How the Racial Bribe Killed Jesus
On this Holy Saturday, we are sharing a few of the sermons from the last month of Lent, during which we have been focusing on racial justice with our theme, Real Talk in the Wilderness. Pastor Vicki preached this sermon on Palm Sunday 2015.
Bishop J and I have mentioned before that usually
the first person who knows the title of our sermon
is our building manager, Dereck.
We let him know a few days early so
the building staff can write it on the marquee on the front of the church.
So usually when we tell him our title,
Dereck makes a joke at some point
before we preach.
Like when my title was “It Takes a Chariot” about the chariot accompanying Elijah into heaven,
I texted it to Dereck,
and he texted back, “Is that what Bishop J took to Hawaii?”
Or I’ll be rushing up the stairs on a Sunday morning and asking Dereck something like,
“Is the anointing oil all set for the healing service?”
And Dereck will answer, “It’s personal.”
And I will just stand there,
with a kind of annoyed smile on my face,
trying to figure out why he isn’t giving me a straight answer,
And he will repeat again with a completely straight face, “It’s personal, Pastor V.”
And then I’ll realize that my sermon that day
is called, “It’s Personal.”
This always happens.
I just picture Dereck laying awake in bed on Saturday night,
with a big grin on his face,
just plotting his joke.
But I did not get a joke from Dereck this week…
About my sermon title….
And I kind of get it.
I realized after I sent it to be printed in the bulletin that
the title’s kind of awkward.
This week my title is “How the Racial Bribe Killed Jesus”.
So…the combination of those words sounds pretty radical.
If you Mad-Lib replaced just one of those words, it would sound a lot less scary.
Like “How the Kitten Bribe Killed Jesus”–
That sounds like an awesome and adorable Holy Week sermon.
Or “How the Racial Bribe Tickled Jesus”–
That could be like a Tickle Me Elmo-related sermon
that also gently engages race relations.
But…”How the Racial Bribe Killed Jesus”, I think,
just sounds uncomfortable.
And…Real Talk…in the wilderness…
it might be a little uncomfortable.
For any of you who are new here,
just so you know, we do NOT talk uncomfortably about race every Sunday,
but we don’t shy away from it either
because Real Talk about race is the only thing
that will hold a loving, just, and courageous
multi-racial community together,
And, if the kin-dom of God is supposedly a loving, just, and courageous
community full of people from all nations and races,
we can only assume the heavenly realm is full of racial Real Talk.
So we practice that here.
So you may or may not have noticed that our Lenten classes this year
have really focused on race.
On Sunday mornings before church,
we have been reading together Michelle Alexander’s book,
And on Wednesday nights,
we have been reading together a book with an even more uncomfortable title,
James Cone’s, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
We will not be shy about race here.
So…first of all, let me tell you about “the racial bribe”.
Anyone wondering about that?
So the racial bribe is something that Michelle Alexander writes about in The New Jim Crow.
The racial bribe is basically when one racial group or one part of a racial group
is given advantages by the dominant system
if they will only
distance themselves from another racial group,
thus neutralizing the bribed group
and preventing them from organizing together with other racial groups
to overthrow the fundamental system that continues to oppress them all.
The first racial bribe Alexander writes about in her book
occurred after an incident in 1675 in Jamestown, Virginia
known as Bacon’s Rebellion.
Before this time,
elite white planters in southern colonies
relied on lots of different kinds of poor and oppressed people
to do the work on their plantations.
Indentured servants, black and white,
English speaking black slaves from the West Indies, and African slaves.
And they all lived in pretty bad conditions
with little hope for bettering their lot in life.
Well, in 1675, all those colors and situations got together
and launched a violent revolt against elite planters.
The revolt was eventually squashed,
but it struck fear into the elite
and led them to create a new strategy of domination,
this time not based on class or property ownership,
but based on race.
They successfully divided poor whites and blacks.
They slowly ended the use of indentured servants
and moved to a system of exclusive black slave labor,
so poor white people were no longer
working alongside black slaves.
And they stopped bringing so many slaves from the West Indies,
and started bringing more directly from Africa,
so that the slaves arrived without
familiarity with English and white people,
which made them less likely to consort with poor white folks.
So they separated poor whites from black slaves,
but then they also instituted the racial bribe.
Elite whites started giving poor whites certain privileges based on their race,
which made them less likely to rebel
against the system that continued to oppress and marginalize them.
So poor whites were given access to lands stolen from American Indians.
And they were given the responsibility and power of policing black slaves
through militias and slave patrols.
Racial Bribe number 1.
A few centuries later, slavery ended.
And the racial bribe was repeated by offering poor whites
the advantages of Jim Crow segregation.
Eventually, the civil rights movement slowly and heroically put an end to Jim Crow.
And racial justice was finally achieved!
Well…then Alexander argues that the new racial bribe and the new system of racial domination
is now mass incarceration,
which she traces back to the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy
which played into the resentments blue collar white folks in the cities
and poor southern white folks,
offering them a new racial superiority
over images of lazy black welfare queens
and the violent, drug-selling blackcriminalman.
So Reagan poured money into policing the drug war
while sapping funds from drug treatment and education.
But I don’t want any of you leaving here saying Pastor Vicki just
preached this sermon against the Republican Party on Palm Sunday.
So I’ll tell you that Alexander gives the Clinton administration
the most credit for escalating the crisis,
and she lays out President Obama pretty thoroughly too.
So the War on Drugs has functioned as a kind of
racial bribe too for poor and middle class whites.
But then in her last chapter,
Alexander says people like many of us who care about civil rights
and middle and upper class black folks have also been bought off in a racial bribe.
I’m guessing there are few folks in here who are proponents of affirmative action.
And I don’t think Michelle Alexander would say affirmative action should end.
She herself is a recipient of affirmative action.
But she writes this:
We should ask ourselves whether efforts to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity—that is, reform efforts that make institutions look good on the surface without the needed structural changes—have actually helped to facilitate the emergence of mass incarceration and interfered with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness…
But, she writes,
It may not be easy for the civil rights community to have a candid conversation about any of this. Civil rights organizations are populated with beneficiaries of affirmative action (like myself) and their friends and allies. Ending affirmative action arouses fears of annihilation. The reality that so many of us would disappear overnight from colleges and universities nationwide if affirmative action were banned, and that our children and grandchildren might not follow in our footsteps, creates a kind of panic that is difficult to describe. It may be analogous, in some respects, to the panic once experienced by poor and working-class whites faced with desegregation—the fear of a sudden demotion in the nation’s racial hierarchy.
Her argument is basically that the civil rights community
has been bought off to claim advantages for certain exceptional people of color
if they will only distance themselves from the “criminals”.
If WE will only distance ourselves from the criminals,
the poor people of color who fall victim to this fundamental
system of oppression.
So I know you all can’t wait to hear how this relates
to Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem and palm branches!
These are stories we read every single year.
The same old stories of riding on the donkey, dying on the cross, rising from the dead.
The stories are always the same,
but every year we are different.
This year, I’m reading the same old story,
with a brain soaked in the problem of mass incarceration and racial bribes.
And I was reading the Palm Sunday story.
And I couldn’t help but think about how supportive the crowds are of Jesus,
how much they are rooting for him,
how we are rooting for him,
with our Hosanna’s,
and our palm branches…
when he is a free man,
rising in stature and fame,
making his race proud.
Palm Sunday is like the Barack Obama 2008 victory speech.
It is a celebration of the aspirations and achievements
of the Jewish people against the backdrop of Roman oppression.
And we’re with him.
Sunday is a long, dramatic standing ovation for a man who is rising to power.
But by Friday,
the crowd wants to completely distance themselves from this Jesus.
They cry out to Pontius Pilate what?
And what has changed in the meantime?
Well, one major thing is that Jesus has become a criminal.
He has been arrested,
convicted of a felony crime.
He is no longer on his way to a better life,
he is no longer the beacon of hope,
the proof that a poor, oppressed Jewish boy
can grow up to rule a nation.
By Friday, he is just another Jewish youth in chains with a criminal record.
And the crowd no longer supports him.
They literally take a bribe.
They give Jesus up for the release of a violent terrorist
who is the poster child of a violent rebellion against Rome
that Jesus refused to be a part of.
So as I was thinking about the racial bribe and reading this story,
my first thought was how,
in our modern day,
we, like the crowds of Jerusalem,
lift our people of color up when they seem like they’re doing well,
but we abandon our people of color
when they get caught up in the real system of oppression–
the criminal justice system.
They are no longer deserving of our energy when they are labeled criminals,
just like Jesus.
So there was that bribe,
but there was another bribe that led to the death of Jesus.
Jerusalem was a city of incredible Jewish wealth.
If you saw the way some of the Jewish elite lived in Jerusalem,
you would think the Roman empire
had achieved racial justice with their Jewish subjects.
People were doing well in Jerusalem.
But those people were the people who had taken the racial bribe.
And they were free only in their minds.
These were the Jewish people who collaborated with the Roman government.
They were the people like the high priest,
who was hand-picked by Rome,
to be a symbolic religious leader.
People like the chief priests, the elders and the scribes,
who were given the bribe of land and power
if they would just keep the people under control
and the money flowing to Rome.
It included Jewish tax collectors,
who collected money from their own people for Rome
in exchange for being able to
take as much as they wanted from those folks
over and above the actual tax.
It is these elites, who had taken the racial bribe to rule over their own people
who will arrest Jesus under the cover of night and take him to the cross.
It is they who have delivered Jesus and many others up to Rome
as insurrectionists and rebels against the Roman empire,
who sacrificed their own people as criminals,
to the domination system that oppressed them all,
in exchange for a little wealth and a little power.
And that’s how the racial bribe killed Jesus.
But my point today isn’t just to condemn
the poor white people of America’s history,
or middle and upper class African Americans,
or 1st century Jewish elites
for betraying the most oppressed in their societies.
My point is to think about how all of us betray others everyday,
how all of us leave people behind so that we can get a little bit ahead.
We all take bribes everyday to get a little privilege and advantage
on the backs of other people.
My family lives in an apartment building
that is participating in the gentrification of Harlem.
When people who have lived in our building for 40 years move or die,
their apartments are renovated and rented out
at rates that are pushing out people
who used to be able to afford to live in our neighborhood.
We are benefiting from the displacement of people of color
who were caretakers of Harlem through its hardest decades.
That’s taking a racial bribe.
I claim advantages to the detriment of others
just by being a clergyperson in this church
and by supporting our United Methodist denomination
when gay and lesbian people cannot safely serve as clergy
in our church or be safely married by our pastors.
We take bribes every time we buy foods and things that are not fair trade.
We betray the most oppressed when we eat at fast food restaurants–
or even at high end restaurants–
that make huge profits while paying their employees scraps without benefits.
We prosper on the backs of other people
when we live lives of oblivious and luxurious waste
while climate change wreaks havoc on poor and developing nations.
We take the racial bribes that lead others to the cross everyday.
We are the crowds that celebrate Jesus today and crucify him on Friday.
We actually are the crowds.
We actually smile and sing Hosanna and wave the palms proudly every Palm Sunday.
But if we actually think about what we are doing,
it is not just a fun reenactment,
it is a confession.
It is an acknowledgment that we are weak,
that we will take the bribe that is offered to us,
that we too will cry out for justice today
and by the end of the week will take some advantage
that leads to the suffering of someone
further down on the food chain.
But here is the good and complicated news.
It wasn’t just the racial bribe that killed Jesus.
Another thing that killed Jesus
was that he welcomed the racial bribe-takers
into his community.
He healed the servant of a Roman commander.
He took a tax collector in as a disciple,
He visited the home of the chief tax collector, Zachaeus.
and invited these people to join his divine project of love, justice, and courage.
He never supported a violent rebellion against the Romans.
Instead he told his people to love their enemies
and pray for those who persecute them.
And all of that is what killed Jesus too.
Judas, the crowds wanted violence and revenge.
But Jesus’ vision was of a beloved community in which oppressors and oppressed
could live together in justice and safety–
He died for that too. He died because of that too.
Christ died because he believed that even you and me–
oppressors and oppressed,
betrayers and betrayed,
racial bribe-takers and those who have been sacrificed for the privileges of others–
that we could all be a part of this heavenly kin-dom.
This week, may we all look at this same old story with new eyes,
understanding that no matter what we have done,
no matter whom we have hurt,
Jesus believed so strongly that we should be a part of his kin-dom
that he would die on a cross
so that all sinners might be with him in paradise.
Thanks be to God!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Join us for Easter Sunday worship on April 5 at 10:30am.
Photo of Michelle Alexander speaking on her book, The New Jim Crow in 2011.