A Reflection at a time of National Crisis
June 6, 2020
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer for Repentance—and Confession of Sin, comes from the Liturgy for the Holy Eucharist, Rite One, from the Book of Common Prayer. In the years in which I worshipped at St. Paul’s in Carroll Gardens, in Brooklyn, it was a prayer which I came to know and love. The very language, solemn, archaic, and brutally honest; always drives home to me the reality that I so often fail to live up to my calling to love and to serve God—and God’s people.
There are, though, other moments in a lifetime, in which one comes to understand that one’s own actions have damaged the three primary relationships: God, other humans, and creation. In such moments there can be such a sense of sorrow and regret that a paradigm shift comes about. In such moments of grace, conversion, metanoia, change, and growth become a possibility. The very language of this prayer hints at that reality. There is a transition from “we are heartily sorry for our misdoings, the remembrance of the them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” to “grant that we may hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life.” This shift, this change, is truly good news. It is possible to move forward. It is possible to begin anew. And yet, it only becomes possible when one admits the wrong, the harm, the hurt that one’s actions—or failure to act have caused.
For many years, I have been an advocate of institutions owning up to, and admitting wrong. I feel that it is a moral imperative that the government of the United States publicly and formally acknowledge the besetting sin of chattel slavery, of segregation, of Jim Crow and of the institutional brutality against African Americans. I have hoped that the same might be enacted by The Episcopal Church, by each Episcopal diocese in the continental United States, and by Episcopal parishes as well.
And yet, I have recently come to realize that is not enough. I am truly a hypocrite if I call for the repentance of others and fail to repent myself. If I want the movement of repentance to begin, I now understand that it must begin with me.
As I have grown to understand the evil and deceptive reality of white privilege, I have come to appreciate how truly insidious and cunning it is. I have benefitted, and daily benefit, from the perception that I am caucasian. Despite the fact that I do not view myself as “white,” that does not matter. That is how others view me. They are not always able to see my indigenous ancestry. And so, I am able to move through the daily interactions of society in a way that is easy, effortless, and safe. I am unlikely to be feared, confronted, or mistreated because of the color of my skin.
As a gay man, I understand the pain of oppression—though in a qualitatively different way. For People of Color who are also, LGBTQ, there is a double burden to bear. I am spared that! And yet, I understand, from personal experience, the pain of physical violence from homophobes who “gay bash.” And so, I have some sense of what that feels like to be attacked, to be beaten, and to be helpless in such a traumatic and unexpected situation.
The recent movement and cry for justice, through protest, following the lynching of George Floyd–another event in a seemingly endless chain of brutalities like this in every part of our country–has given me hope. Is it possible that systematic change is finally possible? Is it possible that equal justice is within our grasp? Is it possible that we could finally move towards a society in which every person is valued, loved, and treasured?
After a time of prayer, in part reflecting on the coming feast of the Most Holy Trinity–that feast of the reality of God as all encomapssing and empowering love–I have come to acknowledge that many of the groups to which I have belonged have been deeply racist–either by intentional act, or by the failure to speak out against racism–sometimes over many centuries. For my own participation in those groups-and for my own acts of commission and omission, I earnestly repent.
I am not an official representative of the Southern United States, of the Blue Mountains, or of the State of North Carolina. And do, I do not pretend to speak on their behalf. However, I am a son of these places and was raised there. I was shaped and formed by them. Without knowing it, or understanding it, my basic notions of what is, and what ought-to-be came from there. And so, for the times that I have failed to understand how those ideas excluded, hurt, or failed to treat every human person with love and respect, I repent.
I am not an official representative of the Episcopal Church, of the Diocese of Bethlehem, or of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton. I do not pretend to speak on their behalf. However, I am a part of these ecclesial communities. I love them, and have been unfailingly affirmed, encouraged, and empowered by them. For any time in which any of these communities has failed to love, to respect, to value and to protect the dignity of any human person, I repent.
I come from a family which “owned” enslaved persons. I come from families who fought to defend the institution of chattel slavery. I come from a culture which brutalized, oppressed, excluded, exploited, and dehumanized black women and men. For the times in which I failed to speak against that, for the times that I benefitted from white privilege, for the times that I failed to work for justice and for the equality of all, I repent.
For times in my youthful ignorance and bigotry, when I used racist language, for times that I listened to racist humor and did not object, for the times that I mistreated anyone because of the color of their skin, I repent.
I choose to share my personal repentance with you today, because I realize that this is something which I have never done before! Certainly, it something which I have never done in a public setting. It is, in this community of faith-which I love, and which has been a true home for me for so many years, that I choose to be open, honest, and vulnerable. It is here, where I have been loved, encouraged, and affirmed through very painful and difficult moments in my life, that I choose to ask for your forgiveness for my failure to live as an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ,
Over the past few years—really since the time of the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin, my heart has grown increasingly weary. Each additional murder, each additional brutality, caused me to think and to pray, “Surely this will be the last time this happens. Surely, we will realize that this is wrong. Surely we will find a way to stop this!” And, yet, I did nothing to take a stand. I did not protest, I may have posted a few comments on Facebook, but that is about the extent of it. I now see that my failure to act and to speak in a clear and unambiguous way, allowed the racism and the brutal oppression of my Black siblings to continue unquestioned. I have to acknowledge, to my great sadness, that I did not do what I had the power to do. While I am not deluded into thinking that I might have made a huge difference. I realize that I could have made a small one, perhaps an important one, and I did not.
I feel that we are at a moment of crisis—as a nation, as a community of faith, and as members of the Jesus Movement. And so, I feel an obligation to share with you in this act of repentance–a moment of conversion, of change, of growth, to which I have been called by a loving God who our tradition acknowledges and worships as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Leaving aside any attempt to explain in any detail the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, I share with you the insight of our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, “God is love, and if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Recently, he reiterated clearly, and powerfully, themes which have marked his preaching to us in the years that he has served in this role. “The opposite of love,” Bishop Curry reminds us, is not hate. “The opposite of love, is selfishness.” Choosing to love, he tells is, is not an emotion or a feeling–love is a commitment. To love means to be choose not to be selfish, to choose not to be self-centered. It is a choice we make to value, to treasure, to serve each other.
I will go so far as to say that the single greatest commandment that our Lord Jesus Christ gave, might have been the new one which he gave to his companions in the upper room—if you want to be my disciples you must love each other, you must wash each other’s feet. This is the kind of love which our Presiding Bishop invites us to embody though our thoughts, our words and in our actions. Love is the building block on which the Beloved Community will be established.
We are reminded too, that it was in Antioch, that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. “See how they love each other,” we are told, was the way that the people of Antioch described them. It is the ultimate litmus test. Do we love each other? Do we wash each other’s feet? Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self? Will we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? It is only with God’s help that we will be able to do these things.
Karl Rahner, the great German Jesuit theologian, used words, somewhat like these to explain his understanding of the Trinity. God the Father loves from all eternity. That love is real, effective, and powerful. That eternally begotten love is the Son. There is an all encompassing and reciprocal love between the Father and the Son. That reciprocal love is the Holy Spirit. The essence, the nature, the ultimate reality of God, then, is love. Whenever we love, whenever we serve, whenever we act or speak in love, we make God present—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“Remember I am with you,” our Lord reminds us in Matthew’s gospel. In love, in repentance, in forgiveness, and in caring for each other, we fill find that love, and be transformed by it.