Monday, December 01, 2008
Slavery and Racism: The long road to reconciliation and healing
Personal note as preface: The legacy of slavery and racism is as painful, complicated and difficult to examine as the scars left by the master's whip on the slave's back.
There are no easy solutions, no easy path on the difficult road to reconciliation and healing. Indeed, it is about this particular journey that the old expression about the road to hell being paved with good intentions seems to have been created.
What follows is an open letter from the Rev'd Canon Ed Rodman about the recent attempt by the institutional Episcopal Church to repent of racism. It is Ed Rodman at Ed Rodman's best - intelligent, clear, focused and prophetic.
I encourage you to read this, which Mark Harris, a fellow member with Ed of The Executive Council, posted to the House of Bishop/Deputies Listserv as well as on his own blog (http://anglicanfuture.blogspot.com/2008/11/unintended-consequences-of-unexamined.html). I have posted it as well as my own (http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com).
This is not intended to provoke 'white guilt' or produce liberal knee-jerk mea culpas much less to open old wounds. I hope, like Mark and Ed, that this letter prompts honest conversation, intelligent thought and deeper prayer.
Further, I hope that our diocesan convention, in light of this open letter, will allow a late resolution which encourages the suggestion offered by Canon Rodman: to encourage General Convention "to consider some major event at the General Convention in which a better expression of the intent of the resolution could be made manifest and the several dioceses who have attempted to do the historical research as requested by the resolution in other sections might have a national platform to educate the church on their findings."
I hope other dioceses will also support this suggestion.
It's a long road home, but even the longest journey begins with the first step. And sometimes, we have to retrace our steps on that 'stony road we trod' to the liberation promised of Jesus..
An Open Letter to Various Leaders in The Episcopal Church on the Evolving
Implementation of the 2006 General Convention Resolution A123
It is with some trepidation that I feel called to write this open letter at this time. I would ask you to indulge me by taking the time to read it in its entirety so that any things that you may have heard or assumed about my various public statements on this issue can be viewed in their full context.
This letter is intended to affirm, educate, chastise, and invite us to a deeper dialogue toward the beloved community. Before I begin I should make certain biographical comments, for those who do not know who I am, so that you can appreciate that this comes from a working knowledge of much that has brought us to this point on this issue.
I am a sixty-six year old Black Episcopal priest, who has served his Church as faithfully as I have been able since my ordination in 1967, prior to that I was a history and political science major at Hampton Institute in Virginia, and one of the founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Hence I can claim a forty-eight year history as an advocate forsocial justice and an unyielding opponent of all forms of oppression.
During my career I have had the pleasure of helping to found the Union of Black Episcopalians (originally UBCL), the Episcopal Urban Caucus, the Consultation and enabled the first three iterations of the National Church Anti-Racism Program.
Much of this was made possible by the good graces of the several bishops of the Diocese of Massachusetts (Anson Stokes, John Burgess, Ben Arnold, John B. Coburn, David Johnson, Barbara Harris, David Birney. and M. Thomas Shaw) who permitted me to exercise my ministry asCanon Missioner in these arenas for the national Church on an unpaid seconded basis except for the years 2000 to 2003 when I was a paid consultant to the Anti-Racism Committee.
They also encouraged me to provide the leadership on behalf of the Diocese of Massachusetts on many local struggles including prison abolition, the Boston School Desegregation Crisis and other struggles for justice too numerous to mention here. I am currently a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I work in the area of Pastoral Theology, Urban Ministry and Anti-Oppression Studies.
I say these things not in pride but in order to establish a foundation of credibility and commitment that I have been blessed to have been able to maintain over these many years.
Having said this, I wish to be very clear that I affirm, support and commend the current leadership of the Presiding Bishop and her staff, as well as that of her predecessors in their willingness to stand tall on this issue and commit their time and the programmatic resources of the Church to see that we remain faithful to the task of combating the sin of racism.
In whatever follows, I hope that this ringing affirmation is crystal clear and informs the rest of this letter as a teaching tool and an invitation to deeper dialogue. I should note here that since my election to Executive Council in 2003 by the General Convention, I have felt a strong obligation to be faithful to those who voted for me in the full knowledge of my strong sense of commitment and willingness to speak truth to power.
One by-product of that election was to resign as the paid consultant to the Anti-Racism Committee, so that there could be no conflict of interest and equally important, exercise an oversight function on this an other social justice programs that are too often under threat, misunderstood or ignored by too many in the Church. And, it is in this capacity as an elected Executive Council member that I write today, in the full confidence that I speak for many on these matters. What now follows is the education which I promised at the outset.
Many of you may be surprised to know that this is the third such letter that I have written to the leadership of the Church over the last fifteen years. The first was in 1993, when as the convener of the Black Leaders and Diocesan Executives Think Tank (BLADE) in support of the Office of Black Ministries, calling into question the serial termination of nearly all the Black male executives on the staff of the national Church in less than a year.
It precipitated a frank meeting, with then Presiding Bishop Browning, in which I attempted to educate him on the appearance of institutional racism that these terminations exhibited on their face.
While I was unable to convince him of this fact at the time, subsequent events enabled him to respond more positively to my second open letter in 1995 on the subject of "A Lost Opportunity," which can be found in the Episcopal Urban Caucus publication, To Heal the Sin-Sick Soul.
The presiding officer's prompt response to that letter led to the creation of the Anti-Racism Training Program which was a necessary programmatic response to the House of Bishops Pastoral Letter on the Sin of Racism and the several General Convention resolutions which had committed the Church to a three triennial year cycle focused on this issue.
This was extended at the General Convention in 2000 and the formal committee on Anti-Racism was established with an appropriate staff person being hired to oversee the effort. In the previous three years it had been done on an ad hoc basis with a $100,000 contribution from the Diocese of Massachusetts, and my seconded time.
There is a long story which I will not bore you with in this letter of institutional resistance and personality clashes which would make a wonderful novel but are beside the point of the primary objective of the training.
Sadly because of the controversies over mandatory versus voluntary participation in training, in regard to who should take the training and how it was to be administered, (there was no such conflict when I did the training for the Presbyterian Church), obscured the fact that the objective was to bring about change on all four levels of our corporate life, i.e. individual, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural.
It was to that end that Resolutions A 123 and A 127 were brought forward to the General Convention in 2006 and whose implementation is in no small measure an objective test of the effectiveness of the training and other actions to bring about an authentically welcoming and anti-racist institution. The jury remains out on this latter question, but, the circumstances surrounding the first public effort to implement a key portion of Resolution A 123 is instructive while A 127 remains unattended.
And, now I will give the chastisement. It is not my purpose to cast aspersions or to make accusations, what I do know is that the resolution clearly called, in part, for a public apology by the national Church at the National Cathedral for its complicity in, and the benefits derived from slavery in the United States of America.
This did not happen, and there is yet to have been rendered a satisfactory explanation for the change in venue. Many have urged the presiding officers, in light of this fact, to consider some major event at the General Convention in which a better expression of the intent of the resolution could be made manifest and the several dioceses who have attempted to do the historical research as requested by the resolution in other sections might have a national platform to educate the church on their findings.
This may in turn inspire others to do likewise and still others in the spirit of this resolution and A 127 to examine the Church's less than glorious relationship with Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Let us hope that this will occur.
What did happen was a two day event at the historic St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia on the 3rd and 4th of October 2008. Many of us had great difficulty with this decision inasmuch as it created the curious dynamic of those seeking to apologize to those who had been aggrieved inviting themselves to the house of those who had been offended.
This and other "curiosities" were more than amply addressed by the Reverend Doctor Harold Lewis and the Honorable Byron Rushing in their remarkable presentations on the first day. It is their talks which need to be widely circulated in the Church, both in print and on DVD, as they address the critical issues of the legacy of slavery and how we might approach the future, in light of the fact that the first step was being taken by the Church in publicly acknowledging its sins of omission.
Had the program ended there, it would have been a great success on its face, because those to whom the apology was being offered were able to articulate in some detail those things for which the apology was needed.
Sadly, on the second day a service was planned in which there was to be a liturgical expression marking this event and providing an opportunity for our current Presiding Bishop to lead the service and address the issue. She did her job with grace, clarity and amazing insight and honesty, however, the decision was made to begin the service with a litany which was neither historically correct nor appropriately structured to acknowledge that one group of people was apologizing to another group of people who for all of the history of slavery and most of the history of the Episcopal Church have been separate and unequal, and the people of color specifically excluded from the Councils of the Church.
Hence a litany which did not permit the group aggrieved to respond or to acknowledge their presence, especially in their own house, was the ultimate insult and example of racism to many of us who could not understand how people of color were to participate in a litany which correctly chronicled the sins but of which we were the involuntary subjects or as Tonto said to the Lone Ranger, "what do you mean WE."
Of equal importance the litany did not recognize nor give legitimacy to the history of protests begun by Absalom Jones and carried forward by Alexander Crummel and all those lay and clergy leaders who endured exclusion from the House of Deputies and General Convention until the 1930's.
Also, the litany did not acknowledge nor give legitimacy to the many white Church leaders, known and unknown, who protested slavery, established the colonization societies, and dutifully took messages to the General Conventions from the Conference of Colored Church Workers during the long period when Black folks had no voice much less a vote.
Finally, it did not give the Church the credit it is due for its support of the many Black educational institutions founded by Black Episcopalians and nurtured to this day through budget allocations. As Maya Angelou has so eloquently said, "History with all of its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again."
It is to the profundity of this dictum that we must rededicate ourselves as we go forward.
To conclude, I would like to offer you an invitation in the form of a quotation that I used to open my remarks at the conclusion of the Friday educational event, they were penned by the noted peace maker Vern Neufeld Redekop in his seminal book From Violence to Blessing. In the introduction to his chapter on reconciliation he makes the following observation:
"Reconciliation means to stop imitating the entrenched
patterns of past violence, and to imagine, imitate and
create life patterns of well being meeting the identity
needs of Self and Other."
I firmly believe that we are all struggling mightily to live into this understanding of reconciliation and that we have enough time and effort invested in it to not allow this little bump in the road to set us off track and deter us from keeping our eye on the prize.
One of the reasons that I delayed writing this letter until after the election was that I was hopeful that Barack Obama's one person anti-racism training program would prevail, and as he noted, it now gives us a chance to make a change.
Regardless of how you feel about the election or the growing fears that the alarming economic crisis are raising, now more than ever the Church has to stand up and continue the internal dialogue and the external struggle to combat racism.
History teaches us that in these critical moments of transition and the promise of change, the desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt often keep us prisoners of our fear rather than having the Gospel eyes to see the Red Sea being parted.
The inevitable backlash to his election and the potential scape-goating resulting from the fear and the reality of economic stress must be challenged at every point they arise. Now more than ever we must attempt to live into every way that we can find the profound truth of my favorite saying "Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or others oppression."
Thank you for reading this and let us march on until victory is won. Please feel free to share this letter as broadly as you feel it is appropriate.
Thanksgiving/Remembrance Day 2008