Slavery And Racism, Past And Present   2 comments

The following is the text of an address given in Gresham Hall of Grace Cathedral on Saturday 20 October 2012 to the annual convention of the Diocese of California; it is the final oral report of the Diocese’s Racial Reconciliation Task Force. It was written and presented by myself and Rev. Eric Metoyer. The full written report we reference can be found here

A few years ago I sat upstairs in this Cathedral on a Sunday morning listening to a lector read the story of David and Bathsheba. As I heard the familiar tale, and the subsequent confrontation in which the prophet Nathan tells David a parable of the theft of a lamb, and David indignantly demands justice, I thought: “Stupid David! How can he not see his own sin in Nathan’s allegory?”

Suddenly, I realized a message in this story that had escaped me in my dozens of previous hearings and readings of it: I had always focused my judgment on David’s sin; what parallels had I missed to my own sins? To be clear: I have not taken a friend’s wife and sent him to his death; but perhaps God intends this story to call us to examine our own wrongdoings more than David’s. It is easy to see and judge the moral failings of people of faith who have come before us; can we see our own moral failings and change them?

Why do we study the past? And why “Racial Reconciliation”? Our name, chosen by Executive Council as it created this Task Force, seems at first almost impossibly broad and ambitious. What does historical slavery have to do with Racial Reconciliation today?

Despite the many steps forward that our society has made over the past century and a half, we know that racial inequality persists. We have heard the statistics on disparities of health, education, and criminal sentencing between African-American and white populations; even more obviously, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our churches all tend to be ethnically homogenous. The roots of these contemporary problems all lie in slavery and the institutionalized racism that grew from it. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, passed in the 1860s and intended as steps toward racial equality, were not actually realized until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

To fix the problem, it is essential that we begin by acknowledging and repenting for this historic sin. And yet our nation has resisted looking at this dirty secret, with some even going so far as to exclude passages such as “three fifths of all other Persons” from readings of the Constitution, and to claim that the Civil War was a battle for “states rights” rather than conceding that the right at stake was the right to treat a fellow human being as property. If we are silent on this legacy, we give our consent to the crimes of the past and their present consequences. What would the prophets of Israel—Isaiah, Micah, Amos—say about our failure to follow the path of God?

In the course of our two-and-a-half years of research and study, the Racial Reconciliation Task Force has uncovered some fascinating and disturbing stories. We came to understand that California’s admission to the Union as a Free State was not a slam dunk. San Francisco in particular had pockets of strong pro-slavery sentiment. We learned about Bishop William Kip, the first bishop of the Diocese of California, who was known to be an abolitionist, yet put a code of silence on the Diocese in which anyone who mentioned slavery, abolition, or the Civil War from the pulpit was brought up under ecclesiastical discipline. We learned of Rev. Peter Cassey, the first African-American clergyperson in California, ordained a deacon by Bishop Kip, but prevented from attending Diocesan Convention. Though we have not been able to definitively confirm this, we heard from multiple sources the possibility that at least one Episcopal priest and possibly other clergy and laypersons came to this Diocese with personal slaves in their possession.

The sins in these and the other stories of Californian racism and slavery in our report show a legacy for which we must repent. At the same time, are we looking with David’s eyes at those sins—calling for justice while we ignore the evils in our present? Racism and slavery both persist in many forms today. We know that women are shackled in lives of sexual slavery in dark corners of our own cities. Our country’s prisons are being turned into profitable labor camps. The clothes we wear, the phones we use, and the very iPad from which I read this address are all constructed with dubious labor. What are we doing about it?

And as for race: how do we reconcile? How do we repair the relationship between those whose ancestors might have been slaves and those whose ancestors might have been slaveowners? How do those of us who have power and privilege share it with those of us who don’t? We begin by talking about the problem. In ‘Traces of the Trade’—the documentary that began this movement in The Episcopal Church—African-American producer Juanita Brown tells the DeWolfe descendants that the discussion about race and racism requires not just black-to-white but white-to-white conversation. With our report, we hope to spur such conversation.

So please begin to talk about it; our report is intended as the beginning of a conversation, not its end. Please read our report, and discuss it with your fellow Episcopalians. Follow the Next Steps that we suggest in the report and expand your own cultural horizons. What can you do to help break the ethnic disparities that still exist in our society and in our church?

Dr. King said, “For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” Let us help each other be our true, free, empowered selves and repair the beloved community of the Body of Christ.

Posted 23 October 2012 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Slavery And Racism, Past And Present

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  1. Really beautiful as well as thought and soul-search provoking (if that makes sense).

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