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God Shows No Partiality
May 5, 1991


I am a racist. It pains me to admit publicly that I am a racist. Most of you in this room this morning are also racists, unless you are a person of color. Only white people can be racists. All of us in this room may or may not be prejudiced, prejudiced in favor of our own color. But, white people are racists.

Racism is racial prejudice plus power. People of color have little power in our society. We who are white have built and participate in a power structure where whites are favored. Just because a person is white gives him/her inherent advantages. Therefore, I contend that all white people are racists. The National Council of churches defines racism: Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. Racism confers certain privileges on and defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political and military institutions of society. Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of that attitude.

My purpose this morning is for us to recognize the persistence of racism in our society, sadly become aware that racism is getting worse, admit that we who are white are part of the problem, and commit ourselves to become part of the solution.

We would love to pull the covers over our heads and believe that the racial situation in our country is getting better. But, it is not. Racism is gaining strength, not waning. Evidently Newsweek magazine heard I was preaching on racism this morning, and conveniently devoted this week's issue to racism! I quote (p. 22-23) In the 1960s the crusade to integrate politics--and through it, national life--was fueled by a moral appeal that most Americans eventually accepted. Now...cynicism and resentment belie the image of success. The civil-rights movement is mired in distrust, arcane judicial rulings and harsh economics that force middle-class workers, white and black, to claw for the same jobs. Exhaustion has set in, a sense of disappointment and failure...The result has been a growing sense of misunderstanding and recrimination among the races.

Economic recession and technological advances have shrunk the job market, and competition for jobs, as well as competition for admission to universities, has caused a backlash to the affirmative action programs that benefited many people of color. Even with affirmative action, the difference in median income between white households and ethnic households is greater now than 10 years ago. There are fewer black persons in graduate and professional schools than 10 years ago. Racially motivated violence is on the increase. The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles policeman is only the tip of an iceberg. And, new immigrants are often the scapegoats for hard times.

I call us this morning to recognize there is a growing problem in our society, admit that we who are white are part of the problem, and intentionally become anti-racists.

Our vision of a nation without racism is based on the biblical belief that God shows no partiality. In Caesarea there was a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile. As a non-Jew, he was barred from the temple, denied access to social intercourse with Jews, and regarded as one outside the chosen. Cornelius was a devout man who believed in God. He gave alms generously to the poor and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon, about three o'clock, Cornelius had a vision in which an angel came to him and said, "Send a message to a man named Simon who is called Peter and ask him to come to your house."

The next day in Joppa, Peter went up on a roof to pray. While he was praying, he had a vision. He saw a large sheet being lowered to the ground. In the sheet were all kinds of creatures, reptiles and birds. Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." Then the voice said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." This happened three times.

While Peter was pondering the meaning of his vision, the messengers from Cornelius arrived at the house and invited Peter to come with them. The Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them without hesitation. When Peter arrived at Cornelius' house, he found a room full of Cornelius' relatives and close friends. Peter, surprised at the reception, said, "You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."

Then Peter began to preach. His sermon was read to you this morning as the Scripture lesson, Acts 10:34-43, beginning with, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." While Peter was preaching, the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles. The Jewish Christians were astounded, and Peter baptized the Gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ.

Can you appreciate how revolutionary was this development? Without Peter's experience, and Paul's experience, with the Gentiles, Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism and who knows where you and I would be this morning. If Peter had not discovered that God shows no partiality, you and I would be outside the chosen, outside the wall looking in. Look at it this way. If God were partial, if God were prejudiced, we would be the victims of racism. We would be excluded, discriminated against, and how would that feel? It is difficult for us who are white to understand racism, because we have not experienced insidious, dehumanizing discrimination.

Praise God, God shows no partiality! What can we do? It is not enough to say that anyone can succeed if they only work at it. The "old boy network" and "who you know" methods make it difficult for one to succeed without help. Let us commit ourselves to the eradication of racism, and work for a society where everyone is a winner, where everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Newsweek warns us that increasingly, bigotry will play a major role in political campaigns. Beware, and refuse to be manipulated by racist propaganda.

On a personal level, within our own congregation, I have two challenges: 1) Go out of your way to become acquainted with someone who is of a different color from you. Prejudice is subtle. It is somehow easier to mingle with people we know and who are like us. Make an effort, a deliberate effort, to break the mold of your relationships, to widen the circle of your friendships. Do you who are not Tongan personally go out of your way to speak to our Tongan members? Do you greet them, inquire of their health, talk about church, their children, etc?

2) One of the historic and still powerful methods by which victims of racism overcome discrimination is education. For several weeks now, Jerry Horner, a Stanford graduate student who has been worshiping with us for several months, has been tutoring two Tongan teenagers. He helps them with their homework. This is an experiment. I have a dream. This fall, I would like to see an after-school tutoring program here in our church where we on a one-on-one basis help our Tongan youths learn English, American study habits, and stay in school. Many of you are retired teachers. Would you give two hours a week to tutor?

Two weeks ago I told a group of our Tongan parents how I am concerned about the dropout rate of our Tongan youths. Very few of our Tongan youths graduate from high school. There are two reasons: difficulty with English, and the difference between American schools and Tongan schools. I asked the parents if they thought a tutoring program might help. Their response was to applaud. They are very concerned about how their children are failing in their new homeland. Let's do something about it. Would you help?

Racism is blatant in our society, and at the same time, subtle in how it affects our unconscious behavior and attitudes. We can do something about it. God shows no partiality. Become aware of and fight racism wherever you find it in society. And, let's make a church here that is a model to the world in fellowship, respect, love and caring among and for all people, regardless of color and national origin.

© 1991 Douglas I. Norris