Heresy

Feeling Safe and Secure without Grief or Lament

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

The above passage is the Hebrew Scripture reading  for today (Sunday September 25th, 2016, proper 21)  according to the Revised Common Lectionary. As I prepared the sermon today I could not shake that this word of Amos’ could be addressed to White Christians (and White people in general). The response to police shootings repeatedly shows a general inability by many white people to grieve for the loss of life. Rather, in general the attitude of whites is to immediately turn to questioning the actions of the victim of the shooting. I didn’t preach on this, but this leads me to wonder what is the source of our inability (as White people) to grieve, to lament, to weep with Black folks? Why is it that if you are White ones first response to a Police shooting of a black person isn’t lament and grief but defense and justification?

Part of the problem is the story we tell ourselves about America and its moral and ideological superiority, and its destiny on the world stage. This story we tell ourselves is why the action of refusing to stand for the national anthem, by Kaepernick and others following him, elicits such an angry response.  The anthem and the flag (and pledge of allegiance) are the central sacred objects of this story.  To suggest, as Kaepernick’s protest suggests, that racism and white supremacy is at the core of our mythology and that it taints the sacred objects of our civil religion shakes the security of those who are secure in the conviction of  the innate goodness and rightness of America: its institutions, mythology, and civil religion. White Americans are, not surprisingly, offended by the suggestion that what we hold sacred isn’t so holy.

(If you are a person of color who sees something useful in the American mythology for bringing about the remedy to your continued oppression and unequal treatment, I’m not criticizing your use of that mythology for your own ends. I’m speaking of how the mythology also works against liberation among white Christians, and whites generally.)

Because of our clinging to this narrative of American destiny as guardians of liberty, if we grieve it isn’t necessarily  over the injustice, oppression, and pain, but is over our loss of innocence and  feeling secure in our goodness.

The difficulty Whites have with truly grieving for and with the victims of police murder and violence is due to the depths and extent of racism and white supremacy. White supremacy is entangled within the philosophies, ideologies, and faith we’ve been taught to revere.  To admit that racism is still a problem, to admit that our system is still (even after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement) racist and white supremacist shakes us to our core. It is difficult to understand how we haven’t reformed racism out of our system, therefore the problem can’t be with the system, it can’t be the police so it must be the victim of police violence.

But this is where the mythology works against seeing the truth. We can’t accept that Francis Scott Key as a slaveholder didn’t have African-Americans in mind as citizens of “land of the Free and home of the Brave”. This is the problem : those that instituted our sacred institutions and mythology and ideology had themselves in mind and people like them and not people of color.

For White Christians what stands in the way of grief is the causes of the division between white and black, white and people of color in  American Christianity. We often talk about the White and Black Church as if that separation of Christianity into white and black was some accident enforced upon the church by some external force. Worse still we talk about the black church forming without recognizing that the Black church formed because white Christians refused to worship with and ordain Black Christians. Whites left the black Christians or forced them out, not the other way around. Denominations that are White or predominantly White today have yet to really face and renounce what created them.

When white people choose to remember their immigrant origins, we tend not to recall that we are here in part due to deliberate quota’s that favored Europeans over other immigrant groups. We don’t think about the huge swath of land now owned by white people who were European immigrants isn’t an accident of amoral and natural forces of history but due to U.S. Government policy with the full cooperation and consent of White Christianity, It was due to the deliberate policy of the  U.S. government toward Native American people, and recruitment of poor Europeans to settle land taken from Native Americans as they were rounded up on small tracks of unwanted land.

In order to grieve what is happening in our streets requires no longer sitting securely in our comfort and safe place of America: no longer sitting comfortable in the belief that we are slowly progressing away from ignorance into enlightenment. We aren’t’ here because people didn’t know better back then.  No! Whites and White Christians seared their conscience and then created reasoned justifications to support a system that was to their benefit.

I’ve written subsequently about how my immigrant Swedish family through our settling Wisconsin and California play into what I’m talking about above. But even this second blog post is just beginning to tease out the depths of our racist system, what lies behind the persistence of systemic racism in spite of reforms and the reformers. What I believe is that this all persists because it is in the very structure of our society, it wasn’t that Racism and White supremacy wasn’t an add on after the U.S.A and the global economic system we inhabit it is in the very structure and foundation of everything we know.

Edited on October 18th, 2016

NPTS Symposium Race and Racism , Ecclesiology, and a Confession

The opening session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Race and Racism Dr. Love L. Sechrest of Fuller Theological Seminary presented the paper “Enemies, Romans, Pigs, and, Dogs: Loving the Other in the Gospel of Matthew”.  The paper is synthetic drawing together critical race theory “research into the identity and ways of being allies for racial justice” and the Gospel of Matthew’s presentation of enemies and enemy love.   The paper also draws Whites, Blacks and People of Color into a place of meeting around the challenge of enemy love by simultaneously problematising enemy love (or simplistic and mono-logical applications of this clear Gospel mandate) and upholding it by allowing for differing interpretations and applications of what this call to love our enemies means.  This last bit came out more in the discussion of the paper than in the presentation of the paper itself.  In this session both Sechrest’s presentation, in the response by Rev.  Rebecca Gonzales,of the Evangelical Covenant Church, and in the discussion we were invited into a communal space where the tensions and the ambiguities of race, racism, and our attempts to overcome racism could come in contact with the Gospel and the tensions and ambiguities we find in the Gospels themselves, in particular the Gospel of Matthew.

In response to this I feel the need to come out with a confession I’ve been working up to publishing here at Priestly Goth.  I confess my own failure to see the impact and extent of racism as it affects Christianity and Christian institutions.  When in 2004, I, an American Baptist, and, soon to be Episcopal Priest began an ecumenical church plant Church of Jesus Christ Reconciler, we were troubled by the Whiteness of our endeavor.  I argued that the racial segregation of Christians and the denominational divisions were separate issues, saying that the division of Christians among denominations had to be dealt with first.  I don’t remember how strenuously I had to argue this, but I don’t recall much if any resistance to this idea.  We ultimately consoled ourselves that a ministry and church planting vision couldn’t deal with every issue. We were focused on Ecumenism and seeking to heal and move beyond denominational division and separation.

I now look back on that and wonder at how I didn’t see  racial segregation as the more basic division.  More to the point, I wonder at how I didn’t see the racial segregation in Christian institutions in the United States as a sign of a deep ecclesiological heresy.  Though, I know how I couldn’t see it , because I saw racism in Christianity and the Church and racial segregation in congregational and institutional life as something imposed from outside American Christians institutions, rather than as the consequence of an internal distortion of the Gospel and of White Christian ecclesiology.   I failed to see how race and racism was a creation of Europeans as White with Blacks at the bottom of a moral and ontological hierachy with other people of color in a spectrum in between.  This system was  invented to justify enslavement of Africans.  The backing up of this claim I will not go into at the moment, but will only reference James Cone and Willie Jennings (and others).

I confess that in my ministry I put off racism in Christian institutions as secondary, or as something that was merely an external impulse and not of primary concern of the Gospel or of what it means to be church. This was a blindness.  I can account for this blindness but that doesn’t excuse a refusal to address the racist conditions that persist in our Christian institutions, the symptom of which is our continued segregation.

I was encouraged by Sechrest own admission of the difficulty in facing and working towards ending this situation.  She said multiple times as she addressed  questions about dealing with this, that the questions were important but that she didn’t have clear or easy answers.

I have some thoughts of a way I think Whites should approach answering the questions that arise as we face the depth of the failure with which the segregation in our Christian institutions and congregation presents us.  To begin answering this I will speak first from a theological perspective:  I believe it in part  is to recognize that the segregation represents for Whites an acceptance and perpetuation of an ecclesiological heresy, and as such we need to confess that Whites are the ones who separated from Blacks and people of color.  In our speech and attitudes we need to stop perpetuating the narrative of the black Churches “leaving” and separating from White Churches.  It was Christian Whites who divided themselves off from other humans and Christians, not the other way around.

(Edited, 9/30/2015, primarily for grammar and clarity, content is unchanged)