Where Do We Go from Here?: A Sacramental Framework for Confronting Racism

In moments of great crisis, we all come to the crucial crossroad of decision that will determine the shape and fortitude of our character. When chaos confronts us, there is the temptation to shrink away, to shrug in defeated resolution to the world as it is. We may celebrate the moral courage of those who have stood for human dignity and life even while facing overwhelming odds. But it is easier for too many of us to sit in silence and allow the wheels of uncaring oppression to trample down the most vulnerable in our society. We either cannot imagine that our voice matters against the tide of injustice or understand all too well the dangers of speaking out against injustice. Thus, we are rendered silent. Yet, the pressing obligation of neighborly love demands the unrelenting pursuit of peace and justice for all.

Dr. King proposed the appropriate question: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”? The reality is that systemic racism enslaves all in society. Some benefit from its consolidation of power, but that does not diminish its enslaving power – for those who benefit, remaining enslaved can be more enticing. Dr. King recognized we are all enslaved to this racist system and that to work for the freedom of another is to simultaneously work for my own freedom. As he was famously noted for saying, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” There is a reciprocal reality to human community. My salvation and freedom are interwoven with the salvation and freedom of my neighbor. The ability to opt out of acting against a system, it turns out, only furthers the bondage of our lives to a system that will not tolerate any alternative way in the world. Racism embodies a totalizing claim upon human bodies. It is a totalizing claim that values certain bodies over others and can discard those undesirable bodies without fear of repercussion or retaliation… until those who know their inherent worth can no longer bear the brunt of society’s denigration, devaluation, and destruction. The devaluing of any life cheapens every life. Saying “Black lives matter” affirms the value of lives that have too often been devalued by our society. So, indeed, where do we go from here?

It seems to me that too frequently the resources of the Church have been ignored when it comes to addressing these societal evils. Statements are easier to broadcast widely but cannot deal with the particularities of each context. Likewise, they ultimately do not provide character formation – although statements may be important as a tool for helping us articulate the world around us. The sacraments, with their unassuming elements and limiting/ed particularity, may not seem adequate resources for healing our racism and prejudice. How can being plunged in the waters of baptism relate to the suffocation of a black man on the pavement? How can the bread and wine sitting on the Table quench our thirst for racial justice and sate our appetites for true reconciliation (I owe much to Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination for his insightful work on the history of racism and the reconciliation of community in communion)? What does a crucified Lord say to a world filled with lynched persons (James Cone’s work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, provides the framework for this poignant and challenging lens by which to understand Jesus)? The sacraments appear too insignificant and small before the looming specter of white supremacy and racism. However, God often uses the seemingly insignificant to shine forth God’s glory and to invite us into a new way in the world.

The sacraments embody the new reality God has enacted and incarnated in Jesus. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is the new humanity. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the fullness of communion that was intended from the beginning. God’s identification with us is our very salvation for what God assumes, God saves. But, the manner of God’s coming in the person of Jesus should give us pause. Jesus did not come as a Roman emperor but as a lowly brown-skinned carpenter from the backwaters of Bethlehem. And, it is this same Jesus who is put to death unjustly by the political powers of that day. Jesus was publicly lynched by public officials and “church-going” folk. As James Cone writes, God becomes one of the lynched peoples of the world when Jesus hangs from the rugged tree.

The jolting identification in baptism with a publicly lynched Christ, by which we join him in his death, plunges us into a new identity by putting to death that which has been Death in us. We are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. Beneath the surface, suspended for a moment, we recognize the fragile thread of life to which we cling. The waters press down and suffocate, preventing the inhalation of life-giving breath. “I can’t breathe.” The waters of baptism remind us that Jesus suffocated, struggling to draw breath as authorized agents of the government watched the spectacle until Jesus exhaled his final breath. To enter the waters of baptism is to be given a new way of being in the world that does not side with the powers and principalities of this world, but joins with those who are vulnerable and suffer at the hands of the powerful.

Eucharist is the meal for the baptized, for those who have embraced the way of Jesus and the cross. It is the means of grace for the journey. It nourishes us and instructs us in this present moment of chaos. This meal was the celebration of the Passover. It was the Jewish meal celebrating the deliverance of God’s people out of the bondage of Egypt. The meal reminded God’s people that God is not a God insensitive to the cries of the oppressed. Rather, in surprising revelation, God sees, hears, and knows intimately their suffering as God’s own suffering. God comes down and delivers them. The meal is also the ongoing reminder for God’s people that they must not then turn around and become just another Egypt on the scene of world history. They have been called out and set apart to embody the way of God, the way of neighborliness and generosity, whether in the scant landscape of the wilderness or the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The meal brings to memory the abiding call to live as those who seek the well-being and welfare of others (shalom) in the community. To break bread was to share life and peace with one’s neighbors. To break bread was to extend welcome, forgiveness, and blessing to those who gathered with you.

It should come as no shock when Paul calls the Corinthians to not partake of the meal if there is anything wrong between one of them and someone else. They are to go make it right and then partake of the meal. The meal cannot embody true communion if there is no reconciliation between persons. Wrongs must be confessed. Forgiveness must be sought. Humility must replace hubris. The hand of friendship must be extended. Communion invites us into the practice of receiving and sharing, seeking forgiveness and extending forgiveness, loving God by loving neighbor. The sacrament of communion offers us grace for the reconciling journey that seeks to heal the deep communal wounds which we have wrought on others. It invites us to confess our woundedness which has wounded others. We find that even in our brokenness God can take it and bless it for the sake of the world. To eat and drink at this Table requires that we see those we have hurt, hear their cry, and join them in the work of restitution. This happens at both the personal level and the social level because both are intertwined in the work of justice and righteousness (right-relatedness).

The sacraments ground us in a faith that draws us toward community, toward others. The sacraments do not allow us to withdraw into a privatized and individualized faith that denies the bodily, concrete realities of suffering in our communities. Rather, we are invited into the life of God, the life of Jesus, to join others in their suffering and to allow our lives to be poured out in self-giving love and service. The sacraments, by God’s grace, offer us patterns for the new creation life in our present world. They provide the doxological practices by which we are brought to awareness of our complicity in society’s deathly practices, our need for reconciliation to God and others, and the grace to join with those who suffer.

The sacraments provide the ground by which we are shaped by the cruciform life of Christ. It is a life that joins others in their suffering and embodies the hope of shared pain and communion. There is no communion outside the possibility of shared pain. But, as the cross is transformed by the resurrection from the spear of death to the plowshare of life, God is able to transform our suffering into the glory of God by which the world is renewed. Even as the mundane elements of the sacraments are transformed into the means of grace, so the ordinary gifts of our lives may be sacramentally taken, blessed, broken, and given by Christ for the healing of the world.