[St. Bartholomew’s Church — New York]
The Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, 2017
As a boy growing up in Appalachian Ohio in the 1950s and 1960s, I knew people who believed in the inferiority of others based upon the color of their skin. They were white, poorly educated, and mostly poor. They were also deeply afraid. They believed the lies their parents and neighbors had told them about those who were different from them. Most of them were so far down on the economic ladder that they believed equality for people of any other race or religion could only mean that their own prospects for prosperity would be diminished. In those days, I didn’t know what a white supremacist or a white nationalist was, but I did know something about poor, ignorant, and very frightened people.
In my naiveté, I believed, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s and then the ’80s, Americans would make progress in overcoming such racism. And, certainly, significant progress was achieved. Overt racism was challenged through the bipartisan passage of the Civil Rights Act, and our nation made progress by outlawing certain racist practices and by working towards greater equality through the Affirmative Action movement.
As we crossed into a new millennium, I along with many others thought we would never fall back into the baseless fears of a previous generation. I was wrong. The fear I witnessed as a child in the 1950s and ’60s morphed over time into a newer version of white supremacy. White men (and some white women) from certain geographic and economic segments of the country have come to believe that movement towards equality for all has diminished their standing and identity. They are now the ones who feel “victimized” and “discriminated” against. In the process of our society moving toward greater racial equality and religious inclusivity, they believe people of color have been granted privileges they no longer possess, and they believe people of other religions pose a threat to their own religious identity.
It is surreal to be writing a statement in 2017 in the United States of America condemning the violence and hatred of white supremacists and white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. We must remember the reason white supremacists and nationalists gathered there was to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent place in a city park, and to protest the removal of such symbols from a number of public places around the country. As they marched, they chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans, including one slogan borrowed from the Nazis. They brought into the public domain a fearsome racism that is usually found only behind closed doors.
I understood that language used in the recent presidential election granted a kind of permission to white supremacists and nationalists to more freely express these abhorrent beliefs. I knew there had been an uptick in the number of violent statements being made against people of color and against people of other religions, particularly against Jews and Muslims. I also knew there had been an uptick in the number of violent acts against people of color and other religions.
Still, I was shocked, as many of you were, to see a news video of a crowd of mostly white men making their way, with burning torches, to a church filled with people who had gathered there in opposition to the hate-filled rhetoric these men had come to proclaim. This was a scene reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan marches of years gone by. I count among my friends a number of clergy who were present in that church as witnesses to the inclusive embrace of Christ’s love. They put themselves in harm’s way, in the ancient tradition of Christians who did not count the cost when it came to proclaiming the loving, inclusive power of the Good News of God in Christ.
Good people of every allegiance should condemn these actions unambiguously. White supremacy is a danger to the moral fabric of our nation and it is particularly abhorrent to Christians of good will who take the words of the Apostle Paul seriously:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3: 28
So, what can we do as members of the St. Bart’s community of faith? What does any of this have to do with us?
We can pray. We will continue to pray publicly and privately for healing, reconciliation, and an end to the violence and hatred which characterizes these anti-Christian movements.
We can speak out. We can deplore detestable and outrageous statements made by members of the white supremacist and nationalist movements and we can make our voices heard with our family and friends and colleagues.
We can act. We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are proclaiming the inclusiveness of God’s love. There are any number of groups engaged in prophetic action opposing these hate groups, and we can get involved in supporting them. I will be sending a check from the Rector’s Discretionary Account to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to be distributed to parishes engaged in this effort, and you are welcome to contribute to the Rector’s Discretionary Account for this purpose.
Silence in the face of evil is a form of consent, and we cannot and will not remain silent regarding matters crucial to morality and justice. It seems more than a coincidence that I am writing this letter on the Feast Day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young seminarian who, in the process of protecting a teenage, black woman during the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama, was killed by a shotgun blast. The letters he wrote during that time are an eloquent testimony to his faith. Jonathan Daniels wrote:
“I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized in the Lord’s death and resurrection… with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout… We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”
May our loving God continue to watch over us to guide us and to guard us and, in perfect love, to cast out all fear.