Yesterday, I was struck by the Gospel lesson in the daily office, towards the end when Jesus confronts the racism of his fellow Jews by citing biblical examples of how God extended favor to the Gentiles when one might have expected special blessings for his special chosen people instead. This reading – within the context of the seeming never-ending news stories that split our national conscience into black lives vs. blue lives, whether true Patriotism is best expressed by standing in honor or kneeling in protest, the conviction by many that we’ve done enough to rectify the sins of slavery and Jim Crow against those whose experience speaks otherwise – stirred me to want to address this issue pastorally online. But then I got caught up by the busy-ness of the day and allowed life get in the way.
But the Holy Spirit has a way of keeping our feet to the fire. One of the native sons of St Francis now transplanted to metro D.C. shared inspiring photos on Facebook of his momentous time at the star-studded gala before today’s opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Then I ran into this heartfelt post from a black, Episcopal, professor of New Testament studies. I cannot be silent any longer.
Somerset County is the kind of place where anyone non-white is scarce. The handful of African-Americans who live in a 5 mile radius of St Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church are fairly well-regarded by the people I know. But the bulk of the African-American population statistically in this county are housed in our two nearby State Correctional Institutions. That reinforces the perception that the sporadic black person on the street is “one of the good ones” (an epithet well-known in South, but conveniently out-of-sight-out-of-mind here just a stone’s-throw North of the Mason/Dixon).
This is also the kind of place where being part of the God/Guns/Apple Pie demographic (an epithet from the other side – equal opportunity) is almost a given. The ease with which default Christian faith and American patriotic feeling blend borders on, and sometimes crosses into, syncretism. This is after all, where a giant Stars and Stripes greets you right off the PA Turnpike, and where Flight 93 is in our backyard. We forget Jesus wasn’t American as easily as we forget our black neighbors are.
I hate conflict. I hate choosing sides. I am convinced the black vs. blue battles we’re fighting culturally are only leaving us more bruised. But in a place like Somerset, I must stand with Jesus and call out our cultural racism. Saying black lives matter is not an attack on the police. Protesting our country’s faults is equally as patriotic as taking off your ballcap for the national anthem. We are quick to have an opinion and share, but very slow to listen to those with whom we disagree.
I have heard racist comments roll off people’s tongues in my parish and at the stores in town without the speakers’ awareness of how bigoted what they said was. I can look back at things I’ve done or said, as I continue to grow in my understanding of how, even in my mixed-race upbringing, white privilege and racist undercurrents have shaped my thoughts. So I am not without guilt in pointing the finger. It’s easy to wag a finger at the people who put up Confederate flags around here. It’s harder to think that maybe not every traffic stop is justified, not every comment about poverty is about economics, and not every person you don’t give the benefit of the doubt to has earned that suspicion except through unspoken fears based on skin color. Somerset is a racist place. But for a long time, we haven’t had to face it since so few people of color cross our paths. But the world is only getting smaller. And with an election coming up, our attitudes, ethics, and beliefs will shape the lives of those who are not-white, not-Christian, not-privileged, not-given the benefit of the doubt, not-really afforded equal opportunity…by the simple act of our casting a ballot. The time to slide by with inaction is over. It’s time to examine ourselves and stop being part of the problem. We need to do our part to secure a less racist society for the next generation. Race does matter; Jesus said so!