May 28, 2020
The Bishop’s Reflection: Racism

Aloha my Siblings in Christ Jesus,

Can the United States ever overcome its profoundly racist nature? As a society, the presenting American sin is racism. As a nation, it was founded on notions of European cultural superiority that was enshrined in ideology and theology (see " The Doctrine of Discovery"). It was created with the violent displacement of indigenous peoples of the land, and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. Every subsequent generation of European Americans has benefited from the inherit right to conquer and control other people. The often unconscious assumptions of white supremacy and colonialism pervade our everyday life. This is even true in Hawaiʻi.

I have personally benefited from the racism of American society. Most of my ancestors were those English and Scots-Irish settlers (and their descendants) who made their way from colonial Virginia through Kentucky, and into southern Indiana and Illinois. They were farmers, shop keepers and laborers. I am one of the first in the family to make it through college and graduate school. Through the years, I have never been questioned about my right to be any place that I have been. I have never been treated with suspicion. It was always assumed that I “earned” my place in school or American society. I was nurtured with the myth that hard work earned one respect and success. I have never had to fear the police or those in authority. Even when pulled over for a traffic violation, I was given the benefit of the doubt – and almost always given a warning and not a ticket. Yes, there have been struggles and differences in my family. The key is that they did not inhibit my education or career because of the color of my skin or where I was born (or the language my parents spoke).

At a young age, I learned prejudice from the world around me – from my own family. I think prejudice refers to the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and attitudes someone holds about a group. A prejudice is not based on experience; instead, it is a prejudgment, originating outside actual experience. I learned prejudice growing up. It is taught – often unconsciously. It is the use of a general term for individuals of another race or ethnic group. While the term is often derogatory, it is used in a normative way. Individuals of my family’s group are referred to by name or described in neutral terms. Further, when someone was “white” and did something wrong, the person was “bad.” When someone who was African American did something “good,” then the individual was described as exceptional. Our society promoted difference and fear. There was an ingrained sense of separation.

It is easy for prejudice to become racism. I am less clear that there is really a difference except in degree of fear, hate and violence. Racism is a stronger type of prejudice used to justify the belief that one’s own racial category is somehow superior or inferior to others; it is also a set of practices used by a racial majority to disadvantage a racial minority. Racism is by its nature violent. It assumes the other is harmful, must be feared and needs to be controlled. The move from “prejudice” to “racism” leads to self-justification and then to isolate and oppression of the other. Language and actions that promote “self-protection” and “white pride” are really grounded in fear and, ultimately, racist hate. The other is not a human being, but an animal, vermin or worse. Racism must lead to violence. Hate language is just the first step.

Racism too often leads to a change in the very systems of society. Institutional racism refers to the way in which racism is embedded in the fabric of society. For example, the disproportionate number of black men arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes may reflect racial profiling, a form of institutional racism. The very illegal overthrow of the monarchy in Hawaiʻi and annexation by the United States was grounded in instituional racism that assumed that white European Americans could govern best and bring progress to the Islands.

The killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and of George Floyd in Minnesota have sparked outrage. Part of the outrage is that such events have become normalized. American society is not surprised. When armed white protestors can storm state capitals without consequence, the sense of power and powerlessness is clear. Our society is sinful and the primary American sin is racism. It is about far more than the police officers in Minneapolis or the McMichaels in Georgia. It is the underlying assumptions of our society. We know that behind all this is fear and anxiety. The recent attacks on Asians during the pandemic, the assaults on people for speaking a “foreign langauge” or playing “foreign” music, and the treatment and neglect of indigenous people are further contemporary examples in 2020. These are not isolated incidents, but bespeak the taproot of racism that is the United States of America.

I must admit that were it not for my faith in Jesus Christ, I could end here with a sense of hopelessness and/or to allow my own rage to want to meet violence with violence. I understand the protest and violence on the streets of Minneapolis. The non-violent “taking a knee” of Colin Kaepernick during the singing of the “National Anthem” does not even rise to the level of civil disobedience, and yet too many people have treated as if it were some grave affront to the nation as others are literally murdered. My frustration resonates with calls for violent revolution. My faith calls me to another path – to the cross and a peaceful revolution.

If we truly wish to overcome violence that is the inevitable result of racism, it cannot be with violence. It must first begin with repentance. Every Christian – every Episcopalian in the Diocese of Hawaiʻi – must acknowledge the sin of racism endemic in our society and in ourselves. This is just as true in Hawaiʻi as it is in North America. Racism has nurtured poverty and mass incarceration. It is enshrined in unequal education systems. It is our reality. The late New Testament scholar, C.F.D. Moule, insisted “that true repentance means outgoing self-giving love to the generous love of forgiveness, and that reconciliation is not complete until there is a two-way traffic.... It is by incorporation in Christ, by baptism into his death, that real repentance begins to become possible. Christ, and, in Christ, the Church, is the locas of reconciliation: and, through it, the rest of mankind [sic.] and, indeed, the whole universe is to be brought into the harmony of God’s design.” [ Christ Alive and at Large: Unpublished Writings of C.F.D. Moule edited by Robert Morgan and Patrick Moule (Canterbury Press, 2010), pp. 87-88]. As Christians, we must each – each of us individually – recognize and own the prejudice within us. This is not a once and for all reality. It must be renewed everyday. I am reminded of the absolution in the Book of Common Prayers Daily Offices (Rite I) when the officiant pronounces the “absolution and remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and consolation of his Holy Spirit.” True repentance and amendment of life does not come all at once. It begins with me. Those of us from the dominant group (European Americans) in American society must be the first to repent and recognize consciously our own privilege and the overall benefits we have had from the racist system. Then, however, we are called to examine ourselves and our ingrained – and often unconscious -- personal prejudices that then allow racism to flourish in the society around us. This exercise, however, must be true for everyone. Prejudice and stereotypes are internally destructive for everyone. Some project onto others and complictly reinforce the racist society to protect themselves from harm. Others internalize the racism and live in the sinkhole of oppression.

Years ago, I heard the late theologian Elisbeth Moltmann-Wendel speak about feminist theology. She used a phrase that has become essential to my understanding of humanity and the overcoming of oppression. The phrase she used was “I am good; I am whole; I am beautiful.” In her book, A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: Perspectives on Feminist Theology (Crossroad, 1988), she writes: “In periods of social revolution the gospel of the revolution of all personal values and its message of the liberating power of God in the individual has always had a revolutionary potential.” (p. 154) She is speaking here not of a violent revolution, but a transformation of the individual and of society. As a Protestant, she grounds her reflection in an understanding of justification by grace as a concept of acceptance: acceptance by God, acceptance of oneself and an acceptance of the other. It means a casting off of our own received self-image – but also our prejudices about others.

When she affirms that “I am good,” she suggests that “[p]utting our being before our actions first means understanding, grasping what are being is, and replacing our accustomed and inbread mistrust of ourselves with trust in ourselves.” (p. 157) If we can cast off our inbred mistrust and affirm “you are good” then other human beings are valued not as part of a group, but as individual siblings in God’s love.

Stating “I am whole” allows the oppressed individual to “regain the capacities which have been taken from us, rediscover wholeness and the fascinating awareness of our feelings, when we bring back into play the instinct we hardly use.” (p. 159) For those of us in the dominant group, the affirmation of “wholeness” alleviates the fear of loss. The other person’s wholeness in Christ is not a threat to my relationship to God or others. I have nothing to lose in the other personʻs wholeness.

Finally, “I am beautiful” reminds us that “[c]hildren and people become beautiful only if we find them beautiful. But we can only find them beautiful if we ultimately find ourselves beautiful. And this reciprocal relationship shapes all human relationships…. If I find myself beautiful, I shall not remain narcissistically in love with myself. If I find myself beautiful, I shall also find other things and other people beautiful and attractive.” (pp.160 and 163).

If I see myself in God’s love as truly good, whole and beautiful, and then can extend the same love to all others. There is no place for prejudice. My repentance demands the constant reminder that all people are good, whole and beautiful. The empowerment of the other person is not a threat or a burden. It is righteousness and justice. It is love.

All members of the Episcopal Church – each of us – are called to self-examination and repentance. We have the resources (see Resources for Racial Reconciliation and Justice) as a Church. The work, however, must take place in our congregations and in our own lives. I find that I have to keep “good, whole, beautiful” in my mind in every encounter. During conversations about race and prejudice, I must always speak from the “I” perspective. I am a privileged, straight, European American with a university education. That means I must listen to other voices. I particularly don’t need others like myself telling me about prejudice and racism. I must admit that sometimes I just don’t see or hear what is around me. I need to be told by those being impacted about the reality around us. That means I must embrace discomfort. This is difficult, but it is – by God’s grace – the beginning of reconciliation and holy justice.

Here in Hawaiʻi, we like to believe things are completely different than in the North American states. We are a “hapa” society. You and I know, however, that prejudice and racism are here. It only takes a crisis like the TMT controversy to allow racist comments to fly on social media. The side jokes about someone in the checkout line at the store or along the street are many. The very fabric of modern Hawaiʻi was woven from the myth of European American superiority, exploitation and appropriation of land.

As the followers of Jesus Chris, we cannot let evil go unanswered. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and of George Floyd in Minnesota are examples of racism and violence. Unfortunately, they are but two more examples. Nevertheless, we must cry: This is unacceptable. When armed thugs occupy the capital buildings of states, we must cry: This is unacceptable. When a leader of the nation speaks words of hate and violence, we must cry: This is unacceptable. Why? Because it is not what Jesus Christ taught and I follow where led. We need to look no further than the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:1-12):
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.”
I leave you with the words of Jesus and with these from Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17-18): “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” I do not know if the United States can overcome the sins of racism and violence. They are deeply ingrained. If they are to be cast away, it must begin with me – and with you.
Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. – A prayer for “The Oppressed,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 826
Aloha ma o Iesu Kristo, ko mākou Haku,

The Right Reverend Robert L. Fitzpatrick
Bishop Diocesan
The Episcopal Diocese of Hawaiʻi

The Episcopal Church in Micronesia

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