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Bishops Discuss America’s Original Sin: White Supremacy

By Len Freeman

“We in the Episcopal church are very good about talking about love and grace and the beloved community, but less at talking about sin,” said Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, introducing an in-progress report from the House of Bishops Theology Committee during today’s third day of the fall meeting of the House of Bishops.  Perez-Bullard, professor of practical theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, outlined the report’s controversial theme, “it is the sin of white supremacy that is at the root of the brokenness that does not allow us to fully develop the beloved community.”

The House of Bishops’ Theology Committee, a group of bishops and academic theologians appointed by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, has been at work on this topic since early in 2019.  Their aim is to develop resources to support Curry’s invitation that the Episcopal Church might “dream and work to foster Beloved Communities where all people may experience dignity and abundant life and see themselves and others as beloved children of God.”  The concept, rooted in the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. is a summons to action for racial and economic justice and universal peace.

Committee chair Tom Breidenthal, Bishop of Southern Ohio, said “The committee’s charge is to support the Presiding Bishop’s call to advance the cause of the beloved community — not only for the church, but for the larger community. We realized that we needed to speak directly to the systemic problem that we don’t discuss: racial identity”

The committee had announced their intention to focus on the topic at last March’s meeting of the House of Bishops, when committee member Allen Shin, Suffragan Bishop of New York, posed discussion questions for the gathered bishops.  According to Episcopal News Service, these included, “how do you understand white supremacy?” “how has white supremacy influenced your view of God?,” and “What does your vision of Beloved Community that repents of white supremacy look like?”

But committee member Bill Franklin, Assisting Bishop of Long Island, told those gathered today that current events have underlined the importance of the theme. “As white supremacy emerged as a serious topic in news events over the summer, we felt that the language usage was not only timely but correct.”

Perez-Bullard laid out a case for white supremacy’s deep rootedness in American history and in current discussions of national identity and exceptionalism. “Narratives are ways that we build community,” she said. “but white supremacy is a false narrative. The ‘best things’ that people cite about being American — American exceptionalism, missionaries of democracy and economic well-being — are 100% rooted in white supremacy.”

“To be able to recognize it and deal with it in a sustainable way is a loss of innocence,” she said, citing a lengthy timeline of legislation aimed at codifying Anglo-Saxon/American exceptionalism as a bedrock element of the US American story.

“The deep cultural societal images that have upheld an image of ‘liberty loving superior Anglo persons, over-against inferior ‘others,’ presents a portrait contrary to the Christian doctrine of incarnation, which means that God is incarnate in all persons: black, Asian, etc., as well as Anglo.”

Kym Lucas, the newly-elected Bishop of Colorado, supported Perez-Bullard’s claims about white-supremacy’s pervasiveness in our culture, pointing to hostility experienced by her own African American children. “For Americans asking about race is like asking a fish about what water is like,” Lucas said. “It’s in our DNA. But we have to have this conversation”

Several bishops emphasized that white supremacy is also a deep problem in other cultures served by the Episcopal Church outside the United States in their responses to the in-progress report. Mark Andrus, Bishop of California urged the committee to consider the impact of slavery in all of the Americas.  Bishop Lloyd Allen of Honduras concurred, noting that the institution had shaped cultures “from the Bering Strait to the bottom of Chile.”

Daniel Gutierrez, Bishop of Pennsylvania urged that the committee dig deeper to draw out the connections between white supremacy and immigration and border issues.  He noted that Episcopalians find themselves on both sides of this experience, stating: “We Latinx are not a mission … we are the Church.”

Mark Edington, the newly ordained Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, said that in Europe, unlike the US, the racial terminology has often been focused on considerations like nationality and religion instead of skin color. Edington observed that research in cognitive psychology points toward a strong universal human tendency to be highly aware of difference, which lies at the root of “othering,” He suggested that the report’s authors consider expanding their remit to engage a theological critique of evolutionary psychology, probing why humans are wired to create and make meaning out of these categories.  “The language we Christians have around this is original sin. We need to reframe this into a broader context … lest the strong focus of the document on the U.S. context render it unintelligible elsewhere.”

Briedenthal said that the report is still “a work-in-progress,” and that the bishops’ discussion would help to shape continuing work by the committee.  No date has yet been announced for the report’s publication, and no indication was given about what kinds of resources the committee might prepare to help congregations engage with its themes.  Briedenthal did note that in keeping with its universal aim, the eventual publication will be in several languages, including Spanish, English, French and Haitian Creole.


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