Since the pandemic began to reshape our lives in early March, we’ve tried to be in regular touch with all the people of the Convocation. And for the past two months now, we’ve put out a weekly message—providing information about on-line worship services and formation programs, sharing information about initiatives the Convocation is taking to provide help to our congregations, or just trying to put an encouraging word out there as we all lived through the isolation of lockdowns.
With all that has been happening about the pandemic, and the protests in our streets both in America and here in Europe, and more recently with the spectacle of an American president using police-state tactics to appropriate an Episcopal church for a staged photograph, I have felt it important to let those who are closer to these events and more qualified than I am speak to them. There is little doubt in my mind that one of the besetting troubles of our age is the tendency of white straight men to believe they are privileged to speak on any topic.
But this week has been different. It demands a different kind of message. And I have concluded that it is time for me to speak with you about these things, as faithful people gathered in churches across Europe, churches that trace their history to American beginnings.
I want to speak with you about three things: About the protests that have been taking place in cities both in the United States and here in Europe, and about the spiritual aspects of the evil that created the conditions for them to happen; about the incident on Monday last of President Trump and his trip across Pennsylvania Avenue to Saint John’s Episcopal Church; and about what we must do, and what we must not do, as Christian people in the face of all this.
As the protests over the killing of George Floyd have escalated—as they have brought back into view the killing of Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, or Laquan McDonald in Chicago, or Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Tony Robinson in Madison, or Eric Harris in Tulsa, or Walter Scott in North Charleston, or Philando Castile in Minnesota, or Freddy Gray in Baltimore, or Botham Jean in Dallas, or Breonna Taylor in Louisville—or countless others who make up the fact that black people in America are two hundred and fifty percent more likely to be killed in an encounter with the police as whites are—we hear all of this spoken of as evidence of the enduring sin of racism in our society.
That is true, but is not the whole truth. Racism is not an American sin; the grievances that have given rise to the mounting protests come about because of the uniquely American expression of a human sin.
Yes, race has meant something different in European history; but it is equally present here, and equally powerful, if differently expressed. But here is more of that whole truth. Racism is just a modern expression of a truth as old as humanity about the crooked timber we are made of, and that Scripture speaks to clearly.
You will not find the categories of race familiar to us in the account of the bible. But you will find from the beginning to the end of the bible’s narrative the deep human tendency to make profound meaning from differences between us—to imagine that those differences somehow define character. And we do this for a very simple reason: Because wherever humans can make difference, they will grasp for power. And that is why we will defend these fictions of ours, even it if means killing others to preserve our fictions.
That is a universal human failing. As uncomfortable as we get when it comes to talking about human fallenness, this is exactly the modern proof of it. Our insistence throughout our whole history on inventing meaning from differences—between Jews and Samaritans and Greeks, between slave and free, between men and women, between clean and unclean—we keep imagining these differences we observe mean something, or creating differences of our own. And that failure of imagination is exactly what we mean when we talk about original sin.
We have to treat this like any other sin. We have to repent of it; we have to recognize the damage to human lives and dignity it has caused; we have to be reconciled with those we have harmed, whether or not it was our purpose or design; and we have to make an intentional commitment to change our lives, to be better at avoiding falling into that trap of making meaning out of our own fictions.
I have spent hours this week trying to understand why the spectacle of President of the United States standing in front of the boarded-up Parish House of Saint John’s Church across the street from the White House was so deeply distressing to me—and why it was so encouraging to others.
We are not a perfect church, not by any means. Even—especially—on the injustice of racism that has brought protesters out into the streets, our church has an uneven record. Since the day I took this office, I have not forgotten that when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the Letter from the Birmingham Jail to eight white clergymen of Birmingham who wanted him to pack up and go back to Georgia, two of the eight he was writing to were my predecessors as bishops in the Episcopal Church. We have much to answer for, and much to repent for, and by God’s grace we have done that work.
Two things are most disordered about that picture, and what brought it about. The first is the conflict between what happens in that church—or any church—and what happened that day in front of it. A church is a place where people bring their whole lives, their joys and their sorrows, their victories and their failings, to find some place for God in them. It is a place where people seek and find the possibility of the sacred in their lives—not the only place, but a good place to look, and—most importantly—a place that vows to protect the sanctity of those moments.
No one, no matter how powerful, no one has the right to violate all the bound-up human life that a church holds. No one has the privilege to use the church for their own purposes, no matter how noble they might be. And no one has the authority to make us stand for something we do not, or to use whatever reputation we have to confer without our consent.
But more than that, no one should have the right to use violence against people who gather at the threshold of a church seeking safety and shelter. Let me say this as directly as I can; using violence against people gathered on the doorstep of a church is an act worthy only of cowards, and we are stronger than cowards.
We in Europe see this momentary event through the lens of centuries of tangled history in the relationship between the church and the power of the state. We know in our bones the deep dangers that threaten the witness and work of God’s church when it becomes a tool of kings or Caesars. And we know the truth of Barbara Brown Taylor’s wisdom that Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy; he was killed by law and order allied with religion.” We know that, and the histories of our various nations have lived it. And we offer back to the rest of the church a warning about what can be lost if that line is crossed.
So I’ve decided to conclude this message to you sitting on our own doorstep, at the gate of the cathedral in Paris. And I want say what we must not do—and what we must do.
First and most important—we must not despair. Even after the sorrow of being isolated from each other, even after the deep dismay we may feel at what seems like the victory of the strong over the week and of decline over renewal, we must not despair. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; despair is, and despair is where the devil resides. We must, and we can, resist that path.
Instead what we must do—even it if it seems paradoxical—is build. We must press on toward the hope God has set before us, and we must continue, now more than ever, to do all that we can to share the richness, the fullness, the joy of life connected to God that we have found here.
This is not the first time the church has confronted distress and degradation. It surely not be the last, until Jesus comes. But we have been here before; and what the best among us did in those days was to build.
In the middle of the English Civil War, when it seemed as though social order had completely broken down and tremendous battles were fought over the place of church in society, one man, Robert Shirley, decided that despite it all he would build a church for the Church of England. He built another place named for the Trinity, just like this cathedral—the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in Stanton Harold, Leicestershire. He did not live long enough to see his church finished, but he made certain that it would be; and over the door of that church is a tablet with these words:
In the year 1653
When all things Sacred were throughout the nation
Either demolished or profaned,
Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet, founded this church;
Whose singular praise it is,
to have done the best things in the worst times,
and hoped them in the most calamitous.
The righteous shall be held in everlasting remembrance.
So let us not cease to be builders. Let us be resolve to be those who do the best things in the worst times. And let us hope, even in the face of calamity, in the sure and certain hope that God’s work will be done.
—The Right Reverend Mark D. W. Edington
The Feast of Saint Boniface, 2020