By Bob Libby
I’ve had a cross burned on my lawn, but I am a racist. I have an award from the Hollywood Radio and Television Society that honors me for creating a public-service radio announcement on racism, but I am a racist.
President Obama contends that racism is in America’s DNA. I would expand that to suggest that racism is part of human DNA. Is it not part of our basic primitive human survival instinct, where we are among those who look like us, talk like us, think like us?
I am at the conclusion of a long and exciting priesthood, and I have come to believe that racism has its roots as an unavoidable part of human development.
In baptism, we are directed to move outside of that box. Candidates for baptism are asked to renounce “evil powers of this world, which corrupt the creatures of God.” When I read that, I think of a popular song from South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (“You’ve got to be taught / To hate and fear, / You’ve got to be taught / From year to year, / It’s got to be drummed / In your dear little ear / You’ve got to be carefully taught”).
Unfortunately there are still a lot of hate mentors out there. As Christians our baptism calls us not only to reject evil but also to witness against such teachings. Our fight to overcome racism goes further than that. We are commissioned “To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Much of our battle against racism has been, rightly, waged at the ballot box, in the Congress, legislatures, and courts of law. As CBS commentator Bob Schieffer said when reporting on the chaos in Baltimore and the 50th anniversary of the Selma march: “The laws have changed, but not too many attitudes.”
Changing attitudes is often more difficult than changing laws. How do we do this? Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late Nelson Mandela opened creative possibilities when they moved South Africa from political reform to spiritual renewal with their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “There is no future without forgiveness,” as Tutu said.
At his first press conference as the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop-elect, Bishop Michael Curry declared that the church has a gift of “reconciliation to bring to the public square.” He cited how the family and church members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston responded to the racist mass murder in their church: “Their Christian commitment changed the narrative with forgiveness.”
We Christians talk about spiritual values such as diversity and inclusion as if they were new ideas. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul advised the Galatians (3:28). And the early Church wrestled with the issue of whether God’s action in Christ was limited or rather, as the prevailing Catholic position said, “for all men [persons] at all times and in all places.” I wonder if God is now calling the Church to teach us how to love. Can it be that we are being led from the political arena to the spiritual battlefield?
During the 1990s, Bishop Calvin O. Schofield, Jr., often expressed concern about the difficulty of convening a committee on racism that represented the great ethnic, racial, economic, sexual, cultural, and political diversity of the Diocese of Southeast Florida.
But we did have a program that was breaking down all kinds of barriers. It was a byproduct of Cursillo. My wife and I developed many new friendships across racial lines as we worked with folks of other parishes toward a common goal. As one team member from the West Indies put it: “As we came closer to Christ, we came closer to each other.”
Another example came to me from Charlotte Spruill, a church organist and clergy spouse. She was a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails, which emerged from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. The community’s ministry began shortly after World War II and sought to reconcile former enemies across the world.
Charlotte told of a retreat at Coventry in which participants included Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. “The group studied together, worshiped together, sang together, and worked on a messy project,” she said. “We moved beyond our differences.”
We are called in the Great Commission to love one another, and to proclaim that “in Christ there is no East or West” (Hymn 529).
Image: Light Brigading, via Flickr
The Rev. Bob Libby is author of The Forgiveness Book (Cowley, 1992).