In this past weekend’s Gospel reading, Jesus offers some very challenging words. In Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus begins the passage by saying:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
He goes on to make similar statements about owning up to more than just the Commandments to “not commit adultery” and “not use God’s name in vain” (Exodus 20).
In this Matthew passage, Jesus seems pretty clear that the bar for us is going to be a lot higher than simply not murdering someone or committing other “big sins,” if we want to present our gifts to God. The lesson here is that all our actions – especially those that wound or compromise our relationships with others – will always require us to do the tough work of repairing or restoring right relationships with others and with God.
There is a parallel message for us today as we think about Black History Month. Black History Month is a wonderful opportunity to hold up the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans now and throughout history. However, if holding up the contributions of African Americans is all we ever do during the month of February, than it feels like we are missing the “history” part of Black History Month. There is a great deal that needs to be repaired and restored “before we can offer our gifts at the altar” – especially by those of us with privilege. One need not look further than the racial disparities in poverty levels, incarceration, and education to know that there is much still in need of repair. The mere fact that racial disparities exist today is proof that we have not yet fully repaired what has been broken in the past, nor what is still being broken today.
That said, my purpose here is not to provoke guilt or shame from those of us who do have privilege, particularly those of us who are White. Rather, my purpose is to issue an invitation for each of us to use this time set aside to not only honor Black History, but also do the tough, but necessary, inner and outer work that needs to be done if we ever intend to eliminate racial disparities in the U.S (and beyond).
How do we, personally and socially, hold ourselves accountable to repairing the brokenness that exists today in our criminal justice system in which African American individuals are over five times more likely to be convicted of a crime than a White individual… for the same crime?*
How do we, personally and socially, hold ourselves accountable to repairing the brokenness that exists today in our education system in which African American students are expelled from schools at three times the rate of their White counterparts?**
How do we, personally and socially, hold ourselves accountable to repairing the brokenness that exists today in our communities in which African American and Hispanic children now represent two-thirds of all children in poverty in the U.S.?***
This February, let us continue to honor African Americans and their many, many contributions to our country (and our world), but let us also not forget to “leave our gifts before the altar” and repair racial disparities in our communities and our world, so we may restore our relationships with God and each other.
*Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, April 19, 2018; https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/ and NAACP Incarceration Trends in America: https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
**Stanford Graduate School of Education Study, https://ed.stanford.edu/news/racial-disparities-school-discipline-are-linked-achievement-gap-between-black-and-white or U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, https://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf
***Economic Policy Institute, https://www.epi.org/publication/the-rise-in-child-poverty-reveals-racial-inequality-more-than-a-failed-war-on-poverty/