The Episcopal Church is struggling, as are many denominations, with how to confront white supremacy and Christian nationalism. Surveys, focus groups, committees and meetings have been employed to explore, think and propose. Whether any of it leads to decisive action remains to be seen.
Assuming decisive action is intended, where might one look for guidance pointing the way? On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter to local clergy while he was incarcerated in the Birmingham jail. That was 58 years ago. It’s lost no currency in all those years, and may offer the guidance needed. Using it as a template, here are some observations that may be helpful as the church decides what to do. King made it clear that no progress can be made unless the morally committed are willing to present their bodies as non violent agents of the moral right, and accept the physical and emotional cost of doing it. One of our Eucharistic prayers declares that we will “offer…our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee…” Do we make that offering only at the altar, or as the earliest Christians did, are we to make it in the public arena also? King said that to confront injustice required direct action in the public arena, and that publicly confronting white supremacy would create uncomfortable public tension. Fear of tension is what keeps many good people, moderate in their ways, from doing anything. Creating tension, the right kind of tension, is the only way to “help people rise from the dark depth of prejudice.”
The people whom we must help rise from the dark depths are not the oppressed but the descendants of oppressors who are less aware than they need to be about the sources of their place and privilege. The church has tried, but decades of antiracism training were a waste of time. Attendees tended to be the already convinced spending a few hours self flagellating and pouring righteous moral indignation over the unenlightened who weren’t there and didn’t care. It didn’t work because the evils of white supremacism are systemic far more than they are issues of personal beliefs and prejudices. Citing Reinhold Niebuhr, King observed that individuals may see the moral light, but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. Immorality embedded in groups is systemic racism, and it is the system, more than individual beliefs and prejudices, that must be addressed.
The 20th century’s leading expert on reforming systems, W. Edwards Deming, was adamant that it’s the system, not the individual, that has to change if progress is to be made. And that requires understanding the data that defines the system. The system of racism, of which white supremacy is a part, cannot be fixed without understanding its data – its history. As King noted, it’s a history that has been hidden from public view for too long. He said that it’s, “like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light.” The story of the systems of racism must be told, dispassionately, in public, to everyone, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. That includes elements of white supremacy that are a part of Episcopal Church history. They also need the natural medicines of air and light.
The same is true for the church’s unintentional connection to Christian nationalism, recognizing that the line between Christian patriotism and Christian nationalism is not well marked. There was a time when the Episcopal Church was known for patriotism living side by side with the proclamation of the gospel. The flag processed with the cross, and took its place of prominence at the altar. Signs of it can still be found in some congregations where we “can see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (Mark 13). The story of Christian patriotism needs to be told, celebrated, and firmly disassociated from Christian nationalism. National symbols must be removed from the sanctuary that belongs to God alone.
White supremacy and Christian nationalism are related to the idea of American exceptionalism that has defined the nation’s self identity for over a century. The story of exceptionalism cannot be told without praising America’s rugged individualism epitomized by pioneers and cowboys. A central theme in the story is that all one needed to make a life for one’s self was the willingness to work hard and persevere, no thanks to the government, which was needed but not to be trusted. American worship of individualism has become a political idol too often subordinating Christ in congregational life. The entire history of our faith from Abraham to the book of Revelation is about the communities of families, cities and nations. Scripture describes God’s expectations for justice in the public policies of communities; Jesus broke down walls of separation to restore the outcast to community; the Revelation to John ends with the healing of the nations. Individualism, taken to extreme, separates the individual from the interconnectedness of community on which God says our well being depends. The good of the individual cannot be found except in the context of a healthy, just community in which the dignity of every human being is respected. Confronting white supremacy and Christian nationalism must focus on restoring a right balance between the virtues of individualism and the virtues of the good of the community.
There is another idol the church must deal with if it is to boldly confront white supremacy and Christian nationalism. It’s the golden calf of numbers, of butts in the pews. Church leaders are obsessed with declining numbers and how to better market the church. It tempts some to genuflect toward the trendy mendacity of what sells best this year. Others have given up, and are content to exist as inoffensive spiritual comfort stations until they fade away. The golden calf of numbers must go if the Episcopal Church is to be serious about confronting white supremacy and Christian nationalism. In its place, the church must boldly confront every practice that degrades human dignity. Either we stand for Jesus Christ or we don’t. King remind the clergy of Birmingham that Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego were willing to put their lives on the line rather than exchange the Lord God for a golden statue. He said, Jesus was wiling to be an extremist for love opposing hate, and put his life on the line. Bishop Curry has called us to follow Jesus in the way of love, and it’s hard to follow Jesus if one is too busy counting butts.
Once upon a time, the Episcopal Church was reputed to be the voice of genteel Christian paternalism relying on the inevitability of progress in good time. Whether true or not, that was its reputation. The Episcopal Church needs to build a new reputation of boldness as followers of Jesus. Confronting white supremacy and Christian nationalism requires heeding King’s warning not to become “…a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”
Letter from a Birmingham Jail