“Dismantling Systemic Racism”
Colossian 3:1-15; Matthew 25:31-33, 41-46
January 17, 2021
Let the peace of Jesus Christ rule in your hearts, a peace to which you have called
because you are an integral part of body of Christ, which is the Church.
May the Lord be with you.
Good morning and welcome to worship on this, the Lord’s Day,
and on this weekend in which our nation honors the life and ministry of a preacher,
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We are glad that you are worshiping with us and hope that you will join Decatur Presbyterian Church
in its mission of sharing Jesus Christ’s love for the world.
At Decatur Presbyterian Church, our goal is that every child of God in this community
would come to know belonging to God and God’s people,
would become engaged in the compassionate mission of Jesus Christ,
and would discover transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the spirit of belonging to God and others, we invite you to participate in a 12 hour prayer vigil
on this coming Wednesday, January 20.
There have been reports of potential unrest in our nation’s capital and in every state’s capital
on the day of the inauguration, and even reports of potential violence against churches,
and so we felt called to pray earnestly for our nation and its leaders.
In the spirit of compassionate mission, you will receive an invitation today
to participate in some form of service for MLK day and beyond.
We invite you to discover what you might do in your home or neighborhood
to help our nation build a more perfect union.
Finally, we welcome to worship today the Executive Presbyter of our presbytery,
the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Aisha Brooks-Lytle.
Aisha brings us greetings today from the broader church family and encourages us in our local efforts.
Friends, we have come a long way in our nation when it comes to issues of race and systemic racism,
but we have a long way to go.
As a worshiping body, as a Church, as we turn to face complex and challenging issues of race,
let us begin by turning our full attention to God,
seeking divine guidance from the One who came to set all persons free.
Let us worship God…
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is,
seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,
for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.
These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language
from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self
with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised,
barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another,
forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
And be thankful.
When it comes to issues of race in our country,
we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.
Racism still plays a significant role in most everything from access to education and banking,
to equitable employment and compensation, to healthcare affordability and even access to healthy food.
The sin of racism subtly and powerfully operates in and around us,
and in most every institution of our nation.
For many white people, we may not even recognize it, because it is the very water in which we swim.
Let there be no doubt – racism is real, racism is pervasive, racism is personal,
and racism is structural, deeply rooted and ingrained in the institutions of our nation.
Many efforts were made over many generations to build and maintain a fortress of racism,
a fortress meant to protect the privileges and priorities of white people.
By the year 2000, I thought that racism in America seemed less obvious, less pervasive.
Oh, it was there, no doubt, but I honestly thought that racism was in decline.
And yet, over the last decade, have you noticed the rise in the public nature of racism?
Have you noticed the increased in hate speech and what seems to be growth in white supremacist groups?
Racism was not the only factor involved in the insurrection at the United Stated Capital
on Wednesday, January 6, but it was without a doubt one of the significant factors
contributing to the anger and violence and bloodshed of that day.
I heard an African American congressman and congresswoman talking about their visceral fear
during the insurrection. To see a Confederate flag carried through the building and to hear the chants
arose within them deep and personal fear.
January 6 was a wake up call, yet another wake up call, to a nation not paying full attention.
Last year, the deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, among so many others,
generated a powerful wake up call to a nation that had been hitting the snooze button
on issues of race for decades.
Years ago, on the night before my college graduation, I was treated differently by a policeman
in downtown Memphis on Beale Street than a black man of my same age would have been treated.
A police officer was generous to me, a white kid from Rhodes College.
He even gave me a safe ride back to the dorm so that I would make it to my graduation the next day.
I am not so sure a young black male of my same age would have enjoyed that same treatment,
either then or even now.
Years later, when we were buying a home in South Carolina,
my realtor directed me to particular neighborhoods, neighborhoods that would be more “appropriate”
for my family because of the color of our skin,
neighborhoods where the property values would rise at a greater rate
than those on the other side of the tracks.
The young black pastor who moved to town did not receive the same treatment,
either then, and perhaps not even now.
Over the years, when I have been called to serve a church, these churches leaned,
at least in prior decades, toward calling my “type” – white, male, straight, married with children.
If I were to begin to list all the ways that I have received privilege over the years
because of the color of my skin or my gender or my sexuality, it would take a long time to compile.
This past June, I marched on the streets of Decatur with black and brown persons,
with white people of all ages, with a variety of local pastors and priests.
There were old stalwart Decaturites. There were kids from Decatur High School.
There were young Muslims in hajibs, and older grandparents walking hand in hand.
There were a few babies in strollers, and soccer moms driving alongside in family vans.
And there was a young African American reporter with her cameraman in tow,
trying to make sense of the spectacle.
The most moving part of the day was when we gathered on the lawn of the Decatur square
to remember the individual names of those who had died from police violence.
We knelt together as one body as the names were read by the leader and repeated by the crowd.
There were at least fifty or sixty names that were called out that day, names from just the last few years,
fifty or sixty persons of color who had died at the hands of police.
I was moved. The protests and marches of last summer were important to those of us who participated.
They were important for our nation, just as the protests and marches of the 1960’s
helped move a reticent nation toward the Civil Rights Act.
There is probably not a more appropriate Sunday, on this MLK Jr Weekend,
to talk about “dismantling structural racism.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a powerful preacher and an ardent non-violent activist.
He was dedicated to the ideal that one day, all people, including his own children,
would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
As a pastor, he felt compelled to reconcile the love of God he understood from Holy Scripture
with the ongoing racial hate that he had experienced in the segregated South.
His role as a pastor, as a biblical preacher, committed to nonviolence,
helped keep our country from exploding in those heady days of the 1960’s.
Who will keep our country from exploding today?
What leaders will emerge to help our nation heal and become as one?
Which institutions will embark upon the hard work of dismantling inequities?
Our denomination invited us to become a Matthew 25 congregation
with the willingness to emphasize dismantling structural racism.
This invitation recognizes that the Church has an important role to play.
Given the divisions in our nation, it is critically important for the Church, for all our churches,
to talk about these subjects during worship.
The journey towards racial reconciliation,
the journey towards equity and inclusion and the celebration of diversity is not anywhere near over.
Though we may have come a long way, we have such a long way to go.
To “dismantle” means to “take apart piece by piece.”
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary claims that this word, “dismantle” is an old word,
at least as old as the 1570s, originating from the French word “desmanteler”,
which meant “to strip of fortifications; to raze, to destroy, to tear down,”
To dismantle structural racism will be like “tearing down the walls of an (old) fortress,”
brick by brick by brick.
To dismantle structural racism will be akin to the literal meaning of the word in French,
which is “to strip away a protective cloak.”
Racism has been an impenetrable fortress in this nation since long before our nation’s birth.
But if racism is like a fortress, then surely it has been protecting something, or some group of people,
which is where my discomfort and defensiveness begin.
If we even mention the word “racism” or “racist”, some people automatically cring
or bow up their back or want to walk out of the room.
This is a difficult subject, no doubt. This is not easy for the Church to talk about.
We have come a long way, yes, but we have such a long way to go.
Racism has been a protective cloak or covering for those who were able to claim their whiteness.
In the 1820’s, my ancestors on the Speed side journeyed from South Carolina
across middle Georgia and into Choctaw land in western Alabama.
They became the first “owners” of that land, where they settled and began to farm.
Only a few years later, in 1830, when Andrew Jackson had been elected President,
the Choctaws were forcibly removed from that region.
Between 1830 and 1850, nearly 100,000 Native Americans were forcibly removed
from their homelands, which, of course opened tens of millions of acres for whites to settle.
When the Native Americans were being rounded up, prior to their march to Oklahoma,
being able to pass as white was a “get out of jail free” card.
Being unable to pass as white resulted in tremendous suffering for you and your family.
I grew up in a neighborhood just south of Kennesaw Mountain, just 26 miles from here,
land that was still inhabited by Cherokee when this congregation was established.
That same land where I rode bikes and played in the woods was the sight of a major battle
during the Civil War. In the summer of 1864, some 3800 young men lost their lives in those woods.
Another 63,000 were injured or taken captive.
A dear cost – just one battle among so many – of ridding our nation of the scourge of slavery,
ridding our nation of the practice of buying and transporting and selling human bodies
for the sake of cheap labor and economic profit.
I still remember the day in my fifth grade classroom when our teacher told us that the Civil War
was not really about slavery, just economics.
The sad truth of it was, that 120 years after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain,
on that very battlefield were so many lives were sacrificed, my neighborhood was still all white.
Somehow, persons of color had been discouraged or perhaps not even allowed
to move into that community.
Many neighborhoods and schools and social groups and yes, churches, are still mostly segregated today.
Where do we go from here? How does a Church participate in bringing about lasting change?
Certainly, we have begin with the heart, with our own hearts.
Many of us have work to do in understanding terms like “white fragility” and “white supremacy”.
And we have unfinished work to do in passing and uphold legislation that addresses inequities.
Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, along with many other congregations,
has been learning about the work of dismantling racism.
They have embarked upon an educational venture, called “Doing The Work”.
Their curriculum is based on some key assumptions about race and privilege,
about systemic systems and being white in the world.
The first key assumption is that systemic racism is all around us, and we are part of it.
The vast majority of the time, white people fail to see it,
because it is the water we’ve been swimming in all our lives.
Another key assumption is that there is a tendency among many white people
to draw distinctions between ourselves and those who are “overtly racist”,
like white supremacist groups. This tendency only serves to perpetuate structural racism.
When “normal church people” differentiate themselves from egregious instances of racism
and white supremacy, then we tend to absolve ourselves from having to do any personal work.
We say to ourselves that we are not real racists. “Real” racism is not what we say or do,
and so we do little to nothing to help change a broken and sick nation.
A final key assumption, and this one is quite important,
is that it is not the responsibility of people of color to explain racism to white people,
nor to determine how to fix racism.
Structural racism was built by white people. White people were its architects;
people of color are its victims. Therefore, racism is a problem that white people must solve.
The decline of racism is not inevitable.
This work will not soon end.
Many of us thought that as older generations died out, the attitudes and actions would change,
that as those who were born in a different time passed away, their racism would die with them.
We have not witnessed that to be true.
Though in many situations, conditions are so much better than they used to be,
yet in other places and situations, racial tension and separation have increased.
We have come a long way; we have a long way to go.
It may seem too simple to divide the world into three kinds of people,
but clinical psychologist and best-selling author Henry Cloud points out
that there are essentially three kinds of people in life and leadership.
In his book, Necessary Endings, Cloud describes the differences between
Wise People, Foolish People, and Evil People.
He claims that the biggest difference between wise people and foolish people
comes down to how they deal with truth.
Wise people encounter truth and change themselves as a result.
For example, after getting a speeding ticket, wise people learn to slow down.
Or, after being told that their words hurt someone, a wise person will try to understand why,
and will apologize, and will work hard not to do it again.
A wise person is open, not defensive. A wise person continues to learn and grow over a lifetime,
and tends not to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Foolish people, on the other hand, encounter truth and refuse to change.
Instead, they try to change the truth so they don’t have to adjust to it.
Confronted with a problem, a foolish person will deny, blame, minimize,
generate excuses, and do most anything in his or her power to avoid having to deal with reality.
Foolish people don’t learn and rarely grow.
As a result, foolish people tend to wreak a lot of havoc and cause much damage
in their own lives and the lives of others.
Foolish people may even mean well, but their lack of learning means they keep making things hard
for themselves and others.
Finally, as hard as it is to admit, it does seem that some people seem to be filled with an evil spirit.
Some people truly intend to do harm to other human beings, especially those different from themselves.
They want to take people down. They desire to see other people fail.
They do not have the best interests of the whole or the common good at heart.
As Leah Vaughan read for our scripture today:
As a people, let us put to death evil thoughts, desires and impurities.
Le us get rid of anger, slander, and abusive language, and no longer lie to one another.
Instead, (let us) clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another.
(Let us) not look upon divisions based on people groups, but seek unity based in Jesus Christ.
Above all, (let us) clothe ourselves with love, the love of Christ, allowing his peace to rule in our hearts.
And (let us) be thankful.
I am thankful that the good Lord has brought us thus far.
We have come a long way since this congregation was founded 195 years ago
when the Cherokees were being driven from the land and slaves were still owned.
We have come a long way in my lifetime, since MLK, Jr. preached on the steps of the Capitol
and the Civil Rights act was finally passed.
But friends, we have yet such a long way to go.
And so, let us commit ourselves in this season to accelerating the journey.
Let us, as a Church, speak and act with boldness and courage in the face of structural racism.
Let us, by God’s grace, participate in dismantling, taking apart piece by piece,
the ancient schemes of racism that have caused so much suffering, so much inequity, so much pain.
To God be the glory as we do so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church