Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Sunday Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
In the last few years, many of us have learned a new word: “woke.” It’s gained popularity and usage through the power of the Black Lives Matter movement. As it is commonly used today, to be woke means to be enlightened. According to one dictionary, someone who is woke is “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” It’s sometimes related to a kind of political correctness. To be woke means that you are tuned in to every instance and aspect of injustice in society. It means always being on the side of social justice.
In the last few years, many white people in America have become aware of the reality of racial injustices in ways that we weren’t before. With the increasing ubiquity of cell phone cameras, scenes of unarmed black people being killed by police, vigilantes, and terrorists have been captured on video. We white folks are often still adept at explaining away violence on people of color, but it’s a lot more difficult to ignore or explain away something that has been captured on video. When I can watch with my own eyes as a police officer presses his knee against the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, when I can hear him crying out that he can’t breathe, begging to be released, calling out to his mother, and then falling silent and limp—that’s hard to ignore or explain away.
As we’ve been learning in our class during Early Church, one form that racism takes is in the impulse to colorblindness. Colorblindness is an ideal that a lot of when-meaning white people have. We aspire not to see race at all. “I don’t see race, I just see people.” If we don’t see race, the theory goes, then we will treat everyone exactly the same, regardless of their race. We will behave in a completely unbiased manner. And if we could apply that colorblindness in a vacuum, it might work. However, our culture is infused with racism, and it’s not just from people wearing white hoods or sporting swastika tattoos. Racism is baked into the system. It is structural. Even without anyone stoking the fires of racial hatred, structural racism is completely capable to continuing on its own, because it is built into the way that our society functions.
And that’s part of the danger of colorblindness. It generally comes from a well-meaning impulse, but the consequences can be destructive. Because if I don’t see race, that generally means that I can’t see racism either. If I don’t see race, then I assume that everyone else’s experience is basically like mine. And since I don’t experience prejudice on the basis of my race on a daily basis, I can assume that no one else does either.
And since American society is quite segregated, I can go a long time without witnessing racism being perpetrated on someone else. This is especially true in our part of the country. A lot white people think of Oregon as being relatively free of racism. But of course, we live in a state that has been shaped by the most radical program of segregation in the entire United States. When Oregon became a state, we had laws on the books banning black people from living in Oregon, banning black people from entering or staying in Oregon, banning black people from citizenship, banning black people from owning property, and banning black people from making legal contracts. And that’s just a snapshot for one moment in our history. Oregon is as white as it is because of a sustained campaign, both through laws and through terrorism, to keep Oregon white.
Growing up near Banks, I don’t remember ever encountering a black person in our town. And so it was easy for me to imagine that racism didn’t exist, or at least that it wasn’t a problem in our area. It just so happened that black people didn’t live in our area. I didn’t learn until much later that there was nothing accidental about that.
So, it has been relatively easy for white Oregonians to assume that racism isn’t a problem here. Maybe it even doesn’t exist here. And certainly, I am not any part of the problem. I don’t even see race, I just people.
But now, some of our eyes are starting to be opened. The kind of racial violence that has been captured on video is pushing us to see that our society isn’t quite as post-racial as we had hoped or assumed. And we’re starting to admit that it isn’t just those extreme acts of violence committed by “a few bad apples.” People of color face obstacles and indignities every day that I don’t have to deal with because I am white.
So as I start to become more aware of the racial injustice that happens in our society, I am faced with a reality that I experience as painful. The reality is that racism happens every day, all over America, even here. Racism is internalized in most people. Whether I want it or not, racism is living inside my head because of the ways that we have all been socialized. And even if I try really hard to resist being racist, even if I spend every effort that I can on being personally non-racist, I still benefit from racism, whether I want to or not. Even when I don’t want to, I participate in racism. Even when I don’t want to, I benefit from racism. And if I am completely honest, even when I don’t want to, my mind still has racist impulses. When I notice that there is a stranger walking behind me, in that split-second moment, my mind and my body reacts differently if that stranger is black than if that stranger is white. I don’t like that about myself, and I try very hard to train myself out of that reaction, but it’s still there, programmed deep inside me.
And that realization is painful to me. To be sure, it’s not as painful as the actual experience of racism. But in my relatively privileged experience, I find it painful to know that I participate in racism and that I benefit from racism.
I am not the only one who experiences that pain. It is so common that it has a name. It’s called white shame or white guilt. It’s the negative emotion that white people experience when we realize that we play a part in racism.
Not surprisingly, most white people don’t like to experience that particular pain. So there are a few different ways to try to avoid it. One path is denial. I can deny that I am racist. If I don’t attend Klan meetings or Neo-Nazi rallies, then I’m not really a racist. If I don’t actively intend to hurt people of color, then I’m not racist. And I don’t actively hate black people, so I can’t be part of the problem. And you know, I’m pretty sure that none of the white people I know actually hate black people, so there’s no way that they could be racist either. And if none of the white people I know are racist, then this whole racism thing is probably just a bit overblown. Yeah, there may be some cases on the margins where people of color do experience actually racism, but that has nothing to do with me. And I resent being called racist when I’m not racist. In fact, what’s really racist is me being called racist in the first place. I’m the one who is the victim here…. So that’s one path we take to try to avoid the pain of white guilt and white shame. We can deny that we play any part in racism, and often end up denying that racism is really that big of a problem in the first place. I mean, Obama was President, after all. What more do they want? That’s one direction we can go.
Another thing we can do to try to avoid the pain of white shame and white guilt is to be woke. That’s where I started this conversation. In fact, I was originally thinking I’d get to this part of the sermon in about two paragraphs, but it ended up taking a little longer than I anticipated.
One way that white people can try to avoid the pain of white guilt and white shame is to be woke. It’s to be enlightened. It’s to show—through my knowledge, through my language, through my media posts, through my activism—that I am woke. I am one of the good white people. I am on the side of justice. I’m not a part of the problem. And if I can be woke, then if work really hard, I can be woker than you. In fact, I might even be able to prove myself to be the wokest white person around.
A lot of progressive white people aspire to woke-ness. I do sometimes. I certainly want to believe that I am on the right side of the struggle. I want to see myself as part of the solution instead of part of the problem. But of course, deep down, it’s also because I want to escape the pain of white shame and white guilt. If I can show myself to be woke, then I don’t have to see myself as the bad guy anymore.
It’s interesting though—white people often talk about being woke. It is a state of being. It’s something I can achieve. Once I get woke, then I am woke, and I will remain woke. Maybe I can get some kind of merit badge for it?
But that’s not how the word entered our lexicon. That’s a whitening of the meaning. In it’s more traditional use in the black community, woke is not something that you are, it’s something that you do. The originating phrase is actually stay woke. It means stay alert. Don’t let your guard down. The system is trying to put one over on you. Stay woke. I say, “the system.” What should we call it? The Man. The Oppressor. Maybe we could say that it’s the Devil. Or in language more familiar to United Methodists, we might say that it’s the spiritual forces of wickedness. Don’t let your guard down. Stay woke. The moment you get complacent, that’s when it gets you.
Here I am, four pages into my sermon, and I haven’t mentioned the Bible once. Well here it is. Stay woke is exactly what Paul and Silas and Timothy said to the church in Thessalonica. Like, not kind-of sort-of; it’s actually what they said.
“When they are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ at that time sudden destruction will attack them, like labor pains start with a pregnant woman, and they definitely won’t escape. But you aren’t in darkness, brothers and sisters, so the day won’t catch you by surprise like a thief… We don’t belong to night or darkness. So then, let’s not sleep like the others, but let’s stay woke.” Yes, in your bible, it doesn’t say that. It says “stay awake.” But of course, Paul doesn’t mean literally to stay away and not sleep. He means stay woke. Stay alert. He means it in the same way that Erykah Badu means it when she says, “Truth requires no belief. Stay woke. Watch closely.”
As Christians, we belong to a long tradition of people who are watching for the day, people who are looking for an end to evil, people who are looking for the coming of justice. Paul was convinced that any day God was going to blow the trumpet, roll up all of time like scroll, and bring about ultimate and total justice. What we have discovered is that God has given the human experiment quite a lot more time than Paul expected. There’s always someone prophesying that the end is near, but at least 100 generations of those prophets have gone to their graves since Paul’s time, and we haven’t hit the end yet. I, for one, am grateful. I don’t feel quite finished up here yet.
But even if the cosmic clock still has more ticks left in it, even if stars aren’t falling from the skies today, even if we don’t see Jesus riding in on war horse with legions of angels armed for battle, even if the end is not immediately near, that does not mean that God is doing nothing. God didn’t just set the world running and then leave it to its own devices. Jesus may be returning in glory at the end of the age, but that doesn’t mean that we are left here alone.
God is here. The Spirit is moving in our midst. Each and every day, God is fighting on the side of justice. Each and every day, God is seeking to open our eyes to the truth. Each and every day, God is calling us to repentance. Each and every day, God is working in my heart, and in yours, and in the hearts of every person in this world. Each and every day, God is showering us with grace. Each and every day, God is calling us to action in response to that grace. Each and every day, God is seeking to use our hands, our hearts, our eyes, our ears, and our voices. Each and every day, God is calling on the Body of Christ to get up, to move, to dismantle the systems of oppression and violence that benefit some at the expense of others, to declare the liberating message of the Gospel, to make God’s Kingdom come, here on earth as it is heaven. Each and every day, God is moving, God is speaking, God is doing new things, making all things new.
Stay woke, Paul says, or you might be caught unawares. Keep alert. It has a double meaning for us. It means to keep on the lookout for evil, injustice, and oppression in our world. But it also means keeping alert for the ways that God is responding, and joining in God’s effort. It means, as our baptismal covenant tells us, renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world, repenting of our sin, accepting the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and serving Jesus as our lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.
There is no easy fix. There is not quick thing I can do so that I will never be complicit in injustice again. It is an ongoing struggle. It is well worth the effort. And if we are there in the midst of it, we will surely see God.