Reflections from The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Ph.D., Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union and Bill and Judith Moyers Chair in Theology, and Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary and Johnston Family Professor for Religion & Democracy
America’s Lost Soul
By The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Ph.D.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. In response to President John Kennedy’s assassination Martin Luther King, Jr. said “While the question of who killed President Kennedy?” is important, the question of “What killed him?” is more important.” Inasmuch as what is killing black people in this country—be it the racialized realities of a pandemic or racist policing—is about the systemic, structural and cultural realities of white supremacy endemic to the fabric of this country, it is also about much more than that. It is about the collective soul of America.
The soul connects human beings to our higher, aspirational selves. It animates and propels people to do better and to be better. It pushes humans toward the fullest potential of what it means to be “good.” It reflects the essence of our humanity. The soul of who we are as divine creatures, therefore, is not defined by the mercurial and compromising protestations of human beings nor is it accountable to the politics and biases of human history. Rather, it is inextricably bound to the “transcendent arc of the universe, that bends toward justice”—that perfect goodness which is the loving justice of God. It is our soul that connects us to the Beloved Community which God promises us all. This is a community where all persons are treated as the sacred creations that they are.
This begs the question: what has alienated America from its very soul thereby virtually normalizing violence against black lives? Answer: whiteness itself.
Whiteness is not a benign social-racial construct. It is both the foundation and capital of white supremacy. It is that which white supremacy protects and privileges. Whiteness, therefore, is an inherently oppositional and violent construct—for its very existence depends upon the marginalization, subjugation, if not elimination, of people of color.
Moreover, it thrives on divisions and disruptions being constructed between whiteness and all that does not service the “liberties” of white privilege—such as the liberty to move, to claim space, and to be unfettered capitalist consumers.
In this regard, the armed protests to open the country, supported by the President, is about nothing less than privileged “whiteness” standing its ground with no regard for the lives of people of color. It is a self-centered refusal to make sacrifices for the other—especially when those others are disproportionately people color. It is for this reason that the very soul and hence humanity of the nation is a stake—and inasmuch as this is the case—the lives of people of color will always be at risk.
And so, as these last months and days have shown us, it is a matter of life and death for black and brown people that America be reconciled with its very soul—and hence its humanity. Yet, imperious “Make America Great Again” politics has trumped moral integrity, leaving the nation without the political and civic leadership or will that would lead America to discover and become reconciled to its very soul. And, this brings us to the role of faith leaders.
If faith is about partnering with God in mending the earth, then faith communities by definition are accountable not to a status-quo where the injustice and inequality of white supremacy reigns. Rather, they are accountable to a more just future where all people are truly created equal. Simply put, faith leaders are to be driven by the urgings of their souls—regardless of their political leanings. It is left to faith leaders, therefore, to live into who they claim to be and thus lead the nation back to its very soul.
As we face the ever-growing and frightening consequences of white supremacist injustices in this country, now is not the time for faith leaders to “remain silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Rather, it is time for faith leaders to step up and to claim their moral voice. They must boldly proclaim that enough is enough—the lives of people of color can no longer be sacrificed to the privileges of whiteness. Faith leaders must proclaim that people matter more than profits, and denounce any politics of “greatness” that diminish the life chances or disrespect the sacred humanity of others. They must name the realities of “whiteness” for what it is—a threat to the “better angels” of who we could become.
If this nation is going to ever live into its democratic aspiration to be a nation where there is life, liberty and justice for all, then faith leaders must call out and denounce the realities of white supremacy, thereby leading America back to its very soul, indeed its humanity. As King reflected upon what killed President Kennedy, he said “Our nation should do a great deal of soul searching.” Indeed, our nation must search for its very soul. Until it does that, there will be more Georges, Breonnas and Ahmauds.
Call it What it is,
Imagine What Could Be
By President Serene Jones
It should be unimaginable. Seeing a video of a brutal, slowly enacted, public execution of an unarmed black man, by an armed white man, who killed the black man because, well, he could.
Sadly, the opposite is true.
Not only was George Floyd’s murder completely imaginable to Americans, particularly African-Americans, it has become so commonplace that it played across America’s screens like an old movie where everyone knows all the lines and the pre-ordained ending. Indeed, the script is so familiar that Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” repeated the last gasping words of New York City’s Eric Garner, executed in 2017. Repeated, too, was the seeming indifference shown towards their black prey by the white executioners of Floyd and Garner. Just another day in the life of our nation . . .
Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down three months ago by two white men on a suburban street in Georgia, while jogging. Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her Louisville home. And the list goes on and on.
Whether or not the nation wants to admit it, these stories are examples of modern-day lynching.
Let the word just sit with you. Lynching.
Call it what it is. Lynching.
Yesterday, I prayed with protesters in Tulsa, Oklahoma as they took to the streets to fight the seemingly never-ending fight to end lynching in America. In all its forms. It was particularly powerful to be praying in the city responsible for the largest black lynching in U.S. history, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which began 99 years ago today.
There were many things I wanted to pray for – and to repent of, as a white woman whose ancestors could have been Floyd’s executioners – what came to my Christian-minister mind was one image. The lynching of Jesus by Rome two-thousand years ago. A man considered black amidst the race-politics of the Roman Empire, the world stood by and watched as he slowly died, the powers-that-be too strong to be challenged. It’s a story we all know. Regardless of one’s religious background, its etched on our collective American minds.
But in that story, something changes. Against all odds, the grave cannot hold that lynched body down, and through the hard work of his people, love rises up and fights back against the evil that killed him. Empowered by a belief in goodness and truth. It’s a fight that continues still today in the protests of thousands across our nation.
So, during that gathering in Tulsa, I prayed that the work of our collective hands, the strength of our voices, and the power of our love might raise up the truth of all lynched bodies buried deep in American history, and that in remembering them, we are empowered with fierce courage and action to socially, culturally, and structurally end lynching. Make it obsolete. Shut it down. And finally have the freedom to turn our imaginations to building an America where no one, ever again, anywhere, whatever their story, ends up with a knee, or a rope, on their neck. Imagine an America where no black person is prey.
That is my hope.
For good. For justice. For right.