Thoughts on the occasion of Black History Month

Old St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where Absalom Jones and Richard Allen protested being assigned to the balcony by leading a walkout.

Old St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where Absalom Jones and Richard Allen protested being assigned to the balcony by leading a walkout.

Black History Month is here, and I have a few thoughts as an citizen and a would-be follower of Jesus.

Black History month came out of a need to tell more of the stories that shaped our nation, the stories of Black Americans.  Many of these are stories I never heard growing up.

First of all, Black History month is an opportunity to learn from the story of someone like Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, whose feast day in our calendar is February 13.  On that occasion we remember how in 1787 he and other black parishioners of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia were told one Sunday morning that they had to sit in the balcony.  The white members of the church had met without these brothers and sisters and decided this all on their own.  Absalom Jones and his friend Richard Allen walked out that morning with other black parishioners.  They were received as a group by the Episcopal bishop of Philadelphia, and eventually Absalom was ordained priest and served the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, while Richard Allen eventually started the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Alexander Crummell

Alexander Crummell

Black History month also reminds me of the refusal of the General Theological Seminary (my alma mater) to receive Alexander Crummell (born 1819) as a student.   Why?  He was black.  This learned man went on to graduate from Cambridge University and be ordained, and to found the Union of Black Episcopalians after it was proposed that a separate missionary district be founded for African-American Episcopalians.

There's lots to celebrate in terms of overthrown barriers to fellowship in the Church.  We have an African-American Presiding Bishop, after all.  That couldn't have happened in the earliest days of our church.

So where are we with racism in this country?

I remember a conversation a few years ago at a summertime family picnic when a relative asserted that racism in America was over.  As proof, this family member - a white man - cited personal experience in military service as evidence that equality between the races is here.

In that the military was de-segregated very early on, it's not surprising that my relative would have a perception of equality.

I don't agree that racism is over.  There are plenty of signs it is alive in America. Just today I read about high school students at a basketball game on the East Coast throwing racial slurs at each other.  Students at a Christian high school, no less.  That's the kind of evidence of racism that isn't hard to find these days, sadly.  The lack of leadership at the highest levels of society is encouraging this trend.

Racism isn't simply a matter of these kinds of actions, however.  Racism is not just discrete actions that people do.  Racism is evident in lasting social structures that privilege one part of society over another.  For example: Michelle Alexander's ground-breaking book The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, opened my eyes and the eyes of many others to the issue of mass incarceration in this country, and of the overwhelming degree to which African Americans are represented in the prison population in a way disproportionate to their presence in society.  The tour of history through which she takes us and the way in which she links history to the present-day realities cannot be easily dismissed, and an agenda for reform in our justice system becomes more clearly apparent.

The discussion of racism is really difficult these days.  Some people want to be labeled as racist, and they've been emboldened of late.  Few people, however, actually want to be labeled as racist.  I know that I don't.  Conversations about race easily lead to feelings of defensiveness, because most of us don't think of ourselves as being purposefully offensive.  We probably think of ourselves as personally liberated from racist attitudes.   We don't want to offend.

I believe Christ can help us out here.   He commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He told us in no uncertain terms that we were not in a position to decide who our neighbor is and isn't.

Love of neighbor entails certain disciplines, like the discipline of humbling oneself to hear what another person has to say.  And I believe that if I'm listening only with a defensive attitude to a story that may not be what I want to hear, I'm not going to be able to hear what's being said.

The Scriptures are frank about structures of oppression, those "evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God" that our Baptismal rite asks us to renounce.  The Letter to the Ephesians, for example, is frank about the fact that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."   Slavery and Jim Crow laws are examples of those powers which corrupted and destroyed, and that kind of thing doesn't happen in society without lasting effects to our present day.  The struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the Civil Rights movement was the struggle against these principalities and powers as manifest in lynchings and beatings and abuse hurled at our brothers and sisters who only sought recognition of the dignity with which they were endowed by our Creator.  Those principalities and powers were also manifest in practices like real-estate "red-lining" and the other remnants of Jim Crow which persisted so long.

Christians must acknowledge the enduring power of these forces, and are given power by the Holy Spirit to resist these powers.  This - and here I'm speaking to my fellow members of the white majority in this country - means a stance of humility, which allows us to listen to the stories that are emerging, and to be part of the healing.

There is coming a day, after all, in the not-to-distant future, when people of Northern European descent will be in the minority in this country.   That's me and my descendants.  Demographers are showing us a different world ahead than the one many of us considered normative in our youth.

How we face this reality has a lot to do with where we are grounded spiritually.   Are we grounded in God?

Speaking to the Athenians, the Apostle Paul said:

"From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’"   (Acts 17:26-28)

Grounded in the knowledge that we're all God's offspring, and that God is just and merciful and kind and forgiving, we can face our future with hope.

The choice is ours.