On Wednesday, I got an email from our editor, asking me if I would be willing to write a few words on the consecration of Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as the first African-American female diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. As one of the few African Americans writing for Covenant, who himself has spoken about the place of African Americans in Anglicanism, this assignment made sense (see “The invisible: African Americans in North American Anglicanism”). But there was a small problem: I do not know Bishop Baskerville-Burrows, and I had little time to give attention to the story that her accomplishment deserves. Still, I am happy for the new bishop, and I wanted to say a little something about why.

In many organizations,[1] African Americans struggle to be recognized for the gifts and talents that we possess. Therefore, anytime we are seen as gifted and called, it expands the imagination of little black girls and boys. One more dream is added to our mental repertoire.

Back in January 2009, I woke my one-year-old son up from his slumber and made him fix his eyes upon the black family walking on Pennsylvania Ave. He was half asleep, I was half in my feelings. I knew that he would not be able to recall it, but I wanted to be able to say to him, “Son, you saw it live. Therefore, do not let people tell you what is and is not impossible.”

I knew that in the days and weeks to come, my political views and the views of our new president would diverge at numerous points. But on that day, descendants of slaves (my son and me) could wonder at the providence of God that carried this beleaguered people to this point. So, and this is not faint praise, I celebrate with Bishop Baskerville-Borrows because she is making space for all us. Any disagreements, whatever they might be, can be pushed to another day.

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This essay should have ended there, but then I started seeing the news about the killing of Jordan Edwards. Just as I did not know of Bishop Baskerville-Burrows, a couple of days ago I did not know this child’s name. Given the circumstances surrounding his death, I wish that I had never heard his name. I wish that he had the chance to move through childhood and become a man. I wish that he had the chance to learn about President Obama and Bishop Baskerville-Burrows, so that this black child could have had the chance to aspire to reach those heights. But now he will not have a chance to fulfill whatever dreams filled his young mind.

The bishop and this young boy represent the two realities of being black in America. There is no better time to be black in America than this generation. We have reached heights of achievement that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. But therein lies the indictment. What does it say about our history that this is progress? Why is black celebration surrounded on every side by black mourning? There is a shadow, then, that hovers over black achievement that stands not as call to us, but a challenge to America.

Your brother’s blood cries from the streets, and the God of justice, the father of the Messiah Jesus, hears our prayers. He will answer them. The question, then, is not about being on the wrong side of history or this or that political movement, but being on the wrong side of God’s vision for the just society that will win out:

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isa. 1:15–17)[2]

So I will continue to rejoice as doors are open to black achievement and continue to protest injustice. I do so because I believe that God hears the prayers of those who call upon him.

Footnotes

[1] The church is many things: the bride of Christ, his body, etc. but it is also an organization that makes decisions through votes.

[2] I know that this text is addressed to the nation of Israel, not humanity as a whole. But if you think that God won’t have words for nations that oppress the poor, then you are reading it wrong. Or, to put it in the words of St. Paul, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too.”

About The Author

Fr. Esau McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. He was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 2006 and is canonically resident in the diocese of Albany. He recently completely his Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of St Andrews where he studied under the direction of N.T. Wright.

 

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