My first two meetings of the House of Bishops--spring and fall 2011--were tightly packed with mostly passive plenary meetings, with little "down" time. I found it stultifying. Apparently, I wasn't the only one, because each one since then has been substantially more relaxed in its pace--aspiring to a retreat-like ambience, and I was very grateful. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the direction of freneticism. It isn't that anything we're doing is intrinsically not worthwhile. But it does raise questions about whether we're being asked to do too many things and whether the things we're doing are the highest and best use of the aggregate energy, knowledge, and experience assembled in this place. I wish we could walk away from the temptation to have our meetings dominated by themes that are, as it were, "ripped from the headlines," and which we can generally do little or nothing about, while giving short shrift to concerns that our closer to our actual lives, and over which we indeed to have some influence.
After initial housekeeping-type issues, the morning session began with a welcome from the Presiding Bishop in which she explicated the theme of the gathering: Fostering a culture of curiosity, compassion, and courage in Christ. I'm just the messenger here; draw your own inferences. In point of fact, the theme is racism and race relations, but one could be forgiven for not guessing that from the way it's articulated.
We then did the standard thirty minutes of "check-in" at our table groups, briefly sharing what's been going on with us personally and professionally. We stay at the same tables for the three years following each General Convention, so there's some continuity in our narratives. Following check-in we came back together for Morning Prayer (Psalm and canticles sung, plus a hymn), the homily taking the form of an extended meditation from the Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright. His aim was to stimulate our thinking around our experience of and/or participation in racism, broadly construed. Next up was the Revd Eric Law, a priest of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Executive Director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a leadership training project. Fr Law took us through some exercises intended to prepare us and equip us for respectful conversation over difficult issues. I will only say this: He is not an INTJ. Then, of course, we had table-group discussions of some questions Bishop Wright had prepared for us that pertained to his meditation.
We broke for lunch between noon and 2:00. After eating, I used the time for picking away at the steady onslaught of emails and text messages.
The afternoon was devoted to a project called Traces of the Trade, the centerpiece of which is a documentary film of the same title, a quite compelling piece of work, which we viewed. We were led in this by a married couple named Dain and Constance Perry. The film and the accompanying presentation laid upon, with some awkwardness and pain, the extent to which New England, so often lauded as the seedbed of abolitionism, nonetheless prospered economically in the 18th and 19th centuries as a direct result of the slave trade. Even those who do not personally commit evil nonetheless often enjoy wealth and privilege that were amassed as a result of social evils like slavery, and are therefore implicated in that evil, in ways both numerous and subtle. There was about 30 minutes for those who wished to to briefly share with the whole group something of the experience of or entanglement in racism.
For a number of reasons, I chose not to attend the 5pm Eucharist (I wasn't the only one), and use the time to be in touch with Brenda, and keep picking away at those emails.
We had an evening session from 7:30 until 8:45 or so. The focus was on the events of the last few months emanating from Ferguson, MO. Appropriately enough, Bishop Wayne Smith of Missouri facilitated this time.
I didn't speak during the time to do so in the afternoon session. Here's what I might have said had I done so: My mother was raised in Arkansas during the height of the Jim Crow era. I'm old enough to remember de jure segregation: waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and the like. I observed the stereotypical brand of southern racism firsthand. The n-word was not foreign to my experience, but it was foreign to my own working vocabulary. My parents were repentant of the racism of my mother's upbringing. I was brought up in an anti-racist household where there was a great deal of sympathy for the civil rights struggle in its late-1950s/early 1960s incarnation. To me, at that time, the chief end of the movement, the manifestation of justice, was a truly color-blind society in which people would be judged, paraphrasing Dr King, by character content rather than skin color. I was committed to this aspiration. Had I been a few years older, I may have been in Selma.
And that's why I was disturbed in the mid- and late sixties, when the civil rights struggle took on a harsher, more militant, and occasionally even violent dimension. When elements within the black community adopted language like "honky" to denote whites, I was crestfallen. When cries for affirmative action and reparations emerged, it seemed to contradict everything about the earlier idealism. Even later, when racism came to be defined not as irrational prejudice or invidious discrimination, but as the mere exercise of unearned white privilege, I was skeptical trending in the direction of disgusted.
A great deal has happened since all that, and the situation is very complex. I don't pretend to have any answers, easy or otherwise. But, as a Christian, and a pastor, who endeavors to think theologically at odd moments, my frustration is that the Church seems to not be able to break loose from the stale polemical categories of the secular conversation on race and race relations. We are so immersed in the post-modern radical individualism of western culture, which is the source of the regnant politics of personal identity, that we have forgotten how to think like Christians. In baptism, we are given a new identity: Christian. It trumps, and transforms, and eventually supersedes any other identity by which we might be tempted to define ourselves. We are one in Christ, not in some other racial or ethnic or national group or gang. This is the fundamental gospel social paradigm. The ultimate solution to racism is not reconciliation between races, as such, but, rather, evangelization, and subsequent acceptance of Christian identity as so far eclipsing all other categories as to render them virtually moot. I realize we are a long, long way from attaining this. I just wish we were a little more intentionally aiming at it.