We are going to deal with today, as we launch this Understanding Racism discussion the subject: becoming the Samaritan. Becoming the Samaritan.
From the midst of the many things that John could have included in his gospel, concerning the episodes of Jesus’ life and ministry, John is led by the Holy Spirit to include in chapter 4, Jesus’ necessary journey through Samaria. Right? He must need to go through Samaria.
And He does so because He is seeking to signal Jesus’ engaging what was historically avoided. Jesus is engaging the matter of racial and ethnic tension between Jews and Samaritans. Normally, a good Jew would go around Samaria when traveling, but this time, Jesus goes through Samaria.
The very term “Samaritan” was not a sociological classification. It was a pejorative term dealing with those of mixed blood. It was similar to the “N” word back then. And Jesus engages a woman of Samaria because she and her region are important to the kingdom. Fast-forward to Acts chapter 1 when Jesus tells them that, “You will be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, in Judea, and Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.”
And with our Western ears, we usually hear that as meaning Jesus saying, “You start at your home and then your city and then your state, the nation, and then the world.” That’s how we hear it with Western ears. But I would suggest to you that that is not how they heard it, because they were not from Jerusalem. The ones to whom He was talking, they were Galileans. Their hometowns were cities like Nazareth and Capernaum and Decapolis. That was where their home was, but Jesus tells them, “Start in Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was where they were.
In other words, Jesus might have been saying, “You don’t get to choose where you start. You start right where you are.” Even if where you are is not your home. Even if where you are is the place of your greatest failure, being Peter denying Jesus. Even if where you are is the place of your most painful experience because it was there that Jesus was tried and crucified.
Jesus says, “You start in Jerusalem and then you go to Judea.” Well, Judea was not even their home state. Their home state, their home province was Galilee, but what was Judea? It was the place where they were looked down upon because Galileans were considered by Judeans not to be as religious – to be religiously lax, if you will.
And then Jesus says, “Go to Samaria.” And Samaria is the place of racial and ethnic tension. And then Jesus says, “To the uttermost parts of the earth.” He says, “Before you get to the uttermost parts of the earth, you’ve got to deal with Samaria.” Now, that’s where the tension is for us as a Church here in America because we do uttermost parts of the earth very well. It’s Samaria where we have a problem. We don’t do Samaria well.
And the problem with that is our credibility with the uttermost parts of the earth is compromised by our failure to address Samaria. If our witness is to have integrity and relevance, the matter of race must be confronted, and that’s why you need to commend your pastor for having the courage to put this on the table.
Fundamentally, the problem of race is a matter of spirit, for which the Church is uniquely equipped to address. Because racism is the denial of essential personhood and place based upon one’s race. And as such, it is an affront to the creative intention of God. The problem of race in our country, and, yes, even within the American church is not just due to the existence of people who are actively racist, it is also due to those who are racially indifferent, for whom race does not necessarily mean one thing or another, who just don’t really care. And there are two primary points that undergird racial indifference.
The first is a lack of understanding the historical and contemporary facts of America. If we are to be agents of reconciliation, we must know that reconciliation entails involving and recognizing the break in its depth and in its severity.
The reason why dealing with matters of race is so difficult for us in this country is because race is in the ground of our country. It is in the very fact and fiber of our forming documents. Consider these facts. It begins with sixteen African slaves to the port of Jamestown, Virginia and then it continues with the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. If I gave you a test to guess which colony that was, most of us would flunk it because we would assume it was a southern colony. It was not. Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery.
And by 1650, it is estimated that more than one million Africans had been forced to migrate to the Americas with the majority of them brought to the United States. And among the characteristics of the experience of antebellum slavery in the South were social dislocation, dehumanization, family disruption, tribal separation, physical brutality; psychological violence of children watching their parents beaten, and parents having children taken from them and sold, and husbands watching their wives taken for sexual pleasure and breeding, and wives seeing their husbands and sons lynched.
In 1676, laws began to appear separating black slaves from European indentured servants. And slavery becomes permanent and heritable for Negros. And what that basically means is is that if you owned a slave and you died, that slave then went to your son or your daughter as part of their inheritance.
Poor whites are given new rights and opportunities including the right of being an overseer to police the slaves, and as the importance of slavery grows in this burgeoning new country, then it becomes important to bring in classifications.
And that’s where the term “white” begins to be used in law and in other social arenas because you need something to distinguish one from the other. Before slavery, one was not known as white. One was simply known as either Polish or Italian or German or Irish. It is in the midst of slavery becoming a foundational part of the nation that you now have this term “white” because you need to have something that means “not black.”
In 1790, the Naturalization Act reserved naturalized citizenship for whites only. And without citizenship, non-whites are denied the right to vote, own property, bring suit, and testify in court.
In 1854, the California Supreme Court, in the decision, People vs. Hall, they reversed the conviction of a white on a murder trial because they ruled that the testimony of key Chinese witnesses is inadmissible because no black, no mulatto person or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor or against a white person.
Consider what the chief justice of the Supreme Court writes in the Dredd Scott decision of 1857. He puts it: “No rights which any white person has is bound to respect free black people are taxed like whites, but they do not enjoy the same protection and entitlements.” In 1863, we have the Emancipation Proclamation and then the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 is passed guaranteeing all citizens equal protection and due process, but then you have 1887 with the Jim Crow laws that begin to be passed, codifying a way of relating, a new social order, reinforced through violence, intimidation, and it affects schools, public transportation, jobs, housing, private life, and voting rights.
And increased violence occurs so that between the years 1877 and 1950, three thousand nine hundred and fifty-nine black people are lynched and killed. 1896, the Supreme Court upholds “separate but equal.” And the federal government takes it to the next level in 1913, under President Woodrow Wilson. And we do not get integration until the 1960s.
Between the 1930s and 1940s, when our country begins to flex its economic muscle and the government creates programs to subsidize low-cost loans, opening up home ownership to millions of Americans for the first time, government underwriters also introduce a national appraisal system tying property value and loan eligibility, not to income but to race.
And of the one hundred and twenty billion dollars’ worth of new housing, subsidized by the government between 1931 and 1962, less than two percent went to non-white families. And we all understand that the home is the cornerstone of the building of wealth. That is how you begin to build your wealth.
In 1935, Congress passes the Social Security Act, but agricultural and domestic workers, the majority of whom are non-white are denied access to those benefits. And in 1944, the G.I. bill is passed. Enacted to help returning veterans of World War II and benefits including low-cost mortgages and low-interest loans to start a business and cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend university or high school or vocational education as well as one year of unemployment compensation, from 1944 to 1949, nearly nine million veterans received close to four billion dollars’ worth of benefits, all to the exception and exclusion of people of color.
And the G.I. bill is believed to be the one piece of legislation that spurred the growth of the American middle-class. In 1954, we have the Brown versus the Board of Education decision that declares “separate but equal” unconstitutional.
In 1964, we have the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, we have the Voting Right Act. In 1968, we have the Fair Housing Act. And, yes, if we fast-forward even further, we have 2008 where Barack Obama is elected the forty-fourth president of the United States. And we have made significant gains. And there were those who were so happy to see President Obama elected that they were willing to say, “Well, now, we can close the book on race. We are now in a post-racial society.” And, yet, eight years later, we discover that it is true that we have made progress in the form of legislation. We have made progress in the removing of certain legal barriers. We made progress, yes, even in how we seek to associate in the workplace, but we have yet to dismantle the psychological assumptions that undergird racism.
We have turned some pages, but the book of race still remains open. The sobering and sad reality for me and other persons of color is that even before people know that I am on the board of Gordon-Conwell or Wycliffe Bible Translators or Christianity Today; before they ever know that I am good friends with Chip Ingram, they see me and they see me as an African American male, and they make certain assumptions about where I belong and where I don’t belong.
And every now and then I am reminded of that. I was in the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida. That’s a major hotel; my wife and I, we were there along with some friends and we are in the lobby and a sixty-year-old white man comes up to me and he says, “Do you know where so-and-so is?” I say, “Sir? I don’t know.” And he says, “What do you mean you don’t know? You work here, don’t you?” And I have to say, “Um, no. I’m a guest like you are.”
There’s nothing that I was wearing that would associate me with the Ritz-Carlton as an employee. I was in casual gear. But his belief was that my place there had to be an employee, not necessarily a guest.
I want to lift the weight right here and I need you just to tell your neighbor, “It is not our fault.” Tell your neighbor that: “It is not our fault.” But it is our problem. That the matter of race is not our fault, but it is our problem.
Why? Because we have inherited the blessings and burdens of race in America. None of us chose the families and race into which we were born. There was no prenatal cue where you could choose which family and into which race and ethnicity you could be born. That was given to you and me by God.
And as God gave us that in our uniqueness, we entered into a country where based upon our race and our ethnicity, we inherit certain blessings and we inherit certain burdens. It’s not our fault but it is our problem.
And if we are to accept the challenge that God gives the Church to be the visible expression of His love in Jesus Christ to a watching world, we cannot just accept the challenge to go through Samaria, we can’t just accept the challenge to go to Samaria, we must accept the challenge to become the Samaritan.