Today, I want to take the opportunity to address the events of the past week that have laid bare the racial inequalities and violence against people of color that exists in our country. And to talk about the church’s role and the responsibility of people of faith in this national conversation about systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.
In recent years, The Episcopal Church has been committed to working toward racial justice and reconciliation within our churches and in our larger communities. And there are two themes that have evolved as foundational to this work.
These themes are telling the truth, especially about our past, and proclaiming the dream of reconciliation, justice and healing.
“Telling the Truth” is an important first step because as Stephanie Spellers, a priest deeply involved in this work, reminds us:
“The Episcopal Church was thechurch of the colonizers. At various points in American life, wehave been the church that stood with the powerful, with the slaveholders, with the industrial managing class as they oppressed working people.”
In recent years, the Episcopal Church has worked to repent for that legacy. As truth tellers, we have to own it. Because the actions of our church have obstructed the movement for racial justice in the past. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “A Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” This letter was written, in part, to Episcopal clergy who were urging him to stop the marches, sit-ins, and protests because of the chaos they were causing in cities. Those clergy were more concerned about “law and order” than they were about ending the oppression of black people in this country. Those clergy were wrong. Their values were out of order.
So as a church that wasn’t always on the right side of justice for black lives, we must begin now by saying: This is who we have been. But that is not who we want to be. So who do we want to be today?
Our Presiding Bishop is helping us to figure that out. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, he wrote about the way of love and how we might respond to the events since the murder of George Floyd. He asked us first to acknowledge what love does not look like. Love does not look like the brutality people of color have suffered at the hands of some law enforcement officers. It does not look like the violence that has erupted in the streets, interrupting peaceful protests. And the use of aggressive measures to suppress legal and peaceful protests—that doesn’t look like love either.
But do you know what else doesn’t look like love, demanded Bishop Curry in that op-ed? “The silence and complicity of too many of us, who wish more for tranquility than justice.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/31/black-man-i-understand-anger-our-streets-we-must-still-choose-love/)
As people of faith, we have a choice to make. Do we care more about tranquility, about our lives being uninterrupted by the protests and anger erupting around us, or do we care more about justice?
If we want to answer that question as Christians, we have only to turn to our Bible, which has plenty to say about oppression and justice. Rachel Held Evan’s, one of the most prophetic Christian voices of our time, reminded us that “the Bible was written by oppressed religious minorities living under the heels of powerful nation-states known for their extravagant wealth and violence.” The biblical characters, especially Jesus, struggled to fight unjust and oppressive powers. What we find so often in our Bible are stories that defy the empire “by subverting the notion that history will be written by the wealthy, powerful, and cruel…insisting instead that the God of the oppressed will have the final word.” (RHE, “Inspired,” pgs. 117-118)
That God, that we see particularly in Jesus, never suggests in our sacred text that we should choose tranquility over justice. So what might the God who stands up for the oppressed be calling us to in this moment?
Now more than ever, we are called to commit ourselves to the way of love that our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has been calling us to since he was elected five years ago. Because it is the way of love that will help us proclaim the dream of reconciliation, justice and healing.
So what might that way look like? These words from Curry might help.
“When I think about what love looks like [in this moment], I see us channeling our holy rage into concrete, productive and powerful action. In this moment, love looks like voting for leadership at the local, state, and federal level that will help us to make lasting reform. Love looks like calling on officials and demanding they fulfill their duty to protect the dignity of every child of God.
Love looks like making the long-term commitment to racial healing, justice and truth-telling — knowing that, without intentional, ongoing intervention on the part of every person of good will, America will cling to its original, racist ways of being.
Love looks like all of us — people of every race and religion and national origin and political affiliation — standing up and saying “Enough! We can do better than this. We can be better than this.”
The way won’t be easy. The path of love never is. Real change for the black and brown lives in our country will require more than posting supportive memes on Facebook and Instagram. Change will require educating ourselves about local, state and federal policies and then voting for those candidates who support justice for people of color. It will mean listening to the voices and experiences of those who have suffered injustice. Change requires looking within ourselves for the ways we are complicit in racist policies. And perhaps, hardest of all, real change will mean having difficult conversations with those we love who just aren’t convinced that we have a race problem in our country. And those things are probably just a start of lots of hard work that needs to be done.
The way of love might not be easy, but it’s the way Jesus calls us to follow. Tell the truth. Proclaim the Dream. That’s what Jesus would do. Amen.