Sermon: “What must I do to be antiracist?” On Bodies, Breathing and Being for Racial Justice

By Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, offered on MLK Sunday 2022

Mark 10:17-22

“Whiteness has psychological advantages that translate into material returns” (54)

“As I move through my day, racism just isn’t my problem. While I am aware that race has been used unfairly against people of color, I haven’t been taught to see this problem as any responsibility of mine; as long as I personally haven’t done anything I am aware of, racism is a nonissue. This freedom from responsibility gives me a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they move throughout their day (55) 

-Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility”

In the past two years and counting, we have been confronted with the reality of our bodies, our being and our breath in ways that we have not been challenged to face before. The necessity of our breathing for living is, in a factual way, not new to us. All animals, humans included, need to breathe in some way or another in order to keep moving about. And yet, at the same time, the finiteness of our breath, the vulnerability of our breath and, conversely, the taken for granted nature of our breath and our bodies is being revealed to us in very visceral and quite tangible ways in these days. It is the fact of our breathing that brings us all to this moment, to worship, here, to today and now. It is also the fact of our breathing that makes it intensely difficult for me to be with you in person safely: that is keeping us apart.

Although all of human creation is sharing a heightened awareness of our bodies and our breathing in this season of pandemic, for some of us the acute knowing that breath is fleeting and not guaranteed is something we have been living with and will likely continue living with too long if/after COVID-19 has simmered down. For me, as a brown-skinned human creature marked as Black and woman in the current context known as America, the possibility of losing breath — that my breath could be dramatically and instantaneously be taken away from me or from someone like me — is not a farfetched thing to grasp. Almost daily, I’m reminded in one form or another that I drive around in a world where Sandra Bland and Renisha McBride happens. That I walk down the street in a world where George Floyd and Trayvon Martin happens. That I make music and speak poetry in a world where Elijah McClain happens. That I sit and stand and speak and run and in a world where Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arberry happens. Now clearly, this physical  and intellectual knowing I feel heightened by the day job that I do, steeped in the world of antiracism, intercultural competence and intersectionality as I am: I get paid to pay attention to White barbarism and supremacy. And yet, although I never speak for all Black people, I suspect that there are many of us for whom the beauty and excellence and dynamism of being a human creature marked as Black is too often laced with the latent sensitivity that, for some wrong move or through no fault of our own, we could readily end up not breathing. And violently so. At the hands of a White person. With no room for recourse. Due to the dangerous narratives attached to our beings. 

Reflecting on this now, I wonder what it was like for Martin Luther King Jr. to breathe in full awareness that his very life was a liability. That his breath was constantly under siege and at risk of being snuffed out. Did the stalking of White Supremacy feel anything like the living under the threat of COVID-19? I don’t and can’t know of course. This wondering is a new idea for me.

I offer these thoughts on bodies and breathing and being because it is these things in part that motivate me to get up every day, come before God in worship, and rise up to offer myself as a living sacrifice to the chipping away at racial and other injustices. A world in which I, and others like me, and other people of color and other nondominant communities are constrained in our ability to be fruitful and multiply, quite frankly, is intolerable to me. I am intolerant of an existence in which I and other human and nonhuman animal creation are deprived of the gift of abundant life and constantly made to groan in bondage and decay. And so I strive in the big things — like my employment — and the not so little things —l ike the food I put on my plate —and even in the creative things — like my poetry and music — to put that intolerance and passionate commitment to “liberation for every body,” into play. To say it differently, “liberation is my language” like English is to my speaking. I have no choice but to state things from that tongue; to learn words in that way; no choice but to stutter and stumble with the aim of speaking it — not perfectly — but consistently. Fluently. 

Just one case in point: At the start of the pandemic when I and all my coworkers began transitioning our operations to our homes, I became aware that other workers, particularly in manufacturing, were not being afforded the same luxury. There I was at home, safe, my employer bending over backwards to have everything I needed, while other people were being compelled by fear of losing their jobs and financial constraints to keep returning to the RV and other non-essential industries. Incredulous to know that some things weren’t shutting down; incredulous that people were being placed in harm’s way as a matter of class and power; it was not long before I called a friend to see what we could do. We jumped in way over our heads to create Elkhart Supports Workers with hopes of providing a space for workers to share what they were experiencing and provide whatever help we could to complete strangers. We wanted to help shut the factories down. We even talked about the possibility of organizing caravan protests of community members who were angry at what was being done to our neighbors. We taxed our mental, emotional, energies toward getting important information, encouraging them to call OSHA and posting worker reports anonymously for the general community to see.   

I still recall clearly and cellularly sitting on my couch and crying big snotty tears before God, asking why oh why was everyone else at home getting settled in, and here I was trying to pick a fight with the biggest industry in our area. Why couldn’t I just be like everybody else, keep my tail quiet and enjoy the unexpected sanctuary I was receiving? What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be like everybody else? It all just seemed so totally silly! And in that moment, God made it clear, this is who I am. This is who I am called to be. There was no way I could be at peace when other people were so blatantly being treated as disposables and threatening. So there I ended up, among a group of four women, scrappy and frantic, working thoughtfully and in, it seemed at the time, futility. That mission was a longshot from the beginning and in so many ways, a “failure” in its execution. And yet, my body, breath and my being don’t know another choice. I’m not designed to not at least try. Even if it feels like screaming in the wind. I just don’t know how else to be.

This reflection so far, in its own roundabout way, brings me to the Scripture passage at hand. Now, before I take on the task of connecting these myriad dots, I have to thank my mom, Judith Alexis, for bringing this text to light in a very innovative and energizing way. During our mother-daughter book club reading of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, she made the connection between the condition of Whiteness and the rich man’s response to Jesus. I asked her if I could start referencing her interpretation from now on. And she said yes, thankfully ☺ Because the more and more and more I sit with the text of Mark 10: 17–22, and actually all the way to verse 31, the more I see it as an incredible framework for understanding the posture we are called to as Christian, Jesus-following people. And an incredible “invitation to conversion” story for the sake of undoing supremacy. 

In this text, we see a man of means who comes to Jesus in what I imagine was deeply humbling and sincere way. It’s very easy to judge this rich man from the jump, as just trying to justify himself before Jesus. The text doesn’t say so. It says he comes to Jesus on his knees. He is beseeching Jesus. He truly wants to know what he can do to attain eternal life: he wants to be clear and assured that the way he is living is indeed the right way to live. Jesus responds by reciting the commandments of the Torah, and the man states, that he has been doing all of these things since he was a youth. And it is very important to note here that Jesus does not judge or downplay or criticize those things. These too are the path to eternal life and for all the rich man’s life, he has been following the laws as it has been stated, he has known what he has to do and he has been doing them. Mark says, and I think it’s easy to miss this part, that, “Jesus, looking at him, LOVED him.” He loved him. And out of this place of love, he tells the rich man there is something he is missing. The man is first shocked by Jesus’s words to “go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me”: this is farther than the law has ever asked him to go. It’s beyond the scope of his imagination of what is necessary. It is a step that he has not heard before. And this news of the radical and literally costly step – this new knowledge of what takes to live in eternity does not bring him joy, it does not excite him, it does not bring him relief. No, Jesus’ words illicit him to grieve. For he had many possessions.

As I sit with this text, it feels to me that Jesus’s instruction to sell and redistribute his wealth was not actually the thing that the rich man was lacking. More deeply, it feels like Jesus’s instruction reveals to the rich man his actual missing piece. To sell everything, to become poorer himself, in order to make a material difference in the lives of those who were poorer — indeed to possibly make them at least equal to himself — requires an emptying of power which requires a profound reorientation of the heart and of being. This is just not a following of the rules. It’s not just about doing the standard operating procedures and the required things. What he is missing, I conjecture, is the kind of burning, internal, turning around that would make it intolerable for him to have so many things, to have more than what he needs, to have that much access and power when he is surrounded by so many others that do not have enough to sustain their bodies, their breath and their beings. It is to get to the place inside oneself, to have the kind of transformation, where one is more grieved by the condition people are facing in the world he exists in than to be grieved by what he needs to do to help to change things. 

To reframe the story creatively for our times and for our purposes, it is as if the man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to be antiracist?” And Jesus said, “You know the steps to take: Read books about racism. Take the antiracism training. Do the Intercultural Development Inventory. Hire the consultant. Go to the protests about police brutality.” These are all important, necessary, crucial things. I’m not making that list to downplay any of it. But imagine if Jesus then said, you are missing one thing: Sell everything you have and pay reparations to indigenous people. Stop everything you are doing and reorient your life and our children’s lives to be in close and consistent proximity alongside Black people. Step aside from powerful positions in your institutions and do whatever you can that is possible to give veto power to Black and other people. Redirect all the time you spend in White enclaves and build meaningful, sustained de-segreated lives with other nonwhite human beings. Change the structure of your conference to have a real intercultural ministry that transforms the way conference operates in five years. Change the church’s bylaws to have an antiracism ministry that is paid to transition the church to something that can be more welcoming of Black and Brown people.  What would you feel in your body in light of some such costly call to divest, to redistribute, to voluntarily withdraw one’s own power and access to make a material difference to the cause of undoing White supremacy? Would it shock you? Would it cause grief or relief? 

I want to be clear, this is not an invitation to do more thing for the sake of doing more things. Jesus wasn’t asking the rich man just to add to his checklist and good marks and I’m not suggesting that either. What I am wondering is what hearing these loose and wild invitations might reveal about our hearts, in this moment, and where we might yet still have to grow. Does it create shock? Does it create excitement? Does it spark imagination about challenging possibilities that could cost you in a good way? Does it create a sense of anger or grief? It’s hard for people with power to enter into the kingdom on our own strength. It’s hard to really give some things up so that we can more deeply follow God in Christ. But in verses 28 – 30 Jesus says that it is in this giving up the rich man would gain even more houses, even more mothers and brothers and sisters and fields. In this moment I feel that’s because he would enter into a whole new set of wider and wilder relationships in which everyone he meets in following Christ becomes family, everyone’s homes he meets in Christ would become open to him, every field that yields good things would be a place of growing and sharing. Said in the terms of our revised antiracism story, the letting go of White powers in one way creates a different kind of access if one can move through the initial jarring and letting go that’s necessary to perceive it.  

This kind of possibility takes a reorientation of bodies and being. It means breathing in new patterns and sometimes literally finding new air. Justice begins with a state of heart. Resistance begins with a state of being. As pastor Sherri said in our planning, antiracism comes from the inside out. It is not just the checklist that we do, especially if that checklist does not lead to shift in posture and the fabric of life for ourselves and for the people we are hoping to enter into truly free being. 

In White Fragility, DiAngelo writes, “The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss. Not one person who loved me, guided me or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value. I could live my entire life without a friend or a loved one of color and not see that as a diminishment of my life….Pause and consider for a second the profundity of this message: we are taught that we lose nothing of value through racial segregation (68).” And if many of us are really honest, the fact of our racially separate lives might bother us: but it really isn’t intolerable. Not on a soul level. Not on the level where it gnaws on our spirits in the morning. What would be like if people were motivated as powerfully by the absence of Black bodies and Black being, for the work of racial justice as we are by the reality of Black death? What would it look like to realize that something is constantly diminishing, that there is a loss of something valuable, when Whiteness gives into its socialization to stay within the confines of Whiteness instead of thirsting for right relationship with other non-White beings. I want you to be motivated by the pain of my absence. And the absence of other people of color. And the joy in the richness of our lives when dividing walls of hostility are challenged and broken. Not just inspired to act when we are attacked and murdered for the world to see.

To close: I am grateful that the story of the rich man doesn’t come to a real ending. Perhaps the rich man stays in his state of shock and grief and brushes Jesus’s invitation off. Perhaps, he comes to a new and deeper understanding of what is lost by staying in the posture that he is and he chooses another way eventually. The text doesn’t say. What the text does say is that while it is hard for people in his position to enter into eternal life through this reorienting and relinquishing, it’s not impossible. Because God. Because God. Because for God all things are possible. As I move to turn it over to the rest of the service, I want to leave you all with a portion of Psalm 51 that has become very dear to me in the last week. The entire thing is a must read, but I’ll offer just a few verses as prayer for us to “Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and steadfast spirit within me… Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a generous, a willing spirit.”