First, if you haven't read The Rev. Wil Gafney's post on the Charleston terrorism, do so.
This morning I read a post from my colleague Greg Hillis where he writes:
In a class I taught this past semester, we read Thomas Merton's "Letters to a White Liberal," a trenchant essay that criticized whites for thinking and saying the right things (and even promoting the right legislation) while at the same time being completely unwilling concretely to change their ways of living in order to work for and attain racial equality. Merton wrote that whites are willing to go only so far for racial equality. They'll join the rallies, they'll push for equal rights legislation, they'll say all the right things. But when they realize, as they must, that racial equality will mean actual equality, when they discover that racial equality means that whites are actually going to have to make real economic and social sacrifices to attain real structural equality, whites pull up on the reins.
Merton echoes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's lament and calling out in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. To quote only parts of it does an injustice to the power of the entire letter. I encourage you to read it here.
I preached a few Sundays ago on the power of small things (mustard seed parable and all). We often think that the big acts are the moments that change the world, but I suggested perhaps we not discount the power of small acts of love, faith, and prayer.
I wonder if the same truth applies to acts of racism.
Our small acts of racism join together to create an established culture where racial equality cannot stand against the millions of small acts of racism that weaken and destroy. Because there are no small acts of hate, exclusion, and discrimination. They are all great acts of sin.
When I served in a diocese in the deep south, clergy often got invited and attended Mardi Gras balls.
Stay with me here...I do have a point.
Most of the Mardi Gras societies in Mobile, Alabama, are racially segregated (for more information, watch Order of Myths, a documentary on Mobile's racially segregated Mardi Gras). Many clergy had no problem attending social functions of these societies or belonging to them.
I attended them when I served there, and never thought my participation was an act of racism. Until one carnival season when a friend was in town and wanted to go to a Mardi Gras ball, and I realized I needed to ask if his attending would be okay.
Because...yes, you guessed it...he is a man of color.
At that moment, I realized that if I had to ask if a black man could attend a party, it was not a party I needed to attend, nor an organization I needed to support with my presence.
Another clergy friend wanted to offer a resolution at the diocesan convention that clergy would not attend Mardi Gras functions of racially segregated societies, nor belong to country clubs or other social organizations which were not welcoming of all races, ethnicities, and genders. She was told not to submit such an "inflammatory" resolution by the ever-present powers that be.
This happened in the church...the Episcopal Church, the bastion of progressive and inclusive faith (so we tell ourselves) in 2010.
This happened while our General Convention passed resolution after resolution condemning racism. This happened while every one of the priests who support these organizations vowed to to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion our lives in accordance with its precepts. This happened while the baptized promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
This happened while we continued to do exactly what Merton said: we are very comfortable with equality until we realize we white people have to make real economic and social sacrifices to attain real structural equality, until we realize proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ by word in deed includes large acts and small acts, perhaps especially the small acts, that demand we sacrifice.
Do I think if all clergy resigned their memberships to racially segregated organizations that racism would suddenly cease to exist? No. But all acts of racism that we whites deem as harmless certainly don't help to end systemic racism and likely support its continued insidious presence in our culture.
And we might want to consider why we haven't divested ourselves of a need to belong to or support exclusionary organizations.
In light of the latest act of racial terrorism inflicted upon minorities for centuries, I hope we are reading, learning, and inwardly digesting the reality of racism in this country. And I pray that we white people begin to act sacrificially in real economic and social ways to help create real structural equality.
Holy One, we gather in this virtual space and time to join in prayer for our brothers and sisters of Emanuel AME Church. We are disheartened at the tragedy of lives lost, and one of your faithful communities distressed and wounded. We cry out for comfort and healing for the grieving, and justice and mercy for the perpetrator.
Forgive us for any part that we have in the cruelty and violence of this world. Shake us from our complacency, and set us on the path of righteousness that leads us to the justice and healing places where we need to be present. Help us to be instruments of your compassion and peace. Give us the courage to speak out against violence, hatred, and prejudice.
By your power, heal all wounds, repair all chasms, bring your kingdom to fruition that all may live in joy, peace, and love. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.
(prayer offered by the Kentucky Council of Churches)