DWELLING IN THE QUESTIONS

BY BISHOP STEVE BREEDLOVE

SEPTEMBER 30TH,2016

It’s been a tough, tough season of racial conflict in our country. How could anyone not be deeply troubled by the drumbeat: police killings of blacks, violent anti-police protests, retaliatory killings of police, heated controversy over the facts of what happened, and persistent racial tension? During the violence in Charlotte, Archbishop Foley Beach called Anglicans to pray daily for peace and to strengthen relationships with Christians across racial lines. 

 

With Charlotte raging a couple of hours from our door, I knew I should write a pastoral letter to the Diocese about racial issues. But as I prayed about what to say, sadly I found little personal raw material in my soul for this project. 

 

I grew up during the Civil Rights movement. I admire and like non-whites pretty much at the same percentage as whites. (But truth be told, I really don’t know many non-whites well enough to call them friends.) I pray for the growth of multi-ethnic congregations and clergy in the DCH: when that possibility presents itself, I am thrilled. Nonetheless, I now realize that the issues we thought we had put to bed are still with us, more systemic, more deeply entrenched, than we realized. 

 

Could it be that most of us live our entire lives on our own turf, on one side of a divide that is so wide that we’ve forgotten “the other side” exists? When people come to our turf we welcome them. When we find ourselves on their turf, old criticisms, fears, and insecurities reappear.  

 

With so little to work with from my own life, I began praying for my own heart and for scriptural guidance; and I reached out to a friend who has spent years seeking a Gospel-shaped life across this racial divide. He and his wife recently moved to a home in a mixed, low-income neighborhood (like the one they lived in before). During the first ten days in this new home, they suffered two acts of destructive vandalism and two eggings. I challenged him, “Do you think this is a safe place?” He said, “It doesn’t matter: this is where God wants us to live.” I figured he knew things I needed to think about. Over the course of a 90-minute conversation, he planted three ideas I’d like to pass on.

 

1. In this moment, we’re being forced to think about racism as more systemic than we ever imagined. We are suddenly realizing it is built into the power systems of our society – government, commerce, and yes, religion. 

 

Think about it:

  • What drove cultural (and true) Christians to leave Europe, “discover” new lands, and establish colonial empires? The boats usually carried four types of people: merchants, soldiers, settlers, and priests. Even if some (all) of the priests came in love to fulfill the Great Commission, they were wrapped tightly together with those who came to conquer, take, and own. Have we yet disentangled the Church from that web?

  • We attempted to address racism as a matter of justice in the ‘60’s, but we have not begun to address racism in our hearts. Test it this way: what vision do you have across racial lines? What do feel when you see certain people who look certain ways? What is the shape and color of the face of beauty? Who looks smart? Who do you imagine in front of the classroom, teaching you? Who do you imagine listening to from the pulpit? What color are the hands that give you the Eucharist? 

  • Imagine yourself on a downtown street late at night: what does “danger” look like in your imagination – a young black man, a group of drunk white college males, a heavily tatted white man in a wife beater, or a policeman? 

  • (Not from this conversation, but from an article I read): What would you think / feel if, in the very deepest roots of your racial memory, the government of your country had legally sanctioned the enslavement of your people? If your existence in a particular culture started with injustice excused by economic gain? When “finally being treated with a modicum of justice” has cost millions of lives over centuries? 

 

2. White people have been talking about how to solve racism for a long time. Black people have not gotten to speak about it. We talk when in fact, we should be listening. 

 

Think about it:

  • Will we listen to the voice of disenfranchisement? Powerless people grow angry – a wife in an oppressive marriage, laity in local church with a tightly-held leadership system, or an entire race. When those who have been silenced and ignored finally begin to speak, it is often inappropriately. But will we respond to anger by listening, even if all we hear at first is incoherent yelling? 

  • Will the Church ever start to listen instead of seeking to set the agenda for the solution? Will we make a space for non-whites to lead the conversation? Last summer I tried to read The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, the biography of a young black Yale graduate from Newark. It was so depressing, so tragic and heartbreaking, I couldn’t finish it. Am I willing to finish listening now? 

  • Will we at least listen to others who are further down the road than we are in this matter? Nearby are faithful Christians – some in our own Diocese – who have been seriously listening and learning since before Ferguson started our most recent series of tragedies.

 

3. Simply put, where would Jesus be in the context of our current racial storm? Where will we actually find him standing, talking, listening, and responding? 

 

Think about it:

  • It’s hard for us to go back to biblical times in our imagination, but who did Jesus actually spend time with? Who did he honor in his stories? The Samaritan was the hated and despised “other.” Nicodemus was scorned by all. The Roman centurion was the feared symbol of injustice wielded with power. In that context, where would Jesus be on the streets of Charlotte? With the angry black mobs? With the beleaguered and hated police? Where would he be in the life of the young, earnest Christian black policeman who, for reasons yet to be fully understood, shot the black man that fateful afternoon? 

  • Let the Lord Jesus be our personal judge. Let go of pride, privilege and presumption, and walk where Jesus would be walking. I mean really walk. Listen to the pain, the anger, and the fear. As we listen to people, listen to Jesus: what does Jesus say to us? 

  • Acting ethically (righteously) as a Christian is not first about having the correct facts about a particular crisis: it is about being with people who are in pain with Christlike compassion. 

  • Every time we think we’ve made a pretty place (or a perfect life) where Jesus is comfortable, we may wake up someday and realize he is somewhere else. 

 

Finally, what Scriptures, or scriptural principles, guide us? 

  • We know little from the New Testament about the racial composition of the early church, but the rebuke of racism is consistent. “There is no longer Jew nor Greek . . .” Jesus’ actions across racial lines shocked his Jewish contemporaries, but Acts 13:1 describes a racially mixed leadership team without comment. People have always been people – with power systems, “haves and have nots,” and systemic injustice. But those injustices in the Roman Empire seem to have been built around economics and nationalities more than race. 

  • The Patristic Church was far more racially mixed than the churches of our Diocese. Many of the Church Fathers had dark skin. There was never a sense that race had anything to do with intelligence, education, spirituality, or leadership in the Patristic world. 

  • The picture of the Church in heaven inspires our imaginations: “People from every tribe and nation and tongue gathered around the throne of the Lamb.” We believe we are already New Creation people living as exiles in the old creation world, and we are meant to embody that eternal reality in every way we can. We will be finally and fully transformed into the image of Christ when we see him, so we seek to live as transformed people now. In the same way, we must help the Church now to act like the Church that will be. 

  • We are called to follow the Incarnate Lord. In achieving our redemption, he spanned an unimaginable gulf and lived in a poor, hard-scrabble, violent and hate-filled place. (Read N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God for a realistic picture of society in Jesus’ time.) How can we limit the call to follow Christ to seeking our own safety as the ultimate good? 

 

I’m not pretending to have answers. I don’t. I’m not even pretending that these are my questions and thoughts. They aren’t. I don’t have much to say out of my own experience or conviction. I’m still thinking and praying. If I have one firm exhortation, it’s this: It’s time to listen to someone else. Those who are further from the center of privilege than I am. The people who are the “other,” who are in pain and fear and anger (police, blacks, poor whites, whoever). Most of all, time to listen to Jesus, my Lord. 

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