Racial Trauma & The Violence of the White Church

November 1, 2018

“ ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. ” – Matthew [5:21]-22 (NRSV)

Jesus is not speaking hyperbolically. Jesus is not just trying to get our attention. Jesus is not simply using a rhetorical device to make a point. The language we use is killing people. We White America are murdering our Black and Brown sisters and brothers with our worlds as well our systems and our guns, and we will be, we are liable to the hell of fire for it.

My brother, Fr. Jabriel Ballentine, is the latest in a line of prophets calling out to the Church to recognize and end the racial violence. In his most recent post he shared powerfully, personally, and at great risk to himself and his career, how the all the things we dismiss with minimizing language, all the ‘racism’ and ‘micro-aggressions’, all of our ‘mistakes’, ‘misunderstandings’,  all the ways we inadvertently offend, all of our patriarchy, paternalism, prejudice, and discrimination, even our attempts at ‘reconciliation’ are attempts to cover up the reality violence.

Hear the words of our Lord, as I so recently have heard them anew myself: we can and do, with our words, deny the very humanity of our sisters and brothers in Christ. We can and do with our words, our assumptions, our presumptions, visit violence upon the minds, bodies, and spirits of the very children of God. 

Every day our White Church proclaims to our Black and Brown members, clergy and laity, that White agency, White judgement, and White authority are primary. We declare their wishes and their desires and their will subject to our own. We put ourselves in the place of God and pronounce their imago dei second-class, subordinate, subsidiary, to Whiteness.

We do this when we question credentials and judgments; when we ask to see id or if someone is lost; when we assume they are hear to serve us or that they need our help to survive.

Six years ago I did this when I asked the elderly African-American man walking in the parish hall, “Can I help you?”. He was picking up his grandson from the preschool, like everyone else that day. He was just the only person I thought was out of place.

Two years ago I did this when an African-American woman who came to the aid of a parishioner having a medical emergency during the service, asking her, “Are you a nurse?” because I couldn’t see a Black woman as a doctor.

Yesterday I did this when opening the door to the church offices for a Black man when my demeanor, facial expression, and posture changed when I found out he wasn’t there seeking financial assistance.

Imagine being told every day of your life that you are less than, that your thoughts don’t matter, that your wishes count less than another’s. Imagine someone in authority whose job it is to support and protect you repeatedly violating your expressly communicated desire to be free of a bully’s hurtful, painful, words and actions in your life and instead granting “permission” to the perpetrator to talk with you again. 

To deny the humanity of God’s children is to do violence. And for such violence we are liable. I am liable.

In the past few years, I, like some White men, have finally begun to listen to the women of our world who, throughout all time, have been trying to expose the sexism, misogyny, violence, and trauma they experience daily. Through the brave and bold efforts of women, our church has begun to address their needs and to shape our systems to reflect their full humanity. It is only the barest of beginnings and their remains much more work to do, yet this work can and must teach us more than just to address how we treat women. Their work and sacrifice can and must teach us that the words and actions of individuals and institutions carry power and weight that lands most heavily, most brutally on our Black and Brown sisters and brothers. 

It is past time that we, as a church, recognize and expose the similar trauma of racialized violence. I feel ashamed and embarrassed that I have been in loving relationship with so many women and so many African-Americans for so many years and am only now beginning to hear the depths in what they have shared all along. I am afraid that admitting the depths of my own willful ignorance, my own self-protecting denial will cause them even more pain and give them one more reason to walk away. I don’t want to confront the depth of our sin in my life and in the life of the church I help lead. I want to remain numb and continue my comfortable existence, surrendering a few worthless habits, admitting a few minor transgressions.

I am not willing to risk violence for myself of my family to help end the violence being done to my brother, my sister, my own god-daughter. I am not willing to risk the security of my job or the respect of my colleagues to help end the violence being done to so many of God’s beloved children.

It took me over two weeks to even formulate these feeble, cautionary…words.

And yet we must recognize the fullness, the reality of their lives if we are to have any love at all. We must risk exposing the false identity Whiteness prescribes for us and claim our unity in the family of God. We must surrender the security of office and title to speak truth, to name violence publicly, to demand that the power structures we perpetuate stop protecting the perpetrators, to dismantle those same structures, and to release control from the grip of White Supremacy.

We deserve to be abandoned. We deserve to be left alone. I would never counsel anyone to stay in close relationship with a perpetual abuser. And yet, Fr. Jabriel and so many others are still here, shouting from the rooftops the words of warning, reaching out in love, proclaiming from the ramparts and watchtowers that we must repent and return to the Lord. 

We, the White Church, must recognize the violence and trauma we are visiting upon on sisters and brothers. We must repent again and again, calling out the sin in our lives and in the lives of our White colleagues and parishes and communities and systems. We must do so in public, when we are uncomfortable, when it will cost us money, honor, position, and power. We must use the power we have to dismantle the systems of violence we have built and we must surrender power whenever we can to be used by those with less power to rebuild a just and loving church.

As a church, we can begin by creating a system of protections and recourse for racial violence modeled after that of sexual violence. Listening to those who have courageously shared their stories, we can begin to protect them from retaliation and actually hold each other and ourselves accountable – not just for what we say that we intended but for what our actions affected. 

As individuals we must shift our lives from comfort to compassion. We must lay aside our image of ourselves as “good people” and embrace the love of Jesus that allows us to see our fallen and sinful lives, repent, and be transformed. Recognizing the violence visited on our sisters and brothers, we cannot pass-by on the other side. This will cost us. We must do it still. We must change how we live and what we prioritize in our lives. Where we are ignorant of our own history we must educate ourselves and our institutions, investing the time and energy and resources needed to read, study, reflect, and act. We must change how we spend our money, supporting Black-led movements within and outside of the church while we organize our own White networks of friends and family to prioritize changing policies in our neighborhoods and our communities and our country that disproportionately affect people of color – police and criminal justice reform, housing and education policy, climate change, and more. We must listen for and be changed by the chorus of Black and Brown voices telling us where injustice lies and we must spend our time, sacrificing the achievements, priorities, and status symbols of this world to do it.

And then we must keep working, trying, failing and succeeding, and trying-again in all these ways and more. We can keep pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus because the very lives of our sisters and brothers depend on it; because our Lord lived and died and rose again for this; because this work is the Gospel.

– Fr. Cayce Ramey

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