We are all beloved children of God.
That’s one of the messages that I had thought I might receive at last night’s keynote lecture at the 2017 Humanities Symposium: Slavery and Justice from Antiquity to Present at Messiah College. After a week that had more than its share of cranky meetings, I arrived a little prickly and worn out and an affirming message of our common humanity and God’s love for all of us was something that I would have gladly grabbed and swaddled myself in… but, after the opening moments of our speaker’s address, I realized that, The Rev. Canon Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas had a different message in mind. This was not going to be a call to common, cuddly mission and identity or even reparation and reconciliation offering a pathway for peace and harmony. Not even close. And my clamoring for a message that was going to give me a soft landing was the icon of irony- who did I think that I was, slumping into my seat at 7:25 daring to exchange short words born of fatigue and normal work stresses at my dear husband who had just driven me over here?
The Humanities Symposium at Messiah College this year focused on the theme of Slavery and Justice. The Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas, an Episcopal priest, professor at Goucher College (MD), womanist theologian, leader in the field of racial reconciliation and sexuality and the black church, canon theologian at the National Cathedral,
mother and author, was the keynote speaker. Her most recent book is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, released in May 2015 by Orbis Books. She spoke with deep beauty and personal power about racism in our country- about the historic and destructive Anglo-Saxon privilege that we have not been able to overcome; about the white need to claim space and the abuse of power that we use to enslave and imprison people of color in order to keep our white space free and our hearts without fear; and how this sinfulness, this racism, perpetuated by our white-ness and our blind-ness results all too often in the ultimate act of power and fear: the killing of innocent black men- Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Philandro Castile, to name just three. The Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas’ words were powerful, articulate and important words to hear.
And they made me uncomfortable as hell.
The reasoned historical analysis that The Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas offered in her lecture did not just provide an understanding of how we got to where we are today- with a disproportionate number of people of color in jail, a disproportionate number of people of color shot dead in traffic stops and a pervasive superiority that infects the hearts and minds of even our youngest school children, acted out on every school playground – The Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas moved on to address her audience at Messiah whom we guessed (including me and the 20 or so local Episcopalians that I had spotted) were mostly Christian.
She issued a stunning call to us as Christians to embrace the way of our crucified Lord and to see that it is through the oppressed and wounded ones that God does God’s work. She did not call us to minister to the oppressed, wounded and persecuted (though that is the common Christian missiological theme) but instead, she lifted up the theological concept that it is through Christ’s kenosis, his emptying himself in weakness on the cross, through what St. Paul calls the foolishness of the cross, in which our salvation and the hope of our redemption lies. As the Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas offered this part of her remarks, I remembered my work in the Theology of Disability in which the community of the intellectually, physically and and developmentally disabled have found life-giving hope and redemption in the crucified Christ, the icon of weakness transformed by the power of God into Eternal Glory.
During the Q &A portion of the evening, a student in the audience asked a question inviting The Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas to offer recommendations to people of faith in “white churches” to work for justice and peace. The answer was stunning- and forgive me if I don’t get it just right- but we were told that there can be no such thing as “White Churches.” That we cannot identify ourselves as “White” and “Christian” at the same time. As followers of Jesus, the one who came calling for justice and peace and ushering in God’s reign of love, we cannot identify ourselves simultaneously as both White and followers of Jesus (Christian), for drawing ourselves apart into “white churches” perpetuates the core problem of white Anglo-Saxon privilege born of fear, working to claim ones own “safe, white space.”
The Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas told her story by sharing with us several “talks” that she has had though the years with her son. The first one- given in the delivery room on the day of his birth- was this: “You are a beloved son of God.”
The message on Wednesday night- for me as a white woman of privilege- was not that I am beloved child of God, it was that I’ve got work to do. Even though I don’t think that I’m racist. Even though I innocently bought my house on the “White Shore” because I liked the style of the house and the large wooded lot behind it and the perennial gardens and the quartz countertops in the kitchen. Even though I preach almost every week on our call to join God’s mission of justice and peace and love. It’s not enough. There is more to do. And more to do, until we can all look each other in the eye- brown and black and white and tan and all the colors in between- and say to each other, from our hearts, “you, my brother- you, my sister- are a beloved child of God.”
Colleges and Universities have the role and responsibility to open our minds, to continue the growth of knowledge and understanding in this world, and to host difficult and boundary-crossing conversations. My hat is off to President Dr. Kim Phipps of Messiah College, to Dr. Peter Powers, Dean of the School of Humanities and Dr. Jean Corey, Director of the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah to open themselves and their space for this transformational conversation. I hope to be able, through the generosity of Messiah College, to offer a recording of the Rev. Canon Dr. Douglas’ lecture on our website when it is available.