By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Episcopalians can expect to hear a lot more in coming years about America as a nation founded on white supremacy.
Members of Executive Council gave a standing ovation Nov. 16 to ethicist Keri Day after she chided those she identified as liberal Christians for thinking merely that America needs to live up to its ideals. Instead, she said, they need to accept the “hard truth” that America’s founding, enduring ideal is corrupt to the core and must be transformed.
“White supremacy has always sat at the center of the American democratic ideal that we hold dear,” said Day, associate professor of theological social ethics and black church studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. “Yet so many within our nation, especially in white communities, are unable and unwilling to acknowledge the severity of the many exclusions and forms of oppression that this nation was founded upon.”
Day’s 45-minute address to the Executive Council set the stage as the church begins to live out a General Convention mandate to make racial reconciliation a top priority for the next three years. One by one, council members rose to affirm that the church must “tell the truth” about America’s origins, even if it makes people angry.
“We are calling our colleagues in the church world to embrace this prophetic voice,” said the Rev. Stan Runnels of the Diocese of West Missouri. “But I want to remind us in no uncertain terms that there will be a cost to living the prophetic voice and prophetic lives. There are many in our congregations who will be afraid of it and who will walk away from it.”
Day contended that America was founded as a society in which white male property owners could enjoy exclusive rights to vote, own slaves, and build personal fortunes at others’ expense.
“Marginalized groups were enslaved in various modes in order to contribute to the economic sustainability of this hierarchical, inequitable way of life that constituted the American democratic tradition,” Day said. What’s more, the church was complicit and has not divorced itself from that past.
“America’s racist past is America’s racist present,” she said. “Therefore the church’s racist past is the church’s present, although there is always good news.”
When asked how America might redeem its ugly past, Day said that racial justice must precede racial reconciliation. She said reparations paid to descendants of slaves might be necessary before reconciliation can occur. She also argued that America’s influence abroad needs an overhaul as part of reconciliation.
“America has been deeply oppressive of people of color around the world, who are suffering from the exporting of American democracy and capitalism under the banner of progress, which is having disastrous economic and cultural consequences,” Day said.
Day went on to fault liberal Christians for being too trusting of an official public sphere in which voices of the disenfranchised are routinely minimized. She called on Christians to support instead the Black Lives Matter movement, which she framed in the tradition of other grassroots social movements, such as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the Azusa Street revivals of the early 1900s.
Council members asked for “tools” to help the church recast the American story as one rooted in systems of white supremacist oppression. The discussion generated three titles for potential use in book studies among Executive Council members and in local congregations. All three are by advocates for reparations: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey, and Day’s Unfinished Business.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important for us to do than to embrace this task,” said the Rt. Rev. David Bailey, Bishop of Navajoland. “If we do it well, it’s something we can give to the rest of the church. But until we’re willing to step forth and invest the time, the energy and the pain that’s involved with this, all the work we do in Executive Council is truly not going to matter.”
Image: Keri Day addresses members of Executive Council on Nov. 15. • G. Jeffrey MacDonald