Racism and Reconciliation

The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, as in Ge...
Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau via Wikipedia

Last week I spent two days participating in the Anti-Racism Training program of the Episcopal Church.  This is hard work not just because it forces us to confront the racial issues of our shared national past.  It also presents for us an even more complex future as the issues expand to include multicultural, sexual orientation, and immigration issues that have now taken this 20 year old anti-racism training program well beyond its ‘black and white’ roots.

I confess I struggle with the concepts like ‘white preference’ and some of the other loaded language in this training program.  I am old enough to remember the demeaning remnants of the racial discrimination that stain our nation’s history such as “whites only” drinking fountains or “colored” bathrooms that shocked me as a child when I first saw them on a summer vacation to Florida.  In 1968, I was working in Indiana for the Robert Kennedy for President Campaign when Martin Luther King was killed and saw the anger rise to riot levels on the streets as we urged people to register to vote.

While I can’t pretend to understand the hurt that discrimination and racial hatred have caused for black people nor am I blind to the reality that racial bias still exists in our nation and around the world, but I find it hard to accept collective responsibility for that condition just because I am white.  This training program is edgy in that regard perhaps to make white participants experience a little of the bad taste that blacks have lived with too long.  As a training exercise that is instructive, as a social policy prescription going forward I don’t buy it.

But I also remember the experience of my grandparents who lived for more than 50 years in Dayton Ohio in the middle of what became the ‘black community’ as the demographics changed around them.  For much of that time they remained one of the few and then the only white family in the neighborhood.  I learned from my childhood experiences as we played with the neighborhood kids when we visited Grandma and Grandpa’s house each weekend that hide and seek is still the same, that dodge ball was still the same, and eating popcorn while watching TV together was still the same no matter what our race or station in life.  As children we accept people for who they are.  It is only from societal biases that we learn habits that undermine our natural comity. The best thing I can do is to model the good example of my grandparents and to teach those lessons to my children.

And so it was good to do this training session to remind me of how much progress we have made and yet how much remains to be done.

The Rev. David Ota, Rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Foster City, and President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of California was one of our instructors.  He offered us his sermon from this past Sunday as a reflection on the issues.  I offer it to you as food for thought:

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 16; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

What do we do when we have to come to terms with our past?  What do we do when we are troubled about events in our lives that threaten us and our future?  Today’s lessons from Genesis and the Gospel according to Matthew address these questions.

The Genesis story brings us up to date with Jacob.  He is now an accomplished man, husband to both Rachel and Leah, having completed his service to their father Laban.  He had amassed wealth in the form of flocks and servants.  It was time to return home and come to terms with his past.  As we heard over the past two weeks, Jacob took advantage of his brother Esau to purchase the birthright for some food, and pretended to be Esau in order to receive his father’s blessing which was intended for Esau as the older son.  That led to his fleeing to the land of his mother Rebekah, and meeting Rachel and Leah, daughters of Laban, Rebekah’s brother.  In turn Jacob was deceived by Laban, who promised to let Jacob marry Rachel for seven years service to him, but on the wedding night he consummated his marriage with Leah instead.  He had to work another seven years to finally marry Rachel.  Thus, Jacob was both a victim of Laban’s deception, and a victimizer of his brother Esau.

In today’s lesson, he sent both of his wives, his two maids, his eleven children, their servants and their flocks in two companies across the Jabbok river, when he heard from a messenger that his brother Esau was coming to him with 400 men.  He was afraid that Esau would exact revenge on him, so that if Esau did, then at least some would survive.

Jacob did not cross the Jabbok River and remained alone fretting about facing his past and his brother Esau.  And in the night the scripture says, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

When we have to come to terms with our past, we do not usually have a river to cross.  For us and maybe for Jacob, we wrestle in our sleep, tossing and turning, unable to resolve what we will do.  Jacob wrestled with God that night, and when day break drew near, the man “struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint.  Jacob still would not let go of the man.  And while Jacob would reveal his name to “the man”, “the man” would not reveal his name to him, and instead renamed Jacob as Israel, because he has striven with God and man and yet prevailed.

There are three points to note here.  The one who has the power to name the “other” has power over the one named.  It is this way with parents and children, and sadly it is this with way when one people who dominate another names them.

The second point is that Jacob had indeed striven with his brother Esau and his uncle Laban, and had prevailed, and in the night he has also striven with God and his conscience and prevailed.

And the third point is that like Jacob, if we are fortunate to live long enough, none of us get out of life without some suffering.  As you know I have trouble with my left hip, and I limp.  It is a reminder to me that I have lived and struggled, and have grown and aged.

When we come to face our past, what are we to do?  Jacob could have apologized for his past youthful behavior.  He could have repented and sought to reconcile with his brother whom he hurt long, long ago.  And wrestling in the night was part of that process of coming to terms with his past.

On Friday and Saturday, I spend the day co-facilitating anti-racism training.  Perhaps the most difficult part of the training is coming to terms with part of the history of our nation which is cruel and grim, how our nation was based on power and privilege for some, land owning white males, and how others had to struggle to overcome genocide (the native peoples), kidnapping, slavery and rape (African slaves and their descendents).  Others were also excluded from full participation as individuals and the struggle for the vote for women is an example of that.  The power and privilege has resulted in what is called “white privilege” in our country.  And it is difficult for people of European ancestry who benefit from this system to deal with this past, because they were not responsible for it, but continue to benefit from it.  And this results in the temptation to not want to face it and deal with it.  Sometimes people feel guilty about it and the feelings are so overwhelming that it shuts them down.  But people are not responsible for what others did in the past.  But we are responsible for continuing to benefit from a societal system which benefits some and demeans others.  I liken coming to terms with our American history not in fear as Jacob was afraid of Esau, but in hopes of being reconciled with those who are our brothers and sisters.

Today’s gospel from Matthew has Jesus withdrawing to a boat to a deserted place after he heard the troubling news that Herod had executed John the Baptist and had his head cut off.  Like Jacob, Jesus needed to be alone to ponder what the Baptist’s execution meant for him.  It was time for Jesus’ ministry to increase as John’s ministry has come to an end.  It likely meant that his own future would end in a way like that of John the Baptist, a death at the hands of powerful and violent men.  But unlike Jacob before him, Jesus wasn’t afforded the time to ponder for very long.  The crowds had followed him, and they needed his ministry.  So in compassion he cured the sick whom they brought.

Life is like this.  When we are troubled by events in our lives, we want to withdraw from the activity and reassess where we are and what we are to do.  But life doesn’t stop, and we need to go to work, to take care of our children, to meet the needs of the day.  Although Jesus was troubled by the death of John the Baptist, he saw the people who came to him with compassion, and met their needs.

The foil in the story is the group of disciples who wanted to send the people away to go to the villages to buy something to eat for the day has passed.  It was a bit insincere of the disciples who were not as concerned for the crowd as much as they would like some peace and quiet.

Now imagine the situation.  If you were to go on a camping trip to a deserted place, wouldn’t you pack enough supplies?  Of course you would.  You would probably pack more than enough to share.  Well I would imagine the same would be true of the crowd who brought their sick to be healed by Jesus.

So Jesus told his disciples to feed the crowd.  But they had only five loaves and two fish.  The disciples thought they had to supply all the food.  But Jesus knew God had already supplied all that was needed, so he showed them what they could not see, the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

As we do each week in the Holy Eucharist, he took what was given, gave thanks, broke and shared with the disciples, and they did with the people.  I would imagine the people did the same.  The miracle was not that Jesus was some kind of bread and fish factory.  The miracle was that the people followed Jesus’ example, and shared what he had with others, and they saw that together they had a great abundance, more than they needed to feed everyone.

Today, America as the richest nation in the world has a debt crisis.  Is the problem that America doesn’t have the resources, or that we have forgotten how to share with one another and care for all the people?  It is truly a miracle, when people can learn to give thanks for their lives and share so all could live.

So Jesus gives us a different way to be when confronted with trouble, or having to come to terms with our past.  Jesus didn’t dwell in fear, but trusted God’s goodness and the goodness of others, even the least of these.  The execution of John the Baptist would end his ministry, but he would continue to proclaim the kingdom of heaven has come near.  The powerful and violent men would have him executed on the cross, but that would not be the end.  He would be raised, and others would come and follow him, and seek to live in faith and love.

Getting back to Jacob and Esau, the story continued that Esau didn’t come to destroy Jacob, but to welcome him home.  God had already blessed Esau in ways that Jacob did not realize.  Esau had long forgiven Jacob’s youthful indiscretions.

When we don’t come to terms with our past, like Jacob they continue to haunt us.  Esau had learned the lesson of forgiveness and had moved on.  But Jacob lived with a guilty conscience with what had long been forgiven, if not forgotten.  What was important was for the brothers to be brothers once again.  That is what Anti-Racism work is all about.  Recognizing that racism and all forms of oppression separates people who should be brothers and sisters in the family of God into enemies, and that we have to face our past, repent, forgive and be forgiven, and to correct the wrongs of the past and present, so we could move into the future together.

So if you have a hurtful past, come to terms with it.  If you need to repent and apologize, then do so.  Seek to amend your life with care for the people in your life.  If you are troubled by events in your life, remember Jesus who trusted in God’s goodness, and modeled how to live, with compassion for the people in our lives, and to share what we have so all may live with dignity and honor.


David Ota

I propose to show that when we have to come to terms with our past, or when events in our lives trouble us, it is best to face them with faith, make amends and move forward in one case, and in the other case despite the troubles and concerns about the future to live with faith and trust in God’s goodness.


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