[June 9, 2020] The following is a transcript of the opening remarks of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, currently meeting virtually through June 11.
Executive Council, June 8, 2020, Opening Remarks
In the context in which we find ourselves, allow me to offer some opening remarks. Before I do that I want to say a word of thanks to Secretary Barlowe and the General Convention Office. Members of Council may note this is a massive undertaking to be able to enable us to meet this way. We are blessed and privileged to have a team such as this, to do this, and on your behalf I thank them and thank God for them.
Allow me also to offer a text. It comes from Isaiah Chapter 40:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up on wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
When the cameras are gone, when public attention has moved elsewhere, we must not be distracted. The work goes on. The struggle continues. God is still God. And we must keep the faith. I am profoundly grateful and thankful for the continued witness, not only of Episcopalians, but people of all faiths and people of goodwill and decency in this time in which we live. But I have to say I am particularly thankful for the people of this Episcopal Church, many of whom, bishops, clergy, and lay people who have gone on to witness to Jesus and his way of love in public protests, in political actions, and willingness to stand and speak when it might be more convenient and comfortable to remain silent.
I want to note in particular the people of the Dioceses of Georgia and Atlanta in light of Ahmaud Arbery’s death. The people of the Diocese of Kentucky, and the particular quiet courage of Bishop Terry White in light of Breonna Taylor’s death. The people of the Diocese of Minnesota in light of George Floyd’s death. The people of Washington, the Diocese of Washington and St. John’s Church in particular, Bishop Mariann Budde. She reminds me of the courage of Queen Esther. The people of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, and many of our dioceses that ENS and others have covered how they have borne witness to Jesus, his teachings, his example, his spirit, and his way of love in our personal relationships, our interpersonal relationships, in our social and in our political. I want to thank God for them.
But it is important to remember the cameras will go away. Public attention will go elsewhere. And we must not be distracted. God is still God. The work must go on. The struggle must continue. And we must keep the faith. These words from Isaiah 40, if I’ve got the context correct, come from a moment when the people of God had been set free. Abraham Lincoln of the ancient world, otherwise known as Cyrus of Persia, set the Jewish people free from their captivity in Babylon. And they were then free, if you will, to go home. Like that biography of Nelson Mandela, it was a long walk to freedom. And many gave up. Many didn’t leave Babylon and just stayed. And a smaller number stayed the course and went on that long walk to freedom.
Freedom’s walk is always a long, arduous walk, fraught with setbacks, filled with hardship. It is that walk like Jesus walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. It is that walk, like those who walked at Selma. It is that walk of those who had to walk the Trail of Tears. It is the walk of those who have stayed and stood for the freedom of any human child of God from any kind of captivity that would hold them down. It is a long walk to freedom, but we must remember they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up on wings like eagles. They will run and not be weary. And more importantly, they will walk and not faint. When the cameras are gone, and the attention has moved elsewhere, God is still God and our work goes on. The struggle continues. And sisters and brothers and siblings, we must keep the faith.
At our General Convention in 2015, we kind of had sort of a covenant renewal, if you will, sort of like Joshua in Joshua 24, when all the tribes of Israel were gathered at the river entering the promised land. It was a covenant renewal to work that this church has engaged in for years, the work of racial justice and reconciliation. We recommitted in some deeper ways to that work. And we said we’re not going to quit. We’re going to stay the course. We likewise made a commitment to the work of evangelism, a particular way of lifting up Jesus of Nazareth, his teachings, his example, and his spirit as the way and the face of what it is to be a Christian. We said we were going to do that work and continue to do that work. And even in addition to that, knowing that our arms are short, and our hands are small, we made a commitment to do everything we can to save God’s creation, to save this world. We made a commitment to that being the shape for all of us together embodying a Jesus movement in our time, that would dare to lift up Jesus of Nazareth as the face of what it is to be a Christian, what it is to follow in the way of God’s love.
But in our time, we have seen false representations of Christianity and Christian nationalism on display for all the world to see. We have seen the blatant face of brutality, of the brutality of racism that is very often far more subtle, and pernicious, and systemic, and institutional. But we have seen its brutal face. We have seen fundamental challenges to the ideals of freedom, justice, and human equality that are foundational ideals of the United States. In spite of the fact that the United States has not always lived up to it, the ideals were there. We have seen fundamental challenges to the democratic fabric of American society, something I never thought I would live to see. We have seen a ruthless virus, a plague in the land, sickness and death and hardship visited to one degree or another on all of us, but particularly on the most vulnerable among us. And it has exposed inequities and moral wrongs that shouldn’t be in our land or in our world. We have seen increased danger to the very earth itself. And the failure of the nations, including this one that I love, to stand up for our mother the earth. Thank God there’s a little girl in Scandinavia who is willing to stand up. When the cameras are gone, when public attention has gone elsewhere, God will still be God, and we must not be distracted. The work goes on, the struggle continues, and we must keep the faith.
Earlier this week, I was being interviewed and I’ve forgotten who the interviewer was, and they caught me off guard with a question I hadn’t actually anticipated. The interviewer said, “In light of all of this in, in light of the fact that, that George Floyd was a black man just like Barack Obama, one was president of the United States and one was killed by an officer of the United States. In light of that horrible paradox of our reality, what gives you hope?” And for a second, I didn’t have an answer except that I remember my grandma used to say, “God will always have a witness. God will always have a witness.”
And I’ve seen a few witnesses. I’ve seen witnesses in those protestors. Most of them peaceful, non-violent, exercising their constitutional right for freedom of assembly and to give voice to their concerns. I’ve seen them. But more than that, we’ve protested before. This is not the first time there have been… There were protests after Ferguson. There were protests after Eric Garner. There were protests after Trayvon Martin. There’ve been protests before. But something’s different about this one. This time it’s not just black folk and a few white folk protesting. This time it is the rainbow children of God. This time they are black and white and Anglo and Latino. It’s amazing. They’re gay, they’re straight. They’re Mitt Romney, a Republican. This is something different going on. And that gives me hope. God’s got a witness and it is a multiethnic, it is e pluribus unum. It is the rainbow children of God coming together to bear witness that we don’t want to be like this anymore. We want a better world. We want a better America. Let the true America rise up. Let America really be America. One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice, not for some, but for all.
But even if the crowds and protestors weren’t there, even when the cameras have gone away, even when the public attention has moved elsewhere, God will still be God, and our work goes on. Our struggle continues. And we will not quit. We will, like Simon of Cyrene in the New Testament, who when Jesus fell under the weight of the cross, picked up that cross, followed him, and carried the cross.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
We are enduring a spring of the deadly outbreaks of three viruses: Covid-19, racism and violence. We’re suffering from over 100,000 deaths of the coronavirus as of today, but are also becoming increasingly aware of the thousands of “silent deaths” of predominantly black and brown persons from a violent society that has never overcome its original sins of white privilege and racism. These sins have shown their face in the past few weeks in the outrageous violent deaths of unarmed black persons, as well as in several other racially fueled and demeaning incidents across our nation. People of good will all over the world are protesting; they are variously ashamed, enraged, and fearful of an uncertain future.
How did we get here?
We are a people of faith. We follow in the footsteps of one who was a member of a subjugated race in a powerful empire, unjustly accused, brutally tortured, and who suffered a grisly death at the hands of political and religious leaders who colluded to prevent his message of peace, justice and salvation from spreading. The world in which we live today is not too different from the world for which our Savior gave his life.
We worship a merciful and compassionate God, who was made manifest to us in the face of Jesus the Christ. After his resurrection, facing the very ones who betrayed him only a few days before, the first words out of his mouth were, “Peace be with you.” Ever since, his followers have vowed to seek and serve Christ in the face of every human being.
More than fifty years after the dream of Martin Luther King for a just, multiracial society of a free people living in peace, where do we go from here?
Here are a few resources to get you started. I invite you to prayerfully and carefully read the excellent statement of the Diocese of Maryland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the present racial crisis that we’re facing. I also invite you to view and listen to my recent dialogue on racial trauma with a white member of the diocese as we try to demonstrate how to have civil and respectful conversations about race in America.
Representing the diocese, Bishop Ihloff and I will be gathering later this week with other religious leaders in Baltimore to make a public common outdoor witness for justice and peace in this troubling time. Look for more details to come as they unfold, and how you may be able to support this witness.
The Diocesan Truth and Reconciliation Committee will be extending an invitation to the diocese to participate in a dialogue on race and the impact of current events in our country, If not now, when? If not us, who? How long oh Lord, how long? Please stay tuned for more information on a date and time.
The Diocese of Maryland has made great strides in trying to repair the damage of racial injustice in our state and in our world. There is much more work to be done still…stay tuned. Will you join me in this effort for the next several years?
If not now, when? If not us, who?
The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Maryland