At Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, an interracial group of clergy gathered to discuss the role of the white church in perpetuating racism. And what the church might do to heal the wounds. A tough subject, but dealt with unflinchingly.
They began with church complicity in the nation’s original sins — genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans.
“We Christians — British and Americans — said we can’t do those things to people we believe are made in the image of God,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a D.C.-based social justice organization. “So we will throw away Imago Dei. And that’s what we did. We threw away the image of God and said that these indigenous and African peoples are less than human.”
Several hundred people had gathered in the nave of the cathedral, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. Among the windows at the church is one that memorializes Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and features a Confederate flag. They were installed in 1953 after lobbying by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The church decided last month to remove them after devoting time for discussing race and reconciliation. Their gathering on Sunday continued that discussion.
“We are gathered where Martin Luther King Jr. preached the last Sunday sermon of his life, urging us to stay awake in the light of stained glass windows,” said the Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington and interim dean of Washington National Cathedral. The controversial windows, she said, “glorify a way of life that was sustained by chattel slavery and even now demands that we take account of what resources churches like ours was built on.”
The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, the cathedral’s canon theologian, honed in on why the “white church” was being singled out. “Why not just ‘the church,’ ” she asked? “You say white racism is a sin. Why colorize it?”
Wallis, who is white, chimed in: “If white Christians acted more Christian than white, black parents would have less reason to fear for their children. That’s a fact.” He paraphrased a verse in the book of Corinthians that says when one part of the body of Christ hurts, all of the body feels the pain.
“Not happening,” Wallis said. “When the black part of the body hurts, the white part doesn’t know what’s happening most of the time.”
The discussion was prompted by a sermon given last year by the Rev. Delman Coates, senior pastor at Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md. The sermon was a resurrection of themes from King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Sent to eight white ministers, the letter said King had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion” that the Ku Klux Klan was not the greatest stumbling block to black freedom; it was white moderates who were more devoted to order than to justice.
“I have become acutely aware that many of the popular, leading clergy around the country — many of our white denominational leaders — are unfortunately not on the front lines of the causes for justice and reclamation of black humanity in the public square,” Coates said. “I continue to be concerned about the white leaders. Not the ones who are here but the ones who elected not to accept our invitation to be here.”
The Rev. Amy Stapleton, who serves on the General Commission on Race and Religion for the United Methodist Church, suggested that part of the problem stemmed from Christian theology’s emphasis on having a “personal relationship” with Jesus.
“How many times have we heard a white person say, ‘I have black friends. I didn’t contribute to this violence’? There is a personalization that focuses on the care and concerns of white folks and not the systems of oppression that brings us to this place.”
That place being the aftermath of ever more horrific police shootings of black people, caught on video, and two subsequent shootings of police officers by black men. There are also the glaring racial disparities in how police deal with blacks and whites.
On July 6, for instance, a Wake County, N.C., sheriff’s deputy was trying to wrestle a shotgun from a white man who was pointing it at passing cars. During the struggle, the man pulled a handgun and shot at the deputy.
Was he killed by the cops? No, he was arrested and taken into custody.
“If we focus just on the shootings, we miss the opportunity to go deeper and see the things that we have unconsciously worked very hard not to see,” Budde said. “And that, to me, is the most dangerous of sins, because we aren’t burdened by them. We imagine ourselves to be something that we are not as a result of that lack of awareness.”
At the end, a question loomed: When will white Christian America wake up?
God only knows.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.