Learning to Sing a New Song

Kathy Doan

Good morning.  It’s a real joy to be here with you this today.  As some of you know, I was a member of 8th Day for about 20 years, from the mid-1980s to the mid 2000’s.  For the last decade or so, my husband, Don and I have been members of New York Ave. Presbyterian Church, where I have served as an ordained Deacon and Elder.  However, I am once again feeling the stirring of the Spirit and sense that God may be calling me back to the faith community that was so foundational to my spiritual journey.

My day job is executive director of the Capital Area Immigrant’s Rights Coalition, an organization dedicated to securing equal justice for immigrant men, women and children threatened with detention and deportation in the DC, Maryland, Virginia and beyond.  CAIR Coalition is the only non-profit organization in the DMV with a legal services program dedicated exclusively to assisting immigrants in detention.  

While I could do a whole teaching on the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and how we as a country are failing miserably in terms of our moral and legal obligations to provide asylum to people fleeing for their lives or to properly provide for unaccompanied immigrant children, or to take many of the steps that would restore a measure of humanity, not to mention sanity to our current immigration system, I’ve decided instead to explore another topic, albeit one that is not unrelated.   I would like to pull the lens back a little further, and talk about – how I, a White Christian, have been part of a religious tradition that was foundational to creating what Edgar Glaude refers to as the “values gap”, the belief that Black and brown lives matter less then White lives. This belief that Whiteness is the hall mark of what it means to be not only fully American, but also fully human, has impacted every aspect of American life, including how we treat immigrants.  Today’s anti-immigrant policies have their origin in the belief that those who are not of Western European descent do not belong in the United States.

We are as many people have observed at an inflection point, a point at which we are poised either to move ahead and make significant and sustained progress in closing the “values gap” or to slide back into the current status quo where the values gap remains manifests as a gapping open wound continuing to cause pain and anguish.  While there are some hopeful signs that perhaps this time will be different, that seeds of real change are being sown, I think that we White folks still don’t quite get it.  We still don’t quite get what these times demand of us because we don’t know what it looks like to live in a society in which Whiteness is not centered, in which we no long occupy the head of the table. A society in which there is in fact no head of the table, where the table is smoothly rounded and all are welcome to pull up a chair.  

As a White Christian, I bear a particularly heavy responsibility, for it is White Christianity that more the any other factor in American life, has created and maintained that “values gap”.  Christian scriptures provided the justification for slavery, and it was good White Christians that upheld Jim Crow, and showed up in their Sunday best with the children in tow, to cheer on lynching mobs; sit was good Christian mother and fathers who withdrew their children from school and set them to all-White academies rather than send them to integrated schools, and good Christian bankers who red-lined certain neighborhoods so prospective Black home owners couldn’t get loans, and good Christian policy makers who considered the crack cocaine epidemic to be a criminal problem, but the opioid epidemic to be a public health crisis. In fact, according to a recent study, the relationship between holding racist views and white Christian ideology is actually stronger among more those who attend church more often.  And let us not forget of course that it was White, college educated Christians who helped to put Trump into power.  

Shortly after the election, I told the senior pastor at New York Ave. Presbyterian Church that I was done with the church.  White Christians had betrayed their brothers and sisters of color by voting for a man who had made it abundantly clear for anyone who had had eyes to see that he was a White supremist, that make America Great Again, meant make American white again.  But upon some further reflections, I chose to stay.  But I have remained deeply troubled by the fact that so many White pastors, along with members of their respective flocks, seem to be reading from a different bible and praying to a different god, I was a god I wanted no part of.  But then I got to wondering how was that the god of the oppressor became the God of the oppressed.  I wondered how was it that despite their best efforts, White Christians failed at keeping the good news from those they enslaved.  

And slaveowners certainly did go to great lengths to try to ensure that bible wouldn’t give their captives any revolutionary notions about freedom.  Often this took the form of cherry picking scripture that seemed to justify the right of one human to hold another bondage, but some missionaries went so far as to literally cut the Exodus story out of the Bible, these so called “slave bibles” were used by  English missionaries seeking to convert enslaved Africans toiling in Britain’s Caribbean colonies around the beginning of the 19th century.  In addition to removing the book of Exodus, these bibles also conveniently removed the Book of Psalms, and the Book of Revelation, lest they instill in slaves a dangerous hope for freedom and dreams of equality.

But despite these efforts, the God of love, the God who created all humankind in God’s own image, the God who calls us to do justice and love mercy and practice humility, whispered a different reality. 

This was the whisper heard by Black Christina slaves.  As Andrew Prevot, an associate professor of Theology at Boston College puts it these slaves managed to discover “another meaning of Christianity buried deep within the stories, images and songs of their living faith.” This was a discovery rooted in Divine Mystery.  For how else but through the workings of the Holy Spirit could the Word have been set free. 

Today’s passage from Exodus which depicts the dramatic parting of the red sea, provides an excellent example of scripture that provided both hope to an oppressed people as well as served as justification for White Christianity’s death dealing, anti-God projects. 

While we are most familiar with this passage as a foundational story of liberation from bondage, this story has also been used to justify expansion by White colonizers who fancied themselves a new Israel conquering new lands with the blessing of God. For example, one sixteenth-century Spanish Franciscan characterized the conquistador, Hernando Cortés, “as a modern-day Moses sent by God to conquer and deliver “innumerable heathens” (Native Americans) from evil and idolatry.”

Even when White Christians did manage to catch a glimpse of the God who liberates, they often continued to act in ways that failed to fully grasp the notion that all human beings are created equal.

The fact that White abolitionists fought to end slavery didn’t mean that they accepted freed slaves as their social equals.  Many took the position that Black needed to earn the right to be treated as equal citizens.  

In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, author Ibram Kendi writes that 

“As freed blacks proliferated in the 1790s and the number of enslaved Blacks began to decline in the North, the racial discourse shifted from the problems of enslavement to the conditions and capabilities of freed blacks.  If Black people behaved admiringly abolitionists reasoned, they would be undermining the conditions for slavery and proving their notions of inferiority wrong.”

He continues: “This strategy of what can be termed “uplift suasion” was based on the idea that White people could be persuaded away from their racist ideas if they saw Black people improving their behavior, uplifting themselves from their low station in American life.”  As a result, Kende argues, “the burden of race relations was placed squarely on the shoulders of Black Americans.”

However, as Kendi notes, the idea that it was the behavior of Black people that was responsible for the perpetuation of racist ideas, was in itself a racist idea.  While people didn’t hold the bad acts of individual White people against all White people.  Therefore, to hold the individual bad acts of Black people against Black people as a group was to buy into the notion that there was something itinerantly inferior about Black people to begin with.  Uplift Suasion left Black people in the position of forever having to earn their right to equal footing with White people.  Some Black folks may have been physically freed from slavery, but the fact remained that they were still considered second class citizens. 

In a lecture given last year Andrew Prevet put it another way when he quoted Harriet Tubman as lamenting at one point that “I was free and there was no one to welcome me in the land of Freedom.” Tubman’s lament resonates to this day for we are still not a nation that is fully welcoming of Black and brown people.

So how do we make sure that all people feel welcome in the land of freedom?  How do we create a society in which everyone is truly seen as being created in the image of God?  

How do we create a society in which the first thing White folks notice about a non-White person is not the color of their skin? 

There are days when I’m not sure we will every get their, that the “values gap” Glaude references is so baked into the DNA of White Christianity and by extension int to the DNA of this country, of that the lofty promises imbedded in our founding document that all people are created equal and have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are at the end of the day not attainable. But there are other days, when I’m a bit more optimistic, when I see wonderfully creative work being led by multiracial coalitions working for the most part out of the spotlight 

But before I start getting too enthused about that work, I need to realize that before any sustained progress is made, progress that cannot be undone by an election, progress that truly works to close the “valued gap” I, and other White Christians,  have some serious work to do.  

That work starts with radical honesty about the role that White Christians have played in perpetuating the notion that some people are more equal than others. 

As much as I would like to fancy myself one of the “good guys”, in this case, the Israelites fleeing across the dry sea bed, the waves towering on either side of me, in a mad rush to freedom, my social location is back in Egypt. And as much as I might like to say, well, I’m not like one of “those” Egyptians, I have benefitted, along with the rest of the populace, in the fruits of the empire. The most basic of which is the fruit of knowing that no matter where I am or where I go in this country, I belong. And while I may not live in a big house, or send my child to a private school or take fancy vacations, I can stroll through a suburban neighborhood where no one knows me and not fear that someone is going to all the police.  That makes me a beneficiary of the systemic racism that has haunted this country from its beginning. 

Until fairly recently, I thought that my career in social justice-oriented organizations shielded me from being an accessory to sustaining systems of White oppression.  But as it turned out, I, and many other White Christians who were engaged in building non-profit organizations to serve poor people, mainly those with Black and brown skin, continued to mirror the ways of White privilege within our organizations.  We didn’t necessarily do it intentionally, but the implicit biases that are one of the many poisonous fruits of anti-Blackness, meant that many of our organization’s senior staff and board remained White.  Even when ostensibly about the work of creating a better world, we continued to center ourselves and our Whiteness. 

So, in the words of Robert Jones, the author of the recently released book “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” can we White Christians finally find the humility, courage and love to face the truth?  

Facing the truth is just the first step.  Once faced, we must then do the hard work of de-centering ourselves, of using our power to re-shape our religious and secular institutions in ways that are truly welcoming and where power is shared equitably.  A world in which everyone is welcome not only to attend the dance party, but to also take turns deciding what music is going to be played.

This is not the work of a year or two years, it is the work of a lifetime.  While there are an increasing number of guidebooks out there to help White people on the way, books like “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi, that can give us tools to be better allies of Black people, we also need to be willing to put those tools into practice, to summon the courage to not remain silent.  In addition, we need to be willing to be uncomfortable, to understand that we will mess up, to know that there will times when will grow tired and discouraged at the enormity of it all.  

At the end of the day, we must fundamentally learn to sign a new song, to hear the words and the melody that continue quietly on beneath the cacophony of racist ideas and practices, that speaks of another reality where we all are fully welcomed into the beloved community that God intends. 

Perhaps it is fitting therefore, that we re-read the words of Black theologian and mystic Howard Therman that you all mediated upon last week.  Although faced with a different reality and different challenges, his words nonetheless give me hope that it is possible, with an open heart and mind, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, that I too can learn to sing a new song. 

So, I would like to give the last word to Howard Thurman. 

From: Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman, page 206

THE old song of my spirit has wearied itself out. It has long ago been learned by heart so that now it repeats itself over and over, bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit. It is a good song, measured to a rhythm to which I am bound by ties of habit and timidity of mind. The words belong to old experiences which once sprang fresh as water from a mountain crevice fed by melting snows. But my life has passed beyond to other levels where the old song is meaningless. I demand of the old song that it meet the need of present urgencies. Also, I know that the work of the old song, perfect in its place, is not for the new demand! I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody—how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies. Teach me, my Father, that I might learn with the abandonment and enthusiasm of Jesus, the fresh new accent, the untried melody, to meet the need of the untried morrow. Thus, I may rejoice with each new day and delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding. I will sing, this day, a new song unto Thee, O God.