I wrote this reflection the day after leading an autumn prayer vigil at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in honor of those slain at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015.
We just had a prayer vigil at our church. It was in response to the slaying at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. Our parish’s Wednesday night Bible study wanted to do something in solidarity with the nine people who were gunned down at their Wednesday night Bible study.
So we invited as many people as we could to join us as we remembered, prayed, and contemplated the same Scripture passage that Clementa Pinckney, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Ethel Lee Lance, Suzie Jackson, and Myra Thompson were breaking open that night when Dylann Roof joined them.
We came to the vigil with open hearts and heavy questions: What are our responsibilities wherever faith and racism intersect? How do they intersect in us?
Ironically, the gospel passage itself speaks poignantly to those very questions.
According to the AME Emanuel bulletin, the passage they were studying that night is Mark 4:16-20 -- the parable of the sower and the seed.
You may know it: the seed lands on a path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and in good soil. The path, the rocks and the thorns inhibit the seed from taking root and growing. Only in rich earth can the seed take root, grow and yield fruit.
Exactly. Faith can only yield something wonderful and sustaining if it is planted in a culture of love, tolerance, justice, participation, mutuality and understanding. Good news needs an open mind in which to take root.
Last night as we read the passage aloud we held up symbols at the given times – seeds, sand, stones, thorns, and soil. My part was to hold up the thorns. The friend who had gathered the thorns from his own rose bushes and raspberry plants had said to me as he handed them over: “These thorns are so light! I hardly knew I was carrying them. They are so light! There’s a metaphor here somewhere….”
Last night as I heard people sharing from their hearts about white privilege in our culture, it hit me: These thorns are light.
If you look a certain way in our country you are granted the unacknowledged privilege of going about your day without your race being an issue. But here’s the thing: this “privilege” is a mess of thorns. It adds up to our participation in unconscious racism. It’s so damn light though, we can’t even tell we’re carrying those thorns around. Privilege is rarely experienced as a heavy burden.
I have been struggling with how to respond to my own unconscious racism. As someone who teaches in the field of depth psychology and religion, I know the unconscious is a real and very powerful force. And I know that it really, really is UN-conscious. So how the heck am I supposed to do something about it?
This image of unconscious racism as lightweight thorns helps me move into a new relationship with it.
I might not even notice the white privilege I carry with me everywhere, but I now see that it is preventing good seed from taking root – in my heart, in my church, in my city, and in my country.
When I feel a jabbing pain in response to every story of racism (which I do feel acutely), I now see that in those moments my heart swells, and comes in contact with those oh-so-light thorns I carry with me. Ouch.
The service last night had a lot of silence. Silence as we lit candles for the nine people who were killed at their Bible Study. Silence after we broke open the word. Silence after we heard about different roles to play in the undoing of racism.
One thing came to me in that silence. “I’ve gotta stop pretending Jesus was white.”
Not only did Jesus not have any European ancestry, but he didn’t have race privilege either. He was an indigenous person in an occupied region. His ethnicity was an issue as he made his way around Roman-occupied Galilee or Judea. And his Nazorean accent was an instant giveaway that he was from the part of Israel that many Jews considered to be the other side of the tracks.
I’ve got to stop conjuring up a white person when I think of Christ.
These Thorns Are Light photo by Kristina Flour, Unsplash