Episcopal News Service
|April 21, 1994||House of Bishops Pastoral Letter on Sin of Racism, March 1994||94090|
|Episcopal News Service|
To all the baptized of the Episcopal Church, grace to you and peace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For decades this church has issued statements, passed resolutions and taken actions which have addressed many aspects of racism and racial justice. While positive changes have occurred at certain times in various situations, racism not only persists in our world, but in many places is powerfully resurgent. The most recent comprehensive attempt to deal with endemic racism in our church and society was initiated by the 70th General Convention in Phoenix three years ago. Among a series of resolutions directed specifically to the church, one required the House of Bishops, in its teaching role, to issue a Pastoral Letter prior to the next General Convention on the sin of racism.
In preparation for this responsibility, we have devoted part of the agenda at each of our interim meetings since Phoenix to this pressing concern. As we have sought to sharpen our personal and corporate consciousness, we have discovered that we ourselves have much to learn, relearn and do. Therefore, what we write here speaks not only to the church at large but to us, your bishops, as well.
This Pastoral Letter is the first in a series of teachings addressed primarily to Episcopalians in the United States. It does not attempt to touch on every aspect of racism, but rather to initiate a continuing discussion on a spiritual malady which infects us all.
In this introductory message, we evoke words and images sacred to our tradition. We share with you an analysis of the current dynamics of racism, confess our complicity with that evil, declare a covenant with each other to work to eliminate racism wherever we find it in church and society, and invite all Episcopalians to join us in a mission of justice, reconciliation and unity.
(Amos 5:23-24 NRSV)
Cries for justice in our land and around the world inevitably confront us with the sin of racism. Those cries have not gone away -- not from the far corners of the world, not from the communities in which the Episcopal Church ministers, nor from our beloved church itself. Ethnic cleansing in central Europe, apartheid in South Africa, murder of indigenous people in our hemisphere, ethnic violence in the Middle East, India and other Asian nations are all variations on the theme of racism.
Escalating violence in America illustrates the complexity of racism. At the heart of the matter is fear. We fear those who are different from ourselves, and that fear translates into violence which in turn creates more fear. Institutionalized preference, primarily for white persons, is deeply ingrained in the American way of life in areas such as employment, the availability of insurance and credit ratings, in education, law enforcement, courts of law and the military.
The definition of racism from Webster's Dictionary sharpens the focus for us.
The handbook of the Episcopal Church's Commission on Racism gives further definitions:
The essence of racism is prejudice coupled with power. It is rooted in the sin of pride and exclusivity which assumes "that I and my kind are superior to others and therefore deserve special privileges." In our religious tradition the people of the covenant have frequently expressed this attitude. Often we have been challenged by prophetic witness to turn from a life of privilege to a vocation of responsibility and moral rectitude. Jesus, in his time, clearly called the people of God to lives of discipleship and servanthood without boundaries of race or class.
Racism perpetuates a basic untruth which claims the superiority of one group of people over others because of the color of their skin, their cultural history, their tribal affiliation, or their ethnic identity. This lie distorts the biblical understanding of God's action in creation, wherein all human beings are made "in the image of God."(2) It blasphemes the ministry of Christ who died for all people, "so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life."(3) It divides people from one another and gives false permission for oppression and exploitation.
While our generation is not the first to experience it, racism has surfaced with particular intensity today because pluralism -- the inevitable result of a shrinking world -- exists on a scale not known before. The challenge of people with differing backgrounds having to live together has never been greater.
The sin of racism is experienced daily in our society, in our church and its institutions, in the House of Bishops. We have listened to first-hand accounts from brother and sister bishops who, in the face of racial prejudice and discrimination, have struggled to maintain a sense of integrity and personal worth. The church in your community is filled with such stories. They are there to be told and heard.
God's response to human sin is to establish a covenant in Christ Jesus that overcomes division and isolation by binding human beings to God and each other in a new way. For Episcopalians, the implications of this new community in Christ are spelled out in the baptismal covenant.(4) Our ability to live into that covenant, personally and in our life together in the church, witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ, with whom we have died to sin through baptism and risen to a new life of joyful obedience.
The House of Bishops and the General Convention as a whole have long rejected the evil of racism and have supported full civil rights for people of color among all races. At the same time, a new appreciation has developed for the plight of all oppressed people and the need for equality in the laws of the nation and in the governance of the church.
Various resolutions in the past have proposed ways for victims of discrimination to participate in the prevailing system. Many have challenged the system itself to become more inclusive. The unspoken assumption of these resolutions is that victims will adapt and assimilate into the existing system. Their message, in essence, has been: "You are welcome to become like us."
Such efforts may have represented progress in their time, but they are seen by many today as the product of a dominant racial attitude, which is at the heart of institutional racism.
Racism may be manifest in any race when it is in a position of power and dominance. In the United States our primary experience is one of white privilege, even in places where whites may be a minority in the surrounding population. This comes as a surprise to many white people, because they do not think of themselves as racist. They may even see themselves as victims of various violent reactions against the dominant culture. Yet there are many in our society at all levels who seem to find a certain security in racially restricted communities, schools, clubs, fraternities, sororities and other institutions.
Questions abound. Can the old melting pot image of assimilation, be replaced by a better metaphor that reflects the value of difference? How can the inherited privilege and unearned advantage of some people be used to bring about the reconciliation of all? How can the church offer all people the "supreme advantage of knowing Christ,"(5) when too often it is itself a bastion of separation? How can the Episcopal Church, which reflects the dominant culture, be a factor in changing destructive racial attitudes and behaviors? Are we ready to find new common ground on which all may stand together? Will we trust the grace of God to enable us to bridge our many unhappy divisions?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God's help.
(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304)
As baptized Christians and as bishops in the Church of God, we recognize that racism is endemic in every aspect of society, including the church. A poster spotted on a university campus put it this way:
One diocese in the church has adroitly adapted this poster for local use by substituting the concluding words with: in this pew in this church -- in this community.
We have found the exhortation of an African-American priest of our church to be compelling:
What this observer discerns and diagnoses in a North American context applies, we believe, to every interracial setting, each with its own particular dynamics. Whoever uses power to suppress and demean people of another racial group stands in need of confessing the sin of racism. We recognize that no conscious actions need to be taken to perpetuate this sin. By virtue of its own institutional and systemic character, racism runs on its own momentum. The rooting out of racism requires intentional and deliberate decisions, prompted and sustained by the grace of God.
The fundamental Christian rhythm of resistance, failure, repentance and returning, well stated in the baptismal covenant, reminds us that all stand in need of honest self-examination and continuing discipline to enable us to become converted and convinced anti-racists. Therefore, we the bishops of the Episcopal Church, confess our complicity with racism and pledge to make necessary changes in our personal lives, in our diocesan structures and in the church as a whole.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in our flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
(Ephesians 2:13-14, NRSV)
In the past, through a variety of resolutions and programmatic offerings, the church has attempted to deal with racism in its own life. Now, we believe, a new moment of choice is upon us. This moment is shaped by a fresh understanding of our baptismal calling, as it is expressed in The Book of Common Prayer. This moment is shaped by the persistent and pervasive racism of our day, an evil that clings so closely that it seems to be part of our very flesh.
Determined to move beyond pious but easy resolutions, we, the bishops of the Episcopal Church, commit ourselves afresh to combat racism in church and society and to hold ourselves accountable to this new covenant.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God's help.
(The Book of common Prayer, page 30)
The catechism declares that the mission of the church "is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."(8) Through baptism all Christians are called and empowered to participate in a ministry of reconciliation and unity. Central to this mission is the intentional transformation of all structures, systems and practices in the church and elsewhere that perpetuate the evil of racism.
Racism in the church subverts the promise of new life in Christ for everyone. Racism stains the church and contradicts the reconciling power of Christ's death and resurrection. Racism is totally inconsistent with the Gospel and, therefore, must be confronted and eradicated.
May God give us the will to engage in this task together and the power and grace to accomplish it.