From Pastor Ray’s sermon from the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017
It’s St. Patrick’s Day Week! Yesterday, we turned the Chicago River Green and today there will be a big parade on the south side with lots of Irish dancing and lots of Irish drinking. And on Friday, March 17, we’ll all officially be Irish for a day (because secretly we all wish we had been born Irish.)
My, how times have changed. Back in the late 1800’s, being Irish was not high on anyone’s wish list—at least not being Irish in the United States. As people from Ireland immigrated to the U.S., they were met with discrimination and racism. Yes, racism. Though they were white-skinned, they were considered an “inferior race.” Cartoonists of the day depicted Irish as apes—evolutionary links just one step above the animal kingdom. They were stereotyped as violent alcoholics by nature. The Irish were detestable to most Americans and they were treated with disdain and contempt. Employment ads often ended with the statement, “No Irish Need Apply.” Irish immigrants were blamed for all of America’s social ills. The Chicago Post wrote in the late 1800’s: “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”
Being Irish doesn’t sound like an honor. But the Irish weren’t the only ones who were vilified. The Chinese came to the U.S. as laborers to support the building of the Continental Railroad. But most people were suspicious of them because of their appearance and culture. Soon, white Americans complained that there were too many of them. They were taking jobs away from Americans. They were a threat to the purity of the white race. So in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It prohibited Chinese immigration for 10 years. It was the first immigration ban based on ethnicity. It was renewed in 1892, and became permanent in 1902. The ban was not lifted until 1943! Imagine being Chinese in the U.S. during those 61 years!
At the core of the Chinese ban and calls for Irish deportation was the desire to maintain white racial and cultural superiority. For over 500 years, white Europeans had the power of wealth and weapons to define their superiority and determine the destiny of those they deemed inferior. And when power is married to a religious mandate like Manifest Destiny, all actions against the inferior races and classes are justified as God’s will. The United States ‘belonged’ to white people as a gift from God. One need only look at the treatment of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans to see the superior/inferior dynamic at work. “White” doesn’t make it right.
White America is not unique. The superior/inferior dynamic can be found in almost every culture and is as old as the Bible. In Exodus 46:34, we get a glimpse of Egyptian superiority. “Shepherds were detestable to the Egyptians.” Those immigrant Israelites who tended livestock were inferior and needed to be segregated in Goshen. In Exodus 1, a new Pharaoh rises and taps into the racist and classist attitudes. The prosperity of the immigrant Israelites is a threat to national security, and the superior Egyptians determine to do something about the “Israelite problem.” Thanks to their political power, the Pharaoh enacts public policy to contain the problem, limiting them to occupations of manual labor (the equivalent of slavery). When that didn’t work to contain them, the Pharaoh enacts a policy of population control through infanticide performed by Hebrew Midwives. And when that didn’t work, Pharaoh authorized “his people” (either the general public or the military) to kill all the boy babies. Superiority that is threatened always leads to identification, segregation, oppression, suppression, and attempts at annihilation. But God rises up and delivers the inferior Israelites from Egyptian superiority!
Will we always live out the superior/inferior dynamic? Are we to be forever caught up in this cycle where power defines superiority, where superiority (by default) identifies inferiority and where oppression is the outcome? Is there a way out? The answer is—‘YES!’ And ‘YES!’ is found in the Gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the cycle so that words like ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ no longer apply. Christ is all and is in all.
Jesus’ gospel elevates the lowly. As James writes, “Let the one in humble circumstances rejoice in her high position.” God chooses the weak things to shame the strong. God chooses the foolish things to shame the wise. God chooses the despised things and the things deemed worthless to bring down the things that are held up in high esteem. God exalts the humble. God delivers the oppressed. God seats the lowly among the princes. God honors the poor. God welcomes the outcast and sinner. God provides for the fatherless and the widow. God welcomes the alien and the stranger. God includes the outsider in God’s family.
But Jesus’ gospel brings down those who are supposedly superior. As James writes, “Let the high-born rejoice in their humiliation.” And as Paul writes to the ‘superior’ Romans, “Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought, but think with sober judgment.” To think of oneself as superior is to live in a condition of drunkedness with impaired vision, responses, and perception. Superiority is an illusion. The gospel delivers the ‘superior’ from their self-importance. God graciously opens their eyes to their emptiness. God delivers them into Jesus where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor brown, neither Mexican nor Chinese nor Mexican nor Irish, neither superior nor inferior.
So, do not accept the definition of “superior” or “valuable” or “better than.” It is a false identity. Only God is good. And do not accept the definition of “inferior” or “worthless” or “less than.” It too is a false identity—for God calls what God has made “good.” Each person bears the stamp of God’s image, but no person is God. God has brought us all to the foot of the Christ, where the ground is level, where each one is given grace, and where we all see yourselves as we truly are.
Sisters and brothers, in Christ we can no longer view one another from a human point of view and make judgment—superior or inferior—on the basis of human values and classifications. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. Let the one who is “great” become the “least” and the servant. Let us choose to see Jesus in each immigrant face. Let us renounce the superior/inferior label so we can receive all those for whom Christ died. Amen.