Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
“Hontar: We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.
Altamirano: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.”
-Robert Bolt, The Mission
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
-William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Whatever your opinion of Barack Obama, you can’t deny the last full week of June was kind to him, climaxing on Friday as he celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage and delivered a moving eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, killed in the terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
I’ll let others dissect the political implications of Mr. Obama’s recent good fortune. I’ll likewise refrain from comment on the same sex marriage decision. I have good friends on both sides of that issue, some of whom – again on both sides – have been treated quite shabbily by those with whom they disagree. This week’s readings point through the news to something deeper.
What might it mean for North American Christians that the first mixed-race President of the United States spent a morning in June, 2015 cheering a political milestone for gays and lesbians, and that same afternoon eulogizing an African-American man murdered, along with eight others, because of the color of his skin? This ought to matter. Even in an era of much-discussed church decline, the world in which these events occur is – for good or ill – much as we have made it.
Consider the contrast:
Less than fifty years after the Stonewall Riots, gays and lesbians may legally marry throughout the United States. That’s hardly the end of the story, but the transformation in public opinion has been breathtakingly fast. I hope, as the divided churches grapple with this and other social shifts, our conversations can honor and reflect the divine image of those with whom you or I might individually disagree.
One hundred and fifty years after the thirteenth amendment outlawed slavery, however, the half-hidden wound of American racism still festers, an abscess sometimes talked about but never lanced.
Now, sixty years after a unanimous court rejected “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, many children of color – black, brown, and red – still attend local schools demonstrably inferior to those in nearby white neighborhoods.
Now, more than fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an angry white man murders black men and women at a Bible study and six black churches are torched in one week. (I have to admit, as a white member of an overwhelmingly African-American Catholic parish, I spend more time than perhaps I should sizing up unfamiliar white visitors in the pews on Sunday. I am, it seems, less welcoming than my black sisters and brothers.)
Now, six years after the election of Barack Obama supposedly heralded a transition to a post-racial America, a series of unarmed black men are killed by police (of all races) or mysteriously die on the way to jail. I could go on, but I suspect none of this comes as news.
Why won’t the wound heal? So-called conservatives offer individual explanations and solutions, stressing individual responsibility, moral values, and market solutions. So-called liberals prefer social diagnoses and state remedies, advocating government-backed interventions and procedural uniformity. Both responses have merit. Both shift blame and responsibility onto others: “those poor folk,” “those racists,” “those Southerners,” “those backward-looking people on the wrong side of history.”
Such self-serving projections rely on two highly-developed American skills: selective historical amnesia and divorcing the present from the past. The trouble is, a physician can’t properly diagnose and treat her patient without first obtaining an accurate history. The myth that race-based slavery was a uniquely Southern financial concern is demonstrably false. Slavery enriched men living on former Narragansett and Shawnee land as much as those living on land taken from the Cherokee and Choctaw. Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner flew over a military post in a slaveholding state in a slavery-dependent country.
Yet “the news,” produced by an industry that celebrates only the most superficial forms of diversity, turns the Charleston massacre into a heated debate on the Confederate battle flag. Surely so divisive a symbol ought not be celebrated on what passes for public ground, but consigning the battle flag to a museum demands almost nothing from people like me: no confession of historical complicity, no widening of my social imagination, no change of my heart.
On matters of race, the vast majority of white Americans are like dry drunks. We’re proud of our short term willpower even as we seek the next quick fix to out of control drinking: preferably a medication or mental gimmick, anything but the unrelenting public honesty required for lasting change in character. It’s as much a failure of imagination as a failure of will.
On this Sunday, one day after the Fourth of July, our readings speak pointedly to those members of the Body of Christ whose imagination, if not necessarily their skin, happens to be white. It is precisely that Christian imagination Willie James Jennings diagnoses as diseased, first in its racialized rejection of the Jewish people and then by the subjugation of non-European peoples whose lands colonizers claimed as their own.
The message of today’s readings are simple: a prophet is sent to us, a rebellious people, and we – who claim to know his history better than he does – choose not to listen. In the end, Jesus is unable to do any mighty deeds among us apart from curing a few sick people.
Healing the wound of racism demands mighty deeds, but we are too fond of reassuring myths to open ourselves to God’s grace. We misremember history, forgetting that we are complicit in grave historical sin, and not merely as accessories after the fact. Remembering rightly is difficult, particularly on July Fourth.
National Public Radio used to read the Declaration of Independence on the air every Fourth of July, with various NPR commentators taking turns as narrator. It was a well-produced set piece. Voice and music swelled magnificently at Jefferson’s handy definition of a dogma: “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” but they kept going, reading the entire text, complete and unabridged. So when at the end of a long list of grievances against the King, I heard them read:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages,whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,
I first remembered the violence following the Earl of Dunmore’s 1775 proclamation, offering emancipation to slaves in the colony of Virginia who left their owners and joined the Royal forces. Less than two thousand men ultimately reached Dunmore to form the core of his “Ethiopian Regiment,” but the same Continental Congress that would soon issue the Declaration of Independence urged white Virginians to suppress this domestic insurrection “to the uttermost.” Perhaps that’s one reason why Abraham Lincoln construed the carnage of the Civil War as blood atonement for the sin of slavery.
I remembered the Long Walk, the 1863-4 US military campaign led by Kit Carson against the Navajo people, a trial run of the merciless total war approach US generals Sheridan and Sherman would use first on the South and later on the Native peoples of the West: a highly effective, if morally indefensible, “destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” I’ve worked with Native children long enough to know that the war against their people is far from over.
I remembered the diseased Christian imagination that made such American actions not only thinkable but perfectly natural. To be sure, these injustices and many others – the Fugitive Slave Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, off-reservation boarding schools, and eugenic sterilization – were often clothed in secular sentimentalities like freedom, democracy, and progress and buttressed with what passed at the time as scientific justification, but both root and branch remain recognizably Christian.
These sins are our own.
In my tradition’s liturgical practice, serious sin demands spoken confession, true contrition, firm purpose of amendment, and, when possible, tangible restitution. I don’t know who will hear my confession of the sin of racism, but I hope to confess without, please God, turning it into one more showy display of white guilt. I don’t know what restitution could possibly suffice for my complicity in the sins of the Christian racial imagination, but I hope I do better than Jefferson, whose lofty words on equality and liberty were never matched by costly action.
Perhaps one day the United States will create an equivalent to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which listens to the many voices of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples in order to name and then address the many wrongs of the Canadian past. I fear, however, that the American people lack the civility, moral language, and shared historical awareness for such a process to begin in my lifetime. Perhaps not even in the lives of my children.
Christians have no such excuse, though our track record is equally dismal. Our failures have never resulted from lack of resources, though. Ezekiel prophesied mercy to us and we did not listen. Christ lived among us as a Jewish peasant and we did not listen. Our brothers and sisters cry out for justice and we do not listen.
With God’s grace, perhaps we can learn to listen now: listen to the voices of sisters and brothers we have for so long chosen to ignore; listen to other versions of a history we presume to already know. It won’t come easy, accustomed as we are to telling others what’s going on. Some of what we hear will be difficult to accept. In order to listen, we must shut our mouths and open our hearts. It’s a necessary first step in what will likely be a very long process of naming wounds and making restitution. If anyone catches us speaking, may it be in the context of today’s responsorial psalm, “Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy.”
It’s precious little and costs us next to nothing, but it’s a start.