faith communities to the be the conscience of America. The Bible doesn’t say, “Let’s make America great.” The Bible says, “Let’s lift up the downtrodden.”

The good news is that there are signs of hope. Ella Jones was elected the first black mayor and first female mayor of Ferguson, Missouri, six years after Michael Brown was killed by the police. In December 2014 only 33% of Americans thought that blacks were unfairly treated by police. This month, 57% of Americans thought that blacks were unfairly treated by police. All four of the officers involved in killed George Floyd have now been arrested. Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, said, “There is so much room for hope because young people are in the street and they have hope for a better America.”

And Christ Church Greenwich has begun the process of doing something significant. Thanks to Becky Ford and Courage and Faith, Christ Church has hosted events that address systemic anti-black racism in the US, including bringing Bryan Stevenson and Austin Channing Brown. The message reminds us that God is love. As a church, the time has come for us to pivot and face this more directly. Your clergy and I invite you to actively, persistently commit to dismantling white supremacy. That will include uncomfortable, but needed, conversations to unpack our individual internalized racism, and the ways white supremacy has been part of the architecture of our community.

That’s a start, but we need to go further: We are going to establish a Racial Healing, Social Justice and Reconciliation Task Force. We’ll seek to partner with other faith communities and organizations in and beyond Greenwich to create lasting and systemic change. We will examine ourselves, set goals and consider ways to become a more diverse community.

Thoreau said, “Be not simply good – be good for something.” We’re being called as a nation to pivot from being “good” people to being good for something beyond ourselves. Ibram X. Kendi wrote, “It’s not enough to be ‘not racist’; one has to be anti-racist. And that feels most possible, most fruitful, and most liberating, when done in community.”

Jesus always called humans to choose the way of love, not the way of fear. It takes courage to choose the way of love. It’s a weak person who chooses the way of fear. It is a weak person who tries to bully and to dominate for it is always a mask for insecurity and fear. Fear not, says God over and over and over again in the Bible, for I am with you, with all of you. I close with the words on a truly great President, whose knowledge of the Bible far exceeded the content-grasp of most present day clergy. Abraham Lincoln, too, had served as a protester. He protested war, calling the war against Mexico “unnecessary and unconstitutional.” His protest cost him his seat in the House of Representatives. Lincoln wrote,

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”

On this Trinity Sunday, may we recommit ourselves to living in relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and everyone across this great nation and living with them as equals with no one dominating anyone else, but all united in one. Amen.