Newark Bishop: What direction shall we choose as health crisis and racism intersect with faith and politics?

Posted Jun 2, 2020
Dear Companions on the Journey,
We had yet to get our bearings on the journey through pandemic when the violent slayings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd thrust us suddenly on to a treacherous but familiar side road. The dangers of COVID-19 have not diminished. It has become even more clear in the last twelve weeks that African-Americans have a particular susceptibility to the virus. Theories abound about poverty and pre-existing conditions, but these theories do nothing to explain the death of young, healthy, professional African-Americans. Could it be the wear and tear of navigating racism adversely impacts the resiliency of African-Americans?
Public Health scholar Arline Geronimus, Sc.D., has presented research confirming that daily orienting oneself around and through racism is, of itself, a threat to the health of African-Americans. As a public health researcher and professor, she coined the term “weathering hypothesis” to describe the process of advanced aging that occurs as a result of the prolonged stress of daily racism. In other words, prolonged exposure to racism can compromise health. Some researchers suspect that it is weathering that leaves African-Americans more susceptible to COVID-19. In addition to the anxiety that all of us feel due to pandemic and its economic impact, for black and brown people there are the added layers of embedded systemic racism and overt acts of violent racist crimes adding to the burden carried every day.
Somehow a health crisis has become a partisan political issue, rather than a unified public health effort to defeat infection. Decades of violent death by excessive force used by police has become a partisan political issue, rather than a policy problem to be corrected. Embedded systemic racism has become a partisan political issue, rather than a challenge to recover the rights stolen from black and brown citizens. Non-violent protest has become a partisan political issue, along with the rioting so often intertwined with protest, instead of an indicator of unmitigated trauma. In the contentious cacophony of politics, we seem to routinely lose sight of the fundamental problem which remains racism.
The generational sin of racism embedded in our systems, experienced in overt ways to the point of death, remains a dangerous obstacle for every person. It may seem that racism is experienced only by black and brown people, yet the discord, disruption, and dulling of potential is felt by all people regardless of skin color. For Christians to ignore, diminish, or accept racism requires a sinful rejection of Christ’s greatest commandment: We are to love one another. Racism in any form demands walking away from Christ’s teaching. Further, racism removes God’s love from our encounters with each other. Politics is a poor substitute for God’s love and as of yet has not stopped the death toll paid by black and brown people.
The response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd has disturbed our stoic tolerance of a broken system in a broken world. Their deaths, in the midst of a virus more deadly to African-Americans, have shaken us to the core of our beings. And in our shaken state we are more open, willing, and available for God’s Spirit to shape our actions.
What direction shall we choose as health crisis and racism intersect with faith and politics? It will come as no surprise that I encourage you to start with your faith as a path to find your voice and your way. Start with loving your neighbor and then follow with the vows of the Baptismal Covenant. When we orient ourselves with the foundations of our faith then the paths we take are influenced by God’s direction. It sounds simple, but it requires a rigorous discipline. This journey demands a fearless evaluation of our own motivations and actions. The chaos may continue, fed by the fuel of division in our country. It may feel like foreign territory to respond to the turmoil of unrest with Christ’s love for all humankind. Still, that is our foundational practice. Our tradition goes a step further with promises made at baptism:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
– Book of Common Prayer, pp 304-305
We are rescued from a perpetual wandering in the valley of chaos and hopelessness with the response to each of these promises: I will, with God’s help.
With God’s help, and guided by God’s love, we will choose a direction from the deadly intersections of national conflict. For years now our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, has preached a sermon of love, often saying, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.” His words are rooted in Christ’s commandment to love one another. How might we travel this journey? By intentionally walking the way of love.
Love will give us the space we need to lament and mourn our losses. Love will help us ask and answer questions. Love will motivate us to insist on dialogue instead of diatribe. Love will propel us to seek equality, healthy life, and liberty for all people. Love will guide us to discover Christ in each person. Love can inform our learning, our actions, and our world, if we are able to walk, live, act, and speak the way of love.
There are three actions I encourage to you take on your own and two opportunities to gather online as we continue this journey together:
  1. Speak the baptismal promises out loud each day. Sometimes we need to hear ourselves say what we believe. Speaking our beliefs embeds them more fully into our being.
  2. Read and reflect on Jesus’ ministry as often as you can. Give as much to study and reflection of his ministry and teaching as you to reading, listening, or watching the news.
  3. Ask yourself each evening, what of Jesus’ ministry and teaching informs my thoughts and response to this day.
Next week there will be three opportunities for us to gather online:
Prayers and Reflections on Pandemic, Racism, and Protest – Members of Namaste will join me as we co-lead a time to share our hopes, worries, and fear in an uncertain time. We will talk about actions to end racism. This gathering will begin and end with prayers of lament and petition.
  • Monday, June 8 at 6:30 PM, via Zoom
  • Thursday, June 11 at 6:30 PM, via Zoom
Diocese of Newark Memorial Service – For all who have died during restricted distancing protocols.
  • Saturday, June 13 at 10 AM, via Zoom
(Please save these dates and times – further details about these online gatherings will be announced.)
We have traveled a tough part of the journey with God’s help. While I cannot promise that the rest will be easier, I know that if we intentionally follow the way of love, God will guide us into a transformation as individuals, church, community, and nation that is more than we can ask or imagine.
You remain in my prayers and I hope to see you at one of next week’s gatherings.
Grace and peace,
The Rt. Rev. Carlye J. Hughes
XI Bishop of Newark