By Guy Hewitt
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
Often, people don’t appreciate the complexity of a situation while in it. For Trinity Sunday, I want to speak to a triune, three-fold calamity confronting the USA. Imagine in one year, a viral pandemic that claimed over 100,000 lives, unseen since the Spanish Flu; an economic contraction costing tens of millions of jobs, unknown since the Great Depression; and civil unrest unheard of since the Civil Rights era, the outcome of which is evolving. In years to come, people will regard 2020 as a unique moment in time.
In 1967, when the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., stated, “without justice, there can be no peace,” his statement held no malice or threat of violence but rather he was declaring the universal truth; that without justice peace will remain an elusive goal. The book of Proverbs says, “the evil do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.” In love, and towards a more perfect Union, I speak to the issue of “No Justice, No Peace.”
As people of faith, we should seek equality and speak out on behalf of victims of injustice. In his Letter to the Galatians St. Paul affirmed our singularity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for [we] are one in Christ Jesus.” In the gospel of John, our Lord gives the imperative, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
We have another reason for speaking on this point as politics was literally brought to door of our church. As stated by Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, “the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a Bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”
Proverbs says that “to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” I need to commend those peaceful protesters who across the U.S., in cities large and small, and further afield, rallied against the taking of George Floyd’s life. His is the most recent in a series of brutal killings of primarily black males. May they all rest in peace. As Dr. King emphasized, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I similarly need to condemn all those who sought to use these civil rights actions to cause damage and mayhem, just as we should condemn those armed mobs who recently occupied capitol buildings.
In 2008, many wondered whether the election of Barack Obama as the first black president would also be the inauguration of a post-racial era in the U.S. This proved illusory as racial politics and inequality intensified. Many non-blacks are not aware of “The Talk” that black parents often have with their sons. This is about how to act if ever you have an encounter with police. Black children are taught to obey, do whatever they say, not to talk back and above everything else watch how you move your hands. This message is oft instilled as if life depends on it; but then again, it possibly does.
The recent Axios-Ipsos poll taken the week George Floyd was killed, found that 77% of whites say they trust local police, compared with just 36% of African Americans. This shouldn’t be “normal” in 2020 in America. What many Caucasians fail to comprehend is that black people often experience a very different political, economic and social reality. The colour of your skin can and does affect many interactions including how teachers, employers, police, judges, bankers, immigration officials, politicians, historians, and the like perceive you. On average, white households have nearly 6.5 times the wealth of black households. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is not just an old, classic movie but the “normal” for people of colour today.
One of the reassuring features of the ongoing #blacklivesmatter protests has been their multiracial composition and the proliferation of young people. This is significant for they are not just the leaders of tomorrow but the catalysts for change today. To this, I need to speak directly to our white sisters and brothers.
James Baldwin, a neighbor of my parents, wrote, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” The gospel of John says, “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”
Some years ago, Bishop Curry redefined the opposite of love. According to him, the opposite of love isn’t hate but selfishness. “The real opposite of love self-centeredness, which is the most destructive force in human relationships and political ones.” He emphasised that, “Selfishness is the hallmark of our time, the ‘pattern of this world.’ We are a culture swimming in fear, judgement, survival-of-the-fittest, competitions for wealth and resources, and a manic need to prove oneself better than others.”
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote, “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
In our Act of Contrition we confess, “that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” What we have left undone — the sin of omission. Fundamental to abolishing the racial barriers in the U.S. is breaking the white code of silence. As I hear from white friends, “We don’t need to talk about race. It’s not our issue.” How wrong they are. Proverbs tells us, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
As citizens of our global village, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Four days before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered his last pulpit sermon in Washington D.C. “It’s an unhappy truth,” he preached, “that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle. The disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the disease of racism.” More than 50 years have passed since Dr King was taken from us and we’re still searching for the cure.
In her book on white privilege, “Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” Debby Irving makes some important observations, “Not so long ago, if someone had called me a racist, I would have kicked and screamed in protest. ‘But I’m a good person!” I would have insisted. ‘I don’t see color! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!’ I would have felt insulted and misunderstood and stomped off to lick my wounds. That’s because I thought being a racist meant not liking people of color or being a name-calling bigot. For years I struggled silently to understand race and racism.”
She continues, “It turns out, stumbling block number one was that I didn’t think I had a race so I never thought to look within for answers…I thought white was the raceless race – just plain, normal – the one against which all others were measured. What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs.”
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. I’ve met many white people who share not only these beliefs but the same feelings of race-related confusion and anxiety. I appreciate that for many white people, having real conversations about race is tricky. Most aren’t accustomed to doing it and aren’t proficient at doing it well. Many fear sounding stupid, use the wrong words, or offending, but there is a need to try. Race isn’t other peoples’ issue; it’s everyone’s. The Book of Isaiah tells us, “learn to do good – seek justice, rescue the oppressed.”
Many white friends have learned that conversations about race start by the rejection of the feel-good fiction that we live in a colorblind world and instead thinking about what whiteness means in America. Also, it requires truly listening to the experiences of non-whites: dates like May 20 (Emancipation Day in Florida) and names like Emmett Till and Rodney King should be appreciated by all.
Just as our churches prepare a strategy to safely reopen in the shadow of COVID-19, we should similarly act to put the disease of racism behind us. In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO), through vaccination, declared smallpox eradicated. Perhaps with a determination to bring about real change, we can similarly eradicate both COVID19 and racism.
By faith, in hope and with love, I believe that we can. Yes, we can! Amen.
The Rev. Guy Hewitt was Barbados’ first London-born ambassador to the U.K. He is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.