My dear friends in Christ,
As we move further into the season of the “long green” after Pentecost, we will find ourselves confronted by a number of difficult and challenging passages from Scripture, as we follow the Lectionary each Sunday morning. In the world of our society beyond the walls of our church, we are already being confronted by some difficult and challenging tensions in the history of our community, our state, and our nation. Navigating the Scriptures and navigating the times in which we live both require patience, intentionality, compassion, curiosity, context, vulnerability, and the honesty to be authentic, with ourselves and with each other.
Above all, making our way through challenging texts and difficult times in history require faith. Faith that God is truly here, in this place, in these times … and even in the chaos that swirls around us. Often, the movements of the Holy Spirit seem to human eyes to be chaos, for we do not know yet what wondrous things God might be doing among us. We know from Scripture that the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst almost certainly means things are about to change, that something new and different is about to be born. And we know from human experience that, more often than not, we tend to respond to the prospect of change with fear. (Is it any wonder that God’s messengers almost always begin by saying “Be not afraid!”?)
But change can potentially be a good thing, and not just a scary one. As we explore the parts of the Bible that make us, perhaps, a bit uncomfortable, we have an opportunity to dig deeper into the roots of our Christian faith—an opportunity to encounter God in new and unexpected ways, to be shaped and reshaped by God’s Holy Word until we become more fully the “new creation” He calls us to be.
And as we respond to the tensions and chaos swirling in the culture around us, we have opportunities to discover new ways to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in a world that perpetually cries out for hope, for healing, for reconciliation. That is, after all, the vocation we received and accepted in baptism, to be Christ’s body in this world, so that through us, all the world might come to know Him and be saved.
As I wrote in my recent pastoral letter to the parish, our contemporary history is—once again—offering us the chance to name, identify, and redress longstanding injustices that have festered in our society for generations. The chance to begin, at least, the long and likely arduous process of racial healing and racial reconciliation that our society so desperately needs.
Any work at all in the area of racial reconciliation requires introspection and self-examination. We have to ask ourselves: what are our basic assumptions? Why do we see things the way that we see them? We have to learn to name the specific beliefs, preconceptions, educational experiences, life experiences, assumptions, principles, blind spots, prejudices, fears, needs, and natural tendencies that shape our understanding of what’s real … and none of that is particularly easy to do.
But that is the place we have to start. That is the place where we make a beginning of it.
Science fiction writer Frank Herbert began his most famous novel, Dune, with this epigraph, from one of the novel’s characters: “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” In that spirit, I (as a former English teacher) would add that a beginning is also the time for taking the most delicate care that our definitions are correct.
In other words, before we start talking about issues of race in our culture and the hard work of racial reconciliation, we need to define some of the terms that will appear frequently in these conversations. The most prominent term we need to define is the very subject of the discussion, itself: “racism.”
I imagine most of us could agree that being blatantly hostile to strangers who belong to races other than one’s own, that using vulgar slang terms to refer to people in certain groups, that acts of violence perpetrated against people just because they belong to a particular ethnic group, and so forth are all examples of racist behavior. A white person’s calling an African American the “n” word, for instance, is likely something that most of us would condemn as being racist.
But if our definition of “racism” stops there, using only such blatant and glaring examples as the basis for defining the term, one might get the impression that racism in America only shows up very rarely, and then only on the very fringes of our society. Unfortunately, however, there is much more to the breadth and scope of racism than that. The dislike, disrespect, and/or outright hatred of people who belong to groups different or other than one’s own is simply bigotry based on prejudice (“pre-deciding”) against groups of people that one may not know anything about—though a lack of actual knowledge rarely seems to stop anyone from pre-judging…
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., distinguishes between “just” and “unjust” laws in a way that helps us get much closer to a real understand of what racism is and how it functions in our society:
“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority … An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”
A note about Dr. King’s use of the term “majority” is also in order: he allows in his letter that “majority” can denote greater numbers, as in the literal meaning of the term; yet it can also denote greater power within the society, as well. Consider as an example of the latter the white government of South Africa during the years of Apartheid. Numerically, the white population there was in the minority, but due to the history and the political power structure of the country, that white numerical minority was, in terms of real power, overwhelmingly in the majority, and that’s how it was able to enforce Apartheid for as long as it did.
And understanding differences in power, both in the present and throughout our history, is the key to understanding the full scale of racism in our society today.
Before I left Clemson, SC, I went through the training to begin working with an initiative called The Clemson Pledge to End Racism, a program of developing anti-racism in communities and congregations that began in Virginia, was developed in Alabama, and then came to Clemson. It’s a program that was faith-based from its inception—as was MLK’s work during the Civil Rights era. As defined in the training materials for the Clemson Pledge to End Racism initiative, “racism” is “race bigotry combined with the misuse of power by people and institutions” (Living the Pledge to End Racism: Workshop Leader & Small Group Facilitators Guide, p. 4, emphasis in the original).
There are two important things to notice in that definition: First, the difference between mere prejudice and actual racism is the element of power. Prejudice without power is merely bigotry; prejudice combined with power results in enforced bigotry, which is systemic racism.
Second, such misuses of power can happen without any conscious awareness on the part of the people or the institutions who are in positions of power.
In other words, an action can be racist regardless of the intentions of the person doing that action.
That means that instances of racism in our society are much harder to spot (for people and institutions in positions of power, and for people who belong to groups that are in positions of power) than such glaring examples as signs in restaurant windows that say “WHITES ONLY.” If all kinds of racism were that obvious, I think we’d have had the whole thing sorted out generations ago…
So the focus of much of the training that the Clemson Pledge to End Racism program put together involved first learning how to recognize the forms of racism that are typically hard for folks in numerical- or power-majorities to see, and then, secondarily, exploring healthy and constructive ways to respond to these various forms of racism on personal, institutional, and societal levels.
People who took the Pledge made a covenant to live day-to-day in ways that would actually help to end racism in local neighborhoods and communities … and eventually in our larger society.
Taking the Pledge meant signing onto a statement of principles:
The Pledge to End Racism
I believe that every person has worth as an individual.
I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.
I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.
Therefore, from this day forward I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions.
I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity.
I will treat all people with dignity and respect;
I will commit to working with others to transform Clemson [or whichever location] into a place that treats people of all races, ethnicities, and cultures with justice, equity, and compassion, and
I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.
I hope you will all notice the similarities between the tenets of this Pledge and our own Baptismal Covenant. Now, to be clear, the Pledge was not developed by Episcopalians, but the fact remains that we are already, as baptized Christians in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, committed to these values and this way of living in the world and living with each other.
Next, we’ll define some more terms and go into the history of the Pledge to End Racism—where it came from, and how it got to Clemson. And then, perhaps, we might discuss what such work might look like here, in Appleton. I invite you to consider that question, and to spend some time with the Covenant in our Book of Common Prayer (BCP p. 304, or at www.bcponline.org).
As I mentioned at the outset, it’s not easy work, either internally as we work on ourselves, or externally, as we pursue justice and reconciliation in our society. But as in all things, if we ground ourselves solidly in Holy Scripture and in God’s love for us as shown in Jesus Christ, and trust in the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, we will have the faith we need to go where God calls us to be and do what God calls us to do.
Yours in Christ, always,