Guest Post from Rev. Erin Baldwin Day, Anchorage, Alaska
(An Open Letter to White Pastors, Preachers, Priests, and Ministers in America)
My fellow clergy: the collective, historical silence of our white churches regarding the systemic sin of racism in America is deafening and damning. And it must end today.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about us — white religious leadership — in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in 1963: “…some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
More cautious than courageous.
More apathetic than prophetic.
More paralyzed than proactive.
Silent behind the security of our stained glass windows, and our white privilege.
White religious leaders of America: our silence is complicity, and the moral vacuum created by our polite refusal to take the problem of racism as seriously as we do the problem of hunger — or virtually any other social ill — has resulted in the proliferation of an evil that LOOKS LIKE US.
Yes. We are complicit. May God have mercy.
Fellow ministers of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ: I call us all to collective and active repentance, NOW.
We have forgotten that in his first recorded sermon, Jesus the Christ put the religious establishment on notice as to what his mission would be, and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to SET THE OPPRESSED FREE, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Do we not follow in the footsteps of this Christ? And yet…
We have not preached about racial injustice from our pulpits.
We have not taught white allyship in our Sunday School classrooms.
We have not listened to the voices of people of color, nor elevated their message, nor have we welcomed their witness.
We have not mourned with those who mourn the flagrant acts of aggression against their pigment.
We have not grieved with those who grieve daily injustice.
We have not turned the tables of white privilege and white fragility.
We have not stood in solidarity with our neighbors of color until there was viral video evidence to shake us from our apathy.
We have pretended that systemic racism in this country is not the white church’s problem nor our purview as white pastors.
We have decided that, since overt acts of racism “don’t happen in *our* town”, or since our suburban churches are mostly white, or since our rural communities aren’t very diverse, that racism doesn’t actually require our attention.
We have not acted decisively and in wholehearted support of our brothers and sisters of color, because we have been more interested in maintaining our emotional comfort than advocating for the upending of the racist systems that benefit us at every turn.
We have not spoken boldly and prophetically, because we have been more afraid of what our white congregations might think of us than we are of the shameful repercussions of our silence.
We have worried about how our white parishioners will respond when/if we raise names like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd during worship, and whether the nice folks who tithe will feel uncomfortable.
We have pretended that our prayers on behalf of the dead and their families are enough to shift our national conscience toward justice and truth.
We have convinced ourselves that the work of anti-racism is reserved for those few white pastors who “feel passionately about the issue”.
We have deluded ourselves into thinking that we should leave the real work of advocacy around race and anti-racism to the voices of our brothers and sisters who are black, indigenous, and/or people of color (BIPOC). We have remained silent.
And in so doing, we have clearly communicated to our white congregations that we affirm the status quo of racism in America. We have abdicated our moral responsibility.
Is it any wonder, then, that precious little has changed here since MLK was jailed in Alabama in 1963?
“I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”
White religious leaders: we preach about repentance.
Today, we will model it. On Sunday, let us own it.
Let us stand before our congregations, unprepared though we may be, and say out loud that racial justice in America is long overdue. May we own to our churches that we have been silent where we were called to be prophets. Let us declare that we and our congregants will learn together how to be part of the disruption and the healing and that we refuse to be complicit any longer in the sin of racism.
And then let us ACT.
This is how the Kingdom comes.
A Postscript: I understand that white pastors (and white people in general!) may feel like they don’t have the tools or the language to talk about systemic racism as a white person.
Friends, be teachable. There are countless books, blogs, Facebook groups, and community spaces *led by non-white voices* where you could dive deeply into the topic of racism, listen to the lived experiences of our BIPOC brothers and sisters, and discover helpful frameworks for action. I will link a few in the comments to get you started.
It is up to US to show up in spaces where our voices are NOT centered (weird for pastors, am I right?), stay quiet, listen carefully, and educate ourselves. *It is not up to people of color to educate us.*
It is also up to us to consider whether our understanding of racial justice is actually embedded in our understanding of the gospel, and then do the needed work of integrating our theology and practice.
I also realize that white religious leaders may be at a loss as to what to DO, beyond “thoughts and prayers”.
After your work of self-education is underway, you have an incredible opportunity for Spirit-inspired creativity:
If your congregation has an Outreach Committee or a Hospitality Team, why not a Committee on Racial Justice? Could the members begin to educate themselves, and your entire congregation, about the presence and effects of systemic racism?
Find out if law enforcement in your town uses body cams. Call your local police department and ask if de-escalation training is required for officers. Research whether “no-knock” warrants are legal in your state. Use your pastoral privilege to advocate for better policing practices.
If you’ve ever hosted a series of town hall meetings around an important topic, could you host one on systemic racism & racial reconciliation, and invite people of color to keynote?
If your congregation offers Christian education classes, couldn’t one of those be a close reading of “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”? Could you begin to include the writings of black, indigenous, and theologians of color in your curriculum choices?
If your town has a newspaper, could you write an op-ed piece and publicly announce that systemic racism is alive and well, and is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus?
If your church has bulletin boards, could you create one dedicated to resources that actively help your white members move from a posture of defensiveness and avoidance to one of engagement and advocacy?
Could you host a service of lament and mourning for your community, with the faces and stories of murdered black men and women placed throughout your sanctuary?
… I look forward to hearing what new practices your churches embrace. Peace be with you all.