Last Sunday, on the anniversary of the Tops Market killings, Pastor Kwame Pitts, of Community of Good Neighbors Buffalo, spoke of the need to live out our faith through action, and she challenged us to consider our collective purpose as church, what our role is in all that led up to and now follows the events of last May 14. And she challenged us to redefine the gospel that our society has written through its message of White supremacy. It was a powerful message.
The problem is, of course, that our society has been hearing that message for 400 years without listening to it, so people of African descent (and other people of color) continue to carry the burdens imposed on them by the persistent sin of racism and White privilege. The question remains: when will our society be motivated to truly repent and be converted so we do the radical work necessary to end this sin that is killing us all?
The scale of that work recalls the old question about how to eat an elephant: you eat it one bite at a time. Maybe we can take only one small step toward repentance, conversion, and healing. Maybe we can remove only one stone from the massive wall of racism and White privilege. But as Mark Twain wrote, “It takes a thousand [people] to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing – and the last [one] gets the credit and we forget the others.” The last person may add only a tiny bit, but that tiny bit completes the work of thousands.
I can deal more readily with lack of success than I can with lack of effort, with lack of action. I may not be – probably won’t be – the one who ends racism and White privilege in our society. Probably none of you will be, either. But I can remove one stone from the wall, one prejudice from circulation, one claim of privilege from the currency of culture. And who knows? Maybe it will be the very next stone that brings the wall down. Or maybe the stone I remove will allow a few more people to pass through.
For every personal increase in awareness and intent, the mortar holding the stones of that wall together crumbles a bit. Every small action I take helps remove one more stone. We may not be the ones to complete the grand, heroic effort that finally ends racism and White privilege. Perhaps we remove only one more stone, or several. Whatever we do, we must not allow the opportunity to do something pass us by. So where do we begin?
One place to begin is with the definition of “eternal life” in John’s gospel. I believe it’s the only clear definition of eternal life in our scriptures. Eternal life, Jesus said, is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent (John 17:3). Eternal life is to know God our creator and Christ who lives in us. It’s not something reserved for us tomorrow, nor is it promised after death. Eternal life is something that, in knowing God, is ours today.
Jeremiah foresaw a time when God would make a new covenant with us. “I will put my law within them,” God said, “and I will write it on their hearts [and] they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:31-34 abbrev.). And they will all know me; they will all share in eternal life. The way to dismantle racism and White privilege is by recognizing God’s presence in the other person, regardless of race or skin color, of culture or nationality. In every other person is the knowledge of God that gives that person eternal life, the same life we have in us through our knowledge of God.
The basis of our love for all people without exception, the basis of the love that identifies us as Christian, is our recognition of the life-giving knowledge of God in the other person. Jesus affirmed it when he said the greatest two commandments are to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self are indivisibly the same love; there can be no authentic love of one without love of the other two.
So perhaps the place to begin is to learn – or, for some, to relearn – the use of a word you might hear at the end of a yoga session: “namasté.” It’s a word hard to define, as love is hard to define, but it means essentially this: “I honor the place in you where the entire universe dwells. I bow to the place in you that is love, light, and joy. I honor the place in you where, when you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.” It refers to the ministry of reconciliation God was accomplishing in Jesus Christ and has now entrusted to us (2 Cor. 5:19).
You might not actually use the word “namasté.” You might use the word “salaam” or “shalom” or “peace” instead. The important thing is to greet the other person, even if it’s a silent greeting, by acknowledging in that person the presence of the divine creator; by affirming within that person the knowledge of God and the presence of the highest quality of life you seek; and then by relating to and acting toward that person accordingly. If we could learn to do that in every real or virtual encounter with every other person, imagine the difference it could make.
A rabbi instructing his students in the fine points of Jewish law asked them to identify the precise transition between night and day, an important point in determining when the sabbath begins and ends. “So how can you tell,” he asked, “when night has ended and day has begun?” One by one they tried to answer. “It’s when you can look across the valley and tell the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree,” said one. “It’s when you can look into the next field and tell the difference between a sheep and a goat,” said another. “You can tell the difference between night and day,” said a third, “when you can shoot an arrow as far as you can and see where it lands.” One by one the rabbi said “Wrong!” until one student finally asked, “So tell us, how can you tell when night ends and day begins?” The rabbi replied, “When you can look into the eyes of any person you meet and recognize that person as your brother or sister, then you will know that the night has ended and the day has begun.”