Editor’s note: This is the first post in a two-part series. The second piece, “A sacred conversation on race: Speaking the Word of peace,” will appear at Covenant tomorrow.
By Matthew Burdette
In 2015 I helped lead a group of people in my parish, Trinity Church, Princeton, who committed themselves to discerning and enacting a uniquely ecclesial response to racism in our church and community. Our work was imperfect, and our lofty dreams exceeded our efforts. But we planted seeds, and our church learned to practice hospitality more faithfully and to tell the story of Jesus as a serious response to racism in our community. We called our initiative “A Sacred Conversation on Race,” without any knowledge of or connection to Trinity Wall Street’s similarly named theme for Trinity Institute that same year. The story of our efforts matters because it involves a local church engaging politics in a way that worked.
We got involved in the messiness of history as an expression of the Church’s mission, captured in the baptismal charge: “Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood” (1979 BCP, p. 308). Our sacred conversation on race was an experiment in telling and interpreting the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as an authentic response to the racial crisis in American society. By the end of the year our parish was learning to embody the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church as a parable of the justice of God’s coming kingdom. We were learning how to live out more faithfully our identity as the Church and to carry out in our local community our mission to proclaim the gospel.
This entanglement of thinking and speaking and doing Christian faith in relation to specific social problems is what liberation theology has called praxis. I will attempt to convey the praxis exemplified in A Sacred Conversation on Race, offering it as one model for how the church’s political engagements can be a meaningful enactment of the church’s mission.
Create a “risk space”
The gospel presupposes that real conflict exists between people, and promises reconciliation even between people who hate one another. When Jesus commanded his disciples to love their enemies, he was not instructing them not to have enemies, which may be an impossibility, but to love the people who actually are their enemies.
Our Sacred Conversation was born out of admitting that we, the baptized, do in fact experience enmity, that moralistic finger-wagging and white guilt has not overcome such enmity, and that verbally insisting that we all get along is an attempt to create a radically new state of affairs by fiat. Our decision to gather people into a Sacred Conversation was an act of faith that the crucified Christ “is himself our peace” (Eph. 2:14).
In view of the complex political reality that race is in American life, and in view of the wide array of emotions and experiences of it, we came to realize that, in order to take seriously the ways the legacy of white supremacy affected our community’s life, we would need a space into which the members of our community could bring their various identities and their enmity. Such a space would not be a “safe space”: where communication between people is managed in order to avoid potential harm or offense (and so also to avoid the formation of real community). Rather, it would be a space in which people would bring that which is offensive and dangerous, trusting that, though people might experience harm or offense, Christ in our midst would make true peace. The conversations were to be sacred, not because they would be devoid of conflict, but because it was understood that Christ would host the conversation, and that our conflicts would be resolved only within the bounds of his hospitality.
For several weeks, the associate rector and I took the lead in advertising and planning how to frame the conversation, thinking especially of recent unrest surrounding the killing of black men by police. We decided that we would meet on Sunday afternoons, after the Eucharist, when the words of God’s promise, and of our prayers and praise, would still be in our ears. We would start on June 21, 2015.
That week, on Wednesday, June 17, Dylann Roof murdered nine people at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Media coverage that week made it clear that the ideology of white supremacy motivated Roof. However, immediately after the shooting, the members of Emanuel Church demonstrated to the world that they were not simply black people or victims, but Christians, whose sisters and brothers had been martyred because they practiced Christian hospitality, inviting a stranger, whom they tragically came to discover was violent, into their midweek Bible study. They forgave Roof, adding complexity to an already complex situation: They insisted that what occurred was not simply a matter of white and black, but of white and black and Christian; what occurred was not simply a matter of race, but also of theology.
After church on Sunday, our space for the conversation was at capacity. We did not need to permit people to bring their anger and their hurt, or their helplessness or defensiveness or confusion. Everyone brought their emotions, including the three of us who facilitated the conversation. I stood before the group, feeling especially visible as one of the few people of color in the room. I temporarily swallowed my conflicted feelings and began.
Matthew Burdette is a doctoral candidate at the University of Aberdeen and a postulant for holy orders in the Diocese of New Jersey. He is married to Evie.
The featured image is B.C. Lorio’s “Millions March NYC” (2014). It is licensed under Creative Commons.