Updated: Aug 18, 2020
To all bishops struggling to name anti-black racism, specifically, as sin,
On Advent 1 of 2017, I walked into what is now my home parish, and for the first time since I was a child, I was in a mostly-Black church. I felt at home. I was surrounded by worshippers who looked like me, who smelled like my parents, and when I walked to the altar rail to take part in Eucharist, given to me by lay eucharistic ministers of all ages and races, I knew I’d make the Episcopal Church my spiritual home.
In January of 2018 we had a bishop’s visit where a white woman (for a reason I’m still not sure of) told a room full of mostly working-class, Black and Latino parishioners, who just wanted to know why it was so hard to find a rector who might look like us, that there was no way a person could live in Austin being paid $60,000 (not that it matters, but we were offering far more than $60,000 a year). At the time, I made around $9,750 a year before taxes. And I felt like, "oh no, maybe this isn’t my home." But our parish showed me that we can call in those we want to be our allies. We forgave her misstep and we now have a spiritually fulfilling and loving relationship with our current rector.
So today, I’m writing in hopes of calling you in, offering forgiveness, and perhaps moving forward to a more spiritually fulfilling and loving relationship with the Black members of your dioceses. In Daughters of the King, we recite the motto of our order at each gathering, saying, "What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do." I respect the office of bishop, and that’s why I feel convicted by God to say this: All Episcopalians deserve more.
Recent official statements sent out by bishops have, to say the least, hurt me deeply. After reading my own bishops' statement once, I had to use the search function on my computer because clearly I had to be mistaken—there was no way, after a weekend of unrest due to the sins of anti-Blackness and white supremacy, that my bishops would release a statement without affirming that they believe Black lives matter. And yet, it didn’t happen. The word "Black" in fact, is not included once. To acknowledge the sin of racism without noting that in its American context it is deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, is specifically to make anti-racist conversations easier for white people.
Especially troubling were the list of affirmations and condemnations. Not only were Black people placed under the umbrella of "people color"—and my diocese knows especially well that Black people have a specific relationship to whiteness that needs to be named(my own parish was founded because of that relationship)—the bishops stated their support exclusively for peaceful protests. Do you know who wasn’t a peaceful protestor? Jesus. Do you know who also condemned the destruction of property? The white moderate and "progressive" clergy members of Alabama who called for "law and order," and who inspired Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to compose his Letter from a Birmingham Jail where he wrote:
"the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or 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; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
People do not riot who do not have a reason to riot. When our Lord turned over the tables in the temple, it was a reminder that things do not matter. We cannot take our things with us to heaven. Our property will bring us no closer to Christ. In the bishop’s letter we were called to be our very best Christian selves, and yet were called to value property more than the pain of people who have destroyed that property.
You reminded us to pray, and then called us to act. And I agree—prayer, especially the Daily Office, has been such a balm to my spirit lately. When the church calendar moved us from Eastertide to the season after Pentecost and we once again began our services by confessing our sins against God and our neighbor, a relief washed over me. Before we pray for anything else, we confess. We all need to confess, but it feels disingenuous and frankly un-pastoral to not even mention that those who benefit from white supremacy need to repent and confess those sins. We cannot pray for peace or justice before we confess. Our prayer book shows us that. Our action needs to be rooted moving forward from that sin. The church does have a responsibility to speak out when people are not protected, and part of that responsibility is naming the people, naming the sin: anti-Black racism, white privilege, white supremacy. These are not partisan political terms, they are sins. Why would you not call us to name them?
A specific statement put out by the Diocese of Texas quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu in its appeal, saying, "He believed that nonviolence presupposes a minimum moral level of the state." The state has not, on multiple occasions, including the violent gassing of protestors near St. John’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Washington, D.C., shown us that they are operating at any moral level. People do not get grabbed off the streets in unmarked vans in a moral state. There has to be morality for there to be non-violence. To say otherwise is to tell people to martyr themselves, and while I like St. Joan of Arc just fine, are you willing to martyr yourselves? Show us before condemning our righteous anger.
The sentiment that we must be the generation to end racism in all forms rings loudly in many pastoral letters I've read from bishops all over the country. Amen and amen. But, as I have stated, to end racism, we need to name the sin of white supremacy. Dear Bishops, have you done that? Or did you submit guidance claiming to be non-partisan, but was actually incredibly centrist, in order to keep the deans of your cathedrals and their major donors happy? We should be upsetting those in power. We cannot serve Christ and white supremacist notions of property rights. We must choose. When Jesus told us to take up our crosses and follow him, he did not intend for it to be something that made everyone around us comfortable. The cross of every Christian should be heavy with grief at the sin of the world, especially when said sin is done in Christ's name. As we drag them through the streets, people should stop and gawk and feel convicted to change. Have you offered guidance that keeps moderates happy? Or are you really seeking solidarity with those who most desperately need to hear Jesus' message?.
Jesus spoke for the least of these. He said blessed are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who work for peace, and who are persecuted for righteousness sake. The Episcopal Church at large has so much work to do to become the Beloved Community. We have centuries of ties with America’s imperialism and colonization, including our role as a slaveholding denomination. For us to move forward, we need to focus on those who we’ve harmed more than those who have always been in power.
"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste…it is no longer good for anything." Let us be salty. Let us be useful. Let us name and condemn sin loudly, and stand with those it might seem uncomfortable to stand with, even if they do end up breaking a couple of our stained glass windows. Let us do better, in Jesus’ name.
For His Sake,
Ari L. Monts