I had a phone call the other day from a friend who’s now serving as an interim priest in a parish in another diocese. My colleague called asking for a consult on a matter that had come up in the congregation. In preparation for producing a parish profile in their search for a new rector, some folk were going through historical records and came across a photograph of a number of people in blackface. After some more digging, they discovered that the parish, in the first half of the 20thCentury, put on annual minstrel shows as fundraisers. What to do with this history of entertainment that demeaned and made fun of Black people?
And of course, this comes to light in the middle of Black History month and in a week where the news cycle was all about revelations of public figures with a past history of using blackface.
First of all, let’s be absolutely clear that we need to condemn and renounce the denigration of others and to do so in the harshest terms. Racist thinking, racist language, racist actions, Ku Klux Klan dress—even when intended to be in jest—are nothing short of hurtful, hateful, and mean in their effects. And let’s also be certain to denounce such behaviors when they’re directed at others as well: Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, Jews, Native Americans and so on.
Beyond parish minstrel shows, the church as a whole has a lot to answer for. I point to Crusades and pogroms and holocaust. There were Inquisitions, burnings at the stake, witch trials. Slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings were all supported, in part, by at least some Christians.
The problem is that at too many times and on too many occasions we have forgotten that God is love and that we are called to love God, love our neighbors, love even our enemies.
My second thought is that we also need to be careful here with our condemnations lest we violate one of Christianity’s core values—the value of repentance. It seems to me that this is a teachable moment and today’s Epistle from First Corinthians 15 provides us with the text. It reads:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (I Corinthians 15:3-11)
St. Paul had been present, maybe even a participant, in the stoning of St. Stephen. He was on the road to Damascus, on the way to persecute the Church in Syria, when he encountered Jesus and was converted. As he said, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
This isn’t the first time that the Bible presents us with flawed people who went on to become major figures in our faith story. Moses was a murderer and on the lamb from the law when God called him to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. David, the shepherd boy, became king and was an adulterer and committed murder. Matthew, writing to justify Jesus’ genealogy as a descendent of Abraham, includes four tainted women among Jesus’ ancestors.
So our own Holy Scriptures teach us that we can move beyond the flaws and sins that populate our past. Paul wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”
Many of us have things in our own pasts that we’re not proud of—things we’d rather not see the light of day. And when or if they do come to light, are we to be condemned forever? No! There is always God’s grace. It’s not the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to. It’s not the “Oh, I’m sorry,” and then let’s move on like some of my children like to get away with. Or the completely non-apologetic, “I’m sorry that you took offence at what I did.” Grace, the gift of forgiveness, is costly. It requires effort—dying to sinful ways in order to discover new life.
Real grace comes after repentance, turning away from bad behavior and adopting better behavior, what we refer to as amendment of life.
This isn’t intended as a prescription for what should be done with public figures when their past sins are made public. But the recent revelations about sins (sexual and racial in nature), do raise these questions. Have the perpetrators given up their past behaviors? Are they open and honest? Have they made amends and worked to address the hurt and damage they’ve caused?
And why do we focus on certain sins and not others like avarice and greed? Why is something that happened 30 or 40 or more years ago drawing so much lightning when current behavior and policies do damage to millions?
Our faith calls us to avoid simplistic analysis and conclusions. We always hold in tension the condemnation of sin and forgiveness of sin–renunciation of evil and redemption—the tension between being accountable and the gift of grace.
The danger is that careful analysis is always at risk in the world of Tweets and other social media—a world where yesterday’s news is drowned out by today’s—and where everything is judged based upon who can claim victory and not on what is the common good.
The gift that we, the Church, bring to the world is that we’ve been dealing with sin for a long time. Reconciliation of Penitents is our business. The God of Love has called us to it and has shown it to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The specifics are carefully prescribed in the promises we made at Baptism.
- Trust in God the Father.
- Trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
- Trust in God the Holy Spirit.
- Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
- Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
- Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
- Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
- Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
May the grace of God, the love of God, and the peace of God be with you always!