May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, my Lord and my Redeemer.
On this Pentecost, I saw this challenge posed to Episcopalians at the end of a reflection: “If you would like to DO something to help dismantle systemic & institutional racism …”
It was phenomenal for me as a brown person sitting in Episcopal pews over my years to finally hear words that recognize the oppression of people of color, suggesting that on the birthday of the church, transformation is what is being preached and called for. The plight of the oppressed was what was being centered. It gave me such hope.
And then, I saw that doing something is a choice for Christians who recite our baptismal covenant. Our profession of faith has optional components, that once again reflect a privilege to choose. It affords white Christians the option that Christians of color do not have. Striving for justice and peace is a matter of breathing for black and brown brothers and sisters, as past and present US history has shown.
Growing up as an Episcopalian, I thought Christianity was the equalizer—that there is no inequitable distribution of privilege in Christ’s sacrifice for us, no inequitable distribution of privilege with God’s love. That God’s love is what dismantles systemic and institutional racism, as we are God’s hands and feet in this world, to paraphrase Teresa of Ávila.
What parts of our Episcopal baptismal promises DO NOT deal with dismantling systemic and institutional racism? These are five promises we recite when someone is baptized:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
The answer to each is “I will, with God’s help.” The answers are affirmative and action-oriented—what I will do, not what I would like to do. And each deals with dismantling systemic and institutional racism.
Each promise—in reading these words privately and out loud in community, tinged substantially by my life experience—is about how we are to reflect God’s love in the world. These promises are actions meant for us as baptized Episcopalians to wipe away the inequities in the systems and institutions humans create, to restore the privilege of experiencing God’s love to all, not to some. God’s kingdom come.
So I ask, “Why do Episcopalians hide from these promises?”
The question for us is how we as members of the Episcopal Church help each other to strive for justice, not making it optional “to DO something to help dismantle systemic and institutional racism.”
Lamentations are part of our tradition. God has heard this lamentation from the oppressed over millennia: “How long, Lord, how long?” I am changing this to “How long, white Episcopalians, how long?” That is, how long before white Episcopalians take on the emotional labor of those oppressed by white supremacy in the church and outside of it because it is your bound and right duty as part of the baptismal covenant, as baptized persons. There are many who are weary, including me. So I ask again:
“How long, white Episcopalians, how long?”
Reuben K. Varghese MD, MPH is a member of the Task Force of the Theology of Social Justice Advocacy, created by General Convention Resolution 2018-A056, and a member of St. John’s, Georgetown in the Diocese of Washington.