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A SERMON ABOUT RELIGION, ROBBERY, REPARATIONS, AND JUSTICE

July 19, 2020

View the sermon:  https://youtu.be/YmllTLKsF04

A SERMON ABOUT RELIGION, ROBBERY, REPARATIONS, AND JUSTICE

©Wendell Griffen, 2020

July 19, 2020 (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

 

Exodus 20:15  

15 You shall not steal.

Exodus 21:16

16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

Exodus 22:1

22When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft.

Exodus 23:6-9

6 You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. 7Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent or those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

9 You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:11

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.

Leviticus 19:33-35

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

35 You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.

James 5:4

4Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

Isaiah 59:1-15

59See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. 2Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.

3For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. 4No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity.

5They hatch adders’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web; whoever eats their eggs dies, and the crushed egg hatches out a viper. 6Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands.

7Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. 8The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.

9Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. 10We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. 11We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.

12For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities: 13transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart.

14Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. 15Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.

Luke 19:8-10

8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

 

I have read these passages from the Hebrew and New Testaments to introduce the second sermon I intend to preach in a series about religion and racial justice.  I do not know how many sermons are in the series. I do not know how long the series will last. 

However, I know that we live in a society and world that is racially unjust.  The wealth of our society was built on racial injustice.  Racial injustice is the original sin of this society and is embedded in its moral, ethical, religious, commercial, political, and social DNA.  I also know that I must preach about the debt created by that injustice.

         But first, let us understand what is meant by “restitution” and “reparation.”

Restitution refers to an obligation owed by a person or party to repay a debt owed to or repair a wrong inflicted on another person or party. 

Reparation refers to an obligation owed by a society or government to repay a debt owed or repair a wrong inflicted on persons or parties.

At the heart of both ideas – restitution and reparation – is a sense that wrongful conduct has caused harm, loss, injury, or suffering to another person or party (restitution) or to a group of people (reparation). 

So, we now return to the question Teri Jeffries of New Millennium posed during our reflection time last Sunday (July 12).  Why have other people groups received reparation but no reparation has been made to black people for slavery and the racial injustice that continues from it? 

One reason is explained in the passage I read from Isaiah 59.  The religion of this society shamelessly condoned and justified the greed, robbery, violence, deceit, and other injustices associated with slavery and racialized oppression of black people.    

When European colonizers cheated, lied, and robbed the indigenous people in this land of their land, water, and wages, religion sacralized whole operation.

European governments set up colonial governments that licensed land theft, cheating, and murdering indigenous people.  People who called themselves followers of Jesus condoned it and supported it.

Then the colonizers kidnapped Africans.  They set up shipping companies to transport and trade enslaved Africans.  Insurance companies and banks financed the whole operation.  Slavery of black people was carried on openly in this society for 250 years.  People who called themselves followers of Jesus condoned it and supported it. 

The cover story in the June 28, 2020 issue of The New York Times Magazine is titled “What Is Owed,” and is written by Nikole Hannah Jones. She began the story with these words: “If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must take seriously what it owes black Americans.”  With that introductory statement, Hannah-Jones argues that this nation must move beyond slogans and undertake deep conversation about reparations for black Americans.  Hannah-Jones adds this truth.  “A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins.  It confronts them and then works to make them right.”  One job of religion is to challenge society to confront its sins and work to do right by people who have been wronged.

 

         However, religious people have shown no interest in engaging in conversations about reparations.  For example, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845.  During its 150th anniversary meeting at Atlanta, Georgia in 1995 – 25 years ago – Southern Baptist messengers adopted an eloquent resolution admitting that slavery played a role in formation of the Convention.  The resolution admits that Southern Baptists “defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery.”  The resolution also laments that racism and “historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest … [have] separated us from our African-American brothers and sisters” and resolves to apologize “to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime…”

 

         Yet, that 1995 resolution is conspicuously and suspiciously silent about healing the damage, injury and harm African-Americans suffered from 244 years of chattel slavery, another century of legalized segregation, and continued systemic practices and policies in every aspect of American society that are the legacy of that wicked history.  The 1995 resolution does not contain a word about reparations to people whose ancestors were enslaved, dehumanized, defrauded, terrorized, and marginalized, and who continue to suffer from that blatant violation of divine love, truth, and justice. 

 

         Baylor University, the largest Baptist institution of higher education in the world, was also organized, founded, and funded in 1845 – 175 years ago – by white men who owned enslaved persons.  Baylor is home to the George Truett Theological Seminary.  But when the Baylor Board of Regents issued a unanimous resolution last month admitting its slaveholder sponsorship and purporting to apologize for it, the resolution by Baylor’s Board of Regents and President did not mention anything about reparations.

 

         Greed and robbery are root causes of racism and racial injustice.  Slaveholder religion did not create the greed, robbery, and racism.  Slaveholder religion, including religion practiced by white people who called themselves followers of Jesus, was developed to justify kidnapping, robbery, rape, torture, lynching, terrorism, human trafficking, and the other evils associated with slavery.  

 

         We will never have a serious conversation about racial justice in this society until we talk about reparation for the moral, ethical, political, and monetary debt this society owes descendants of African people who were enslaved, robbed, raped, cheated, terrorized, kept illiterate, and dehumanized.  But we will not have that conversation about reparation until and unless religious people engage in it. 

 

         The second reason reparations have never been paid to the descendants of enslaved black people is that we who are black have been timid about demanding reparations.  We have been timid in the face of white privilege.  We have been timid in the face of terrorism. 

 

We have talked about desegregating schools, restaurants, hotels, theatres, and other establishments.  We have talked and voting rights.  But we have not talked, boycotted, protested, demonstrated, or otherwise made demands for reparation.  Religious and fraternal organizations have not made reparations a subject at local, state, and national meetings.  In the same way that we criticize white religious leaders for failing and refusing to address reparations, we must also admit that black and brown religious leaders also have been derelict.

 

In his book titled The Debt:  What America Owes to Blacks, Randall Robinson makes this point so clearly, albeit with language that some people will find unseemly to be included in a sermon, that I will not try to sanitize his words.

The issue here is not whether we [black people] can, or will win reparations.  The issue is whether we will fight for reparations, because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due...

Let me try to drive the point home here:  through keloids of suffering, through coarse veils of damaged self-belief, lost direction, misplaced compass, shit-faced resignation, racial transmutation, black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries—and they were never paid.  The value of their labor went into others’ pockets—plantation owners, northern entrepreneurs, state treasuries, the United States government.

 

Where was the money?

 

Where is the money?

 

There is a debt here.

 

...Jews have asked this question of countries and banks and corporations and collectors and any who had been discovered at the end of the slimy line holding in secret places the gold, the art, the money that was the rightful property of European Jews before the Nazi terror.  Jews have demanded what was their due and received a fair measure of it.

 

Clearly, how blacks respond to the challenge surrounding the simple demand for restitution[reparations] will say a lot more about us and do a lot more for us than the demand itself would suggest.  We would show ourselves to be responding as any normal people would to victimization were we to assert in our demands for restitution that, for 246 years and with the complicity of the United States government, hundreds of millions of black people endured unimaginable cruelties—kidnapping, sale as livestock, deaths in the millions during terror-filled sea voyages, backbreaking toil, beatings, rapes, castrations, maimings, murders.  We would begin a healing of our psyches were the most public case made that whole peoples lost religions, languages, customs, histories, cultures, children, mothers, fathers... And they were never made whole.  And never compensated.  Not one red cent.  [Randall Robinsons, The Debt:  What America Owes to Blacks, (Dutton, 2000, the Penguin Group, pp. 206-208) 

 

         That is why the example of Jesus with Zacchaeus is so powerful.  Jesus did not shirk his moral and ethical duty to confront Zacchaeus about his greed.  Jesus was not afraid to call Zacchaeus out.  Jesus refused to pass through Jericho without meeting Zacchaeus, confronting Zacchaeus, and calling on him to make restitution for anything he had obtained by dishonest means. 

 

         Jesus refused to practice a religion that turned a blind eye to robbery.  What about us?  Jesus refused to practice a religion that condoned wage theft.  What about us?  Jesus refused to back down.  

 

What about us?   What are followers of Jesus doing to confront this society about the unpaid and constantly mounting debt owed to the descendants of people whose lives and labor and culture and language and ancestry and religion was robbed? 

 

What are the descendants of those robbed workers doing in God’s name to make this society face its moral and ethical duty to make reparations for 250 years of stolen labor, another 100 years of legalized segregation, and the ongoing harms and losses associated with racial injustice?

The Spirit of God is calling us to talk about reparations and racial justice.  The Spirit of God is calling us to push back against people who want to hide from the conversation.  The Spirit of God is calling us. 

Let us get to talking.  Let us get to demanding.  Let us get to challenging.  Let us get to doing reparations work in the name of God and the Jesus who set the example for us with Zacchaeus. 

Oh God, we confess that our society is unjust and boasts of being rich because of stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives. 

We confess that religious people were part of the greed and robbery that inspired racism and downloaded the racism into people, policies, and practices. 

We confess that often we – descendants of both the enslaved and those who hold privileges held and used because of slaveholder religion – have been too silent to even speak about reparations and too timid when we have dared to speak about that just subject. 

We ask your forgiveness for being silent when we should have been speaking.  We ask your forgiveness for speaking timidly when we should have spoken boldly.

Help us trust your Spirit, follow your Spirit, and speak and act boldly for reparations by your Spirit. 

Lead us into deep waters of prophetic fellowship and testimony where we can follow Jesus in this long overdue work and witness.  We ask this in his name.  Amen.