In 2009, I spent 6 months as an intern in a Senate office in Washington, DC. I started right at the beginning of the year, right after President Obama’s election in November of 2008 but before his inauguration in late January of 2009.
One of my first responsibilities as an intern was to answer the phones in the office and listen to concerns from citizens back in Georgia.
As you might imagine, in a Republican Senate office with a newly elected Democratic president, there was a lot of concern coming in over the phones about how things would change once the new president took office.
So during my first few weeks in Washington I fielded hundreds if not thousands of calls encouraging our senator to stand firm for conservative principles and to do everything he could to block the legislative agenda of the new president.
Some even encouraged our senator to skip the inauguration as a sign of protest.
In fact, as the inauguration got closer, more people started calling specifically in reference to the inauguration, and I would listen politely and keep a tally of their concerns to be reported to the senator’s chief of staff at the end of the day.
Then, one day, I heard a word I’d never heard before on the other end of the phone. Just as hundreds had before, a man called to express concern about Barack Obama’s inauguration, except he didn’t say in-aug-ur-a-tion. Instead, when referring to the swearing-in ceremony for our country’s first African-American president, he kept repeating the word, “in-nig-ger-a-tion.”
I thought for sure I’d misheard.
Then someone else called and used that same word, and I tried to convince myself that his mis-pronunciation was just an unfortunate effect of a southern drawl.
But after the third or fourth caller there was no mistaking the intent. In fact, once I knew what was coming I could almost feel the gleeful hatred dripping through the phone and down my collar.
Since then I’ve heard equally off-putting language and commentary inside the churches I’ve attended and worked for—quiet words spoken in hallways outside of Sunday School classrooms and murmured in gathering spaces when no one thought the minister was listening or could hear.
Just this week, flyers promoting the Ku Klux Klan were distributed in my neighborhood, and the most disturbing claim on the flyer was that this hate group was “Christian based and [upheld] the Bible.”
We've all seen rising racial tensions spread across our nation on our TV screens and in our Facebook feeds. So I share just a few of the ways I’ve experienced racism personally to remind you that the sin and stain of racial prejudice isn’t just “out there.” It persists even in our own communities, even in our own churches and even in our own hearts.
We who call ourselves Christians, and particularly those of us who claim leadership roles, must not assume that the church of 2016 is somehow immune from the worst elements of our culture.
Racism reaches—and reaches into—all of us. It’s woven into the social fabric of America. Whether we like it our not, it’s a part of who we are.
So how do we deal with something that has so intimately infected us?
In the Bible, Jesus encounters the father of a boy who suffers from epileptic seizures. The father tells Jesus that he worries all the time because he never knows when the seizures might strike, and if his son is near the fire or by the water when the seizures come his son could be burned or drowned. Others, we’re told--even Jesus' disciples--have tried to heal the boy before, but his particular ailment has proven particularly difficult to get rid of.
Jesus, though, in his power, names the disease, rebukes it, and casts it out. The boy is healed.
There are three different versions of this story in three different gospels, all with slightly different twists on what is required to overcome this particularly persistent evil within the boy. One emphasizes the power of prayer (Mark 9:14-29), one the need to act and speak with faith (Matthew 17:14-23), and the other simply the greatness of God (Luke 9:37-43).
There is no safe amount of prejudice, just like there's no safe amount of epilepsy. It must be removed completely.
So pray; and speak and act with courage and faith; and believe in and rely on the greatness of God. Then, together with each other and with God, we can name the prejudice that persists in us, rebuke it and cast it out. We can be healed.
If we don’t, then like the epileptic boy, when we find ourselves in particularly vulnerable places--like where we are as a nation right now--our prejudice has the power to destroy us.
See you Sunday.