Friday, August 29, 2014

A Death and Life Matter by Bruce William Klunder, 1963

A sermon from the Civil Rights movement that helps to show us that some sin isn't personal, it's systemic. Bruce Klunder was a Presbyterian pastor who was active in the Civil Rights movement in Columbus, OH, and eventually died when a bulldozer ran over him while he was picketing the construction of a segregated school.

“The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one…so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them.” (John 17:22-23)

Strange as it may seem, I have chosen today to preach an Easter sermon.  Thus, I have read as the Scripture lesson for the day portions of the Passion narrative as recorded by John.  We have read from the prayer that Jesus offered with his disciples before his betrayal.  We have read of the crucifixion itself, and finally, we have read of the presence of Jesus with his disciples in the post-Easter community.  This is the stuff of which Easter sermons are made, and to make it complete we shall sing a very familiar Easter hymn at the conclusion of our worship.

I hope that it will become clear as we progress why the sermon of the day must be an Easter sermon.
Now, while the title I have put to the sermon—“A Death and Life Matter”—is no mistake, I would like first of all to turn it around and address our attention to what must necessarily be termed a life and death matter.  At this point I want to attempt to interpret certain of my own experiences and feelings about an issue which can no longer be ignored by any of us.

It is no secret to anyone that the past few years and especially the last few months have been for our nation a period of turmoil and finally a test of courage and purpose, the result of which cannot be seen with any great certainty at this point.  Since the Emancipation Proclamation of one hundred years ago now, we have been faced with the problem of conscience which is posed by the disparity between an official policy of universal human freedom and the daily observation that in fact for many of our fellows this proclamation of freedom is a hollow thing indeed.  We are faced with the discrepancy between the American dream of unlimited upward mobility for each person and the fact that the American Negro lives surrounded by walls and covered with a nearly immovable ceiling.

These last two years, since I have settled with my family in Cleveland, Ohio, has been a period of real confrontation for us with the many ways that the Negro in America finds the American dream to be a hollow one for him.  It has also been a period of increasing personal involvement and identification with the movement that is protesting radically against the closed door which our Negro brethren confront as they seek to enter the mainstream of our society and economy.

It seems that the thing we most readily think of as we ponder the scandal of American race relations is the fact that some white persons are prejudiced and,therefore, discriminate against colored persons; or conversely, the fact that some whites are not prejudiced, have Negro friends, and thus treat these friends and other Negroes justly and equitably.  We then try to think of ways that might work to change those who are prejudiced to be more like those who are not.  But to view the major problem in race relations in this fashion—that is, to try to change the attitudes of individual prejudiced people—could have no result, I should think, other than to leave one baffled by the current tactics of the Negro freedom movement with its demonstrations,marches, sit-ins, and freedom rides. It is obvious that such measures do little to make the prejudiced person less prejudiced.  In fact, the opposite is most often the case. Prejudiced people in the face of such tactics have something’s real to retaliate against, and most often that is precisely what they do.

If, however, the experience of living two years in a city with a Negro population of over 300,000 has taught us one thing, it is that the issue of race relations must be approached much differently than this. It can no longer be a question of strictly interpersonal relations, as if my responsibility ended with my attitudes toward those five, ten, twenty, or fifty Negro individuals with whom I come in contact in the course of a week.  I must, of course, be concerned with personal attitudes, but finally the problem is one which involves institutions.  It involves questions about the structures of society; it involves my behavior in the voting booth, the apportionment of my tax dollar, my buying and selling habits;it involves these things in a profoundly important way whether or not I can claim to have any Negro friends or even any Negro acquaintances to my name.

Now the question of whether the bulk of white America can see this difference becomes the life and death matter.  It is the question of whether we can cease hiding behind the all-too-familiar expression, “Some of my best friends are Negroes,” and begin seeing the issue in terms of the structures which serve as the imprisoning walls for all too many Negro citizens.  This is the question which the rapidly moving freedom movement forces us to answer.

It is my intention then to lay bare as far as my limited experience makes possible some of these institutionalized structures which continually add up to the keeping of the white man’s foot on the neck of his Negro brother.  After this I would like to return to the original title, which I think captures the essence of the Christian faith’s direction for this issue.

The United States Civil Rights Commission has issued a report documenting the full range of racial discrimination in this country. It is because they look at discrimination in terms of the structures of our society that they can preface the entire report with a section entitled “the iron ring”—the iron ring of law and custom that forces an inferior status upon its victims.  What are some of the elements of that iron ring?  The interesting and important thing is that you can’t pick out any one element without already implying all the other elements. This is what makes it a ring, or in more common language, a vicious cycle.

Since we must start somewhere, let’s start with the question of where Negroes live in a city like Cleveland.  Cleveland, like almost every large urban community, is a cluster of cities.  Cleveland is made up of some sixty separate municipalities.  The largest of these, of course, is Cleveland, but the other fifty-nine together have as many people as does the city of Cleveland.  Some of these communities are among the nicest, most prosperous residential areas in the country.  Many new schools have been built to serve developments made possible by FHA and VA insured loans. But are these areas for the Negro? The answer is an overwhelming "No!" A recent census count found that all these suburban communities were by actual count 99.44 per cent white. Why is it that 300,000 of Cleveland proper’s 800,000 residents are Negro, living in a rapidly deteriorating community?  Why is it that they crowd themselves into overcrowded, run-down flats and apartments in areas where trees and grass are all but unknown?  Is it because they like so well to live so closely together? Hardly!  Is it because the 800,000 whites in suburbia have discriminated against them?  Most of these would deny it vigorously.  It is primarily because of certain structures which have grown up for which few people take any personal responsibility.  It is because the FHA and VA housing developments that mushroomed in the late forties did so as consciously segregated communities with the blessing and guidance of these agencies.  Now, while policy has changed, the legacy remains. It is because integrated neighborhoods have appeared to be poor financial risks, and therefore, the policy of all the major banks in Cleveland prohibits the making of loans to Negroes, regardless of collateral, if they wish to buy or build in a predominantly white neighborhood.  It is because real estate agents and brokers refuse in a unanimous way to make such sales even if the money is available.  It is because until recently renters and sellers advertised blatantly in the major newspapers “white only” or “colored only.”  It is structures like this, not individual acts of discrimination, that lead to the fact that of Cleveland’s 300,000 Negroes probably less than fifteen or twenty families are the first occupants of the homes in which they live.  New homes are built by the dozens, but they are not for Negroes.

What is the result?  Quite obviously the result is a Negro ghetto made up of inadequate and anything but low-cost housing.  In one of the really deteriorated slum sections of Cleveland the average monthly rent is seventy-eight dollars [apx. $600 in 2014].  This is for three or four rooms to house large families.

And so around the ring we go.  The fact that we have Negro ghettos in our inner-city neighborhoods has meant necessarily that we have had segregated schools—schools where close to 100 percent of the pupils were Negro. What kind of schools are they? They are in areas cut off from the tax revenue of the prosperous suburbs.  Thus the schools, are crowded—often they are on half-day sessions.  They are understaffed, and facilities are inadequate.  It is just here where special remedial and individualized programs are needed most that they are usually not present at all.  In one area the only accelerated program is for children from several different schools who have to walk through two classrooms in order to meet in an attic.  And for what?  For instruction with the standard curriculum of most suburban schools.

High rents and low incomes lead to frequent moves to find better housing or to avoid rents that cannot be paid.  Consequently many of the schools experience close to 100 per cent turnover in their student body in the space of a year.  And another thing, even where all students are Negro nothing is read in the textbooks about Negroes in America because these books are written on the assumption that all people in America are white.  Inferior education, therefore, with a lack of any personal interest leads many to drop out of school prior to graduation.

What about the employability of these school dropouts?  Of course it is low, but the depressing thing is that it is not very different from the employability of all Negroes; thus the incentive to finish school is not high.  Here we have come to a third element of the ring of discrimination, the element of employment.  If there were ever a crucial issue it is this one, for without steady employment one can hardly hope to be a member of mainstream American society.  What are the facts here?  The American economy has been compared to a “train in which the Negro is the caboose and the number of cars between the engine and the caboose is constantly being increased.”

The fact that the Negro is in the caboose can be illustrated in a few striking ways.  In our economy we have learned to live with a certain amount of unemployment.  Still we must remember that America’sNegroes have had to learn to live with an unemployment rate between two and a half and three times as large as the whites.  One summer in a section of Cleveland with a population of over 60,000 Negroes a group of college students voluntarily tutored junior-high students.  They had to learn that as a fact of life in this community, unemployment for men sixteen to twenty-one years old is about 85 per cent. For the rest unemployment runs around 50 per cent and of those who are full-time employees few are making more than fifty dollars per week.  Partly it is because education and skills are lacking.  But, on the other hand, it has been ten years since a large technical high school there has placed anyone in a job.  This is not because of the lack of skills, but because the unions do not accept Negro apprentices and because semiskilled jobs are rapidly disappearing due to automation.

Then try to sense the mounting frustration of many highly educated Negroes who have taken what was available to them year after year either carry the mail or drive buses, while displaying M.A. or Ph.D. degrees at home.

We are beginning to have large communities of those who could be termed permanently unemployed.  These are those who live in a culture of poverty which guarantees that the ring of oppression will continue—in housing, in education, and in the world of work.

We also seethe breaking up of home life which further guarantees a continuation of the vicious circle.  In Ohio mothers can receive aid for dependent children only if no father is present at home.  This means that for many unemployed, unproductive fathers the only altruistic act is to desert, thus making the family eligible for this aid. We find in many areas that only about a third of the families have any father figure present.

This may all sound like a horror story from somewhere far away.  It is not at all intended as such.  These are the facts with which millions of people live daily.  And my point is that they are the responsibility of every American regardless of where he lives, for they are consequences of structures which we through our disbelief, or apathy, or smugness have allowed to develop and to continue for far too many years.

It is a life and death matter for all who exist as oppressed people.  It is a life and death matter for all of us, for our times are explosive. None can claim the luxury of not having to decide.  The structures are being radically attacked, and each of us must respond even if it is only a personal response to the reading of a newspaper account of some action somewhere.  It is an American dilemma.

How did you respond to the freedom rides or lunch counter sit-ins as they challenged the structure of separate facilities? How would you respond to the sit-ins in which I participated in a governor’s office and in a state legislature protesting inaction on a pending fair housing bill?  How do you respond to the idea of thousands of students boycotting their schools in protest against schools which are all Negro because neighborhoods are allNegro?  How do you respond to massive boycotts of certain brands and certain products in an attempt to force employers to be non-discriminating in their hiring practices?  These are the questions which every newspaper is forcing us to answer.

Now where does the Christian faith, especially the faith based on the Easter event come in?  Let us ponder for a moment the nature of this central event in our faith?  At its core, to participate in the Easter faith is to affirm that, in spite of—in spite of—our rebellion against God who is our Father and to whom we owe our total existence, we have been accepted.  We have been reconciled to this God not because we turned to him, but because he continued to turn to us.  He loves us not because we are lovable, but because he chooses to suffer with us in our very unloveliness.  His love for us as expressed in its supreme form in the agony of Jesus in the garden and on the cross is not a sentimental, comforting, warming thing.  It is a love which pursues us relentlessly and finally causes us to become radically new creatures.  It is a love which challenges much more than it comforts and which finally wins its victory in its willingness to suffer even the death on the cross. This kind of love is at the center of our faith, and because it is we cannot avoid involvement in the crisis which I have attempted to describe.  Our central affirmation is that through Jesus Christ we are all one—one with God and one with each other.  But this is not the oneness of jolly good fellowship.  This instead is the oneness of suffering with and for one another.  If it seeks to be anything less it ceases to be the oneness of Christian faith.  Thus, we see what I mean by the title—a death and life matter.  Life for the Christian is life which does not deny or ignore pain, suffering, and death.  It is life which emerges victorious from the pain of our dying to what we once were.

What this suggests as a guideline for me is that we must—each in his own way—suffer with and for those who are oppressed by those structures of injustice which we have described. This will mean that we must learn to feel their pain as our own and that we must be willing to bear personally some of the cost of that pain’s removal.  The policy of many of us has been that justice is fine if it doesn’t cost us anything—economically, socially, or politically.  That time is past.  Changes are taking place which will inevitably cost us all something. Are we willing to bear this cost, with a realization that it is only a small part of what many have been forced to pay for many years?  We must learn to feel the injustices of the structures of our society as do those who are oppressed by them.  We must know what it is like to be a man for whom our economy has no use and who thus can be of no use to his family.  We must try to know the feelings of one who has spent a lifetime hearing, “No, not here; not for you; you’re not wanted,” and we must learn to repent to those who co me to believe our charges of inferiority.

Finally, I think we must identify with those in the freedom movement who are acting on the faith that suffering love can overcome hate.  We must understand the depth of feeling expressed in a statement by a veteran of the freedom rides with whom we talked in Nashville.  Still bearing the marks of numerous stitches on his face, he replied when questioned why he could say he did not hate his attackers, “Would you hate a blind man if he stepped on your foot?”  This person and this movement are willing to endure pain without hating in return; yet how long is this possible, and what can we do to support it?

To understand suffering and to make it your own will not dictate a particular strategy of action, but it will throw you into the battle to make your own decisions as a follower of him who suffered all that we might be one.  Our Lord is risen!  In him we have peace and life.  Amen.
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