A Letter to the Church
from Kelly Brown Douglas, Stephanie Spellers, and Winnie Varghese
On this day, July 4th, our country celebrates its Independence. Our Episcopal Church also marks this as a major Feast Day, a day to pray in thanksgiving for the founders who “won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.”
Yet, we must ask what is the meaning of freedom in such a time as this, when the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately ravages Black, Brown, and First Nations communities weakened by the pre-existing condition of endemic injustice and inequality? What is the meaning of freedom, when Black bodies continue to be brutalized by policing that has its roots in slave patrols? What is freedom when our Breonnas are not safe in their homes, our Ahmauds are not safe jogging, and our Erics, Elijahs and Georges cry out, “I can’t breathe”?
For the church, freedom must be more than a song we sing or a flag we wave. It must begin with the cross that calls us to claim freedom – and to free our church and nation – from America’s original sin: White supremacy. We long for the day that our church might be free to become the church we have until now only aspired to be: followers of a crucified and risen Lord, who witness to God’s just future.
And so we write this day, three women, three Episcopal priests, two of African descent, one South Indian and all blessed with Ebony grace, reflecting on what freedom means. We are fueled by a shared hope that our Episcopal Church can indeed live into what it means to be church and thus lead the nation into what it means to be truly free.
WHAT DOES FREEDOM MEAN TO US?
FREEDOM MEANS TRANSFORMATIVE TRUTH-TELLING. Truth-telling like this is not about self-serving admissions of guilt, to be followed by exoneration from an inhumane past. Rather, transformative truth-telling is about taking responsibility for that past. This means naming the ways the church has been shaped by and continues to benefit from the complex realities of White supremacy – and then doing that which is necessary systemically, culturally and theologically to free the church from its sin.
Frederick Douglass spoke the truth about American Christianity in 1852, when he said in his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” address:
“A worship that can be conducted by persons who refuse to give shelter to the houseless, to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and who enjoin obedience to a law forbidding these acts of mercy, is a curse, not a blessing to mankind. … The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors.”
His words have shocking resonance today. That is why truth-telling is so critical, particularly for our Episcopal Church. From sea to shining sea, we must tell the truth of our story as the church of wealthy slaveholders and traders. We must tell the truth about Episcopalians who were personally responsible for the forced migration and extermination of Native peoples; who penned best-selling tracts laying out the biblical case for slavery; and who argued against abolition for sheer pragmatism. We must tell the truth about congregations that advertised lynchings in their Sunday bulletins.
We must speak of church support for “sundown towns”, internment camps and Asian exclusion acts, and policies designed to keep White communities White. We must tell the truth about the sinful sources of the inherited wealth of a few “privileged” congregations and dioceses, resources they continue to hoard while other congregations and dioceses that serve Indigenous people, descendants of slaves and immigrants struggle to survive.
Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). If we speak these unflinching truths, the church may find its way, and lead a nation that claims to trust in God.
FREEDOM MEANS TRANSFORMATIVE LETTING-GO. To let-go is to free ourselves institutionally and individually of that which stands between us and the justice of God: Whiteness itself.
Whiteness is not a benign construct. It is that which White supremacy protects. It is a culture and way of being that claims superiority and universality, even as it subjugates, appropriates, silences, deports, dehumanizes, and eliminates that which is not White.
Whiteness prevents us all from living the truth of who we are as sacred children of God, equally beloved in God’s sight. White Americans must name and let-go of the realities and privileges of Whiteness, even as People of Color must refuse the tantalizing pull to secure the privileges of Whiteness for ourselves.
Steeped as it is in White supremacy, our denomination must model transformative letting-go and decide whether it is going to be White (that is, allied with oppression) or be church. Jesus made his choice. In his crucifixion, he let-go of anything that set him apart from his sacred humanity and anything that separated him from crucified classes of people who were the victims of the deadly cultural, political and religious privilege of his day. He understood that it is only when the least of these are able to breathe freely, that God’s dream is made real and the sacred humanity of all is restored.
Jesus put it this way, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Before there is a new bounty, a new hope, a possibility of abundant life for all, that which binds us to sin must die, be sloughed off like an old skin. We urge our White siblings to take on this life-giving work of letting-go.
FREEDOM MEANS BEING BORN FROM ABOVE. To be born from above is to hold ourselves accountable not to the way things are, but to the way God has promised us they will be. To be born from above means freeing ourselves from the nightmare that is White supremacy, so that we might live into the dream of God’s shalom, a compassionate, loving and just future.
That promise is ours to claim. White supremacy has cast a deep, nearly impenetrable shadow, but we cling to God’s promise. We know that in Christ whatever is broken can be restored. We know another world – God’s world – is possible. We know our church can be church. To be that church, born from above, we will need to join in reimagining and creating new ways of being as a society and a people. In this reimagined reality, the first would be last and the last first, not because there is a reversal of penalty and privilege, but because there is no longer last, no longer first. Having let-go of Whiteness and been born from above, everyone is treated and regarded as a sacred child of God.
To be born again is to hear and heed the call Jesus claimed for himself:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).
Followers of Jesus proclaim this vision of God’s Beloved Community, where all people may experience dignity and see themselves and others as beloved children of God.
FREEDOM MEANS LIVING INTO OUR BAPTISMAL COVENANT: In this season of disruption and rebirth, The Episcopal Church has an opportunity and urgent call to model the movement toward true freedom, by actively turning from the White supremacy at our church’s core and shifting into liberating proximity with our crucified Savior. The way to that freedom is embedded in the covenant we take on and renew at Baptism.
We have promised as a church and as individual followers of Jesus to resist evil and – when we fail, which we surely will – to repent and return to our God. In this moment, we must do the institutional and personal work of transformative truth-telling and repentance, and lead our nation toward a similarly deep reckoning. Learning from the witness of our South African and Canadian siblings, we can organize diocesan and local truth convenings that feature public storytelling and confession of the racial violence and oppression in which Episcopal churches have been complicit. We can ensure our truth-telling is indeed transformative by combining it with a commitment to change structures, behaviors and practices that participate – even unconsciously – in White supremacy.
We have promised as a church and as individual followers of Jesus to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In this moment, we must do the inner, interpersonal and institutional work of letting-go of Whiteness and instead embrace a way of life that looks like Jesus. This is life-long formation and re-formation, and it requires a fresh commitment to local and regional training and formation efforts, especially in anti-racism, dismantling racism and internalized oppression. We need not use pandemic limitations as an excuse – if anything, this time of disruption and displacement may be the ideal moment for us and our churches to pause, learn, reflect, let-go and reimagine life beyond Whiteness.
We have promised to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. In this moment we must do the social and structural work of justice and repair, with a special commitment to ending the brutal reign of White supremacy over Black, Brown, Native, Asian bodies. We must protest and witness against White supremacy wherever it thrives, and invest our resources – financial, relational, political, intellectual, moral – in local, state and federal struggles to reimagine justice.
This begins with discarding a system of policing born of injustice, and promoting models that aim for community flourishing and freedom from the violence of systemic, generational poverty. No one can claim to be free as long as these systems actively, ruthlessly shackle, diminish and destroy the children of God.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we proclaim God’s Beloved Community, where the flourishing of every person and all creation is the hope of each person, where the oppressed are liberated from oppression, and oppressors are at last free of the sin that oppresses.
Can a denomination steeped in White supremacy turn and dedicate its life to dismantling the very structures of death that it blessed and built? We believe that, with God’s help, The Episcopal Church can become an instrument not of oppression but of God’s peace. It can grow followers of Jesus who are more concerned about taking up the cross of our crucified Lord than they are about maintaining the privilege and control of a crucifying culture.
We believe that we can become the nation that our first Black sister priest Pauli Murray called us to be, a “true community that is based upon equality, mutuality and reciprocity … that affirms the richness of individual diversity, as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” Or as Jesus urged, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
It is then that we will be free.