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Liberty and Justice for All?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Paula Sanders on July 14, 2015 at a meeting of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities in Owatonna, MN.  

Liberty and Justice for All?

Good afternoon Moderator Denise Dunbar-Perkins, Executive Presbyter Jeff Japinga and members of Presbytery and guests.

Thank you for inviting me to bring the Word today at our July 2015 presbytery meeting.

Today’s sermon title, “Liberty & Justice for All?” patriotically springing from the rockets’ red glare of  our July Independence Day, begins with the final phrase of the American Pledge of Allegiance, which many of us recited in front of the Star Spangled Banner each morning in grade school. It is always recited in a certain well-worn cadence:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This sentence was originally composed by minister Francis Bellamy in 1892 and formally adopted by Congress as our pledge in 1942[1]. The last change in language came on Flag Day 1954 when the words “under God” were added.  I was born on Flag Day 1957 in the very heart of “America the Beautiful”.


Bellamy wrote this pledge to be recited by school children, and he knew that he had to be very choosy with his words because in 1892 (as well as in the 1950’s), many citizens did not believe in equality for black people or for women.

Today, the Supreme Court says that the pledge can be recited in schools but children cannot be compelled to say it. Still, when I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I feel a lump in my throat and tears well up.  One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  What a glorious ideal! …If only it were true.


Now that we’re grown, we know that all nations are in God’s loving hand, and we know that liberty and justice, in the form of basic human rights, are being fought for at great cost by good people from many nations all around the world.

But what God sent me here to preach about today is in held in my title, “Liberty and justice for all?”  Is the United States of America a place of liberty and justice for all and why does that matter to us as Christians?

Allow me to be specific because I don’t want to surprise anyone, the Word today is concerning white on black racism and how and why we as white people can begin to face it.  I am aware that we have non-white brothers and sisters in the room with us and I trust that nothing I have to say will offend.

I am also aware that there are many other groups who have been treated horribly in “America, God Shed His Grace on Thee”, but that is not where we are going today.  Today, we are going to look right in the face of the sinful racism and system of disadvantage that is experienced by African American people every day in 2015, and whether we as Christians are fulfilling our call to break down the hellish institution that was brought to America by the first settlers in the 1500’s.

I would like to add, here, that this is not “National ‘Beat Up on White People Day’.”  The time for that is over.  It is time for us to put on our big boy & big girl panties, to recognize our country’s deep-seated flaws and take responsibility for fixing them.  Today, we will discover why we as Christians should care enough to, as St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel always – and if you must, use words.”

So let us begin with definitions of race and racism.  We are all aware, I’m sure, that race as a physical reality does not exist.  Race is an artificial social construct.  Humans have decided to socially divide other humans by the color of their skin and to treat them accordingly and we have all over time bought into that game.

Racism, very simply is Prejudice + Power.  Let’s say that together – Prejudice + Power = Racism.  Only the people with the power can be racist or take advantage of systems of unearned privilege.  I often hear, “But my black neighbor hates me because I am white.  Isn’t that racist?”  NO.  By definition in the USA, only the people who have held the power for the past 400 years can be racist, not those who are in every way oppressed

Until we learn differently, we usually think of race at a personal level as in “Me? I’m not a racist! My best friend is black!  I am a Christian!”  But the real problem is systemic racism also known as institutional racism.  About 50 years ago, with adoption of the Civil Rights Act, overt racism was outlawed and became less socially acceptable in most of the country.  But since then a series of laws and policies has created a structural racism that is much more powerful and sinister than personal racism.  Black people who are unable to overcome this morass of hidden racist rules and obstacles are considered by Western European culture as moral failures, unable to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”.

Historically, systemic racism has included such practices as “redlining”, the offering of loan funds for houses that were not available to black borrowers.  This system led to the construction of affordable housing “projects”.  Huge areas of blighted neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Gary AND the Twin Cities occurred because housing that was already worn out by previous waves of Irish, Polish, Italian and other immigrants was all that was available to southern blacks moving north in the Great Migration.  In other words, black people did not create “ghettoes”. They inherited slums!

Next came systemic racism in jobs.  Studies show that out of 2 job applicants with identical qualifications, the one with the white sounding name will nearly always be picked for the job.  In fact I know that this can be done because I have done it in reverse.  When I am in a position to hire, I do my best to interview qualified black applicants.  It is relatively easy to tell black from white by names, schools attended, fraternities/sororities, clubs, activities, etc.

From systemic racism in employment, comes a system of inferior education for blacks and other poor people. This is how it works. School funding is based on property taxes.  Since property taxes on those big houses only whites could buy are much higher, schools in white areas are much better funded than those funded by the black people living in projects who are less likely to be selected for jobs.  And the cycle continues.

Thousands of young black men turned out of inferior schools and jobless are snapped up at double the rate of white men into a for-profit mass incarceration system. Many of you have probably heard the statistic that more black men are incarcerated today than were enslaved ten years before the Civil War.  Begun by the War on Drugs, our current prison industrial complex is now maintained by totally legal racial profiling, unfair sentencing laws and police brutality against black citizens.  This brutality did not just begin, it just began to be exposed thanks to social media.

And where, you say, are the women? Some are living the trauma inherent in intergenerational poverty – the tripartide death knell of racism, classism and sexism.  Still, many, many black women are scratching every day, every way they know how, to become educated and climb out of a cesspool not of their own making.

The anger that you see exploding in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and sometimes here in the Minnesota-nice Twin Cities has been simmering just under the surface for 400 years and it is justified.  And it’s not just the young people, those we would like to call thugs and gang members who are angry.  Their elders, your educated African American friends and colleagues, often wear a mask to keep us all from knowing how they really feel about the indignities heaped daily upon themselves, their children, their ancestors. You should know, there is a great deal of righteous anger simmering beneath the surface[2].

So No, we all do not start on a level playing field.  Not at all.  I see the question posed lately on social media, “Are we post-racial?” Meaning since electing a two-term black president, are we past racism in America? H – E – double hockey sticks – NO we are not post-racial.

Just last week at Kwanzaa, a young man from our 21st Century Academy, a reading enhancement program for middle schoolers in North Minneapolis, came up to one of our administrators and asked to talk.  He mentioned a short story that his group had read called “The Boy who Painted Christ Black” by Harlem Renaissance author John Henrick Clarke.  Our young black scholar said that he sometimes attended a VBS program near his home.  He had mentioned this story, “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” to his VBS teacher and the woman called him out in front of his otherwise white class, saying very emphatically, No, Sir. Do not bring that up again in this church.  Jesus is white. White do you hear me?”  No, if Katrina and Ferguson and daily life did not tell you so, I am here to tell you we are not post-racial.

We are in a fix, my friends.  A conundrum.  As we would say at my home church in North Minneapolis, we are in a Hot Mess.  Make no mistake, we are in a battle with the forces of evil.  Individual sin turns into corporate evil.

So why should we care …as Presbyterians, as Christians? Why should we care? And more to the point, why should we DO anything about this crisis erupting at OUR moment in Kyros time, God’s time?

Well, here is what Jesus said, in what we know as the Great Commandment:

 “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV)

Loud and clear, love your neighbor as yourself.  NO equivocation.  That means if you think that you and your family should have safe clean housing, so should everyone else. That means if you think you and your teenage son should be able to drive through your neighborhood without being stopped and frisked, so should everyone else.

That means if you think you should have reliable transportation to get to health care that works, so should everyone else. That means that your neighbor should have the same access to the polls that you do.  Loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean just writing a check.  It means taking initiative on their behalf as you would for yourself and your family to secure their basic human rights.

The reality is, White people have to fix this.  Yes, that’s what I said.  White people, not necessarily us, did this, and we have to fix this    If your deceased father caused a great trauma in your family, left some sort of gaping wound amongst his progeny, who has to fix it?  YOU DO. You and your brother and sisters have to fix it.  You have to fix this family sickness so that it does not corrupt future generations. We have to fix this.

We white people have all the power and it may require that we do with a little less in the future.  The oppressor must lift the burden, not the one smashed under the yoke.  Black people cannot fix this.  Blacks and whites cannot even sit in a circle and kumbayah this into harmony.  We, who know that we have enjoyed the advantage in this country for so long, must actively, up close and personally love our neighbor as ourselves.

So how are we to begin this great work?   We want to do something but what?  Again, here is what Jesus told his disciples, who were ordinary people, men AND women just like us:

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.  He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money — not even an extra tunic.”             Luke 9:1-5

So what does that mean for us?

That means that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have POWER AND AUTHORITY over the demon of racism and can cure the disease of intergenerational poverty.  Jesus has infused us with the power and authority to set this mess right.  Don’t take that power lightly.

Jesus sends us out to HEAL,

to lay on healing hands, to express our concern, to hug, to love, to stand with.

And then Jesus tells us how to do it.

He says, take off on this journey with nothing.  And please note, this is a journey.  We must leave our living rooms.   We must leave the confines of church walls.  We keep our ministries inside our church walls where we can control them because we are afraid.  We must go to where the black people are and stick and stay with them there.  We must walk with them in their daily lives.  We must shop with them.  We must ride the bus with them.  We must learn what worries our African American brothers and sisters and ask about their experiences with racial profiling, racist obstacles they have faced in seeking jobs and education.  We cannot do that from our safe enclaves.

And we must leave on this journey empty handed and open-hearted.  Whisper “No staff, no bag, no bread, no money.”  No committee conceived notions of what black communities need.  We must make relationship and LISTEN, listen, listen.  I have been standing next to several African American communities for nearly 40 years and I am still stunned by the depths of degradation and wanton disregard white people have inflicted, are inflicting on black people in this country.  In fact, here’s an instance that comes to mind right now.  Since the first church arson in the south, over a dozen churches have been burnt.  But no one in this presbytery has called the pastors of my home church, Kwanzaa Community Church PCUSA to express concern or to ask how the good folks at Kwanzaa are feeling in any way.  We must step out of our comfort zones.

That should be enough to meditate on for a short while.  Why must we engage in this work? Because we strive to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves.  How will we start the journey?  With open hands and open hearts.

Praise be to God



[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-man-who-wrote-the-pledge-of-allegiance-93907224/?no-ist

[2] Most of the historical information in this sermon comes from the book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  Information on mass incarceration comes from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration.

copyright 2015 Paula J. Sanders