Our Abraham Moment?

The VIDEO below is of my friend Lennox Iton delivering a sermon on the last Sunday of Black History Month this year.  It also contains part of the scripture reading and part of a magnificent introduction from his pastor, Rev. Young-Mee Park, Hinsdale UMC, which Lennox parries beautifully.  I first met Lennox when we both volunteered to be on a committee of the Anti-Racism Task Force for the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC).  It was the Training and Curriculum Committee, which I came to chair, charged with creating a workshop on racial justice and equity that was more compact and more affordable than the ones available to the conference.  Because it is affordable and only four to five hours long, our hope is to roll it out to many, many churches in the conference—something we have already begun doing.  We call it “Becoming the Beloved Community: Talking About Race in America,” which you can read more about HERE.

The sermon below is a wonderful primer, succinct and precise, on how the Methodist church itself has been a bulwark of racism, contrary to John Wesley’s deep belief that racism contradicted Jesus’ life and teachings.  I’ve come to think of Lennox as the most serious and careful scholar of our group, though Lennox’s hook here is fairly pop cultural: the title song from Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.  (He notes, though, that Dylan has won a Nobel Prize for Literature!) The song’s first verse:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where you want this killin’ done?”
God says. “Out on Highway 61.”

Lennox Iton conducting the closing ritual for the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop.

Is this our country’s Abraham moment, the time when we resolve to “kill” racism?  After the death of George Floyd, it seemed so. But it seemed so after so many other high-profile deaths, which sat upon thousands and thousands of other less public, and often so-little-noticed, deaths throughout our history.  I’ve written for decades that Americans would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.  For awhile after May 25, 2020, it seemed different, though.  It took less than a year for the backlash to set in.  Now many are trying to pass laws against talking about race and facing hard facts about American history at all. “No critical race theory” is one rallying cry, though 98% of those crying it have little to no idea what critical race theory actually is.  They dump everything about race into that pot, and one of their main excuses is that they don’t want their kids to “feel bad.”  In a world where there’s so much to feel bad about, and from which parents protect their children very little, race has once again been singled out as the one thing we must protect against.

As I listen to Lennox’s sermon I ask what’s the one thing that needs sacrificing that’s as precious as your child.  I think it is white supremacy.  This does not mean white people, please note, but the idea that whiteness is the standard and fount of all rightness and goodness.  In my talk “Theology and Race,” first given to a group of pastors wanting to engage racism more fully, I say that Christian theology itself has white supremacist leanings because of its insistence on identifying whiteness with purity and spiritual rightness and blackness with the opposites.  I come at this idea again in “How Holy Was Jesus?”  Not very.

But all analogies do break down if you push them far enough, and in the Abraham story it breaks down when you consider that as Abraham was about to bring his knife down on his son’s neck, God provided a substitute sacrifice, a ram caught up in nearby brambles.  Will there be such a “substitute” in the case of racism—more particularly white supremacy, which is the sustaining root of racism?  In the end, Abraham doesn’t really have to carry through.  I don’t think such a saving moment is in the cards for us.  And here’s the thing: if we finally carry through and deal seriously with white supremacy, we will all be freer. It will be a sacrifice well worth making.  Writing this now, just a few weeks from Easter, we think of Jesus, who really did carry through.  IF we do, there will be a resurrection, a rebirth we have needed for a long, long time.

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