Discerning how to use our public witness

The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation, reflects on today’s inauguration from Accra, Ghana, where she is accompanying Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

From Facebook:

I wake this inaugural morning in Accra, Ghana, but my aching heart is at home in America. I’m paying close attention to the conversation about how Christians relate to the State when its leaders espouse policies and values that are in nearly 100% contradiction to the gospel of our Lord Jesus of Nazareth. And I’m paying even closer attention to how my Episcopal Church is responding in this new day.

Maybe it’s because I’m sitting only six miles from the Osu Slave Castle, a fortress from which slave ships were launched across the Atlantic, but I can’t help comparing this moment to the 19th century struggle over a faithful response to slavery in the United States. At that time, denominations like the Methodists, Baptists & Presbyterians officially split because they could not find a way to hold opposing views in one body. The Episcopal Church did not. Many point to this as a sign of our “via media” at work. We maintained relationship with every side, refusing extremes, trusting that our unity spoke a compelling word about the strength of the body of Christ. And perhaps, because we stood in that middle space, we could influence people on both sides.

This is a noble and just hope. But if you read the accounts surrounding the decision, as I did in preparation for teaching a course on “Episcopalians, Reconciliation and Solidarity” at General Seminary a couple of years ago, you will learn something else about our church. Episcopalians were able to maintain the appearance of prayerful neutrality because, in fact, we were the church that benefited disproportionately from the slave trade. Put differently, we did not hurt enough to stand firmly against the forces that denied the humanity of enslaved Africans and robbed white supporters of slavery of their humanity (because any human being who could own and control another in that way has surely been stripped of something essential to being human). We could use our privilege as the church of establishment in order to referee, untouched and dignified, while others rolled in the miry pit.

In that instance, our via media posture spoke volumes to our enslaved neighbors and their allies about our unwillingness to enter into solidarity, share their suffering, or to seek and serve Christ particularly in the least of these. It communicated calm and ease to the majority Episcopal class of slave holders. Slavery wasn’t important enough to take a strong, possibly alienating stand over it.

Today I sit six miles from one of Ghana’s 50 slave castles and fortresses, where you can see the wall markings of how high black bodies were stacked, and other markings of how high the fecal matter rose around those bodies. Many of these structures were blessed by the Church of England. I am not proud of that chapter in my church’s life.

I would not say we are repeating this pattern in relation to the inauguration of President Trump, but a church with our history must exercise extreme caution whenever we point with reverence to the via media or participate in state-sponsored ceremonies that lift up anything but the loving, liberating and life-giving gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.

And so, I firmly believe we should pray for President Trump and his administration, by name, everyday, starting this inaugural morning. Pray that hearts of stone will turn into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Pray that the blind will finally receive their sight and the prisoners – especially people held captive by prejudice and fear – will be set free (Luke 4:18). Pray that we might wake to the reality that every one of us is a beloved child made in the image of God, which means spitting in the face of any person is the equivalent of spitting in the face of God (Desmond Tutu). Pray as if lives depend on your prayers, because they do.

And as we discern how we use our public witness, Episcopalians, I hope we will remember that it IS a witness. That we ARE being watched. That people are learning something about this Jesus of ours whenever they look at us. Remember that, every time we host or interact with President Trump or any other elected official, we do so first and foremost as representatives of our crucified, resurrected Lord. It’s not a role or title we put on Sunday morning and take off when it’s time to be citizens. It informs the way we live as citizens.

Jesus did not demonize. I will not demonize. Jesus did not ostracize. I cannot ostracize. He loved like no one who walked his earth has ever loved, and that love extended to powerful, wealthy people. He loved them enough to not leave them as they were, enough to tell the truth and beg them to repent. He loved them enough to pay the highest price, that they and all people might finally be free.

Does the world see *this* Jesus in Episcopal actions and choices today, at Washington National Cathedral and at St. John’s-Lafayette Square? Will the world see this Jesus in our participation in tomorrow’s marches across the globe? In our ongoing work for racial and economic and gender and environmental justice and reconciliation? In our ongoing relationship to the powers of this land?

These aren’t yes/no questions. So I commit this day, in the shadow of Osu Castle, to live with these questions and to be accountable to this call. And I say “Akwaaba” (welcome) to anybody who wants to join.

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4 Comments
  1. Br. Jeffrey Shy, CoS

    After the horror that masqueraded as a sermon at St. John’s Lafayette Square on the morning of the inauguration, we need to take the Rev. Canon Spellers words very seriously. TEC really needs to re-examine its long-cherished role as the “unofficial” established church in this country. Allowing our sacred places to be treated like halls that can be rented and taken over for a day demeans us. We’re small fish here, but even if we’re just small fry next to the evangelical leviathans, we should be small fry with integrity and sincerity.

    • Chris Harwood

      Of course the National Cathedral is a hall that can be rented because they have decided to make it a hall for all of America and not just a Christian cathedral. It has been so for a long time, first having weddings and funerals etc. for those not Episcopalian. It continued as other religious groups were allowed to use it as a synagogue or mosque for a day. It just depends on what the church really intends the Cathedral to be–a place for all of America, or the jewel of Christianity.

      As I was once told by a Muslim English student, “If we go in a church and pray, our prayers make it holy to Allah. That is why we go in your churches but we will never let a Christian preach in our mosques, that would dirty them.” That might not be the opinion of all Muslims, but it was common in Turkey, where they have had to turn several historic churches and dervish halls into secular museums in order to keep the peace. I see several similarities between the Hagia Sofia and the National Cathedral. The main difference is that it has a bishop, but since the bishop allows other religious leaders in to preach, it’s still a non-denominational/inter-religious area.

      • Thomas Lloyd

        The question is not whether or not TEC worship spaces should be open to those outside the TEC. The question is whether the TEC should be open to allowing preaching in our worship spaces by persons with long previous records of explicitly hateful speech mocking Muslims, Catholics, gays, blacks, and on an on. (This is not a subtle point in this particular instance.) This has nothing to do with sharing our space with the nation. It has everything to do with saying no to hateful speech, condemning the sin, not the sinner.

  2. Philip B. Spivey

    The future-shock of “populist” leadership will truly test us, not only as Christians, but as stakeholders in this Republic. Canon Spellers’ missive is instructive as much as it is cautionary; discernment of God’s will for us has taken on an urgency and conscience in a Trump administration that is in moral and spiritual crisis. And—the world is watching. Will we fly underneath the radar for the next four years, making as few ripples in the water as possible? Or, will we exhibit the courage, to call attention to ourselves in prophetic opposition, and become possible targets of Trump wrath?

    Unlike Canon Spellers, I cannot pray for Donald Trump nor can I forgive him for his sins. My Christian faith (and much of health psychology) tells me that doing both—prayer and forgiveness—is Jesus’ way and, likewise, good for my mental health. But I am an unperfected Christian—I continue to approximate the Christian ethos, as I am able.

    What I am able accomplish, however, is prayer for those of us who have been—and will be— placed in danger by president Trump and his coterie.

    I will resist conflating ‘personalities’ with ‘principles’. I will not demonize Donald Trump, but I will work for everything —and everyone—he works against. I will be wary of attempts to conflate efforts to uphold Christian values with partisanship; I will support any leader who espouses moral principles

    I will keep in mind, as Canon Spellers notes, that my church, TEC, chose silence when profound social justice issues required a prophetic voice, e.g., African American enslavement and the rise of fascism in Europe during 1920s and 30s. And later, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy sought to bring fascism to the United States. As a member of TEC, I will question it’s silence on issues that affect the marginalized and oppressed.

    In all these things, I will seek God’s will, not my own.

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