John 8:31-38 Common English Bible (CEB)
31 Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They responded, “We are Abraham’s children; we’ve never been anyone’s slaves. How can you say that we will be set free?”
4 Jesus answered, “I assure you that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
“Wait, what? We’ve never been anyone’s slaves.” The first truth we have to accept before we can be free is that we are not, in fact, free.
We do have free will, but even so our choices are often dictated by our upbringing, race, class, gender and so on. I remember the first time this concept was brought to my attention, in Dr. Earl Babbie’s sociology class my freshman year in college. I was appalled to hear that my choices were, to a certain extent, pre-determined by my specific and particular circumstances of birth, upbringing, and experience. It took quite some time and a lot of study before I was willing to concede that Dr. Babbie had a point.
It’s like listening to ourselves one day and suddenly saying, “OMG! I’ve grown up to be my mother!” Although we may think we have traveled a different path, and made choices she would not have made, our early upbringing can dictate our adult actions. Aristotle said, “Give me a boy until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” No matter what experiences or education that child has after age 7, the things learned up to that point are the formative experiences of an individual’s life. This explains why abused children so often grow up to be abusers. We cannot escape our early upbringing, but we can deliberately make different choices.
I was raised in a racist household. By the time I was 7, I knew every possible slur for everyone who was not Irish Catholic. (To be fair, I knew the Irish Catholic ones as well.) My brother was a racist. My sister is a racist. My nephew, raised by my sister, is a white supremacist. Even though raised in the same household, I choose not to be racist. But I still sometimes find myself mentally categorizing a person based on their race or national origin. I keep learning new things about what constitutes racist thought, speech, attitudes, or behavior, often finding those things in myself, and having to root them out.
The two greatest commandments, Jesus tells us, are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Anything that does not comply with these two commandments is sin. Hatred of or prejudice against the neighbor because of race, religion, national origin or any other reason is, therefore, sin. Racism is sin.
Freedom doesn’t just happen. It requires work and constant vigilance. We cannot be truly free until we throw off the shackles of sin and follow the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Forgiving God, help us to recognize sin within ourselves. Give us the strength to follow Jesus’ teachings, to root out the evil that is racism in ourselves and in our nation, and to love all persons as we love ourselves. Amen.