Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Movement for Black Lives Series
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Have you ever been at an event, or a conference or a gathering where you think you are there to learn and then you get asked to do something, lead something, organize something? And you know you need to say yes, but you really wish you could say no?
Five years ago I was at the Truth Telling Project’s inaugural conference in St. Louis as part of the Movement for Black Lives. Persons who had experienced violence at the hands of the state or the police were giving recorded testimony as panels spoke on various topics. I was part of a panel and that I was prepared for. But then I was asked to be a part of an interfaith group of clergy collaboratively creating a service for Sunday morning. It wasn’t so much that I was unwilling to be a part of a worship service, that’s my vocation as a pastor and spiritual leader so those kinds of requests happen. What I didn’t want to do was speak on what they asked me to speak about. All the clergy involved were given a word to speak on: the words were love, mercy, justice, faith and mine was “reconciliation.”
At that time I was leading an organization called Fellowship of Reconciliation, and I knew the word “reconciliation” was terribly loaded in anti-racism and anti-oppression work. In fact, it is such a fraught term that the national council of this 100 year old storied organization considered changing the name. The concern was and is that a desire for reconciliation has gotten in the way of actually reckoning with the violence and generations of harm done by slavery and systemic racism. Talking about reconciliation was the easy way out. Reconciliation had come to be equated with cheap grace, a hollow and meaningless approximation of what was called for and promised.
In her book Dear White Christians, Dr. Jennifer Harvey opens by saying that she, like many other white Christians, longs for racial reconciliation. But she points out that “decades past the point at which some White Christians finally acknowledged racism as a problem, we remain so inefficacious in realizing justice and a racially transformed church.” She says, “This may be a hard word for some to hear. But the reasons for saying it nonetheless include my being convinced that framing and pursuing responses to race through a vision of reconciliation, as we do in justice-seeking Christian contexts, has proven to be a fundamentally flawed approach. As long as we persist in it, reconciliation itself will remain out of reach.”
Instead, she advocates a reparations approach. Reparations is one of the five original platform pieces of the movement for Black lives. Too often, reparations is seen as solely a financial equation. But reparations can never be seen in purely financial terms. Reparations represents the righting of wrongs so deep that they represent a wrong done to all of humanity, and in which those who suffer directly as a result of this harm have not yet received justice.
Movement leaders have broadened the definition of reparations, beginning with a call for reparations for the “systemic denial of access to high quality educational opportunities in the form of full and free access for all Black people (including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people) to lifetime education including: free access and open admissions to public community colleges and universities, technical education, educational support programs, retroactive forgiveness of student loans, and support for lifetime learning programs.” This vision of reparations includes redressing wealth disparities and cultural exploitation, and the passage of House Resolution 40, which calls for the establishment of a national “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans.”
The movement toward real and comprehensive reparations has been gaining steam along with the current movement. Initially sparked by a compelling case in The Atlantic magazine made by African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014, reparations is not a new conversation. In fact in 1996, the United Methodist Church passed a Resolution in Support of African American Reparations which begins,
Whereas, the General Conference acknowledges and profoundly regrets the massive human suffering and the tragic plight of millions of men, women, and children caused by slavery and the transatlantic slave trade; and Whereas, at the conclusion of the Civil War, the plan for the economic redistribution of land and resources on behalf of the former slaves of the Confederacy was never enacted; and Whereas, the failure to distribute land prevented newly freed Blacks from achieving true autonomy and made their civil and political rights all but meaningless; and then goes on to recommend the beginning stages of full scale reparations.
The resolution was adopted by every successive general conference in the last 24 years, the most recent of which didn’t take place but was scheduled to conclude in Minneapolis less than 10 miles away and just 10 days before George Floyd was murdered. Would the 2020 general conference had it occurred, have put some teeth into the resolution? In the general conference’s postponement, we still have a chance to make sure it will.
In his article for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates begins by following the path of one man, Clyde Ross born in Mississippi where his family owned a 40 acre farm. When Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3000 in back taxes, a claim which his father could not read nor defend against. The farm was seized and this family that had been making their own way had to begin sharecropping. In the new arrangement, the landowner took up to 90% of the value of their labor. Coates describes Jim Crow Mississippi as a “kleptocracy.”
Coates continues to follow Ross who is drafted into the army in World War II, and upon returning to an unchanged Jim Crow Mississippi, decides to immigrate to Chicago where he becomes a taster at Campbell’s Soup. Soon Ross has enough money to buy a house and chooses the Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s Westside. Three months after buying the house the boiler blows out and its then that Ross realizes he has not bought the house through a traditional mortgage but through a contract with a middle man. The contract combines all the responsibilities of home owning with all the disadvantages of renting while offering the benefits of neither. Ross didn’t actually own the house, the middle man did. He was building no equity and could not draw on the house’s increasing value for repairs or other financial needs.
Hundreds of thousands of other African Americans were cheated and swindled out of home ownership and financial security through these contract selling practices, restrictive covenants, redlining and other forms of systemic racism in real estate, employment and financial institutions. All tools of a kleptocracy. The result has been that the traumas and inequalities of slavery have perpetuated in other forms.
Our scripture for today comes from Luke, chapter 19. It’s the story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a Jew who had made a financial deal with the occupying Roman government to collect their taxes for them. Though this in no way was tantamount to slavery, the Jewish people were subjugated by the Roman authorities and were required to pay them taxes for the privilege of being occupied. Tax collectors were known to increase the amount owed, keeping the difference for themselves, making themselves wealthy through the misery and poverty of others.
This practice in occupied Palestine was the tool of a kleptocracy.
And Zacchaeus was a kleptocrat. Not only was Zacchaeus a tax collector, the scripture tells us he was the chief tax collector and was wealthy. What scripture is telling us here is that Zacchaeus was not only engaged in this exploitative and subjugating practice, he was a protector of the system that perpetuated it. And yet, scripture also tells us “He wanted to see Jesus.”
Why? Why was this man, the symbol of extortion and oppression, compelled to see Jesus? I’d like to think that is was the sheer power of Jesus’ message and energy that compelled Zacchaeus, and maybe it was. But maybe seeing this famous zealous prophet was just one more thing Zacchaeus was intent on acquiring, like a front row seat at a Rolling Stones concert. The scripture isn’t clear what Zacchaeus’ motivation was. And Zacchaeus, who was short, needs to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. And here again, the symbolism of the tree is ambiguous—does the tree represent the lengths he will go to see Jesus as a response to the pure goodness of Jesus’ energy and message, or does it represent the way that Zacchaeus has climbed over people in theft through his work?
In either case, Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus is not ambiguous. “Come down from the tree, Zacchaeus, for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus was never unclear about his work on this earth, proclaiming at the temple when he was just a young teen the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Jesus knew that in order to release the oppressed, he had to work on the oppressors, too.
I think it’s likely that Zacchaeus really had no idea what he was getting himself into, how he was going to be challenged, but Jesus’ call to him, Jesus’ seeing him, loving him, accepting him, believing he was better than how he was living, and Zacchaeus’ response, changed Zacchaeus. How did it change him? The evidence in the scripture is that Zacchaeus saw clearly the evil and harm he had done. And while this moved him to the pronouncement that he would give away half of his possessions and pay back those he had extorted four fold, there was also the danger that his reparative intentions would be overcome by the shame of what he had done.
And so what does Jesus do? He calls Zacchaeus a son of Abraham, not said so much as an honorific but as an antidote to shame. Shame immobilizes, compassion activates. Shame is what makes us think we are irretrievably broken and unlovable but maybe God would love us if we change. But the good news is not that God will love us if we change but that God’s love changes us!
In order for the white church to move into a reparations paradigm, we white folks must be willing to reckon with an unacknowledged history of unredressed violence, subjugation and oppression, to understand our role and our benefit, and make repair. It is true that all white persons are not white supremacists but it is also true that every white person, at least in this country benefits from white supremacy. A key reason why haven’t done adequate reparations work, why we insist on a reconciliation paradigm is that shame pervades an honest reckoning of the evil participated in either actively or passively. So let us, too, hear Jesus’ word to Zacchaeus the tax collector as a word to us, “You are the children of Abraham. And I came to seek out and save the lost.”
We at Epworth through the history project being led by Greg Downs and Michael Martin have embarked on a piece of that to understand what reparations might mean for us individually and collectively. As the body of Christ in which each member is essential, we need to do this work together. It asks different things of each of us and affects us differently in our own personal racial histories. As a result of Jesus’ call and invitation to freedom and wholeness, we see our own broken state. We know cannot be whole until all are whole, we cannot be free until all are free, we cannot be well until all are well. Jesus’ call invites us to repent, turn around, and repair this breech. And we are assured that Jesus’s presence saves us, God’s love changes us, and our response to the holy one’s saving love liberates us. Amen.