The Holy Task of Dismantling Racism
On Saturday, August 19th, I joined with tens of thousands of marchers processing through the streets of Boston speaking against acts of white supremacy. Again and again throughout the boisterous crowd I found Episcopal clergy, as well as other denominations. I marched alongside my wife and mother. We prayed, we sang, we chanted, we sweat, we saw people in our ranks thanking the Boston Police Department and we saw people in our ranks express anger and fear of the police.
It was a moving experience. It illustrated for me the great number of people of goodwill who are moved to respond to the sort of hatred that was on display in Charlottesville, Virginia, the week before. And it also showed me once again that there are many for whom this movement is about more than denouncing the most vile bigotry that takes shape in neo-Nazi’s or the KKK, but a life-and-death struggle with the insidious virus of systemic racism which impacts our American society and even the Church.
On Sunday, August 20th, I preached a sermon on Matthew 15: 21-28, the passage in which Jesus says to a Canaanite woman who is pleading with him to heal her daughter from a demon, “It is not fair to take the children’s food, and throw it to the dogs,” to which she responds “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
What follows is a condensed portion of my sermon:
Most of us bring to any Gospel passage the assumption that Jesus is the good guy, the hero. After all, he is our Lord, our Savior, the Son of God. Church doctrine teaches, in the words of the catechism, that Jesus is the only perfect image of God.
Even aside from all our doctrine and theology, I have realized over the years that I have an unconscious but powerful tendency toward black and white thinking. When I love, admire, or in this case worship someone, it is very hard to hear and believe that they have screwed up or hurt someone.
But when it comes to this Gospel, it’s awfully hard to make Jesus the hero.
In this instance it is this unnamed woman who seems to teach Jesus, to call him back to the way.
She calls him to live into what he knows is God’s vision, and so to be in integrity with himself, and healed in his own soul.
Before the messiah, She is one without power, she who has just suffered humiliation at the hands of Jesus, unexpectedly, amazingly she is the one who heals our great healer.
And all of us might ponder that if we can see even our Lord and Savior as being wrong, that we need to consider if the story of America is more complicated than we have been taught.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend the vitriol and hatred of White Nationalists spilled over into street violence, and one young woman was murdered by a young man and many others injured when he drove his car into a crowd of protestors. Two state police died on their way to help.
It is hard for me to know what to say about the horrible scene, but while it was a chilling reminder of the deadly racism that has come out of the shadows in our American society, I was not really surprised. The reality is this horrible scene is shocking only if you have not perceived or have ignored the uncomfortable reality that white supremacy runs deeper than the KKK or some small number of skinhead radicals.
Fr. Marcus Halley, an African American priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota wrote last week how painfully aware he was “that many of the young men carrying torches, issuing Nazi chants and salutes, and rallying around General Robert E. Lee, arch defender of the Confederate State of America, a rebellious nation founded, according to Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the confederacy, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” are baptized and raised by families who would define themselves as Christian.
If this is true, one of two other things must also be true: either our churches radicalized white supremacists by authenticating a dominant, racist narrative or we were derelict in our task of forming true Christian disciples by allowing these young people to become deformed by the sin of racial hatred.”
So often it is exactly the ones who have been beaten down and silenced who are bringing the awareness that heals the soul of those oppressing them. And at this moment, we have our own prophets who are calling us to contend with white supremacy. They are calling us to live into God’s vision and call, to be in integrity with ourselves, and so to be healed.
That healing is hard and painful and uncomfortable. It requires us to give up the belief that any of us, even our founding fathers, or our sacred and beloved institutions are uncomplicated heroes, unblemished good guys.
It is hard, and it is also an incredibly valuable gift, offered at great personal cost.
I for one am committing myself to being a better ally to people of color in dismantling racism. For too long I have been too busy, too complacent, too unprepared to do this work. While I’ve begun with small steps like seeking out more writers and thinkers of color to read and to follow on social media, I want to do more.
This coming year I will commit my Continuing Education budget and time to Anti-racism, and our Lenten Adult Formation Series will be based in anti-racism work. We will also offer something for our older youth.
This is a holy task and one that will require community, faith, humility and God’s grace.
I hope that you will join me in this work, and hold me accountable to the commitments I am making.