This is not a public statement. It’s not a call to action. It is a personal and pastoral theological reflection.
Two theological truths must inform any discussion of racism in any form. First, every man, woman, and child is created in and bears the image and likeness of God. For this reason alone, every human person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter their behavior. Second, God always has a “preferential option” for reconciliation. Christ came to break down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) through his shed blood on the cross. Reconciliation is not merely an aspect of the gospel or a by-product of the gospel; it is of the essence of the gospel.
Therefore … Black Lives Matter.
It’s vital that we be able to say those words. Some recoil from this, and counter with “all lives matter.” With respect, I believe they miss the point. Of course all lives matter. Nobody contests that. The reason it’s important to be able to say that black lives matter is because black lives are inordinately in jeopardy in our society. To affirm that black lives matter doesn’t imply that they matter more than other lives. It means that they matter as much as other lives.
It should not be necessary to say this. But neither should it be necessary for people with other-than-European physical features to have to walk our sidewalks and drive our streets with ever-vigilant attention to how their mere appearance might cause those around them to feel threatened. It is not right that those with dark skin should have to fear an encounter with the police even when they have not done anything wrong. Those who testify from personal experience that these things are necessary deserve to be believed and taken seriously. I am an older white (though some have advised me to claim being Latino due to my Brazilian birth) male. I have the privilege of making certain assumptions about how I will be received as I move about in the world. I am able to do so with confidence and with a presumption of safety. It’s all completely unconscious; I never give it a second thought. There is nothing wrong with that privilege. What’s wrong is that such privilege has been dreadfully slow in being extended to others who do not look like me.
What I am describing is called systemic racism. It’s not the same as the overt sort of racism that sees one racial or ethnic group as inherently superior to another. I was a child and teenager during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I visited my grandparents in the south and saw the Jim Crow era firsthand. Such views do still exist, but they have been publicly (and appropriately) shamed into the dark shadows. The history of the Diocese of Springfield is not free of embarrassment in this regard. During the racial tumult in Cairo around the turn of the last century, there seems to be evidence that Episcopalians were complicit in efforts that we would not see as on the right side of justice. For a long while, there were two parishes there–one black, one white–served by the same (white) priest who, by some accounts, played the two off one another to further the end of separation. This is one reason I have been so committed to the diocese supporting ministry in Cairo, including a present outreach initiative that primarily benefits black youth. We have a lot for which to atone.
In Springfield, we have St Luke’s, which has been described as “historically black.” The congregation was formed as part of response to race riots in the early 1900s. I know of no presently manifest tensions between St Luke’s and the other two churches in Springfield. But it would be less than honest to suggest that there have been no racially-based difficulties among the Springfield churches over many of the decades of the past century.
In contrast to these examples of direct racial animus, systemic racism is not rooted in overt feelings of hostility. Decent and well-intentioned people, who may be able to truthfully say “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” can be participants in systemic racism. It isn’t a question of character or personal morality. It’s not a phenomenon that exists at an individual level at all. It is, rather, a social evil, a collective sin. One might compare it to a case of metastasized cancer. It requires careful scrutiny to backtrack through a complex chain of causes and effects, systematically identifying and replacing habitual patterns that perpetuate the privilege of those who have power and influence just because of the color of their skin, and prevents those of a different skin color from attaining power and influence.
Neither the Diocese of Springfield nor the Episcopal Church will ever be able to “fix” either personal or systemic racism. We are but small cogs in a much larger machine. (The apparatus of secular politics will not fare any better than the church.) Tempting as it may be to think of it as a pressing emergency, it’s more like an ongoing struggle, a struggle that has a place in the larger context of the Church’s gospel mission in the world. At the current moment, this issue is appropriately demanding its place in the limelight, and we do well to attend to it. But it will be with us until Jesus returns in power and glory to make all things new.