These wise words came from a friend on Facebook recently. For me, they've never rung more true than the last few weeks. The murders of the Charleston 9 while in Bible study at Emanuel AME, the death threats coming to black female pastors, and the fires at black churches across the South grieve my soul.
The amount of white silence and white fragility from white Christians that arose in response to these events brings me much more than grief. It brings me shame. A few days ago, just a week after the terrorist attack at Emanuel AME in Charleston, Rozella White, a Black Puerto Rican 3rd generation Lutheran who is the Director of Young Adult Ministry for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote a powerful reflection on how she struggled when the opening worship of a conference she attended made no mention in prayer, song, or proclamation about the attack upon this black church. Her critique of the silence of a predominantly white community was followed by various forms of white fragility from those of us who were worried more about the execution of her lament than the fact that we didn't mention Charleston or the suffering of the black community in our time of worship together.
If I'm honest, I was at that conference. I shared in that silence. Though I wasn't on the worship team, I didn't even think to bring the people of Mother Emanuel to one of the leaders as a prayer concern. I also shared in the fragility. Though I didn't voice my own discomfort, I was first taken aback at how our unabashedly progressive community could be perceived as insensitive to racial issues, and especially shared so publicly. To be clear, I’m not pointing the finger at anyone else at that conference without pointing it directly at myself. This wasn’t anyone else’s fault more than it is my own.
At some point - and fortunately that point came rather quickly through conversations with close friends - I realized something. The most important issue at hand was that our community needed to lift up Emanuel AME in prayer, that we needed to lament alongside our sisters and brothers of color, that we needed to cry out for justice, and we didn't do any of that in our opening worship. We didn't take the first chance we had to weep with those who weep, and weep ourselves for the siblings in Christ that we lost. We waited for another colleague, an African national and a personal friend of mine, to break our silence with the news that she was on call that night in a Charleston hospital that cared for Emanuel’s victims.
It wasn't enough that we weren't overtly racist. Our silence was and is complicit in the continuation of racism. Our fragility at our own hurt feelings is a mask for the gaping wound of racism in our society that leads to prejudice, to oppression, to brutality, to death threats, to murder. In our predominantly white churches in a predominantly white denomination, we must forego the complacence of our silence. We must, instead, become actively anti-racist, speaking and living in ways that combat racism.
White people like myself must admit that even the statement that we’re not racist belies the false assumption that we’re free of society’s prejudice toward people of color. We must be honest with ourselves that, somewhere deep in our bones, the racial formation of Western culture by European colonization shaped who we are and how we think about the world. It shaped how we see people with skin darker than ours. When we speak and act in anti-racist ways, we seek the transformation not only of society, but of those hidden areas of prejudice bred within our cultural context.
Yet, the shame that this silence and fragility brings me is not the same as despair. From this disgrace, we must turn to seek the grace that transforms our world. We may actively work to become public advocates, allies, and accomplices in the movement to true equality, toward reconciliation. Our grief at the brokenness of this world seen in continued acts and systems of racism ought to lead us to conviction that things not need always be this way. That, through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, we may become coworkers in the reshaping of this world into a place that embraces all people equally, that honors the integrity of every person regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, ability, or whatever other potential dividing lines separate us.
Here’s the kicker. For Christians, this begins in worship. This begins in shaping our songs and sermons, our prayers and liturgies around a prophetic hope for justice. This begins with calling upon God to be faithful to all people, to cure us of the disease of racism, and to make us an antidote of anti-racism that reveals the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. It begins with an awareness that the suffering the black church is the suffering of the entire church. We must become active agents of grace in the world, conduits of Christ that carry God’s reconciling work to all people through our words and deeds. We can’t stay silent about that, nor should we be surprised that our silence in worship is offensive and heartbreaking to those whom we alienate through our quiet.
From here, we move out to advocacy. To confronting racist systems and structures. To not standing for racist language at the grocery store or racist hiring practices in our country. We must become actively engaged in the transformation of this world into a place where people of all races are embraced as creations of integrity, created in the image of God.
It's not enough to not be racist. We must be anti-racist, in our words and deeds, for the sake of the world, for our sisters and brothers of color, and for ourselves.