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Sarah Lindsay

James Theodore Holly

Portrait of James Theodore Holly
Bishop James Theodore Holly. Image from the Episcopal Church.

I’m a member — and not only a member, a staff person — at an Anglican church. My denomination (the ACNA) emerged from the Episcopal Church (TEC), which is one of the whitest denominations in the U.S. despite its commitment to progressive causes — and the ACNA has certainly not improved upon TEC in this regard, despite our reliance on bishops in Africa and Asia as we formed.

We need to seriously examine ourselves, and our enmeshment in white culture, if we want to welcome our brothers and sisters of color and better reflect the kingdom of God. And one way to do this is to acknowledge the often forgotten people of color who were leaders and theologians, whose insights are still relevant to our churches today.

One such person is James Theodore Holly, the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church. He believed that Black Americans had much to contribute to the life of the church as a whole, although he came to the conclusion that African-Americans must form their own churches, even their own nations, because they would never be fully accepted by predominantly white churches (or governments).

Holly was born in 1829 in Washington, D.C. to free parents and was raised as a Roman Catholic. In the mid-1840s, Holly moved with his family to Brooklyn where he learned the shoemaking trade from his father, a trade he would continue to practice throughout most of his life in order to earn money. In his late teens, Holly became involved with the abolitionist movement in New York; this involvement led him to move to Ontario, Canada for a few years to help with The Voice of the Fugitive, a weekly abolitionist newspaper. In 1854, he and his wife, Charlotte, returned to New York where, frustrated with the unwillingness of the regional leadership of Roman Catholic church to ordain black priests, he left that church and became an Episcopalian.

In 1855, Holly was ordained as a deacon; he became a priest in 1856, and relocated to New Haven, CT where he was the rector of St. Luke’s Church. During this time, Holly helped to found the Protestant Episcopal Society for Promoting the Extension of the Church Among Colored People, an abolitionist organization within the Episcopal Church. Also during these years, Holly became very interested in Haiti, and interest that led him to argue that Black solidarity, in the form of a nation and a church led by Black men, was necessary in order to bring righteousness, justice and peace to the world.

In 1861, Holly led a group of 110 people to Haiti to settle and establish an Episcopal Church in that nation. Despite the difficulties of disease and social unrest, Holly spent the rest of his life in Haiti. He was consecrated as the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1874 by The American Church Missionary Society, an evangelical group within the Episcopal church.

Holly never had the full support of the Episcopal church for his work in Haiti and seldom received the financial support offered to white missionaries. Nevertheless, Holly persevered, serving in Haiti until his death in 1911. At his death, the Episcopal church in Haiti had over 2,000 members.

Holly had two overriding convictions that the church — particularly TEC and ACNA — would do well to internalize. The first is his conviction of the catholicity of the church; the second, his belief that black Christians had special insight into issues of justice, righteousness and peace that could benefit the whole church.

The idea that the church is catholic — encompassing the world, and everyone in it — is something we affirm in our creeds each week, but often something we fail to embody in our churches. But despite the difficulties that led Holly to believe that black people could never be fully accepted members of the Episcopal Church in America, he still believed that the Anglican Church was indeed for everyone. Holly’s idea that a community of Anglican Churches could unite and strengthen Christians in many nations and of many races and ethnicities remains a compelling vision that should undergird our vision of our churches and our communal spiritual life.

The second point in Holly’s convictions, his belief that the black church would be a source of righteousness and justice to the world, deserves our attention. Holly anticipates the key idea in liberation theology that God is particularly present among those who are oppressed and those who suffer, and that those who have suffered are uniquely positioned to bring justice to others.

It remains true in the white American church broadly that we have not listened well to those who are marginalized and oppressed; we tend to wear our privilege unconsciously rather than doing the hard work of understanding what justice means to our sisters and brothers of color in particular. When the white majorities in TEC and the ACNA center their own experiences and views (consciously or not), they undermine the catholicity of the church and also miss out on rich and vibrant theologies of justice. This weakens the whole church.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)

Noon rest from work
Vincent Van Gogh, Noon - Rest from Work, 1890-91. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

“‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, NIV

Most of us are familiar with the last bit of this passage, Jesus' invitation to the weary and burden to come to him and find rest. But as I read this passage, I am struck by the context: as Matthew 11 opens, John the Baptist is wondering from his prison cell if Jesus really is the messiah. Then Jesus berates those who disbelieved John, finding excuses to dismiss him — and then using the opposite excuses to dismiss Jesus himself.

I’m not sure that I’ve paid attention to this context before, instead reading Jesus' words to the weary as a free-floating invitation. In this context, however, it seems to me that Jesus is undercutting the constant attempts by those in power to police who is in and who is out.

As anyone who has had any proximity to middle school knows, the criteria for “in” and “out” can shift swiftly and without much reason beyond preserving the power and status of the already powerful. And this doesn’t just happen amongst tweens and teens; we adults do it all the time, even if we attempt to be more subtle.

Policing boundaries can make us feel powerful, secure, important. Being policed is less pleasant, although even that can provide a measure of certainty and stability: if we just follow the rules, and stay alert to any changes in what those rules are, we’ll be safe. Probably.

We tend to ignore that the price of these feelings of power and security is constant anxiety. We have to maintain the line between in and out, and we have to constantly check that we remain on the “in” side of the line. We exhaust ourselves, growing weary under the burden of our self-imposed tasks.

But Jesus says: don’t burden yourself with this anxiety. Jesus knows the Father; Jesus reveals the Father to us not because we’re “in,” not because we’re good or powerful or wise or important, but simply because he loves us. We can’t put ourselves outside of God’s love.

Jesus invites us to lay down the burden of keeping ourselves in line and instead enter into relationship with him. Jesus invites us to stop exhausting ourselves to maintain our power and instead come to him. Wisdom, knowledge, acceptance, love — all these come from God through Christ and the Spirit, not from the endless power games of closed sets.

I do think that Jesus' invitation to the weary and burdened is broad; this verse has resonated with many, many people in many situations over the years. But as the divisions and polarizations in American society continue to increase, it’s worth paying special attention to the context of this invitation.

Let us set down the heavy burden and irksome yoke of deciding which group we ought to join or how we ought to preserve the line between “in” and “out” in that group. Instead, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, through whom — in the power of the Spirit — we see God. And let us also encourage those around us to find their rest in God, because only in God can we find true peace and security.

(On a note related to this post, I just finished reading And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, by Judith Warner, a fantastic book about parenting kids through middle school. I highly recommend it to parents or to anyone, really, who interacts regularly with tweens!)

Subverting Power in Scripture: Ruth

Ruth, Naomi and Obed
Simeon Solomon, Ruth, Naomi and Obed, 1860. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Part of a recurring series on subversion in scripture in which I highlight how the bible repeatedly undermines our expectations about power and authority, our notions of who is “in” and who is “out.” When Jesus became a helpless child and then died at the hands of a great empire in order to conquer a much greater power and evil than any earthly empire, he upended our comfortable notions about how power works. But if we pay attention, we see these subversions of power over and over in scripture.

In this series, I’ve started by working through the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus: first, Tamar, then Rahab. Today we reach Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of David, the king of Israel. Like Tamar, Ruth is rewarded for pursuing her right to have a son who will support her, although her methods are certainly less unorthodox than Tamar’s. And like Rahab, Ruth is an outsider who recognizes the power of Israel’s God and chooses to serve that God rather than those of her own community.

But where Tamar and Rahab are both motivated primarily by practical concerns for their own well-being — concerns for physical safety (Rahab) and future security (Tamar) — Ruth is motivated by her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi. This devotion leads her to declare, in a passage often read at weddings, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17, NIV).

In this regard, the story of Ruth seems not particularly subversive. After all, Ruth decides to follow Naomi back to Israel after Naomi’s husband and sons (including Ruth’s husband) die, and she chooses to adopt Naomi’s home and God. We’re used to stories where that kind of love and devotion is rewarded.

But we should pay particular attention to the way that God takes the humble and the poor and raises them to a place of prominence in the story of Jesus, the story of salvation. Naomi is an ordinary woman turned refugee when famine strikes Israel and she flees her home with her husband and sons. She then falls even further in her social status as her husband dies, then her sons. She returns to her hometown in Israel with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law who refuses to leave her.

And Ruth: she’s a Moabite; nothing in the story indicates that she has any special status in her own country. Then she voluntarily gives up whatever standing she may have in her own home in order to become a foreigner in Naomi’s home, reduced to gleaning what the reapers leave behind in order to scrape up enough food to eat.

But Boaz, the owner of the field where Ruth gleans, becomes intrigued by Ruth’s beauty and her devotion to Naomi — a devotion that led her to become a poor foreigner in Israel. Even though Boaz would likely face little, if any, social censure for making Ruth’s life even more difficult, he instead respects and cares for her. Eventually, Boaz marries Ruth, provides a home for Naomi, and goes on to become, along with Ruth, an ancestor of David and, far in the future, Jesus.

If we read this story as a sort of parable, Boaz is the farmer, the landowner, the representative of God who so often appears in Jesus' teaching. Ruth — widowed, poor, foreign — is the sort of person who seems unlikely to be raised to a position of importance: not quite a prodigal son, perhaps, but still not the obvious choice for honor.

But God builds the kingdom of heaven amongst the least, the poor, the outcast. When Boaz cares for Ruth, he mirrors the care God has for the poor, the widowed, the foreigners, all those marginalized by society. And not just care that keeps them fed but invisible, the sort of care that demands gratitude while keeping people marginalized; no, this is love that elevates and brings equality.

I think that, at this particular moment in time, we white Americans have much to learn from Boaz.

First Week after Pentecost: Trinity

Trinty by Rublev
Andrei Rublev, The Trinity, c. 1411-1425. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

— Matthew 28:16-20, NIV

It’s Trinity Sunday in the church calendar, the one church festival dedicated to a theological idea rather than an event or a person. We are now in the season after Pentecost, the long period of Ordinary Time. But this year, the change seems insignificant as we are not only still in coronatide but also, lenten-like, being called to repentance by the laments of our black neighbors.

And yet, this passage feels incredibly relevant. Here’s Jesus, risen from the dead, meeting with his disciples. What a mixture of emotions they must have felt: joy, confusion, excitement, anticipation — and doubt. What is it that they doubt? Matthew doesn’t tell us specifically, but surely they doubt the reality of what (who) they’re seeing. Surely they wonder if this man who died could really be the Messiah. Surely they are confused about what happened and what is supposed to happen next.

Still, however, the disciples worship Jesus. And instead of either lecturing them on their doubts or offering ironclad proof, Jesus give them the Great Commission and the great promise that he will be with them, always, no matter what. Along with the Father and the Spirit, Jesus sends us out to do the work of the kingdom with the promise that we will never be alone, even when we are filled with doubt. Sometimes, we need to wrestle our doubts. But sometimes, we worship Jesus in the midst of our doubts.

This is such good news to me. The power of the Trinity, the power of God to work in the world — even to work through me in the world! — doesn’t rely on my constant, perfect belief. Not that belief is unimportant. But wrestling with what I believe, wondering where God is in the midst of a pandemic and widespread social upheaval, doesn’t mean that God isn’t always already at work all around me and within me.

Andrei Rublev’s icon, above, is titled The Trinity, but it’s a representation of the three men who visited Abraham (Genesis 18). These men bring the message that Sarah and Abraham will have a child in their old age, and upon hearing this Sarah laughs. I always imagine it as incredulous laughter: what ridiculous thing are these men saying? It’s the laughter of profound doubt, the laughter of encountering something too ludicrous to be true.

But Sarah’s doubt doesn’t stand in the way of conceiving Isaac. And when Isaac is born, the name she gives him means “laughter,” a name that will constantly remind her that even in the midst of her doubt God worked a great miracle for her.

Even as the disciples doubted, they obeyed Jesus and began to spread the news about the coming kingdom of God. And that has been the case over and over throughout history: doubts are endemic to the Christian life, but they do not prevent God from working and they also need not prevent us from obeying and from living as members and ambassadors of the kingdom of God.

This is a time, for me at least, of many doubts, including the doubt that God is with us. As a global pandemic continues to kill, as political norms continue to crumble, as the voices of the oppressed rise louder and louder, it’s easy to wonder where God is in all of this.

But whether we believe or doubt, Jesus is still with us. The end of the age hasn’t come; viruses and social unrest and even our own doubts cannot keep Jesus away from us. And so let us look for where God is at work around us, and let us join that work in the confidence that we are never alone.

On Saturday, Fr. Joshua Steele preached this sermon for my church. It’s an excellent reflection on why the doctrine of the Trinity should matter to those of us who are Christians in this specific moment in time.

Mourning with Those Who Mourn

George Floyd memorial
Photo by Lorie Shaull, 5/31/20, via Flickr.. Used under license CC-BY-SA 2.0.

I’ve watched the news this week with sadness and horror as the egregious police killing of a black man has erupted into protests, both peaceful and violent, across the nation. I feel sick watching, yet again, as a person of color is dehumanized, reduced to a threat, and treated as disposable by people in positions of authority.

And I feel sick watching the violence erupt, not just because of the violence but because of the pain and the rage behind the acts of destruction. This pain and rage has so often been actively dismissed or passively ignored until it causes an inconvenience — and then it is condemned. But dismissing, ignoring, and condemning those who cry out under injustice only exacerbates the pain.

And something feels different this time, for me and for many of my white friends. Maybe it’s because police violence against people of color — and particularly black men — has displaced even a global pandemic in our news cycle. Perhaps it’s because there have been so many deaths in the news in just the past few weeks, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to Floyd George, plus the viral video of a woman telling the police that a black man was assaulting her when all he did was ask her to leash her dog in an area where dogs are required to be leashed.

Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the hesitation and caution that give my own cowardice a more palatable veneer.

It’s easy to find excuses for that cowardice: I’m white, I’m still learning about racism in America, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to pick fights. I don’t want to make it all about me. Truthfully, though, these excuses often mean: I don’t want to make waves. I don’t want to invite pushback or judgement that I could avoid by just keeping my mouth shut. I want validation that I’m a Good White Person, instead of doing the work to actually be an anti-racist.

But here’s the thing: racism is everywhere. We participate in it even when we don’t actively choose to do so; it’s an evil that must be actively resisted, at least in today’s America.

And since I write as a Christian, racism is both an individual sin and a corporate evil. Racism is one of the powers and principalities that exist in opposition to the Kingdom of God. When churches and Christians fail to acknowledge their racism and their complicity in racism, they have given up in their fight against the powers of evil. They have abdicated the calling to love their neighbors. They have ignored the call to view others as better than themselves.

This is primarily a failing of white Christians in majority-white congregations, both evangelical and mainline — and given the segregation that exists in our churches, most white Christians in the U.S. worship in majority-white churches.

So, fellow white Christians, what do we do?

We must listen to people of color describe their experiences, and we must be open to believing that their experiences are vastly different from ours. Especially for those of us who are white and middle-class, it’s hard to hear that what we thought was a meritocracy is actually stacked in our favor.1

Discomfort is valid, as all feelings are valid — but it doesn’t negate the experiences our brothers and sisters of color have. Sit with that discomfort, work through it with friends who are a little further in their journey towards anti-racism, and learn to accept that discomfort is nearly inevitable when confronting the ways in which we participate in racist structures. Also, don’t burden your friends of color with these feelings of white guilt! It is not their job to reassure you that you are one of the Good Ones or to absolve you of your discomfort.

Two books I have found helpful, particularly for describing the experience of black individuals in the church: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown, and Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew G.I. Hart.

We must learn when to humble ourselves and elevate the voices of people of color. Privilege gives people the expectation that their voice will be heard if they speak, and this expectation can be so deeply ingrained that we might not notice when we’re speaking over or on behalf of those whose thoughts matter as much, or more, than our own. As a woman, I know how powerful it is (even though it’s also infuriating) when a man amplifies my voice or creates a space for me to speak; those of us who are white should create space for others to speak.

We must accept that we will make mistakes and be open to correction. This is a big one for me: I don’t like looking foolish. I don’t like making public mistakes. I’m sure I’ve made many already in this (very long) post — and I know that criticism will sting.

But the alternatives are silence and defensiveness, neither of which address my own racism or the structural racism of my world. Losing power by being humble, being open to correction, and being willing to stay silent and listen is difficult at times. I love how Rachel Held Evans used to say that loss of power isn’t persecution — but it is without doubt often uncomfortable.

We must be willing to take action. Perhaps this means that you join a march or a demonstration. Maybe it means that you write your local sheriff or chief of police to ask what they are doing to prevent police violence. It could be researching candidates' positions on racial issues when it’s time to vote — and being willing to let those positions effect how you vote.

Action definitely includes educating yourself — reading books like The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, or listening to podcasts like NPR’s Code Switch.

And action also involves a willingness to point out racism or raise uncomfortable questions, like why that candidate of color doesn’t seem to “mesh as well with the company culture” as the white candidate. We can’t be, and shouldn’t want to be, white saviors; we need to take action carefully and in ways that reflect the actual needs and concerns of people of color in our communities or organizations. But we white people built racism; we benefit from racism; we have the power to perpetuate it — and that means we also have the power to dismantle it.

And finally, for those of us with younger children, we must raise our children to see racism — and we must help them de-center whiteness. I find the second part simpler: my girls are avid readers, and I make sure that they read books by people of color and books with protagonists that don’t look like them. I’m not as good at making sure they see diversity in their shows, but I want to make sure that they don’t assume that every hero shares their skin color — or assume that they can’t identify with characters of different races. Middle grade books are, slowly, improving on this front, but we as parents need to be proactive. This website is a helpful starting point in finding more diverse books.

Making my kids aware of racism is harder. I stumble over these conversations, both because I don’t quite know how to explain police brutality to an 8-year-old and because I don’t want to crush their innocence. I don’t want them to know that the world can be such an awful place — and, because they’re unlikely to experience racism first-hand, I don’t need to open their eyes to this dark side of our society.

But the truth is, my oldest daughter has a friend who is black and 12 years old, just like Tamir Rice. He already knows how ugly people can be towards black boys; how can my daughter be a good friend if she doesn’t?

A quick google search will bring up many, many resources for talking to your kids about racism. In my experience, though, preparing for a single big conversation isn’t helpful — instead, we need to be willing to talk to our kids about racism whenever it may come up and however awkward we may feel. When everyone is talking about Trayvon Martin. When they wonder about a friend of color. When it’s Black History Month and they come home thinking that Martin Luther King Jr. ended racism. When you watch a show together and see stereotypes or damaging portrayals.

We must perform the very Christ-like action of setting aside our privilege and power for the benefit of others. This command is for every follower of Christ, but I don’t believe that we can lay down our power until we acknowledge that we have it, which is this case means acknowledging our complicity in racist structures in the U.S.

  1. Privilege is complicated and intersectional, but 1) if you’re new or slightly resistant to the idea of privilege, I highly recommend [this essay][3] by John Scalzi explaining privilege through the metaphor of video games; and 2) it’s not particularly useful to play oppression olympics; every individual is different. But generally speaking, the path to success for a white person in America has significantly fewer potholes and detours that the path for a person of color.

Tagged: BLM | racism

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