Reflections from Our Scholar-in-Residence, Rev. Dr. Courtney Bryant

My Siblings in Christ…

Over the past month, even as All Angels Church was learning to “Expand Our We,” we have watched as the illusion of equality in our nation, particularly among law enforcement, has been destroyed before our very eyes. As we sheltered in place to protect ourselves from Covid-19, news of Ahmaud Arbery’s February 23 lynching was revealed. Running in his neighborhood and gunned down by white men who criminalized his very existence, Ahmaud was the first in a new spate of black extrajudicial killing. The killing was recorded on video. On March 13, Breonna Taylor was shot by police as she lay sleeping in her own bed. A first responder, as an EMT, her reputation was a bit more difficult to sully, and police had to acknowledge that they had entered the wrong house on a no knock warrant, failed to identify themselves and opened fire after Ms. Taylor’s boyfriend, believing the house was being burgled started shooting. On May 25 George Floyd, accused of circulating a counterfeit twenty dollar bill, was mercilessly killed by police officer Derek Chauvin who thought it appropriate to put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck in excess of eight full minutes, effectively suffocating him to death for the world to watch.

While the loss of life is deeply saddening, the fact that Arbery and Taylor’s deaths were ignored by police and public officials is infuriating. The arrest of the Ahmaud’s killers was three months after the killing transpired, and was only in response to the video of his murder going viral on the internet. The willful negligence of Georgia and Missouri’s criminal justice system is a glaring reminder that in America, some lives are protected by the law, and others are disregarded. The grotesque indifference for human life Derek Chauvin and his fellow police officers displayed in the killing of George Floyd moved the country to action, as protests erupted in almost every major city in America. Swift measures were taken not only to charge Chauvin, but his counterparts as well for murder, something this country had never seen before. As White America patted itself on the back for dealing with the “bad apples” that had penetrated the Minneapolis Police Department, the reality that the evils of racism lurk in many places, not just the police department became ever more clear, moving many to publicly commit to the work of undoing racism in this country.

The momentary restoration of the conscience of America was exhilarating. Almost overnight, corporations like Target, Starbucks, Amazon and even smaller retailers like Anthropologie made public declarations that “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” and that they too would participate in dismantling racism. Institutions of higher education made statements in solidarity, but as the weeks have gone on, an unsettling trend has begun. While everyone is ready to publicly decry racism, very few individuals or institutions desire to privately and personally repent for their own participation in America’s culture of racial oppression. Few are ready to admit that the problem is not a few bad apples, but that the ideology of white supremacy has spoiled the batch. That’s right, our communities, our society and even we ourselves have been ruined by the doctrine of white supremacy. We are not yet ready to wrestle with the fact that the evil of white supremacy lives in us all because we have learned from childhood and beyond that some people matter less than others because of their racial category. Worse, many of us are not ready to acknowledge how we benefit from and therefore maintain these unjust systems because we like the power and privilege it affords us, and to do otherwise would be to make ourselves uncomfortable. This kind of participation is different from the kind of egregious racism that we see on videos on the internet, but equally as effective in constraining black life.

In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King confessing his disappointment in white moderates writes:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I believe many in our nation engage in the lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding King wrote about, and that this posture is a function of the ideology of white supremacy deeply embedded in our psyches. We are ready to say that there is a problem, but we are unwilling to acknowledge that the problem exists in us, that it is deeply embedded in every aspect of the way we live our lives and the systems that we rely on.  Despite the fact that we are daily reminded with the grim realities of racism in our society, and despite the fact that we made declarations of racism’s injustice, we are still not conquer our addiction to it. We are unwilling and sometimes don’t know how to die daily to it,  as we attempt to do with other sins. 

Make no mistake, the ideology of white supremacy––the idea that white people are superior, more deserving of power, privilege, resources and access––is a sin. It is an idea that exalts whiteness against the sovereignty of God, the imago dei and God’s expectation that do justice and love our neighbor as ourselves. The man made code of white supremacy, contradicts the ethical code of Christian love and justice. It is a power and principality, it is evil in high places. Thus it requires more than just declarations decrying it, it requires the dominant culture to actively and consistently do the work to dismantle it.

In the first chapter of Isaiah, verses 14-17, God says,
Your New Moons and your appointed feasts
My soul hates;
They are a trouble to Me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.

 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.

The passage ties the work of repentance to the livelihood of the community. But repentance is more than just a change of heart, it is also a change in direction. Like God, as a Black woman in America, I have grown weary of the symbolic gestures of affiliation. I and my community are weary of bearing them, while our attempts at justice are blocked by well-meaning people who don’t understand the urgency or methods we take up. We do not want symbols, we do not want new holidays or streets painted to declare Black lives matter. We desire for that sentiment to be a reality in the lives of the majority. We desire, that you cease from the evil that is participation in white supremacy. That means abandoning the need to center yourself and your feelings in the work of dismantling racism, that means ceasing to allow the racist status quo at work and in your communities to continue, that means pursuing justice for people of color politically, economically and socially. This is hard and uncomfortable, but necessary work for the cleansing of our souls from unrighteousness. It begins with acknowledging that racism is a problem, but more importantly, that you have participated in that problem and going before the Lord and asking first for forgiveness and then for direction in how to reestablish God’s authority in a world that bows to the authority of whiteness first. 

The problem of racism is virulent and cannot be conquered by human effort alone; it requires divine assistance for both those who are healing as victims of racial oppression, and those who have benefited from it. As we continue in this journey, we must remember to seek the aid of the Holy Spirit through prayer. Pray in self-reflection. Pray in repentance. Pray on behalf of those who are caught in the crosshairs of a nation hell bent on preserving white domination. After we have done that, let us pray with our hands and feet doing the work of justice as God requires by ridding our ways of life, our laws, our policies, our codes, and our institutions of every vestige of the ideology of white supremacy. Our righteousness and our future depend on it.

In Love,

Rev. Dr. Courtney Bryant
Scholar-in-Residence | All Angels Church

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