Bishop Duncan-Probe: “It is time to “do better.””

Bishop Duncan-Probe: “It is time to ‘do better'”
Statement on Institutional Racism and the Violence in St. John’s Lafayette Square

If we love Jesus, we live as Jesus commands. If we love Jesus, our lives will reflect the truth of love, the actions of love, the self-giving sacrifice of love. If we love Jesus, we will learn about, repent of, and commit to healing institutional racism. This week, we have seen the truth of who we are and it is time to “do better.”

Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” and “When you know better, do better.” This past week the truth of America has been on display once again. We are seeing who we are, and it is time to believe, to know the reality of who we are, so that we may “do better.” Systemic racism is a reality in our country. It influences how we understand what is true and what we perceive as good. It shapes the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works, our interpretations of other people’s behavior, our motivations and assumptions, and our own self-understandings.

Like many of you, I was stunned to witness last week’s military attack against American citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional right to gather in protest. These citizens were welcomed to stand on the grounds of St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, offering public witness and prayer in opposition to racism and racist violence in America. Then, without warning, faithful clergy were threatened and forced to flee, along with so many other innocent people. A seminarian was sprayed with tear gas. People assembled in solidarity against the sins of white supremacy, white privilege, and institutional racism were attacked for a “photo op.”

This brutal attack was itself an exemplar of why people had gathered in the first place. In this country it has long been the privilege of the few to push people out of the way, to usurp traditions and civil liberties. With so many other options available, brute force and aggression were deemed necessary. Curiously, many have seen this as a partisan moment; as if attacking peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas was an unfortunate misunderstanding. No doubt, some of us are ignorant of the realities of systemic racism in America; it wasn’t taught to us in school. We did not learn that people of color were exempted from the New Deal and social programs like the GI Bill. We do not know what we do not know.

As I type this, all across America there are families of color who are house-hunting and being excluded from certain neighborhoods and school districts. All-white “sundown towns” exist unabated. We are woefully ignorant of the working conditions of migrant farmworkers harvesting food for our tables while their own families starve. These are just a fraction of the countless incidents of systemic racism and oppression in our country. Yet even after such a short list, the tapes in our head begin playing: “Well, you can’t exclude all the good things that happen.” “I am a good person, I treat everyone equally.” “Don’t be so quick to make everything about race, sometimes life is just hard.” We may even say, “I am so tired of talking about race! Why does it always have to be about race?” This question is a marker of white privilege; people of color talk about race everyday because their lives, and the lives of their children,  literally depend upon it.

In college I worked as a public school bus driver to pay my tuition and bills. On weekends and special occasions, I drove the football team to away games for extra money. On the way through one town in particular, the directions were to “turn at the hanging tree.” The other bus drivers were predominantly men of color, and each time they told me to turn left or right at the “hanging tree,” I felt ashamed. I finally asked one of the drivers how he felt giving this direction and he said, “Each time I say “hanging tree,” I honor the memory of those who were murdered there. It is our truth.” I now know that my shame at the time was guilt driven by a desire to continue to hide or keep secret the horrors perpetrated by past generations of white people. Today, that same desire to keep secrets or deny our complicity is driving many white people to deny the reality of systemic racism. Some are posting memes or attending protests to receive praise as an ally; we want to deny that we are part of the problem. But every white person in America is responsible for listening, learning, and responding by repenting for the systemic racism and oppression of people of color in America. We are as guilty of being bystanders to the public murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd as the officers and neighbors who stood by and watched.

Some have suggested these latest occurrences of police brutality are aberrations. Some have made this same claim about those who hesitated to arrest the white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and the police who stood by as George Floyd cried out for his mother before he died in Minnesota. It is not enough to deny complicity; our “people in blue” must clearly and distinctly prove their dedication to justice by stopping the all-too-familiar habits of intimidation, harassment, and racially motivated behavior.

And to be very, very clear: since George Floyd’s death, other people of color have been unfairly and unjustly harassed, threatened and abused. People are protesting because real change has not yet happened. The policies that perpetuated brutality and the murder of George Floyd, remain the same—the protesters driven from St. John’s, Lafayette Square in Washington are just one example. To heal our system of oppression and dehumanization, to eradicate racism from America and the world, each American will need to intentionally engage in anti-racist work that is sacred, vulnerable, and painful.

All of us, as citizens in this country, are responsible for what our civil servants do in the name of our communities. The truth of who we are is what is done in our names. Had that now-infamous prop been opened to the Gospel of John, these words might have been read: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-45)

If we love Jesus, we live as Jesus commands. If we love Jesus, our lives will reflect the truth of love, the actions of love, the self-giving sacrifice of love. If we love Jesus, we will learn about, repent of, and commit to healing institutional racism. This week, we have seen the truth of who we are and it is time to “do better.”

May the power of Almighty God and the love of Jesus give us the courage to listen, learn, and respond. The lives of people of color and the soul of America depend upon it.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. DeDe Duncan-Probe
Bishop of Central New York

Please join Bishop Duncan-Probe in an online prayer vigil for racial justice on Monday, June 8th at noon.

Showing 3 comments
  • Jody Whitney

    I totally agree with you, Bishop Dede. We are in need of change as to how we look and act towards one another. I was brought up to treat a person with dignity and respect no matter what their race, creed or background. And like books, we don’t know who a person is until we open the pages and learn who they are. Their skin is just a cover, it does not say who they are. It is just their cover. We must learn to dig deeper into knowing who they are just as they should do with us. Judging people by their skin color is a selfish and undignified act. We are all God’s children and God have us diversity to teach us how to love one another no matter what.
    Well that is how I feel.

  • Helen Malina

    Thank you so much for calling us to task, just gently enough to enable us to hear. God willing, we will now begin to act. Keep nudging us on!

    I am adding a little inventory to my bedtime prayers: What have I done today to address systemic racism? Where was I an ally? What opportunity did I miss? I plan to keep this personal.

    Helen from Trinity, Fayetteville

    • Meredith Sanderson

      Thank you for sharing that, Helen. Reminds me of the Ignatian examen. —Meredith

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