Racial Justice Sunday Sermon: Laura Pennock

CONTENT WARNING: I have some harsh things to say about the culture we live and breathe in Utah. I am speaking to my own failings as much as anyone else’s.

I read a book years ago that has stayed with me. It was the account of a journalist who spent time as a prison guard. He had repeatedly asked the prison for access to report on what it was like to be a guard and had been repeatedly denied. He decided that, if they would not let him do a piece as a journalist, he would become a prison guard. He applied, was hired, and spent a significant length of time in the job. "Newjack" is the term used for new prison guards and became the title of his book.

I was particularly struck by the idea that within the confines of the prison, while there were those imprisoned and those doing the work of keeping them imprisoned, the prison guards were as imprisoned as the prisoners. They lived parallel lives to the prisoners' and it was oppressive in its own right to be the guard. A better position to be sure, but they were tasked with patrolling the borders beyond which the prisoners were not allowed.

That can offer a significant insight into our own places where we expend energy maintaining borders.

As to our theme of racial justice today, as long as we individually and collectively fail to interrogate our racism, repent of our past actions, inactions, attitudes, and inherited biases, we remain captive to them. We will remain caught up expending a great deal of energy patrolling the borders of our privilege.

A Tribune article from 1/10/2023 speaks to this very activity. Donovan Mitchell recently left the Jazz to play for another team, and he spoke of his difficulties in being a notable Black voice in Utah in which he advocated for racial equality and against police brutality:

“It’s no secret there’s a lot of stuff that I dealt with being in Utah, off the floor. If I’m being honest with you, I never really said this, but it was draining. It was just draining on my energy. . . . Man, it was just one thing after another. To receive the amount of pushback I got over the years, it was a lot. . . .I’m just like, ‘Y’all have no idea.’ I took on a lot because I felt like I could do it. But at some point, it became a lot to have to deal with.”

While in Utah, Mr. Mitchell had posted a Juneteenth meme reading “free-ish since 1865.” In response to this post, he was accused of being a spoiled millionaire. He was told how lots of people in lots of places had it worse than Black people in America. That is true; lots of people in lots of places have it worse that Black people in America – but white people in Utah pointing that out to a Black man in Utah is nothing more than deflecting. It is deflecting our responsibility to look at our sin, at our complacency, at our failure to see another’s burden, at our failure to relieve another’s burden. It is patrolling the borders of our privilege.

The legislature here has joined in the baying of conspiracy theorists on the political right against critical race theory seeping into our schools and poisoning our children’s minds. Mr. Mitchell spoke out against the legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory. The outcry against critical race theory appearing in school curriculum is in reality the banning of teaching history for fear that children may ask their parents

about Mormon racial sins and their parents may have to expend energy patrolling the borders of their privilege.

When Mr. Mitchell left Utah and his comments about his experiences here were published the response from Utah state Representative-elect Trevor Lee was: “No wonder players don’t want to come to Utah. This man was beloved here, and the minute he leaves it’s nothing but bad things to say. What an incredibly ungrateful person.”

What an incredibly ungrateful person.

Ungrateful for what? Ungrateful for being treated better than other Black people in this state when he was recognized as a star Jazz player? Ungrateful for not being killed by police? Ungrateful for being allowed into “white” spaces? A constructive response to Donovan’s comments would have been to examine what his actual experience had been. What had his family’s experience been? How can we use what he said to be better? Instead, the response was to patrol the borders of privilege.

The Tribune reported:

“His words certainly struck a nerve, with seemingly every Utahn feeling either that he spoke some hard truths, or that he was now painting the entire state with a hurtfully broad brush.”

In my never to be humble opinion, Utah deserves to be painted with that broad brush. Utah is Mormon. Mormon is Utah. Mormon is racist. The Mormon church has not yet been willing to acknowledge it’s racism, much less repent of it. The Mormon church pervades this community; it touches everything in this community and each of us is a product of our proximity to the Mormon church. Most of us in this congregation have come here out of the Mormon church; those of us who have never been Mormon, have lived in communities steeped in its ethos. Whatever your resistance to that pervasive cultural, religious, and political orientation, here you are continuously choosing to join with a prophetic people.

We each live with racial and religious privilege; we can speak Mormon fluently, we can take a break from activism and melt back into the background. We can stop coming to church and exposing ourselves to sermons like this that remind us that there is so much work to be done.

Martin Luther King, Jr. cried out of the wilderness for justice as did the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, as did Jesus, as have prophets of all ages and times and places. In his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," Dr. King speaks to us:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. . .”

He goes on to contemplate how that springs from a misconception of time which he explains is: “ . . .the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”

“Human progress,” Dr. King goes on to state, “never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

“. . .the time is always ripe to do right.”

While the Mormon church dominates the landscape here and mouths drivel that Dr. King characterized as “. . .pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” and joins the ranks of those religious institutions that are increasingly dismissed as social clubs with no meaning and unable to meet the challenges and questions of the 21 century, we can join them. . . or we can commit to continually interrogating our privileges and dismantling our prejudices wherever they may lie.

“. . .the time is always ripe to do right.” This is our call to action. Be relevant. Be an extremist for the extension of justice.