6.6.20 – Sermon at St. PJ’s New Haven

Sunday Sermon Series

May these words Glorify you, dear God, and the work you have set before us. May it pierce the hearts of all of us lost on the journey toward liberation

Good morning Church.

Last fall I took a course called Ministry and the Disinherited – a tip of the cap to Howard Thurman’s famous text “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Our teacher, Rev. Dr. Jerry Streets, explained the systems of white supremacy and social oppression with a story of two fish. One fish swims past the other and says “How’s the water?” Looking up, the other fish responds “what water?” So it is with many white Americans throughout this country who are being forcefully woken up from a willfully ignorant, and deeply conditioned sleep. Millions of white people are thinking, and speaking publicly for the first time in their lives about systems that privilege and aid our safety and success, rather than individual accolades of hard earned perseverance as the myth goes. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his essay titled Experience “We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.” Writer and public intellectual Rachel Cargle has called this moment we are in a revolution. Harvard Professor of Philosophy Dr. Cornel West has called it America’s great reckoning, and turning point.

Two days ago, a few friends and I joined over 5,000 protestors of all colors, all genders, all sexual orientations, all ethnicities, all ages, and all religious identities on the New Haven Green to support a protest organized by BlackLivesMatter New Haven, The Citywide Youth Coalition, and Fighters for Justice. Ala Ochumare, one of the leaders of BlackLivesMatter New Haven exclaimed “Look at this city! This is a peaceful uprising. This is not a riot. We are out here demanding our liberation for all people.” You know what that sounds like? That sounds like the Gospel. That sounds like Jesus. The Jesus who flips the tables at the temple and tells us “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The gospel where Jesus tells his disciples “I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

We must remember in these times that the word ‘riot’ is colonialist, white supremacist terminology designed to delegitimize the 4 century long liberation struggle by Black people in America. It is used to normalize oppression by shifting blame and responsibility from the abuser, to the abused. It is used to trigger white racism that values property over Black humanity. It is used to distract, and shift the blame from the billionaire class in this country, who have looted over 485 billion dollars in the last 10 weeks of the virus with 30% unemployment, and 40% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. It is meant to distract us from the reality that the leading cause of death for Black men under 35 in the United States is the police. To distract us from the truth that there are more black people in prisons than in college. It is meant to distract us from the rampant healthcare disparities among black people further exemplified with the virus. It is meant to distract us from the redline down Prospect Ave, where there’s nearly $50,000 income difference depending on whether you live to the west side of the line which is historically black, or to the east, which is historically white. It is meant to distract us from employment discrimination, and the triple policing of Newhallville, Dixwell, Dwight, and the Hill communities by New Haven, Hamden, and Yale Police. It is meant to distract us from the 20 million dollar deficit and defunding of public education in New Haven. It is meant to distract us from Mayor Elicker’s 43 million dollar budget for the New Haven Police Department, and 33 million dollar pension program, while health and human services receives a meager 4 million in the midst of this pandemic. It is meant to distract us from the reality that since 2001, New Haven citizens have paid 79 million dollars per year to the Pentagon for foreign wars. 53 cents per every dollar of federal tax money sent to the pentagon to militarize our police, black communities, and the world at large. There is no question if you’re white man like me living on Orange street in East Rock, you are just 12 blocks, and yet a world apart from a black man on Dixwell.

What we are experiencing across the nation is a Black led uprising and rebellion for liberation – an end to these distractions. An end to the bad habit and obsession with victim blaming. An end to our idolatry of money, and exploitation, complicity, apathy, and self centered fear. And God saw that it was Good. Now we as a 95% white Episcopal Church have the obligation to stand with these young and old black leaders in solidarity. The obligation to demand citizen oversight and review boards for police departments across this nation. The obligation to pledge financial support for our regional bail fund and legal support organizations. An obligation to defund and disarm the 17,000 police departments across the nation. We have the obligation to journey the long overdue process of redemption from our own deep ties to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the mass incarceration of Black Life and abundance. We have the obligation to empty ourselves as Jesus emptied himself on the cross.

According to James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree “we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power. The religious authorities of Jesus’ time were threatened by his teachings about the reign of God’s justice and love, and the state authorities executed him as an insurrectionist – one who “perverts the nation” and “stirs up the people”. If we as Episcopalians do not recognize that Christ is in the streets, then we have missed the entire meaning of Christ’s death on the cross.

But before I get too far out in front of myself, let me be clear that I stand at the pulpit as someone whose life has benefited greatly by white supremacy. My own racism is undeniable, as I have learned to swim, and swim well in these troubled waters. Twice in my early 20’s I was arrested for disorderly conduct, leading to altercations with police that would have had a black man killed with impunity, I am sure. These experiences inform and ignite my fire to fight for a justice system that is not punitive, but restorative. One based on harm reduction and reconciliation, rather than revenge. On abolition, rather than reform. One where people of color receive the same grace and opportunity my life has. Over the years, I have cycled through many waves of white guilt and shame around my past, and the privilege of my story turning out how it has. Paralyzed by a combination of self loathing and embarrassment. But white guilt will never be an ally to the Gospel. White guilt leaves us trapped in cheap grace, and hallow pats on the back. White guilt unchecked leads to violence. But I believe that white guilt can be transformed through a commitment to honesty, vulnerability, and dropping the act of perfection. Through a steady embrace of humility, self emptying, solidarity, and making mistakes. Hebrews 13:3 “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them, those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” A call to our interconnectedness.

Since George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, over 300 video documented cases of police brutality has been broadcast throughout the nation – from a 9 year old girl maced in Seattle to a 75 year old man whose skull was cracked in Buffalo. Over and over again we have seen that the most violent people at protests are the police themselves. This has revealed to the nation what marginalized communities have known all along – the system of policing was never designed for public safety. They are trained to violate, and neutralize human beings. According to veteran police scholar David Bayley, “The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public doesn’t know it. There is no correlation between the number of police and crime rates.” In fact, it is estimated that police officers make no more than one felony arrest per year. Yet we have tasked the police with being the lead agency to deal with homelessness, mental illness, school discipline, youth unemployment, immigration, youth violence, sex work, and drugs. According to an article in npr entitled How Much Do We Need the Police,“Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers. That’s what distinguishes them from all other government functions. … They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested.

So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That’s what really is at the root of policing. So if we don’t want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.” Thus, it is time to reimagine a new world. And if righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne, then we Christians should have some zealous labor to pitch to the cause.

Fortunately, efforts to do just that have been gaining rapid speed, and here is where our discipleship to similar causes can come in support. The University of Minnesota, Parks and Recreation, and Minneapolis public schools have cut all contracts with Minneapolis police. LA has announced a 150 million dollar cut from LAPD with plans to reinvest into communities of color. County commissioners denied a proposal for 23 million expansion of an Atlanta county Jail. Portland School superintendent has discontinued presence of of armed police officers in schools. Officer Chauvin charges were upgraded to 2nd degree murder and the other 3 officers were finally arrested. A Robert E. Lee statue is being removed in Richmond Virginia. And civilian oversight review boards are being proposed across the nation. This is just in the last couple of weeks. This is what community looks like. To connect the achievements to our community here in New Haven, I want to read the Citywide Youth Coalition list of demands. They are as follows:

•We Demand the immediate divestment of School Resource Officers within New Haven Public Schools. This divestment and termination of contracts should be followed through with an investment in school counselors.

•We Demand the immediate divestment of the New Haven Police Department. Reducing the proposed NHPD budget from $43 Million to $10 Million and depositing those extra $33 Million in our Public Education System.

•We Demand that $20 Million Dollars be taken out of the proposed budget for NHPD pensions and be allocated to create Affordable Public Housing.

•We Demand the end to the triple occupation of the New Haven community Performed by NHPD,YPD, and HPD

•We Demand that New Haven Alders stop being complacent in entering more Yale Police Department Police officers into the New Haven Community

•We Demand that every officer within the state of Connecticut that has been involved in the killing or beating of a Civilian be prosecuted with the full weight of the law.

•We Demand that the people who are elected to the Civilian review board are viable people elected by the community .

•We Demand the Immediate end to police brutality within our City,State, and Country.

Paul tells us Christians in 2nd Corinthians this morning to “put things in order”. Luckily the Citywide Youth Coalition already has. As White Christians who follow the teachings of a brown skinned insurrectionist executed by the Roman police, the call is clear, and the work must be steady, and ongoing. If this is the system we have built, surely we can be part of its dismantling. As Angela Davis once said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Enough is enough. It’s time to put Black lives first, and demilitarize life, and replace the police with crisis workers, mental health specialists, affordable housing, living wage jobs, and quality education.

If George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephanie Washington, Paul Witherspoon and so many others before them are to be truly honored, we must at long last carry the burden of white supremacy for ourselves, and follow the lead of our black and brown siblings who continue to fight for the liberation of all people – for the liberation of the cross. Because when a black man decides to go for a run without fear for his life, God saw that it was good. When a black woman decides to go to sleep in her own home without fear for her life, God saw that it was good. When a black man decides to go bird watching in Central Park, or kneel during the national anthem to reveal white supremacy that is woven into the very fabric of this country, God saw that it was good. The Episcopal Church will never know liberation, Christ, or the Cross without steadfast obedience to, and solidarity with the black freedom struggle – of this, I am sure.

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