By Kristine Blaess
Last week, the county in which I serve made the national news in a ProPublica article that alleges systemic racial bias in our county’s juvenile justice system. At least eleven elementary-age children have been jailed in a pattern of illegal detention. This is not the first time our county has appeared in the national news. Just last month, we made the news when adults at a school board meeting jeered at a high school student. He was voicing his support for masks in schools because his grandmother contracted COVID-19 and died when a visitor to their home didn’t wear a mask. He and his friends who spoke to national news outlets are our parish’s youth, and we are proud of them. I’m grateful that our county made positive news, too, several years ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Another white supremacist rally was scheduled soon after in our town square. Our citizens packed the square, bearing the message “Murfreesboro Loves,” and the white supremacist organizers bypassed our city.
When racial issues erupt, when systemic sins are revealed, and when our own community awakening is accompanied by national news coverage, how are we to lead our churches and provide influence in our communities? At St. Paul’s (the church I serve) we are praying and learning as we go. These points below are anchors holding us steady as we learn how to address real problems in real time. I share them as one learner’s offering to a larger conversation.
- As Christians, we are called to proclaim Christ crucified, full stop. We proclaim him, not as cold doctrine, but as a living Word that brings about what it proclaims: the self-emptying of God for the sake of the world, Christ’s victory over the powers and principalities, including the forces of systemic racism and pandemic, and the new creation that is won through Christ’s resurrection. The crucified Christ is the living Word who reconciles, redeems, and re-creates, bringing us hope as we are trapped in systemic and personal sin.
- The Church’s mission is given to us by Jesus in his Great Commission (Matt. 28). Disciple (command), by going (gerund), baptizing (gerund), and teaching to obey (gerund). The mission of the Church is to help our members and communities grow in following Jesus Christ. At St. Paul’s, one half of our current Sunday attendees participate weekly or bi-weekly in small groups. We engage Scripture through the African Bible study. Our anti-racism task force has been seeking the renewal of our hearts and minds through kingdom-of-God-based studies like Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and Soong-Cha Ran’s Prophetic Lament. Other groups meet weekly for prayer, theological reflection, or stage-of-life encouragement. This ongoing formation has allowed our members to have both Christian relationships in which to process the problems in front of us, and also theological and spiritual formation to seek redemption and shalom in our county.
- Our tradition offers valuable resources. After George Floyd’s murder, some church members wanted to post Black Lives Matter slogans on our property. Others wanted All Lives Matter Instead, we brought church members and police together to write on our sidewalk the vow from our baptismal liturgy: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help.” We have used the Great Litany for lament, and we offered the Public Service for Healing from the Book of Occasional Services on January 6, 2021, in response to the attempted insurrection at the Capitol. We are planning more services of lament in the coming year as we make confession for our roles in various systemic evils that have been revealed in our community.
- We pray, we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we act. As we are learning about the situation with our juvenile justice system, the situation is multi-faceted. We need to take time to learn, to pray, to coordinate with other community members and churches. We need to take into account the complexity of the issues and our own partial knowledge, faulty vision, and mixed motives. We continue to seek the renewal of our hearts and minds into the likeness of Christ. And when the moment comes for action, may God give us grace to act humbly and boldly in Jesus’ name, ready to repent when we go astray.
The Rev. Dr. Kristine Blaess is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.