On Racism, Privilege, and My Slight Preference for White People

Last summer, police found the body of a 15 year old First Nations girl in the the Red River. Tina Fontaine was murdered, wrapped in a plastic bag, and dumped in the river.

Last week, someone mailed a card to her family with the following words: “You guys are nothing but a bunch of drunken Indians.” It went on to say that Tina was “following in her father’s footsteps, drinking beer, passing out in back allies.”

Who the hell (and I chose that word intentionally) does that? Seriously?!?

This, right after Macleans Magazine called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, and another report said that Manitoba is the worst place to live in Canada if you’re First Nations.

It’s time to talk about racism, my friends.

I’ll wager that 99% of us reading this aren’t overtly racist. We’re not sending racist hate mail, we’re not using racial slurs, and we’re genuinely nice people just doing our best in the world. So if we’re not racist, what’s the problem then?

Let’s start with a story.

When I was growing up in a predominantly white town, one of my good friends was black. As 13 year olds, the staff at the local dollar store would follow us around to make sure we weren’t helping ourselves to the five finger discount. Every time we split up, guess which one of us the staff member followed? Welcome to the world of white privilege.

There are fancier definitions out there for white privilege, but I simply think of it as white people living in a world of unintended benefit. Most often, we’re unaware of these benefits, and how the system is working in our favour.

This hit home for me when I was doing my MCC orientation 10 years ago. They introduced me to the concept of white privilege through an episode of 20/20. The show featured two men with equal education, job experience, and life skills. The only difference between them was their skin colour; one of them was white and one of them was black. The show sent them to do mundane tasks such as buying a car, buying insurance, and renting an apartment. You can probably guess what happened. The black guy was quoted a higher price for the car. The black guy was quoted a higher price for the insurance. The black guy was told there was no vacancy at the apartment block, and the white guy was offered a lease on the apartment just 5 minutes later. Without fail, the white guys life was better, easier, and cheaper than the black guys, and if it wasn’t for the TV cameras, the white guy wouldn’t have even known about it.

The stats and stories on this kind of thing is remarkable. People with ‘black’ sounding names have a lower chance of being hired. Black people in Ferguson are stopped at a higher rate than white people, even though white people have a higher rate of being caught for illegal activity (or, as John Oliver said, “Of course white people are doing illegal things. They know they won’t get pulled over!). It goes on and on, and most of us are completely unaware.

There’s one more thing about white privilege that’s worth mentioning. While most of us are unaware of the benefits we receive, many of us are unintentionally favouring white people as well.

Let me explain.  Several years ago, Harvard university created an online test. It showed us several words underneath a face. We were supposed to click the positive or negative word as soon as possible, while the skin colour of the person changed each round. The program was measuring if there was a difference in how quick we found the positive or negative word depending on the face we were seeing.  (Click here to take the test!)

I took the test. My result? I have a slight preference for white people.

I, who would never send racist hate mail, who lived as a <1% minority in Zimbabwe, who has friends of all skin colours, who has a First Nations teenager living in my basement finishing high school… I have a subconscious preference for white people.

Now if you extrapolate that to the millions of kind, well meaning people in Canada who aren’t overtly racist, the result is a society that unconsciously favours white people. Plus, when you throw in some good old historic racism, we have quite the racist system on our hands here.

If we’re all a part of this system, and many of us are benefiting from it and most of us don’t even know it, how do we even begin to address this whole racism thing?

First of all, check out Michael Champagne’s thoughts on turning racism into resolve. He’s a First Nations leader from the North End in Winnipeg who’s working at anti-violence and community development. The first step to addressing racism is listening to the voices that are already addressing it.

Secondly, here are a few handles that I have found helpful over the years, courtesy of Richard Rohr and his Franciscan tradition.

1) Seek to understand before being understood. Always.

2) Name your own privilege. It’ll be okay. Really. As a straight, rich, white, educated, married male with 2 kids, I’m pretty much at the top of the privilege pyramid. And I can name that. If a woman names it, we label her a raging feminist. If someone who is poorer names it, we call them either jealous or lazy or a communist. If someone who identifies as LGBT names it, we accuse them of pushing their gay agenda.  If someone from a different skin colour names it, we accuse them of being anti-white and that they should just get over it already and that we’re not all racist. But, as someone who is receiving all the positives of a system built BY people like me FOR people like me, I have to start by naming it for what it is. And in this particular case, racism. Naming racism is the first step to addressing it.

3) “We don’t think our way into a new way of living. Rather, we live our way into a new way of thinking.” “We have to leave our worlds where we have everything under control, where everybody likes us, and head into a world where we are poor and powerless. And there we’ll be converted despite ourselves.” (All from Rohr’s book Simplicity).  We can’t think our way out of this one.  We have to live our way out of this one.

Checking our agendas at the door and giving up power and control is quite the antithesis to an agenda driven system built on power and control. But it’s only there, in that place where we feel powerless, can we begin to address the racism that we’re all a part of.

Grace and Peace.

Advertisements

Jacuzzis, Selfies, and Government Action Plan Signs

A sermon based on the temptations of Jesus – Matthew 4:1-11


Forty days and forty nights of being out in the wilderness.  That’s like leaving now and coming back at the end of February.   Good thing Jesus wasn’t in Canada doing this in winter, because he might have gotten kind of cold.

Before we dive into the text, I’m going to go on two separate tangents.

Number 1 – I could have taken many angles when preaching this text, but I simply don’t have time.  I could have talked about the nature of the devil here, the tempter, and how exactly the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple if he was in the wilderness.  But I don’t think that’s the primary purpose of the text, so I’m just going to read it at face value.

Number 2 – Both the devil and Jesus are quoting Scripture at each other.  This points out to me that simply quoting scripture doesn’t make one right.  So if anybody thinks that they can end an argument with the words “Well, the Bible clearly says…” you can tell them that they are being just like the devil.  That’ll win you some friends at family gatherings.

Back on topic.  Jesus.  Jesus has just been baptized, and we have learned his identity has God’s beloved son, in whom God is well pleased.  And then Jesus is immediately led to the wilderness where he is tempted.

He is tempted three times, but they’re all rooted in one bigger question:

“What kind of Messiah are you going to be?”

(Much of the following is from The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill.)

Bread

Let’s talk about bread first.

“You’re hungry Jesus.  Turn these stones into bread.”

Jesus answers, “People don’t live on bread alone, but on the word of God.”

This temptation isn’t about Jesus’ own hunger, because Jesus responds to the devil in the plural with the word “people”.  This temptation is about the people.  And often, the quickest way to the heart of the masses is through their bellies.  In a world with a ruthless superpower, huge economic class differences and crushing poverty, free food would surely bring the crowds to the cause of Jesus.

But the crowds coming to Jesus to be fed isn’t the cause of Jesus.  The cause of Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God, the rule of God in our hearts and in our world.  Feeding the hungry is part of it, an important part of it, but not the only part of it.

Feeding the masses and calling it a day means Jesus isn’t challenging the greedy.  Giving people bread isn’t asking questions as to why people need bread in the first place.  Jesus didn’t want to turn rocks into bread and then relax in his Jacuzzi.

Jesus is saying no to simply feeding people and letting the rest of the world go by.

By saying no, Jesus is pointing to his own life as a new foundation to live.  And his words about wealth , about economic justice, about poverty, aren’t very comforting to some of us.

“Blessed are you who are poor.  Woe to you who are rich.  Blessed are you who hunger now.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. ” Luke 6:20-21, 24-25.

Also worth noting here is that Jesus faced this temptation while he was hungry and sleeping outside.  Jesus was a poor carpenter.  Jesus was homeless.  Jesus didn’t go on winter vacations.  His life was not only one of solidarity with the poor, but of being poor.

This temptation is a question of bread.  But it’s also a question of poverty, economic justice, and how we live our lives.

The Temple

Let’s talk about the temple at the temple.

“Throw yourself off from the very top!  The angels will save you, and everyone will see you.”

Jesus responds that he’s not going to put God to the test.

I think the real temptation here is for Jesus to be the religious super hero.  He’d be an instant rock star, flying from the temple, with everyone trying to take a selfie of them with Jesus.  Beatle mania, Trudeau mania, Justin Bieber mania… that kind of thing.

The fact that it was the highest point of the temple is important here.  The temple was THE center of Jewish life in ways that we don’t really understand.  When we think of temple, we envision a big church.   A better comparison would be a big shopping mall covered in gold and silver.  There were 18,000 priests and lay leaders who worked at the temple, there were hundreds of animal sacrifices and other rituals occurring daily, and during festivals it would be the destination of almost 200,00 people.  This place was big and important.  Being hailed a hero at the temple meant that he would immediately be at the top of religious pecking order.  Jesus would be able to write a book and get millions for the movie rights.

And he says no.  That’s not how I’m going to role.  Why?

2 reasons.

  • The temple was where they interpreted and made Jewish law.  While their intent was good, by the time Jesus came around, it was kind of legalistic.    Some of the rules were missing the original intent.  By Jesus not becoming the rock star of the temple, he wasn’t giving validation to the existing structure.  Rather, he was proclaiming that “something greater than the temple is here,” (Matthew 12:6) – Him.
  • The 18,000 priests and lay leaders had a hierarchy to them, with only certain people being able to do certain roles, and certain parts of the temple only being accessible to certain kinds of people. By Jesus not being the top of this, he didn’t give validation to the existing classes of people.  Rather, he ended up rejecting most of them, and declared new heroes of the faith – The throwaways of institutionalized religion.  The sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outsiders, the least of these… These are the new center pieces of the faith (Kraybill 72).

Jesus’ approach to religions wasn’t about maintaining order and rituals and hierarchy, but rather the lost, compassion for the poor, and love for all.

Mountain

Let’s talk about the mountain.

“Look at all the kingdoms of the world.  I can give it all to you.”

“Away from me Satan!  Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

On one hand, this temptation is clearly about us choosing to worship God and not idols, so we should stay away from those pesky golden calves and statues of God.

But on the other hand, this is about much, much, more than golden calves.  This is about power, and politics, and our approach to it.

Quite frankly, the devil was offering Jesus the chance to be Prime Minister, President, the king, the big cheese of the world.  He could be the benevolent ruler who brings peace and security to all through good government.  He could make lots of action plans to create jobs, grow the economy, protect our wealth, protect our freedoms, and stop enemies from harming us.

And he said… “No.”

Why would he do that?  Think of all the good he could have done!  Think of all the signs he could have put up by all the infrastructure projects.  Good jobs.  Good economy.  Good action plan.  Brought to you by Jesus, King of Kings.  Vote for Jesus!

Why would he say no?

Who’s offering him the Kingdoms?  The devil.  They’re his to give?  Luke’s version of this temptation uses even stronger language.

And the devil said to Jesus, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”  Luke 4:6-7

Just these verses deserve a sermon on its own, as does the mountain temptation, as we try to figure out how the devil got control of the kingdoms.  Who’s really in charge of our governments?  Who gives governments their power – God or Satan?  Was the devil lying?  When we vote in modern day democracies, are we participating in a system that the devil is running anyways?  And what about when politicians give thanks to God? Should they really be thanking the devil instead?   So many questions…

I’ll try to keep it simple.  I think the temptation on the mountain is the very real temptation that we can advance the Kingdom of God through political power, be it monarchies, democracies, or any other form of government.   Jesus says “no” to that, because there are insurmountable differences between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world.

(The following comes from Greg Boyd’s 5 differences between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World)

One Kingdom trusts in the sword.  The other trusts in the power of the cross.

One Kingdom is self-serving and seeks to control behaviour.    The other is self-sacrificing, and seeks to transform lives from the inside out.

One Kingdom is tribal, always is always defending one one’s own people group.  The other is universal, for it is centered on simply loving as God loves.

One Kingdom is tit-for-tat, and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and thus fights earthly battles.  Just listen to what our elected leaders say in the face of violence or terrorist attacks.  The other seeks to love their enemies and bless those who persecute it.

But the temptation is real, isn’t it?  “Think of all the good you can do.”   Even when we meet with our MP about murdered and missing indigenous women, and want them to do something, I remember that Jesus rejected the political power because there’s most likely a demonic element to it.

And I’m intentional about using the word “demonic”, because according to Matthew and Luke, the devil is somehow involved.  And also, when you consider history and reflect on the Indian Act, or Japanese Internment Camps, or Nutritional Experiment on First Nation children in Residential Schools, or Chinese immigration head taxes, or women not being allowed to vote, or billions of dollars to buy new military weapons while underfunding the mental health of military veterans, or refusing to sign arms  deals that keep weapons out of countries that violate human rights, or that our former Mennonite MP in Provencher gave the authority to use information acquired via torture, or that First Nation women have a murder rate 4 times higher than the rest of the population, to the simply dreadful and boorish behaviour of elected officials during Question Period, the word “demonic” seems to work quite well.  And that’s just Canada.  And we’ve been a democracy (albeit, sometimes incomplete) since the beginning.  We consider ourselves the good guys.

And Jesus said, “No.” My kingdom is not of this world.

Conclusion

I know I’m not being very fair this morning.  Jesus had 40 days to wrestle with these questions.  I had 2 weeks to prepare this.  I’ve given you 20 minutes this morning.

What kind of Messiah was Jesus going to be?  This was the big question of the temptations.  How was Jesus going to interact with the temptations of wealth, with religion, and with power.

I think it’s also a question that we can ask ourselves.

What kind of Jesus followers are we going to be?  How are we going to interact with temptations of wealth and religion and power? 

I’m going to end here this morning with 3 temptation questions for you to ponder.

Bread – How do Jesus’ harsh words about wealth make you feel?

Temple – Does our church building and budget reflect that we are for the lost, the poor, and love for all?

Mountain – Can governments love their enemies?  Does it matter?

These are hard questions, aren’t they?  I think that’s why they’re called temptations, and I think that’s why the devil asking them.

My hope and my prayer is that as followers of Jesus, we continually wrestle with our relationship to wealth, religion, and power.

Meeting with our MP about Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women

Our church is in a partnership with the church and community of Pauingassi First Nation.  We’ve tried to frame the partnership as seeking to build each other up, where we both bring gifts to the table to share.

Historically, relations between Indigenous and Settler communities have usually featured one side on the “giving end”, and one side on the “receiving end” (I’ll let you take a guess as to who’s who), with one side knowing what’s best for the other.  Given the vast cultural, language, and historical differences between our two communities, working towards an equal partnership is obviously a big challenge, but one that we intentionally are aware of and work at.

But this isn’t a post about our partnership with Pauingassi.  Rather, it’s a post about murdered and missing indigenous women.  What’s the connection?

Two fold.

  • As part of our partnership with Pauingassi, we now know many more indigenous people.  On one hand, this sounds as ridiculous as someone claiming that they know black people, or gay people, or people who don’t go to church.  But on the other hand, given that our church is located in Steinbach (which doesn’t have a high population of people who aren’t white), starting to know names and faces and stories of our indigenous neighours is a really important step.  As these friendships have grown, we’ve seen how violence against indigenous women negatively affects families and communities, and it brings us to tears.
  • Pauingassi is a fly-in reserve, so the cost to get there makes travel quite prohibitive. So from the beginning of our partnership we’ve known that many of us from Grace wouldn’t get the chance to go to Pauingassi, so working towards right relations with our neighbours will have to occur on multiple fronts.  We heard from a Metis woman that one of the ways we can do this is to be “Settler faces behind First Nations voices.”  So rather than us be the primary faces and voices of advocacy, our job is to walk with and support the indigenous voices that are already speaking.

Every October 4th, there are vigils across Canada to remember the murdered and missing indigenous Women.  They’re organized by a variety of groups, but the main one is the Native Women’s Association of Canada.  This year, a group of us from Grace Mennonite attended.  At the end of the vigil, they handed out postcards to everyone, asking us to send them to someone who can make a difference.  The postcards simply asked the receiver to do their part to ensure the safety of indigenous women.   I told one of the organizers that I am from a church, and that I would like a stack of postcards.  She looked at me a bit strangely as she handed over the postcards, but I reassured that we would do our part.

We brought the postcards to church and asked people to take one and sign it.  We ran out of postcards.

We thought about sending them to Stephen Harper, but we figured that he probably receives truckloads of mail a day that he never reads.  So, we followed our great democratic institution of elected representatives and handed the postcards to our local Member of Parliament, Ted Falk.  We also requested to meet with him so that we could be informed as to what the government IS doing about the high rate of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.

Stephen Harper himself said that the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women isn’t high on his radar, plus we don’t have a large population of First Nations in our riding, so we weren’t really expecting our Conservative MP to agree to this meeting.

But much to our surprise, he said yes!  It was during working hours, so only five of us from Grace could make it, but the five of us did our best to represent our church, which we hope is doing its best to get behind the indigenous voices calling for a safer country.

The meeting itself was kind and cordial.  Ted more or less stuck to his talking points.  We asked questions.  He did his best to answer.  We talked about whether or not the funding was new money or old money, how it was distributed, the RCMP report, education on reserves, how one protects the wealth of a citizen when they don’t have wealth in the first place, a national enquiry, and few others things.  He answered what he could, and when he didn’t have an answer, he admitted that he didn’t know.

At one point, Ted commented that it seemed like First Nations didn’t like being told what to do, so it was hard to reach consensus with the federal government on action plans.  We agreed, but also pointed out nobody really likes being told what to do.  We also pointed out that many First Nations have a large level of mistrust in the federal government (ie.  residential schools, land claims, nutrition experiments on First Nation children, voting rights, the Indian Act, Kapyong Barracks, etc).   And then we wondered how we can work towards restoring that relationship.

(On a related note, for more information on walking in solidarity with host peoples, check out Mennonite Church Canada’s brochure:  Paths for Peacemaking with Host Peoples.  It’s great.)

We understand that this issue is large and hard to grasp, and that a small little church group spending thirty minutes with their MP probably isn’t going to have a drastic change on national policy (or on racism, sexism, and misogyny in general).  But we do feel that this meeting was part of our work towards ensuring the safety of indigenous women, of getting behind the First Nations voices that ARE speaking up, and also working towards right relationships between settler and indigenous peoples in Canada.

For more information on murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada, check out the information at the Native Women’s Association of Canada, Kairos Canada or Amnesty International.