Racism and People of Faith: Log Removal
Our scripture lesson today is a short but powerful excerpt from Jesus’ longest chunk of teaching. It comes from the gospel of Matthew in what we call the Sermon the Mount. For three chapters in Matthew, Jesus teaches the disciples and the crowds who have gathered to hear him, teaching from a spot on the side of a mountain. He covers a huge range of topics, starting with the Beatitudes, the Blessings, and covering prayer, money, worry, anger, adultery, relationships with our enemies, and more. In the midst of this teaching, we find our text for today. Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. The measure we use to judge others is the measure that is used to judge us. Why,” Jesus asks, “can you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not the log in your own eye? Why do you tell them you’re going to help them fix themselves, when you yourself have a log in your own eye? You hypocrite!” he says. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” The image is vivid and compelling. Does it persuade us?
In my experience, we - and I most certainly am including myself here - we have a remarkable knack for reading the scriptures and seeing so clearly exactly how they apply - to someone else’s life. We hear Jesus speaking and know exactly what our neighbor should do, what the person we’re fighting with should do, what our foes and enemies should do, if only they would listen to Jesus. And then I read this passage, I know Jesus is onto us. Perhaps, even now, we may be saying to ourselves that we know a lot of people who are trying to take a speck out of our eyes, all the while not seeing that they have a log in their own eye. But I want us to try to stop in our tracks right there. Jesus has invited us in this text to self-reflection, self-examination. He has invited us to see that we are not up to the task of judging others, that it is not our task to manage, and that rather if we think that we sincerely, lovingly want to help someone else see things more clearly, we have to first check our own vision, check our own behavior, check our own hearts. Jesus is telling us, telling me, telling the listener, telling the reader, that we may have some logs in our own eyes to remove. The work of honest self-examination is hard. It can be painful to search our spirits and see where we don’t measure up to what we believe is God’s hope and vision for our lives. It can feel overwhelming, like we will never be enough. Or like change it too hard. Or like we’re really more comfortable with our ways than God’s ways when it comes right down to it. And so sometimes, we don’t try very hard to look deeply at what’s in our own souls. We walk around with logs in our eyes.
Today we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Racism and People of Faith. I can tell you this has been a hard series to preach, and I know that it has been sometimes challenging to hear. Today is a little harder still! We know that racism is wrong, and most people rightly reject racist actions and attitudes. But sometimes, our knowledge that racism is wrong and unacceptable prevents us from examining our own attitudes about race. Sometimes, we don’t want to dig very deeply into our feelings related to prejudice or stereotypes. Deep self-examination is hard work, and it certainly isn’t something we can “fix” or “complete” over the course of one sermon or a three-week series. But I hope that today we can give ourselves some courage to look in the mirror and see if there are some logs that need removing.
When I was in college, I was blessed to be part of a small team of young women who got to plan a national gathering of college and university women who wanted to learn more about the United Methodist Women organization. Over the course of a couple of years, we met periodically to plan an event we called, “Young Woman, Rise Up.” Once, during a weekend of meetings, the adult leaders called us back together as a group - we had been meeting in some small teams - to talk to us about something they had observed. They’d observed that the young white women in the room were consistently interrupting the adult women of color in the room. They encouraged us to be more mindful of our interactions, of our ways of speaking, of our habit of speaking over people. They asked us to reflect on patterns, and to consider whether or not and why we were interrupting. And they shared with us that racism - overt or subtle - had no place in our gatherings.
I was so angry. Why? Because I was not a racist, and these people were telling me that I was a racist, and making something out of nothing. I was self-aware enough to be sure that’d I’d interrupted some of the adult leaders - I had lots of brilliant ideas to share, after all. And yes, some of those leaders were black women. But I wasn’t interrupting because they were black. It just happened that way. My intention wasn’t to imply that I didn’t care about what they were saying. I was just excited to share my ideas. I was not a racist. And I resented, strongly, being chastised like a child in this way. When we went back into our small groups, I looked with suspicion, I will admit, at the black woman who was the leader in our group. Was it her? Did she complain about being interrupted? Was she thinking of me when she raised the concern?
Somewhere, though, in the midst of my seething, I tried to pull myself together and listen to my own impulses. I found that I did often want to step in and talk over some of the adult leaders, and it seemed to be women of color more often than not when I felt compelled to interrupt. Why did I do this? What made me, despite my desire, of course, not to act in racist ways, be more likely interrupt a speaker who was black than a speaker who was white? I wasn’t able to answer my own question just then. But I think asking the question was the first time in my life I began to do some true self-reflection when it came to racism. It was the first time I had looked in the mirror to see if there were any logs present. One of the hardest things we will do if we are committed to the work of eliminating racism is self-examination. It is so hard not to be defensive. I believe our intentions our good - we don’t want to judge others based on the color of their skin. But sometimes our good intentions actually stop us from getting to the destination we seek.
My mother had a turn of phrase that she picked up from my grandmother that has stuck with me. When I was little, I would sometimes say, “I didn’t mean to” after I did something wrong, or made a mistake, or did something that resulted in harm to someone or something. And Mom - or Grandma - would respond, “Well, mean not to.” When it comes to racism and prejudice and stereotypes, I think we “don’t mean to” engage in attitudes or actions that are hurtful. But I wonder if we can learn to “mean not to,” to actively check ourselves for logs that need removing.
As I told you during the first week of our sermon series, all the clergy and interested laity in our annual conference are currently attending small group meetings to address the themes of the Imagine No Racism initiative. At our most recent gathering, we watched a Ted-Talk video (http://jerrykang.net/2013/12/11/tedx-immaculate-perception/) about implicit bias. Implicit bias is the unconscious way our brains group things together in our heads, so that we can think and process and react quickly. Implicit bias is usually hidden to us - we’re not aware, moment to moment, of the associations our brains make. It is automatic. The speaker showed us implicit bias at work by doing a simple test of something called the Stroop Effect, which demonstrates how our reaction times can be slowed when our brains are confronted with information that doesn’t belong together in our minds. You see first a column of block letters of all different colors, spelling out different colors. So you see some red block letters that spell RED, or the word BLUE made up of blue letters. Our brains can process that very quickly. It makes sense to us. But it doesn’t take much to confuse our minds. The next column also shows colors spelled out, but now the word and color don’t match. So you might see the word RED but the letters are colored white. Or the word BLUE is spelled out, but filled in with green coloring. If you ask people to say aloud what color these words are, not what the word spells, most people hesitate. We can do it, we can see the letters that spell RED but are colored white and eventually say WHITE, but we can’t do it as quickly as we can when the colors and words match. Our brain has associated the color and the word and we just can’t undo that association as quickly as we can do it when they’re paired together. This is implicit bias at work. We need it for our brains to function as quickly as they do.
The trouble comes when our brains slap together value-laden messages for us without our conscious input. In Implicit Bias tests developed by social psychologists at Harvard, results of thousands of participants over time show that many people who have no explicit bias - that is, they express that they do not have feelings of racial bias - still have implicit bias. When shown images of black faces and white faces, for example, test participants more quickly and more consistently are able to match white faces and positive words like good and beautiful. Conversely, participants are speedier at matching black faces and negative words like bad, ugly, or weapon. These aren’t explicit feelings. They don’t represent what we think we believe. But they represent how our brain has learned to group things together. Our brain does that because of messages we receive from culture, from news, from experiences, from stereotypes - all of these things that gel together in our brains, but are hidden from our conscious thoughts. But, our hidden-even-to-ourselves biases can sometimes make a difference in how we behave, even when we don’t realize why we’re behaving that way. It can make us more likely to feel afraid when we meet someone on the street whose skin color is different than ours. It can make us more likely to give a second chance to someone whose skin color our mind has paired with the idea of “good.” It can make us more likely or less likely to see someone as professional and competent at our work, without even realizing why. It can make us more likely to interrupt people if our brain has sent us the message that their words are less important than our own.
What can we do then? Can we have an impact on our implicit biases? The answer is good news: yes we can. It turns out that the more we come into contact with people that “don’t fit” the associations that our brains tell us go together, the less power those associations have for us over time. Our implicit biases change when we are exposed to stereotype-busting images and experiences. And we don’t have to be passive in hoping we encounter things that fly in the face of the subtle messages we get elsewhere. We can mean to expose ourselves to other perspectives. We can be intentional. We can pay attention and be purposeful about not discounting voices and experiences and lessons that will help us expand our way of thinking. We can be intentional about seeking out voices and perspectives that are different than our own, that go against what our brain is telling us to group together. Some simple things have a big impact: One of my niece’s favorite things is Doc McStuffins. Doc McStuffins is a Disney show about a young African-American girl who is the Doctor to all her toys and toy friends, just like her mom is a doctor. If Siggy could be Doc McStuffins, her life would be complete. She’s got a strong association in her 4-year old mind that young black girls are smart and competent and she wants to be just like them. My personal commitment this year has been related to the books I read. I try to read a certain number of books every year, and I’ve noticed that if I am not intentional, most of the books I was reading were by white male authors. White male authors aren’t bad! But there many other voices and perspectives that I’m hearing less frequently. I’m trying to correct that, intentionally looking to read more books authored by women and people of color. It’s not a solution, but it is a starting place, helping me to see others, and see myself more clearly.
Jesus calls us to examine our own hearts. Let’s try to raise the veil on the hidden messages our brain receives all the time about race, and to acknowledge the explicit stereotypes and judgments we hold about people who are different from us, who are of a different race, or ethnicity, or nationality than we are. Jesus calls us, too, to be gentle with each other as we do this hard work. We’re learning. Transformation rarely comes from banging each other over the head in judgment.
I shared with you the first week that Bishop Webb asked those of us participating in Imagine No Racism to consider signing a covenant. Today, you have a copy in your bulletin. It reads, “Before God and with my family in Christ, I vow, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to oppose and work to eliminate the influence of racism from systems, institutions, relationships, and my own life.” If you are ready, I ask you to consider signing this covenant too. I’m not going to ask you to turn them in, or to raise your hands if you plan on signing. It’s a covenant to encourage your own self-reflection today. But I hope you will seriously consider signing the covenant, or figuring out what might be holding you back. I hope you will read it more than just today. And I hope that together, we will do just as we vow: Work to eliminate the influence of racism from systems, institutions, relationships, and our own lives. With the help of God, may it be so. Amen.