Sermons

Racial Razzle Dazzle

Ancient Testimony ~ Luke 9: 28-36

February 22, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

An e-mail came in announcing that a sheriff in Tennessee had raided a “puppy mill” and saved 250 “innocent” puppies from being sold and/or killed if they were not sold. I was to write the sheriff and congratulate him about his salvation of innocence. All I could think of was what a guilty puppy might look like. I know a guilty look when I see it on my own dog’s face: he has done something he knows I would not approve of, like eating a hassock or stealing cheese off the counter. In my socialist (or at least cooperative) house, the cat sometimes knocks it off for him to retrieve. But even so, even with the cat knocking the cheese off the counter and the dog eating it, is there really a way for a puppy to be guilty of something?

I understood in the puppy-saving sheriff story that a good thing had happened. A lot of life had been saved from either just being sold or just being destroyed. Both struck me as good things. But the notion that “innocence” applied was just an inch beyond me. Animals are not capable of the higher emotions, neither innocence nor guilt. Chimpanzees are animals, and what is really amazing is that some people still think that people of color are more like animals than they are like people. My experience with both animals—people of color and people without color (that is to say, white)—is quite different. The ones missing the transfiguring fun of guilt and innocence are often exactly who they say they aren’t. All this is to say that often white people are more like animals than not.

When a great nation lets a great conversation, like the one about race, get dull, there are multiple wrongs implied. When we let it turn into misuses of both the words guilt and innocence, multiple wrongs multiply. When race becomes national history month, as though we needed a reminder of African American history, we tear more tatters on an already tattered flag. Finally, when a great—or, rather, major—newspaper prints, in 2009, a cartoon depicting the president as a chimpanzee, something that would have been very different had the president been white, then we have multiplied our trouble so much that it turns from trouble into a heap of trouble. We have dull conversations about race, a tattered flag, racist cartoons, and there is very little transfiguration. We have the opposite of transfiguration, which is when a thing goes from one thing to another, changing form and shape and color. Instead of that, we have rigidifying, concretizing, make-sure-it-stays-the-same conversations, which get duller and duller. Many of us would just like to draw a nice picture and paste it over not just the Bronx1, but the whole question. Especially those of us who are white. We’ve got the posters, we’ve got the paste, we’ve got the privilege to ignore the whole thing. And that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about transfiguration of the conversation, from one that is covered up with the weak frame of guilt and innocence into one that is uncovered and becomes dazzling, as in racially dazzling, as in joyous, as in glowing, as in mountain top.

Let me be clear about what I mean about the dulling down and dumbing down of the conversation. The conversation about race in the last thirty years has turned into one that hangs on one clothesline: the line of guilt and innocence. White people play the puppy part. Mostly, white and black people don’t talk to each other about race because it is either too boring, too fixed, or too threatening. I can give you a great example, one that is actually chilling and has helped to keep the ice frozen on this pond.

David Dyson, professor of sociologist at Georgetown University and an ordained Baptist minister, and an African American, had a conversation on All Things Considered on Friday afternoon. Michelle Norris was interviewing; Joe Klein of Time magazine was the other guest. Joe is white. The conversation was about race. Guess who thought there had been a lot of progress on the matter? And guess who thought there hasn’t? And guess who got angry for being guilt-tripped about there not being enough progress? And guess who had to say, “That’s not what I was saying.” Michelle Norris had to conclude the interview abruptly, because she could see that the conversation was going nowhere. The conversation was intentionally, actively—not passively, but actively—going nowhere. It didn’t want to go anywhere. Guilt and innocence, outside of a transfiguring framework, don’t go anywhere. They just sit there. False innocence and false guilt, true innocence and true guilt are ever so much unlike puppies. They don’t zoom around the room, knocking things over and making everybody laugh. They don’t razzle dazzle. They freeze.

There is a frame and a line to the conversation about race. It goes like this: “Something very bad has happened.” “Well, it’s not my fault.” “But no one said it was your fault.” “I know but in case they do, it’s not.” Take out the Dyson-Klein conversation and diagram it. You’ll see why Norris abbreviated it. It wasn’t news.

It’s sort of like when people lead off a conversation and say, “It’s not about the money.” It usually is.

Today I want to work with you on some alternate frames. I want to take the cover-ups off the South Bronx and let people drive through and see what they can see. I also want to redeem the language of both guilt and innocence and give us some other language to use in case we actually want to have a conversation about race.

Roland, our custodian, was the first one to show me the cartoon from the New York Post. He had it ready, page open, for when I walked in the door. This is the language he used, extending a conversation we have been having since Obama was elected. “You know I told you when Obama was elected that the cake was in the oven.” Yes, I know you told me that. “Well, look at this picture. Looks like the cake is still in the oven… and like I told you, the point is not getting the cake into the oven, the point is getting the cake out of the oven.”

Well. Now that is a very different frame. It is not about guilt or innocence; it’s about getting the cake into and out of the oven. It’s about transforming a bunch of gooey dough into something delicious. Guilt is when we feel badly about something we either did do or didn’t do. Guilt is when we get gooey. We don’t bother putting ourselves in ovens when we feel guilty. When we feel guilty, we don’t mix up with other ingredients to improve on our white flower or our white sugar. But we have to mix it up. We need razzle dazzle to make a cake. It takes a little of this and a lot of that, properly combined, to transfigure dough into cake.

Poor old guilt has gotten such a bad name, what with the Human Potential Movement and New Age philosophy overtaking good old Christian stock of sin and wickedness and salvation. I feel guilty about what I’ve let happen to guilt. It’s not even any fun because you have to tell people that you don’t feel guilty about things that you clearly do feel guilty about—and why do you have to say that you don’t feel guilty? Because people think guilt is a lower form of emotion, sort of something animals have. You are not supposed to feel guilty. So many do feel guilty but don’t tell anyone. It’s like the posters covering the South Bronx. What you see is not really what’s here but who cares? We enjoy the subterfuge. Or at least it helps from having to get into the oven with other stuff all mixed up with us. At least the subterfuge and the not feeling what you’re not supposed to be feeling—yavol, Heil, New Age thinking—keeps everything just about the same, which is apparently fun for some people.

I don’t really have time to define innocence, but let me at least say that it has fewer fans even than guilt. People who think they are innocent of the great swash of human history also feel left out of it or, in Parker Palmer’s great word, are privatized. Palmer believes that the “private has become pathological.” Citing the very famous Carnegie Commission on Higher Education study, Parker shows how 90% of college students both believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that they’re going to have a good personal future—a job, a house, and a nice family. Parker interprets this study as privatism, showing how it affects lots of things, giving private solutions to public problems, like locking doors to stop crime and hiring tutors to get a better education. Privatism is a version of innocence and there is just about nothing more existentially alienating than privatism. You don’t really live on earth, you live in your apartment, and others get to live down there on the ground. From this frame you can understand why students of whiteness discover that white people often think they have no culture, that they are colorless.2

WorldView magazine called and asked me to write an article—get ready for the title: “In Search of Appropriate Salvation Concepts for an Age of Ecological Disaster.” Almost as much fun as a truckload of dead puppies. Bluntly, guilt/innocence is not an adequate frame for salvation. So what if you achieve either the end of guilt or the arrival of innocence? So what? Nothing is changed. Appropriate salvation concepts transfigure things. That’s the mark of salvation. Going up the mountain you are one thing, coming down you are another.

So what frame or salvation concept might take the ice off the pond? What frame might be more interesting and give us a little razzle dazzle? I am going to suggest three and the first will be the theological framework of transfiguration. Think of Roland’s cake going into the oven and coming out of the oven transformed and you will get it. Also think of the way his frame transcends guilt and innocence. You aren’t passively stuck in guilt or existentially stuck in non-attachment to others or to history. Instead, you are trying to get yourself in front of a mixer. You are trying to die to live. You are trying to really touch some other ingredients. You are not afraid of getting burned or hot. The gospel—I know I have said this before, way too many times—is defined as the permission and the commandment to enter difficulty with hope. In Roland’s frame, there is a thing called hope. You hope to be baked as a cake. You don’t want to stay in your white bag forever and be inert.

Back to the alternative frames to guilt and innocence. First, the transfiguration. My friend Quinn Caldwell (in Boston) wrote a devotional today for the UCC Website on transfiguration, in which he says that the real meaning of going up to the mountain with Jesus is to become prettier. Not whiter; he quarrels with that phrase. It is to learn to glow, to warm up, and to become dazzling. To be beautiful from the inside out. I love his concluding prayer: “O God, think of me as beautiful even if I forgot to exfoliate.” The goal of beauty and inner glow is a much better one than freedom from guilt. Freedom from guilt just gets you outside of history—a very lonely place, and not a safe one, either, although it wears the costume.

Beauty gets you inside the oven where you can both be terrified and learn to glow. Last night I heard that spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” which I, as we do sometimes with songs, had thought, on first hearing, was titled “My Soul’s Been Angered in the Lord”—something a therapist would have a field day with, but let’s not delve into that today and just say that I was hearing an expression of a self-truth, because yes, it has. My soul has been angered by the murder of King. It has been angered by the quiet murder of so many children’s spirits. Drugs and the way they fake it as an economy in some communities have angered it. It has been angered by what happened to Sean Bell, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, right here in our own city, in times other people want to say are improved as racial situations.

I ask you this question on our way to the oven: What’s wrong with negative emotions and who promised white folk they would never have to have any of them? My dear friend, Valerie Russell, an African American woman who died young—a good friend of Ed’s and mine when we were living much more in the pressure cooker of history, a pressure cooker that would be mightily preferred to the whispered, commanded hush of this decade—said something really important to me once. I was complaining about just how hard the struggle was to bake a good cake, even in our little denomination. She got mad at me and said, “Whoever told you it was going to be easy?” I wanted to tell her that whiteness told me it was going to be easy, but I decided to keep my peace. In more ways than one. Then she told me something very, very important: “Sometimes you just have to walk on with an open wound.” Ouch. Sometimes we just have to walk on with an open wound. On our way up the mountain, any mountain, we don’t get to stop when we have blisters, if where we are going is really important. We do get to stop if we have certain kinds of privileges and don’t have to think of where we are going as important.

I promised three frames and I have only given you one. For your homework, check out the Jewish concept of tzedakah.3 Here the highest morality consists in doing something you don’t have to do, the lowest morality consists of doing what you must to feed yourself and those in your family. You might argue that the tzedkaha scale has something to do with moving from animal to spiritual needs. Another important scale is that of Abraham Maslow4, who also argues that we start with the needs that we share with animals and move to those of self-actualization, again those not necessary to our animal nature. Without getting into a big conversation with you about how come animals get the low seat, when some of them are really so fully self-actualized, let’s just say that people who can only worry about their private needs for food, safety, and the protection of their blood relatives, that thing we so often refer to as family, are more animal like than those who live on the ground and see reality as frazzled but capable of dazzled.

I invite you to be the dazzle of the mountain top. I invite you to get the animal thing right. And I invite you to transfiguration, that place beyond both guilt and innocence. Amen.

 

1 From Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx,“Pictures that Hide the Bronx,”by Heidi Neumark: [The metal decals affixed over the upper-story windows] were painted in a trompe l’oeil effect to resemble the windows with curtains, shutters, or venetian blinds. Some depicted pants with flowers that never faded. One showed a black cat that sat motionless for years. Nobody on Kelly Street was fooled by this subterfuge slapped upon hundreds of buildings at taxpayers’ expense to the tune of $100,000 in 1983 by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The scene at street level was graffiti-covered, with cinder blocks and gaping holes where windows belonged. There it didn’t matter because the artistic exercise patronized by our city on higher floors was not for our benefit. It was for those who would drive by on the Cross Bronx Expressway—that they might look out and see pleasant, populated blocks replete with lace curtains and plants that never wilted. Someone commented that perhaps the people of the South Bronx should paste pictures of steak on their refrigerators, too. Then Mayor Ed Koch gave this explanation: “In a neighborhood, as in life, a clean bandage is much, much better than a raw or festering wound.” But a bandage protects the wound from further infection so that healing may occur. These sham bandages protected the illusions of those who drove on by. As long as they didn’t make a wrong turn and descend from their elevated highway, to the “festering wound” below.

2Check out Christian Lander’s blog, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. Or check out A Privileged Life: Celebrating Wasp Style, by Susanna Salk.

3 Tzedakah is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity, though it is based on a root meaning justice (tzedek). In Judaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to perform charity and philanthropic acts, which Judaism emphasizes are important parts of living a spiritual life; Jewish tradition argues that the second highest form of tzedakah is to anonymously give donations to unknown recipients. Unlike philanthropy, which is completely voluntary, tzedakah is seen as a religious obligation, which must be performed regardless of financial standing, and must even be performed by poor people; tzedakah is considered to be one of the three main acts that can annul a less than favorable heavenly decree.

4 Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Check it out here.

 
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