When President Obama was elected eight years ago as the first African American president, many in this country rushed to declare that America’s racial problems had been officially resolved. We had entered the post-racial society, they said. But then those same voices disparaged his office and his person. They created voter ID laws to discourage minorities from voting. They decried black leaders for not keeping their communities quiet in the face of violence and discrimination. Those same voices that would have us believe they could not see race showed us just how deep the racial prejudices and injustices of this land run.
Obama’s presidency did not absolve us of a racist past, but it did prove a catalyst for uncovering our racist present so that we might together begin the work of addressing it. God bless our president for his patience, self-differentiation, and wisdom in this painful process.
We celebrate the election of Bishop Michael Curry for many reasons: his southern waste-no-time practicality, his gentle demeanor and easy smile, his prophetic voice and unabashed pride in calling himself a follower of Jesus Christ. But it would be self-deception to think that we do not also rightly celebrate the optics of his dark skin and the narrative that his racial identity has in his own life and in our common life. We celebrate the election of our first black presiding bishop.
And we should, but perhaps not for what seem the most obvious reasons. It would be ridiculous to celebrate his election as a sign of our racial composition. We are no closer to being a black church or even a non-white church at the denominational level than we were last week. It would even be ignorance to celebrate his election as a sign of our universal readiness to accept his leadership as a black man. Just look at the fallout when we consecrated Bishop Gene Robinson or our communal blindness to gender disparity in the House of Bishops after the election of Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori. We are never completely ready to break with the discriminatory past.
What we might celebrate is that, in this election, we have performed a sacramental act. We have heard the Holy Spirit calling us toward a new identity as a racially reconciled body and we have accepted that grace in an outward action, knowing that the internal transformation it demands will be difficult and painful.
These coming years will require us to confront our current racial reality. They will cause us to take responsibility for our majority-white past and the ways in which that has left us ill equipped to live in a pluralistic society. They will force us to claim our identity as majority white churches where that is the case. As such they will also ask us to accept our role as leaders within our white communities, taking responsibility for the actions of our white brothers and sisters. Bishop Curry’s episcopacy will ask each of us (especially our white members) to take responsibility for the work of racial reconciliation no matter how uncomfortable the awareness of racial privilege may be.
We have not elected a black presiding bishop to save, fix or absolve us of the sin of racism in all its forms. We have elected a black presiding bishop to hold us collectively and individually accountable as we uncover and work to address that sin. Let us pray we can accept what we have asked for.