Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. See also yesterday’s piece “A sacred conversation on race: Genesis and context” to understand the beginning of the program at Trinity Church, Princeton.
By Matthew Burdette
Dare to say something about God
Every community is held together by a common discourse. When a community’s discourse ceases to be common, that community disintegrates. Therefore, inviting people into a “risk space” (see yesterday’s post) was an actual risk: people could have spent several weeks speaking past one another, trying to overpower one another, and do harm to our community. The awareness of this risk is why we gathered for a specifically sacred conversation.
When any community intends to preserve its own life, it establishes basic rules and points of reference for its discourse — an orthodoxy. The Church’s common discourse is about the triune God, and Scripture, the creeds, and the liturgy express its rules and points of reference.
The Church’s bold claim is that what the Church has to say is the Word that will save us; the Church’s discourse is not only about peace, but is the very agent of peace. The Church makes this claim because it believes that its message is the very Word of God, Jesus Christ, who is himself our peace (Eph. 2:14). Among other things, the Church’s faith in this matter means that the discourses of other communities are not going to save us; neither the words of politicians nor of pundits or journalists or cultural critics will bring justice or establish peace.
Of course, people do not live in isolation. Each of us inhabits multiple, often overlapping communities. Some members of our parish, Trinity Church, Princeton, are Americans, and not only Americans, but black or white or Latino or Asian-Americans. Our parish is not only racially and culturally subdivided, but also politically. Some are liberals, others conservative — and a few of us even call ourselves radicals. One of the most severe problems of our time is that Christians are more thoroughly catechized as Americans or Democrats or capitalists than they are as Christians. Consequently, when it is time for the Church to speak to society, the Church’s members very often cannot discern the difference between the Church’s message and that of some other community.
When we began our Sacred Conversation on Race, most members of our parish were better prepared to repeat the political talking points of other communities than they ready were to give voice to a specific politics of the Church. However, precisely because we were resolved to have a real conversation, with all its attendant risk and conflict, we had to have a sacred conversation, in which the commonness of our discourse would be our common Word about Christ’s death, resurrection, and presence.
The first eight weeks of our Sacred Conversation on Race were an effort in learning to have a sacred conversation at all, in being re-catechized to speak the Church’s faith in conversation about the very real conflicts of our lives. We took up as an invitation and challenge the Church’s history of thinking about race, examining the traditions of black nationalism and integrationism. We explored the doctrinal suggestion proposed by James Cone that white supremacy is not just a moral crisis, but a Christian heresy because it finally denies the Incarnation (Black Theology and Black Power, p. 73 [Orbis, 1969]). And we attended to what the doctrine of the Incarnation says about God and about human existence. Each week I or one of the other leaders would spend 10 to 20 minutes speaking didactically, and then would facilitate a discussion.
People asked questions, challenged one another, and debated and regularly yelled at one another. In these eight weeks, people came to know one another more intimately, and came to grow together in faith and in an emerging vision of our distinctively Christian calling in the face of America’s legacy of white racism. We took real risks; we were offended and hurt by one another; and our common Word came to be our peace.
Form people in the faith
When churches engage social issues, their members sometimes believe that their activism or moral voice is a consequence of their Christian formation, rather than an exercise in that formation. This pattern often leads to burnout, resentment, and apathetic disengagement. Yet it is a difficult pattern to get out of; it can be an ecclesial habit.
My own interpretive bias is to attribute this habit either to an exclusion of politics from the Church’s mission (to proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection), or a collapsing of the mission of proclamation into enacting moral values in the social sphere. The former tendency ignores the plain commandments of Christ, and ultimately sends the message that the Church’s faith has nothing to say in real life; the latter ignores the commission of Christ, and ultimately suggests that the Church’s particular faith and teaching become obsolete once a person learns to be moral. We intentionally resisted these tendencies in our Sacred Conversation.
After discussions that lasted from late June to the end of August, the members of the conversation had each come to understand one another, race in America, and the Church’s involvement with race better. People who were apathetic grew to care. People who were skeptical came to see the experience of others. People learned to understand anger, resentment, hurt, and fear. But more significantly, by the final meeting in August, the group’s consensus was that the next logical step in our engagements with this political issue was to study Scripture together.
This is something I must pause to emphasize: During the first few meetings in June and July, the collective impulse was to stop talking and do something. And each week we reminded people that what we were doing in having a Sacred Conversation was already doing something. Over time the compulsion to rush to immediate public action subsided. People discovered that they were experiencing personal and congregational transformation, and that they were coming to understand the content and significance of Christian faith more fully. They practiced Christian patience, and came to inhabit our Sacred Conversation, not only as a space to confront fears and make peace, but as a place to discern how to share the Church’s Word of peace with the community around us. After a short hiatus at the end of August, the Sacred Conversation group regathered in September to study the First Epistle of John for another eight weeks.
Tell the story and perform liturgical actions
Robert Jenson has observed that theology is the thinking that happens between hearing and speaking the gospel (Systematic Theology 1:14 [Oxford University Press, 1997]). Our Sacred Conversation on Race was 16 weeks of learning to hear the gospel spoken to our very real experiences of race and racism, and during that time our community came to trust more faithfully that the story of Jesus truly does speak to our real lives. After the conclusion of our study of First John, we turned our attention to discerning how to speak the Word we had heard and that was peace among us.
We made use of the resources in our community, which are many. We coordinated with people in our parish who volunteer with anti-racist organizations, work in the arts, and work with prisons. In the end, we organized a three-day program for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.
On a Friday night, we had a speaker from the Petey Greene program, who came and spoke about his experience of being a former convict and then dedicating his life to helping incarcerated persons complete high school. On Saturday, we hosted a replica solitary confinement cell in our parish hall, and set up the room so that the cell occupied a liturgical space usually reserved for an altar. Adjacent to the cell on one side was the Paschal Candle, and on the other side a place for prayer. That evening we held a cello concert with an interpretive dancer; before the concert we screened a talk, “Our Children, Our Prisons,” given by Bryan Stevenson at Trinity Wall Street, and after the concert we heard the testimony of a man who had been wrongly convicted.
Present at this event was our bishop, the Rt. Rev. William H. Stokes, who welcomed everyone and offered prayer. The leaders of our church stood before the audience — about 200 people from our community who are not church members — and explained that each Sunday we gather around the broken body of a wrongly convicted and executed man, and that we are the community of those who believe his torture and death were not the last words about him or about us. The church and solitary confinement cell replica were left open all night so that people could pray. On Sunday morning we had a guest homilist from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Our efforts that weekend so touched a nerve that members of the local news media attended. Months later, people in the community still talk about what our church said and did.
Our parish’s Sacred Conversation on Race did not disentangle itself from the world around us: we found allies in other organizations and efforts, some of which were not churchly. Our efforts worked, not because we recruited several new church members (we didn’t), nor because we radically changed the political life of those around us (again, we didn’t), but because we learned to tell the good news that is the story of Jesus to those around us.
We learned to carry out the Church’s mission more faithfully, to form the baptized in their discipleship to the Lord, and to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus to the community around us in such a way that they heard it as good news for their real-life situation. Our efforts were neither perfect nor finished. But our conversations were truly sacred, and I believe that our work in the community was faithful. Such efforts are as necessary now as they ever have been.
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 Roy de Maistre’s “Crucifixion” (ca. 1957), held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.