by Cliff Cutler
Friday, on the day we learned five policemen were shot and killed in Dallas the night before, our assistant rector, who is a person of color, took four of our young people to the Standing Rock Reservation of the Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.
Three days earlier, tribal friends took their family just off the reservation to the Mandan Fourth of July parade.
Like many small town parades across the country, homemade floats pass by with handfuls of candy tossed to the crowds. Only in this instance the treats flew to the left and the right of this indigenous family. One child old enough to notice asks his father, “We’re not getting anything, Dad – why aren’t we getting anything?” Later the father reflected, “How do you explain to a child that his long hair and darker skin doesn’t make him more visible, but rather less.”
I tell Monday’s story because it illustrates Friday’s story. Five police officers were killed the night before, after the deaths of two black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – at the hands of white police officers days earlier.
It brought to my mind the killing of four police officers in the line of duty during the year 2008 in Philadelphia shortly after I came to Saint Paul’s. Those sad and tragic deaths had nothing to do directly with race. There are some aberrant police shootings of black men that do have something to do with race. There is an underlying, systemic issue beneath the individuals or groups we might choose to blame.
The deeper issue is white racism that tilts the justice system and imbalances power in our country. I recall professional training in a forward-thinking organization I worked for after college nearly 45 years ago and before I left for seminary. Leadership training over an intense week made it clear that before whites and blacks could work together, whites would have to come to grips with their own and their community’s racism.
We were asked questions:
“Did we ever know a black woman who was set on fire by whites in order to force her to give up her seat at a lunch counter?”
“Did we ever see an injured black person refused admittance to a Christian hospital and die before he could be taken to another?”
Or as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently asked, if Prince Jones, “patron saint of the twice as good,” could be shot and killed by a police officer, then who could not? And yet Coates looks deeper than police reform (as important as that is) to the fear of America.
This fear surfaced in our training years ago. We whites could not exonerate ourselves. Our racism made itself known by the very fact of our reluctance to bring it up! What were we going to do about it? The anger got so intense that one white person remarked that if he had a gun right then he would use it. The blacks left the group. The whites were stunned. The group faced a breakdown with no breakthrough in sight.
What is demanded is an inner quietness that tolerates discomfort. This quiet within allows another to be different, even challenging. One does not have to (in fact, one cannot) “own” the experience of the other. The ability to quiet one’s emotions allows one to be less reactive and to avoid polarization. It allows one to hang in there in the face of breakdown to work for the breakthrough of greater understanding, healing and growth.
In 45 years the gun has moved from heated metaphor to the legal right to carry or “pack heat.” And the underlying issue of racism stubbornly adds ammunition to divides that appear widening.
Racism does not have to be intentional or even conscious. It is baked into the society in which we live. It is systemic. Racism views the non-dominant group – Native Americans, African Americans – as valued less or not at all, invisible. Racism acts powerfully over others, and yet often goes unseen or unacknowledged by those whom it privileges.
In contrast, we worship God for whom diversity and equity are part of the divine design. All are one in Christ Jesus, Paul teaches. This is not an assimilating uniformity. Each group has integrity and yet is held in relationship by God’s love. A white priest and a black priest at the altar celebrate the Eucharist in which Christ dwells in all and they in him. Diversity in unity is a strong part of the tradition. The world itself reflects difference at the very heart of God. We experience God as creating, saving, and guiding (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); each different but at the same time one (the Trinity, one God).
Racism asserts primacy of one group over another and so contradicts the God we worship. Racism co-opts the Bible to justify dominance over others. Anti-racism in small acts and large serves to true up the world in line with God’s nature of pluralism and unity. God’s promise is freedom and life in all its fullness. As such it overflows the moment. There is always more to strive toward. Hope is a process.
So what are we to do? Listen to the voice of the other, the one who is different, whom society renders invisible. “Dad, why aren’t we getting anything?” Confront inequity, whether in the justice system or in the daily subtle put-downs that make up racial microaggressions.
The root meaning of confrontation is to have a common border. It does not permit one to slip away on the path of least resistance. But it stands alongside the other. It feels risky because it makes us vulnerable. But caring for another is all about being vulnerable.
You might stand with Black Lives Matter. Ironically, the work of anti-racism strengthens that inner quiet that allows us not to be triggered. Karl Barth wrote: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” So rise up against violence. Rise up against inequity. Speaking our truth to one another is eye-opening and ultimately healing.
Racism accessorizes the white person with a kind of invisible knapsack of privilege. It opens doors for us that remain closed to some others. In the narrative of this image, Jesus taught, woe to those whose invisible knapsack is filled with unearned power and unfair advantage yielding riches, fullness, laughter and acclaim (Luke 6: 24-26).
Instead, Jesus wants to shine a spotlight on that invisible knapsack of privilege so that it can be looked at and unpacked. Instead of unearned advantage Jesus wants it filled with unearned grace tossed indiscriminately to everyone. “Blessed are you who are poor (with an empty knapsack).” Why? Because God will mend you and make you an agent of another’s mending. Blessed are you who hunger, and recognize the hunger of others. God will fill you with passion to dismantle racism that leaves others empty, and ourselves afraid (Luke 6: 20-21).
The Very Rev. E. Clifford Cutler is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.