August 20, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15):
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
The line that really arrested me this week was that first line from our Psalm. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Or let’s update it with more inclusive language —Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity! It got to me, probably because with all that we’ve seen and heard this past week, this image of living together in unity seems impossibly unrealistic. Like a dream… It IS a dream… It’s God’s dream… and it’s our dream…It’s the goal of our shared journeys together… but it’s certainly not where we are right now. Many times this past week—well, for much longer than that really—I have felt like crying out, like the Canaanite woman,“Have mercy on us, Lord; because WE are tormented by a demon.”
We are possessed by the demons of racism… and white supremacy. And these demonic forces have been especially active in the past few weeks… and months. So this idea of us all sitting around and getting our Kumbyaya’s out seemed pretty dreamlike. But then also this week, I came across the words of writer and activist Adrienne Marre Brown who reminded me that “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.”
Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered.
This possession has had us in its grip for a very long time. And what feels like
an upsurge in hatred and violence is really the unveiling of structures of oppression that have been active for centuries …but are now nakedly on display in ways that we haven’t seen for a while.
Things are being uncovered.
Several years ago, I read a wonderful book by Tony Horwitz called Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. In it, Horwitz traces “how poisonous and polarized memory of the past [has] become” in the US. Because, we hold on to very different versions of the past depending on whether we’re black or white, northern or southern, upper class or lower class. And these glaring and seemingly irreconcilable differences are beautifully highlighted in an exchange Horwitz (a white man) has with a black female basket weaver at the Market in Charlestown, South Carolina. In the midst of a Confederate Remembrance Celebration, Horwitz asks her what she thinks of all of the white people around her celebrating what is known in the south as “the war between the states,” (or even “the war of northern aggression”). And looks at him fixedly and replies, “They can remember that war all they want. So long’s they remember they lost.”
The demons that possess us have ensured that for far too long, far too many people have continued fighting that war by other means. The failure of reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, voting restrictions, stop and frisk… on and on… Help us Lord, we have a demon.
The demonic system of racism changes and morphs but continues to exert itself …continues to possess and torment us. “so, what feels new,” says Marre Brown, “is [this] unveiling; [and] the heaviness [that we might feel]is the increasing weight of the truth becoming undeniable as more [and more] people believe it,” she says.
Things aren’t getting worse. They’re being unveiled. And more and more of us are unable to look away… or stand idly by (and by us, I do mean people who look like me… people of northern european descent… who have been raised and conditioned to think of themselves as “white” …To think of “white” as not just “a category”…but as the universal category…“the norm.”
But “white” is just one category among many with both a particular and a shared history….with its own cultural assumptions and values…its own successes to celebrate and its own sins to lament and repent of.
Things aren’t getting worse, they are getting uncovered…but so what?
What are we to do? What is our faithful response in this moment when we are increasingly aware of the demonic both among us and within us?
Crying out, “Have mercy on us, Lord, save us,” is a good place to a start.
As is remembering (what we heard last week) that God is not far away… but right here with us… in the boat… hovering over the deep… in the midst of the storm. And if we can remember that, and remember what Jesus tell us in those times: “don’t be afraid,” we might begin to act; trusting that with God’s help we can continue and even extend the work of exorcising these demons from our bodies, and dismantling the racist structures in our communities.
The conversations we need to be having about systemic race and violence look an awful lot like the conversation between the Canaanite woman and Jesus…these conversations will be full of missteps…and corrections…full of hard truths and glaring realizations. Full of faith.
But unless you’re Jesus, one conversation won’t be enough. This is ongoing work.
What has helped me this past week is remembering that the work of becoming aware of my own complicity in racism, and working at actively being anti-racist is a long, slow process. It is not something that one conversation, or one rally will achieve.
No single march, no one-day anti-racism training, no book-study or webinar No removal (or even transformation) of any particular confederate monument…not even a single sheet cake…as positive as those things are—none of them—by themselves—will suddenly exorcise the demons of racism. Doing the work of reconciliation —which is our Christian duty—and especially racial reconciliation— means first of all, being brave enough to become aware of our own unconscious, internalized racism.
And that requires: a safe space where honest and hard conversations can be held.
It requires courageous vulnerability to speak and hear uncomfortable truths.
It requires humility and wisdom to proclaim and confess clearly the things we (and again by “we” I mean “people who are white like me”) the things we have done and the things we have left undone.The evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.
It requires a community to hold all of this…A community committed to practicing the way of love…the way of non-violence…not committed to being perfect, or “getting it ‘right’” but simply being committed to continue coming together and remaining active in the work… of awareness and dismantling.
Being committed to the process… Being committed to repenting and returning WHEN (not if, but when) we fall again into sin.
That is work that, like many of you, I have been personally involved in for a long time, and now I want to be very clear that I am openly and actively committed to continuing it. It’s work that I hope others will join me in. Because I believe that All Saints is the kind of safe space where this essential, faithful, and courageous work can take place.
We have many, many resources in this diocese to facilitate these types of conversations, and if you would be interested in exploring with me how we might engage some of those resources here at All Saints, in the coming months and years, please let me know.
Talking about race, and racism is hard. Like the conversation with the Canaanite woman, it is fraught and frightening. But it’s also essential to revealing the faithfulness underneath.
Remember: “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.” And in this time Adrienne Maree Brown concludes, the thing to do is “we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”