Rector's Blog: Incompletely White
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During one of our Lenten Series discussions, I saw a really beautiful moment of vulnerability, curiosity, and affection. I want to share it with you because I think it illustrates some of the head and heart work that’s being done in the name of Becoming Beloved Community. As most of our readers know at this point, Church of the Redeemer is currently engaging in The Episcopal Church’s Becoming Beloved Community initiative – a long-term commitment to racial justice, healing, and reconciliation. And we are devoting special energy to some of the more emotionally and spiritually demanding aspects of this commitment through our programming in Lent.
On Wednesdays we are working our way through the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers’ book The Church Cracked Open – a prophetic reflection on the history of racism and White Supremacy in the life and formation of the Episcopal tradition. This is a challenging read for our predominantly White congregation. It pushes us to confront some ugly truths of our tradition – truths like the Anglican Church’s blessing (both implicit and explicit) of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, or of The Episcopal Church’s inability to stand with Abolitionist movements prior to, and even following, the Civil War.
The term White Supremacy makes some of us squirm because we were taught that White Supremacists wore KKK robes or Neo-Nazi uniforms and belonged to militant organizations. Spellers, along with other Black leaders, corrects this notion. She reorients us around the reality that White Supremacy is a whole ideology and system that upholds White cultures, White ideas, White people, White communities, and Whiteness itself, as inherently superior. This definition makes sense – we see this all around us, this White Supremacist mentality – and it crosses political, ideological, religious, and socio-economic boundaries.
But it’s still painful for us to admit that it has had any effect on any of us.
I was raised with Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream that a person should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin ringing in my ears. So how could I be affected by racism? But of course, I was taught this quote by White people at a White school belonging to a White church in a White neighborhood. And, of course, who in my community was going to be doing the judging of people’s character? Well, White people, obviously – whom I was taught were impartial and unbiased.
The fact, then, that there were few Black people in my neighborhood, had to do with their preference and not redlining or historic segregation. The fact that Black people were disproportionately less wealthy, and disproportionately more heavily incarcerated must have to do with the content of their character, not the color of their skin – because we didn’t live in a country that was racist anymore. White Supremacy was for extremists – not good Christians like me and my family.
I was raised with that quote by the Rev. Dr. King but was taught that he spoke these words in a far-off past in a distant removed version of my country that had long since been conquered. I was not taught about the Episcopal bishops and priests who wrote to him asking him to tone down his rhetoric and stop pushing so hard for his vision of a country in which all people are treated as sacred and beloved. I was not encouraged to be taught by Dr. King himself, to be transformed by his sermons, to allow my understanding of God’s mighty presence in this world to be influenced by King’s theology or wisdom.
But anyway, back to our Wednesday night class. Our presenter was pointing to the Whiteness of our tradition, and part of the presentation included our liturgy – the way we worship. The way we worship is essential to Episcopalians. It is at the heart of our theology, our prayer life, our connection to God. It is precious to us. And in its current form and language, it has been created and engaged with predominantly by White people.
As we turned from the presentation towards the people at our table for a small group breakout discussion, one of our brilliant, beloved, thoughtful parishioners spoke up. “Well, I’ll just say it, and I guess I should be sorry, but I love our liturgy.” I love her. I love that she said this. This was exactly the right thing for her to say and exactly the right place for her to say it. And my immediate response was, “I love it too, and I don’t think you need to be sorry.” Because the point of the work of Becoming Beloved Community isn’t to make you feel bad or shame you for loving something that has shaped your relationship with God. The work is meant to open us up to the fact that, however beautiful our experience of God has been, it is incomplete because we have not allowed ourselves to be influenced by people who don’t look like us. The liturgy isn’t bad. It’s incomplete.
However beautiful our lives have been, they are incomplete because we have not allowed ourselves to be influenced, led, taught, pastored, challenged, pushed, transformed, forgiven and loved by people who don’t look like us. We are not bad people, finally learning to be good. We are incomplete people searching for the wholeness of God, and the wholeness of God’s creation as seen in the people we have historically ignored and marginalized.
Being White isn’t bad. Privileging Whiteness over other colors, cultures, and peoples is, in fact, bad – even if it feels normal and comfortable to us. Being White isn’t bad. Propping up Whiteness is bad. Because it creates an incomplete picture of the Kingdom of God. Refusing to be influenced by faithful Christians because they look, sound, or act differently than we are accustomed is a willful ignorance of the fullness of God’s presence in the church.
I wonder how reading this sits with you. I wonder where you feel it in your body when you sit with these ideas. If you are White like me, you may be feeling a bit of a sting. You may be feeling some defensiveness. When I get defensive as a Christian, I will often pointedly ask, “Where is the grace in this?” Indeed, where is the grace in this?
I see grace in the fact that we get to find out the truth now. That we don’t get to avoid it. We could have lived our whole lives ignorant to the fact of the White Supremacy that envelops us. God is actively pulling us up out of that ignorance and helping us to grow into the full stature of Christ, just as St. Paul prayed on our behalf. God will see an end to racism and White supremacy. It is an act of pure grace that we are being given the opportunity to partner with God in that work.
In our lifetime we will allow our lives, our liturgy, our theology, our community to be transformed by new relationships. This is grace. We haven’t even met all the people we are going to love and learn from yet. We haven’t even met all the people who are going to love us and share life with us. This is grace upon grace upon grace.
We are being asked to give up a picture of our incompletely White life so that we might embrace the wholeness of the Beloved Community for which God has been preparing us longer than we can fathom. The grace of it all is endless.
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