By Orissa Arend
In the first chapter of what I would describe as a practical, prophetic guidebook to the Kingdom of Heaven, Joe Barndt reminds us that “our sisterhood and brotherhood in the family of God is imprinted in our hearts, minds, and souls. It is part of our spiritual DNA. We did not choose it and we cannot choose to undo it. We may love it, we may hate it, we may protest it, or we may ignore it. But the truth is, regardless of our color – red, brown, yellow, black, or white – we are all in the family for good.”
Over a decade ago Barndt, a Lutheran pastor, experienced teacher and organizer, came to my church, Trinity Episcopal, in his role as director of Crossroads Ministries with his team of multi-racial trainers to teach us to be anti-racist Christian organizers. Barndt stresses that he learned to understand racism from people of color. He had to unlearn the lies that he had learned about racism from white people. He sees his responsibility as taking a true analysis of racism to white people to help them heal and change.
Our church was large and powerful with affluent, well-connected parishioners almost all of whom were white. Despite our considerable commitment of money, time and energy for new learning and new relationships, and the formation of a continuously functioning anti-racist team called TURN (Trinity Undoing Racism Network), our church looks pretty much the way it did then. It is wealthy, privileged, and white, enfolding not so much the down and out as the up and about. Why has there not been more of a visible and substantial change in the last decade? Barndt’s book is a right-on-time answer to that question.
I’ll briefly recount Trinity’s recent important efforts in order to make Barndt’s point. During those years a small but steadily expanding group developed a shared analysis of racism, not just from Crossroads but from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (based in New Orleans) and from an Episcopal anti-racist workshop called Seeing the Face of God in Each Other. Institutionally Trinity partnered with Black congregations through Jeremiah, an interfaith grassroots group working to solve community problems. It participated in the St. Thomas Irish Channel Consortium (STICC) to enhance accountability to our brothers and sisters of color in our many wonderful outreach efforts – Hope House, Kingsley House, St. Thomas Health Clinic, Trinity Counseling and Training Center – to name just a few.
Trinity hired a brilliant female African American priest. Mother Phoebe Roaf, with her dreadlocks and her law degree and consummate spiritual and racial grounding, won the hearts of most of the congregation. She initiated a Christian/Muslim dialogue which included a cultural sharing excursion to Turkey. Trinity took seriously a mandate from the national church to study our local complicity with slavery. You can read the report at www.edola.org/ministries/slavery-edola. Annually, Trinity celebrates the Feast of Absalom Jones who was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, purchased the freedom of his wife and children, and finally his own in 1784. He helped build the Black church in Philadelphia and became known as “the black bishop of the Episcopal Church.” TURN helped Trinity examine its policies and procedures and programs and found ways to make them more welcoming and inclusive and colorful. We strengthened personal and social relationships with people of color. Our priests and our bishop are all on board.
And so it never occurred to many of us, in fact it never fully registered with me until I read Barndt’s book recently, that the entrenched white culture and structure of decision-making and leadership at Trinity between 1998 and 2013 was the result of racism.
Race, Barndt explains, is not a Biblical concept. It is nowhere in the Bible. It was invented, with pseudo-scientific inaccuracy, by 16th century Europeans to establish white supremacy and to justify slavery, colonialism, and a host of other evils. The structures of racism in the U.S. have been in place for 500 years – as has resistance to racism.
“Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other. He was pathetically lost . . .” but he claimed people, resources, and land for God and Queen, initiating on these shores an unholy union. Obviously, the Christian church was complicit from day one. The American Revolution with its message of freedom and independence “remained exclusively aimed toward reaping benefits for immigrants from Europe. . . It was the will of God, they were sure, for the United States to be a white nation. Even those who argued fervently against slavery could not imagine a multiracial nation, particularly a nation that included indigenous Americans and immigrant Africans among its citizenry.”
Another hundred years brought the end of slavery but not the end of what were considered divinely inspired principles and political programs of white supremacy and its economic benefits. Then it took another hundred years to end segregation. And no wonder, because “In the United States, every system and every institution was created originally and structured legally and intentionally to serve white people exclusively.” Is it any wonder, then, that many of these institutions resisted change? Is it any wonder that they don’t do a good job of serving everyone, now that they are mandated to do that? In theory institutions do what they were created to do. That’s the function of institutions. American institutions, with just a few exceptions, were not created to serve everyone.
Considered at the tail end of this 500-year spread when racism was institutionalized in our country with the help of the white church, our 15-year effort at Trinity to undo racism and begin to institutionalize anti-racism looks pretty small. But Barndt pulls out the scholar, the resister, the organizer, and theologian in us. He celebrates those who have resisted racism from its inception by confronting the facade of white superiority and the structure of white domination. The social gospel movement, the ecumenical movement, the Black church, and heroes and heroines of all colors are examples.
Barndt gives us a precise definition of racism. It is about the “disproportional distribution of power, that is, the control of and benefit from systems and institutions in a society. . . Racism happens when the collective prejudices of one racial group are enforced by the systems and institutions of a society for the benefit and advantage of that racial group and to the detriment and disadvantage of all other racial groups.”
And then he takes racism into the theological realm. Personal prejudice or bigotry is an individual sin. But institutionalized racism is a communal and corporate sin. An individual sin calls for confession, atonement, and forgiveness. In addition to these elements, communal sin requires liberation. We can only kill racism in the church with this crucial understanding. “Racism’s most devastating power is that it takes all of us prisoner. It controls and threatens to destroy us all.” We internalize superiority or inferiority and act out our socialized and racialized identities like puppets. We are all captives of an evil power, and that includes the church. The oppressor is also oppressed, losing her/his humanity, authenticity, and freedom.
I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been socialized (brainwashed, if you will) to think of myself as anything but a captive, anything but broken. I’ve been taught to see my sins as individual and freely chosen by me. Forgiveness, I’ve assumed, is between me and God. But without an awareness of the communal nature of the sin in which I participate, how would I think to seek redemption or liberation? And why would I actively work to kill racism, the goose that laid the golden egg on me?
These insights are Barndt’s way of trying to prepare white people for the last tough stages of accepting the death of racism in our world and in our church. Accepting that death for a predominantly white society is a letting-go process similar to the stages of death and dying. Even though important civil rights legislation was passed in the 1950s and 1960s, denial of racism as something that had to die was the norm, Barndt contends, until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Then the 70s brought guilt on the white side and anger from people of color. The next stage, bargaining, came in the 80s when most institutions tried a species of multiculturalism which said, “We’ll let you in, but you have to act like us.”
We now face a spiritual identity crises that turns our usual ways of making decisions and running things upside down. Barndt gives us tools and markers as we approach this process, but he freely admits that there is no path. We are in uncharted territory. He counts on the real Gospel, loving all of our neighbors as ourselves, not the distorted one that has been used to oppress, and the Holy Spirit to guide us.
Meanwhile, back at Trinity the 20 somethings who have taken over the leadership of TURN have renamed it Trinity Undoing Racism NOW. They are an impatient lot and thank God for that. Above and beyond Trinity, our Bishop has convened a committee to put together a large service in 2014 of reconciliation and repentance for the collective sins of racism committed by the white church. In preparation for that, there have been screenings in four parishes around the diocese of the award winning documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North tracing the journey of nine cousins into the dark past of the slave trade which enriched their white New England family. One of the cousins and his African American wife led discussions afterward to help us understand and come to terms with our white skin privilege.
How else will we prepare ourselves for this service and for the enormous next task of the white church? Who will our partners be? How will the liturgy incorporate communal sin and liberation? What songs will we sing? Barndt reminds us, “Like the early New Testament church, we have to learn that God’s acceptance and inclusiveness is far more radical and far more unconditional than we could imagine.”
Orissa Arend is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, TURN, and the Diocesan Committee for Racial Reconciliation and author of “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.