Sermon by Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar on July 12, 2020
Today is a scripture not often read on Sunday mornings in today’s day and age.
It is a scripture passage probably glossed over by many reading the Bible straight through – one of those with a long list of hard names.
Yet, it is a scripture that was used to lay the foundation of racism in the world,
Our scripture is from Genesis – the first book of the Bible that explains the origins of where God’s Chosen People of Israel come from and the special Divine Promise given to them. From the Chosen People of Israel comes the Messiah, Jesus, who is destined to save the world, and so Christians generally read themselves to inherit the special Divine Promise of God’s chosen people, thus the Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of the Christian Bible. In Genesis family stories explain the future layout and relations of God’s chosen nation. For example, we have the story of the 12 sons of Jacob who will become the 12 tribes of Israel. Today we have the story of Noah and his sons – a story of where various nations originated from and their relation to Israel.
Like many other stories in Genesis, this one was written down centuries after it supposedly occurred. It was recorded once Israel was already a nation and was trying to justify why it could conquer certain people and partner with others. Chapter 10 provides a list of patriarchs and the nations which came from them. Chapter 9 involves a family story to explain why some nations listed can – and even ought- to be subjected to slavery. Listen closely for this text echoes even today in 2020.
SCRIPTURE READING: Genesis 9:18-27 & Genesis 10
Chapter 10 lists the patriarchs of each of these nations and they are grouped in such a way that later scholars show that the apparent divisions have little to do with language, culture, geography or racial divides. In fact, the concept of race as we know it today did not exist in biblical times. After-all, all the people of the nations outlined in chapter 10 were closely related in terms of skin tone and generally in the Mideast.
Yet, European and colonial slave holders pointed to this text as justification for the enslavement of Africans, people of dark skin tone. Part of the reasoning is that Cush, a son of Ham, was later identified as being in Northern Africa and Europeans of colonial time simply said, well the curse of Ham continues for Africans. Never mind that the curse was actually on Canaan- which, also doesn’t make sense since Canaan is only one son of Ham, and Ham was the one who did wrong. Why Canaan and not the other sons of Ham? Well, Canaan lived in the promised land of the Israelites. This story provided justification for the enslavement of the Canaanites when Israel conquered their land. That story is later in the Bible and we will get to that later in the summer. Suffice it to say, this story of the so-called “curse of ham” has been used throughout history to justify the enslavement of another people.
White wealthy slaveholders in America used this text, among others, to enforce chattel slavery of Africans in the United States. It should be noted that chattel slavery in America differed from slavery in the ancient world – but that’s another sermon.
The underlining logic of this text is that certain people deserve to be enslaved because they or their ancestors did wrong. Ham dishonored his father and thus deserves his punishment. Today we can agree that such a punishment seems to far outweigh the crime. Yet, the ideology of this text has echoed throughout time.
If Ham had not dishonored his father, his son Canaan would not be subjected to slavery. (the Israelites argued)
If Africans were not descendants of Ham, they would not be subjected to slavery. (the whites argued)
If the African slave had not run away, he would not have been whipped.
If Emmett Till had not flirted with a white woman in 1955, he would not have been murdered.
If you don’t know the story of Emmett Till, go look that up. He is probably the most well-known case of a black man, actually in this case a teenager, who was brutally murdered for supposedly flirting or looking at a white woman. (read more here)
The logic from this scripture –
that a certain people deserve excessive force because of a past wrong –
echoed into the 21st century.
If Trayvon Martin wasn’t wearing a hoodie, he might still be alive.
If Eric Garner wasn’t selling loose cigarettes, he might still be alive.
If Sandra Bland didn’t have a taillight out, she might still be alive.
If Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t running, he might still be alive.
If Mr. Douglas hadn’t pulled over to take a phone call, in the Bloomfield neighborhood he works in, he wouldn’t have been threatened with a gun. (citation)
If the black teenagers in Manchester weren’t out in the middle of the night, they wouldn’t be harassed, hunted and had their bike mangled. (citation)
If Tamir Rice wasn’t playing with a toy gun, maybe he wouldn’t have been shot in seconds.
If Rayshard Brooks hadn’t taken the taser being used on him, he would not have been shot.
If Breonna Taylor wasn’t asleep in her bed, she would not have been shot.
As late-night tv show host, Trevor Noah so poignantly said,
The “ifs” keep changing, but there is a common thread here.
If you weren’t black, you would still be alive. [Citation]
Too often after a shooting or harassment of a black person, people seek justification or excuses, reasons for the excessive force. Perhaps crimes are found, but rarely does such a crime justify their murder. In almost no case is their death without a fair trial warranted.
The desire to justify the excessive force used against people of color is the same today as it was in colonial America: those not blatantly victimized want to be free from responsibility and guilt. If a reason or cause can be found for the violence, than those with power need not do anything to stop the violence from happening again.
If the Canaanites deserve to be enslaved, the Israelites are not guilty for the harm done.
If Africans are destined for slavery, whites, whether slave-owning or not, need not heed their humanity.
If any excuse or crime is justification to shoot a black person, then polite, reasonable people can sit back, shake their heads, say, “what a shame” and do nothing to change the statistics.
If we can blame the victim, then we are free of sin – and the responsibility to change.
It is a sin to excuse excessive force and murder because of some perceived or real minor crime.
The fact that such blame is more prevalent when it is a black person who is killed is one of the many ways society proclaim that black lives do not matter. For if black lives did matter, there would be no petty excuses for the excessive force and murder of black and brown people at the hands of vigilantes or police without trial. It is a sin to dismiss such cases by blaming the victim and ignoring the statistics.
As Christians we have a spiritual practice for dealing with sin: confession. Confession is the act of naming and unmasking the harm sin has in our lives and world. Confession is the opposite of seeking to deflect responsibility and place blame on others. Confession names the harm sin has in our lives and world. It is the first step towards reconciliation and peace. This is heavy stuff, so let us pause in this sermon to join together in moment of confession.
TIME OF CONFESSION
UNISON PRAYER OF CONFESSION [Slide 11]
PASTOR: God of all our ancestors,
PEOPLE: we are truly broken by the sins of the past and present, sins personal and political, sins we have personally committed, sins we watched happen, and sins we passed on. Grant us faith enough to remove racism and all forms of oppression from this world.
PASTOR: May each one be free to worship you. May each one be free to love with a whole heart. May each one know the peace that is found in you.
SUNG RESPONSE: “Know Justice, Know Peace” [Slide 12]
WORDS OF ASSURANCE/SERMON CONCLUSION
After the confession I usually offer words of assurance and indeed I will, for there is hope. In fact, hope lies in the very text used for harm.
Another justification for slavery in colonial times was that Africans were an entirely different species from Europeans, closer to apes (which is in part why calling a person of color a monkey is so hurtful). So called scientists made charts and diagrams attesting to the “biological fact”. Later scientists would find their theories based solely on conjunction and almost no actual scientific processes. In fact, later scientists would come to find that there is actually no biological difference between black and brown and white people – DNA cannot be easily categorized by race.
The biblical witness sands in clear opposition to the thinking of Africans as a different species…all those long genealogies of the Bible do more than just challenge scripture readers. They served as explanation that humanity is all related. The table of nations ought to not be seen as divisive, but as testament to the unity of humanity. The awkward splicing of Genesis 9 and 10 suggest that the curse on Canaan was indeed inserted later – likely for the political aims of the nation of Israel. The unity of humanity was likely the original aim of the story.
The unity of humanity is, of course, at the core of the Jesus movement. Jesus who would bless the Syrophoenician woman (Matt 15) and speak with love to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 21), Jesus reminded humanity that we are connected by one Holy Spirit AND will be together in the kingdom of Heaven.
Furthermore, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of heaven is near, and he does so a lot. A kingdom with enough room for all the birds of the air (mustard seed parable). A kingdom where the least of these are welcomed with honor at the feast. A kingdom of rest for the weary, food for the hungry, and peace everlasting.
Coupled with his proclamations of the coming kingdom are calls to repent – repent for in the end the goats and the sheep will be separated and those who did not care for the least of these will not see the kingdom of heaven (Matt 25). Repent or entering the kingdom will be like trying to get a camel through the head of needle. Repent and be ready for you know not when the bridegroom will come. Repent means to turn-around, change your ways. In doing so we draw near to the kingdom of heaven.
In Jesus we see a way and a means to embody the kingdom of heaven on earth. We need not be held captive by self-serving mis-guided interpretations of scripture. We need not hold fast to division, for there is enough room in this world for all to prosper. We need not revert to blame, for we have the power to transform this world and draw near to the kingdom of God. We are one people, united through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we seek first the kingdom of God, where poor and rich sit together, where women and men each have places of honor, where justice and equity is the rule, and excessive force and blaming are left at the door. May we seek the kingdom of God where love is the rule and justice reigns. Amen.