Thomas: 'We need a sacred conversation on race'

Written by John H. Thomas
May 18, 2008

Writing Love on a Larger Board
Psalm 8; Matthew 28.16-20

The headline in The New York Times on Wednesday read, "Clinton Wins West Virginia, With Race a Factor."  The lead sentence reported Hillary Clinton's victory in the Tuesday primary and then went on to note that "racial considerations emerged as an unusually salient factor."  Whether you're a Clinton, McCain, or Obama supporter, or even a political drop-out, news like this is deeply discouraging for all who yearn for America to exorcise its demons of racism and xenophobia.  Just this week someone sent my office one of the ugliest diatribes about African Americans imaginable, and did so with a fake return address attempting to suggest it came from one of our own congregations.  Friends, we need a conversation, a sacred conversation on race.

The ugliness we watched on television as media manipulators tried to scare people from voting for a black candidate by presenting a deliberately frightening caricature of his black pastor reminds us how ugly the conversation on race can be.  But this ugliness is nothing new, and throughout our history ugly words have come from even the most respectable of places.  It was none other than Benjamin Franklin, speaking in this case not of Africans but of immigrant Germans, who described them as "generally the most stupid of their own nation," so "ignorant" that "it is almost impossible to remove any prejudices they may entertain."  And this when many Germans Franklin knew had attended university, including some whose books he had published.  The attitudes were so internalized that even today you can find Pennsylvanians of German ancestry describing their own community as "dumb Dutchmen."  Today our immigrants come from the Central and South America or from the Pacific.  But we all know and hear the kind of demeaning rhetoric that even a cherished icon like Ben Franklin could indulge in.  Friends, we need a conversation, a sacred conversation on race.

How insidious is this fear of the stranger, this sin of racism that feels so original in its hold on us?  Your pastor sent me an article this week that contained a chilling confession from Jesse Jackson, who once told an audience, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery – then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."  Almost 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, we continue to need emancipation.  We need a sacred conversation on race.  Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us in his last book, written almost forty years ago, that "we are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. . . .  Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, 'Too late.'" 

Those of us who are white, who live with the privilege of being white in this society, are often lured away from this sacred conversation by two seductions.  The first is the notion that it is not really necessary, that things are really much better than they used to be and are getting increasingly better.  We don't see pictures of Bull Connor's police dogs snapping at the feet of black men and women anymore; we don't see fire hoses scattering protesters like limp dolls in the street.  "Colored only" signs are never seen at lunch counters today, but only in civil rights museums where racism is portrayed as historical artifact rather than living reality, and most of us have African American colleagues sharing positions of authority with us at the workplace.  But most of us who are white, and privileged, don't see other things either.  Most of us don't ride the bus through the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Cleveland or Oakland where foreclosure signs tell an evil story of poverty and predatory lending.  We don't usually compare the schools of our suburban communities with those of the urban core to see first hand how unlevel the playing field really is for our youth.  We don't often have to sit for hours in the emergency room with our screaming child waiting for a doctor to prescribe antibiotics for her raging ear infection.  We don't live every day in fear that our sons will be sucked into what Marion Wright Edelman chillingly describes as "the cradle to prison pipeline" for African American boys.

We don't see this and so we wonder why we need a sacred conversation on race in this country where every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.  Given time, we're tempted to think, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow will wither and wane in our collective consciousness.  Dr. King had a word for those of us who live in the segregated privilege of white liberality and mainline respectability.  Writing in 1963 to the moderate white preachers of Birmingham from his prison cell, King challenged the counsel of patience.  He quoted a letter from one of those white pastors who had written, "All Christians know that colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great of a hurry. . . .  The teachings of Christ take time to come on earth."  King responded:  "We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability."  There is nothing inevitable about justice.  It must we won and defended in each generation.  There is a fierce urgency today.  Friends, we need a sacred conversation on race.

If the seduction of denial lures us from one side, the seduction of despair tempts us from the other.  Many of us in this sanctuary have had the experience of a well intended word or deed blowing up in our face with charges of racism and insensitivity.  Fearful of saying the wrong thing, we say nothing.  Fearful of doing the wrong thing, we do nothing.  Many of us have felt that a race card has sometimes been played on us to trump integrity and honesty but have no idea of how to confront it.  So it festers within, confirming suspicions and feeding bitterness.  Many of us harbor a sense of shame for deeply ingrained attitudes and prejudices that lurk in inaccessible places only to leap at unexpected moments into our consciousness with their poison.  Many of us feel a paralyzing sense of collective guilt for a history of racial oppression that comes to us as an unwelcome but persistent legacy, something we didn't ask for but can't divest ourselves of either. 

On a radio talk show in Chicago on Friday I was challenged by African American callers who said this sacred conversation is ill-timed and dangerous. "Too volatile, too dangerous," they said.  "Nothing good will come of this."  Can we talk?  Should we talk?  We know well our own sense of frailty and futility, so aptly expressed by the Psalmist:  "When I look your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you should care for them?"  Is there a way to traverse the dangerous shoals between the twin sirens of denial and despair.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  The name inevitably and, to be honest, somewhat deliberately evokes the controversy that has erupted around Trinity Church in Chicago in the past three months.  But it points, of course, to a far deeper, far more central reality for the church, namely, the Triune mystery into which all of us have been baptized, the Triune mystery that, according to Matthew, is to be the common and shared destiny for all the nations.  It is a doctrine that the church has developed in order to hold to the Biblical affirmation of the oneness of the creator God who, we also affirm, is made known to us in Jesus Christ and is experienced by us through the Holy Spirit.  In our Statement of Faith we put it this way:  "In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, you have come to us."  You, God, have come to us.  None other than You.  This God is not aloof, distant and impervious to all that is created, but deeply relational, a community of persons deeply hospitable to and engaged with humanity and the human condition.

On the wall of my office hangs a print of a famous Russian Orthodox icon – the icon of the Old Testament Trinity.  It portrays the visit of three strangers – angels – to Abraham and Sarah by the oak tree at Mamre in Genesis, a prefiguring for the Orthodox of the Trinity itself.  Three figures are gathered around a table.  They are distinct, different from one another.  Yet in their difference they also incline toward one another in an attitude of perfect harmony.  Their diversity is not violated by unity, and their unity is not destroyed by their diversity.  None dominates the other around this table, none is deficient because of  difference, none are destined for oppression and violence because they are not the other.  Each is allowed the full integrity of distinctiveness, but none is alone, isolated, rejected.  And the space before the table, evoking sacramental themes, is open to the one venerating the icon, drawing her in, inviting him to share in the hospitality, the community of the Holy Trinity.  We become part of it, not by coercion, but by baptismal invitation.

For the Orthodox this becomes an icon of the church itself – diverse yet one – where unity never demands uniformity, where difference does not inevitably lead to division.  But this need not simply be an icon of the church; it can also be an icon for the human community itself, a reminder that our destiny is neither an imposed and imperial unity that destroys the integrity of individual cultures and races, nor a chaotic and ultimately destructive divisiveness that demonizes or dominates the other and the stranger.  In our sacred conversations we are not trying to create a new humanity, but simply to present or, as the Orthodox would say, to write an icon of what God is in God's very self  To write an icon of what God already intends for us and for our human community.  And here is our hope, hope for challenging an imposed unity that dominates differences and denies the blessed variety of each culture and race, hope for challenging the despair that sees in our racial and cultural diversity seeds only for eternal conflict.

Some years ago I visited a place called Elmina on the coast of Ghana in West Africa.  Built by the Portuguese for their growing empire, the fortress was soon taken over by the Dutch and became a part of the infamous Middle Passage.  Here African captives kidnapped in the north were held before their trip across the Atlantic to the slaves markets of North America and the Caribbean.  We toured the dungeons where men, women and children were forced to live – and often die – in suffocating heat and shackles for months.  We saw where the women were paraded naked before the Governor to be selected for his nighttime pleasure.  We saw at the lowest level of the castle a small room with a doorway out to the ocean where the captives passed to the boats, the doorway of no return where the soil of Mother Africa was touched for the last time.

Over the women's cells was a spacious and comfortable room the Dutch had converted into a chapel.  Here the merchants, soldiers and guards gathered each day to sing the Psalms in their Dutch Reformed tradition.  Prior to our tour the group I was with from the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches had paused to worship.  We sang the old spiritual, "Over my head, I hear music in the air.  There must be a God somewhere."  As we stood in that chapel where faithful people had worshipped their God, we thought of the women below.  What music did they hear over their heads as they pondered their own dismal destiny?

The Ghanaian woman who gave us our tour ended with unexpected words that have haunted me since.  "The Dutch who were here loved their God.  You saw their chapel where they worshipped their God every day.  And the captives here and those Africans who had kidnapped them for this trade, they also loved the One they understood to be their God.  We cannot deny any of this.  But you also saw what happened here.  Our task today is to write love on a larger board."  Not denial of the terrible atrocities and ambiguities of our past.  And not despair in the face of today's atrocities and enduring moral ambiguities.  But to write love on a larger board.  Writing in our human community a new icon for the Holy Trinity itself.

Writing love on a larger board.  That's what these sacred conversations are all about.  Daunting indeed.  But we do so in the knowledge that by grace, we have been made, not for futility, but rather little less than God, crowned with glory and honor, and given responsibility for the serving, the stewarding of all the works of God's hands.  And this writing of an icon of the Trinity in our own time and place is not done alone.  For we have the promise of Christ's presence:  "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  Friends, we need a conversation on race.  A sacred conversation.  We need to write love on a larger board.  Amen.