I did not preach about tearing children from the arms of their parents this Sunday. I did not, as a long-time friend insisted his clergy do, address the evil being done on our behalf at the border. What I did do was pray. During the Prayers of the People, at a time we leave open for anyone to speak their heart to God, I asked for forgiveness for a nation that has torn children from their parents for the entirety of our history, a nation for whom such violence is in our DNA, a nation whose survival has rested on inflicting terror on those whose very presence is perceived as a threat to our way of life. And I prayed that we would become a people who resist such violence. I know that prayer is, by many, seen as a passive response in a time that needs action. Frankly, I tend to agree, if by prayer we assume that we can rightfully separate word from action (I don’t, but that is a different post).
More importantly for me though, is that every Sunday I stand in front of a congregation founded by former slaves, whose descendants were founding members of the Portland Chapter of the NAACP, the Urban League, and civil rights activists in the only State welcomed into the Union as a Whites-Only homeland. It makes no sense to use my sermons to parse out the patently ridiculous biblical proof-texting of our Attorney General in front of a people who could not legally own property in my home state until 1952. (It makes no sense in part because proof-texting is only ever done to assert opinions already formed, by liberals and conservatives alike. But that is an entirely different topic, for another day.) It makes no sense to do so in front of those whose bodies have experienced the profound, and entirely legal, injustice of a State that allowed the separation of black children from black, legally enslaved, parents whose bodies were regarded, in the blunt words of Kelly Brown Douglas, as “perpetually guilty chattel.”1 I simply do not have the luxury of shocked liberal outrage over the choice of the U.S. government to interpret our law in such a way that terrorizes families because this is simply the long, historical reality of the people with whom I preach, every Sunday. No one who has studied history in light of justice and compassion should be under any illusion that “law” and “justice” are always or even necessarily the same thing, a reality my parish lives every day.
So, I was gratified after church on Sunday to open my Facebook feed to a stream of reminders that the United States was founded on practices which separated Black, Native American, and Japanese children from their parents. I was grateful to read Katie Grimes’s reminder reminder that we regularly violate the the parent-child bond of those who violate the law, that we are entirely too willing to view those children as unworthy of our compassion. We do this, we have done this, in the name of “safety and prosperity,” polite terms which mask the imperialistic conviction that it remains the Manifest Destiny of Whites to own and control this land as if it is, and always has been, our land (sorry Woody, I love the song, but I also am saddened by the truth is that it was never permitted to be “your” land too).
But I am also disappointed. History tells us what happened. Christian ethical reflection tells us what we should defend: the human rights of all those made in the image of God. But all this outrage is failing to ask a crucial question, who is responsible for those who are here? Catholic ethicist Tisha Rajendra frames justice as “responsibility to relationships,” and repeatedly points out that the stories we tell about immigrants relieve us, the receiving nation, of real responsibility.2 We characterize immigrants as fleeing desperate poverty (though in reality the desperately poor generally lack the resources to emigrate) and so can blame their plight on the fiscal irresponsibility of their home nation. Or, their nation is dangerous and corrupt, conveniently ignoring that perhaps our drug addiction might be exacerbating the problem. The U.S. is the benevolent nation that can choose to accept, or reject, immigrants. But we have no responsibility for them. Yet Rajendra’s argument is that we do not have responsibility for all immigrants everywhere, but for particular immigrants here. We are responsible for those that arrive at our borders. Why? Because they arrive at our borders in particular due to already existing relationships: the Bracero program, the historical family connections between citizens of what is currently Mexico and currently the U.S. that go back to a time when much of what is now the U.S. was actually Mexico, trade policies which create language and economic dependency through foreign investment. This list can go on (really, read her book).
Responsibility is, ironically, what quells my outrage when I preach every Sunday. Outrage is important (and I have certainly expressed a lot of it over the years), but when it fails to ask the right questions, questions rooted in our relationships to one another, it is a noisy gong and a clanging symbol. What are the responsibilities which flow from the relationships that already exist in this place? What does it mean to be in a parish founded in 1911 because the black members of the (then) Cathedral of the Diocese of Oregon were a source of “discomfort” and were asked to leave? What does it mean to be responsible as a white priest in a historically black parish? What does it meant to be an increasingly diverse (meaning, less black) parish in a historically black but now massively gentrifying (meaning, more white) neighborhood? Jennifer Harvey’s recent arguments that the paradigm of “racial reconciliation” is failing, and that segregation at the eleven o’lock hour on a Sunday morning may not be signify the failure of reconciliation but the need for a new paradigm, a paradigm of reparations, are compelling to me.3 (To give credit where credit is due, I picked up Harvey’s book because of a conversation I had a few years ago with former WIT contributor Amaryah Shaye about problems with the language of reconciliation. That very thoughtful and wisdom-filled conversation has stuck with me). Harvey bases her analysis on James Cones’s argument that White talk of the “Beloved Community” often fails to take seriously what we must do to get there. Reparations is fundamentally about repairing relationships for which we are responsible. Reconciliation is simply not possible without first repairing what was, and remains, broken.
The reality is, my parish is small, aged, and struggling. I can’t preach outrage about what is happening because my people experience the outrage in their bones more completely than I every will. I can’t preach as if they don’t know the history (don’t get me wrong, learning the truth of our history as a nation and as the Church — Episcopal or otherwise — is a necessary first step), because they lived and live the history of racism every day. I would just be telling them what they already know: that emancipation is incomplete. Declared by Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, effective January 1, 1863, but not announced in the (then) geographically isolated Texas until June 19th, 1865, the emancipation celebrated on Juneteenth continues to elude us in a land where the law is used to justify terrorizing brown and black bodies.
But these people, my people, they press me to ask the next set of questions, the set of questions we (White) folks don’t want to ask because the answers might demand of us things we are not willing to sacrifice: what does responsibility in the face of racist relationships actually look like? What must be repaired? And who must do the repairing?
- From Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. ↩
- Tisha M. Rajendra, Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration. ↩
- Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. ↩