Seth Patterson June 14, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 9:35–38
These last few weeks we have all been struck again by the powerful reminder of the many injustices that resulted in the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day. This happened less than 3 miles from this church building, in this city in which we have been rooted for over 160 years. This murder of George Floyd is not a new event but instead the sad and disastrous continuation of the destruction of bodies that are not protected by whiteness. This murder of George Floyd is not a new event but rather a replaying of too much American history in a single moment. This is not new—which doesn’t make it any less tragic for the family, friends and communities of George Floyd. This is not new—which doesn’t make it any less tragic for every single one of us to live in and maintain a culture of state-sanctioned crucifixion.
We must refuse to continue in silence. We must refuse to continue standing idly by as our neighbor bleeds. (Leviticus 19:16) Yet it is not my voice that we need to be listening to right now. There are innumerable voices of our Black, Brown and Indigenous siblings that have been calling out for centuries to be heard and are still speaking now. We must be listening to these voices and bear witness to what they say. White men in pulpits have always had too much to say. It is from mouths such as mine and from pulpits such as this that sacred ordinance was too often given to the enslavement, separation, imprisonment and destruction of Black bodies and communities. And this sacred ordinance was most often given through silence, through distractions, through purposeful ignorance. We must not hold our voices in silence any more.
About a year ago someone asked me why we were putting so much energy and resources behind racial justice work instead of what they referred to as “our spiritual practices.” My response was that racial justice is a spiritual practice. Now to be honest, this was one of those replies that my brain pushed out of my mouth before it told me about it. I heard myself say it and thought that it sounded like it should be true. I have now spent the last many months trying to figure out how exactly it could be true. How exactly is it that racial justice could be a spiritual practice? How exactly is it that the work of antiracism, which is racial justice in action, can be a spiritual practice?
It seems to me that those of us who are identified as white in our current society are being asked to do three things at the same time: We are being asked to show up and be present, to stop our own talking and listen, and finally to stop our silence. We are to show up, stop talking, and stop being silent. These requests initially feel contradictory. How do I stop talking and stop being silent at the same time while also being present? I wonder, though: What if these apparent contradictions are actually a pathway to a deeper understanding?
Being present and not talking yet not being silent reminds me of contemplative practices. Christian spiritual teacher Richard Rohr describes contemplation this way:
Contemplative prayer, remaining silently and openly in God’s presence, “rewires” our brains to think non-dually with compassion, kindness, and a lack of attachment to the ego . . . . We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate . . . . Each time we pray, we come with “beginner’s mind,” true humility, an openness to not knowing.
Here we have an example of a deeper practice in doing the things that we are being asked to do. In contemplation one must try to be present. Contemplation is not a removal of one’s self from the world but rather a way to be more fully present in it. Contemplation is a way to be present with yourself, with the world around you and with the presence of God found in and around you. It is also a way to practice not speaking. Through contemplation we practice not reacting, not judging, not defending. We practice the ability to listen deeply. Additionally, contemplative practices can help us to be brave and not hide behind silence by cultivating compassion. (If anyone would like to learn more about these contemplative practices, the Plymouth Contemplatives are actively working to facilitate this work with us. They are an excellent resource.)
Contemplation as a spiritual practice can help us prepare ourselves for the work of the world. It helps us to be present to ourselves and the world around us, it hushes the ego part of the mind that tries to always defend and judge and it helps us cultivate compassion, which actively connects us to the world around us.
Compassion is not synonymous with pity or charity. Compassion is not feeling bad for somebody. Compassion is instead a spiritual practice of mutuality. Buddhist spiritual teacher Pema Chodron names it with beautiful clarity:
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
In spiritual practice, compassion is a powerful way to connect with people around us. It is how we take the sometimes-solitary self-exploration of contemplation and make it active in the world.
Jesus, as our tradition’s ultimate spiritual teacher, knew the power and necessity of compassion. We see it in our short piece of scripture for today, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 9:
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were wearied and cast away . . . .
Jesus had a well-documented spiritual practice of contemplation and prayer, which gives this compassion deep roots. He knew his own darkness so he was able to be present with the darkness of others; he recognized their shared humanity. Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were weary and cast away. That seems like a familiar scene of recent weeks as people gathered in the streets to declare that they are weary of police violence on Black bodies. People gathered to protest the many ways that Black, Brown and Native people have been cast away and marginalized by our systems and structures dominated by whiteness. How much compassion Jesus would have had here for our communities that feel wearied and cast away!
Our spiritual teachers of Jesus, Rohr and Chodron help us to recognize the deep importance that this spiritual practice of contemplation can have on our ability to be present, talk less and not be silent with our compassion. But the question of how racial justice can be a spiritual practice remains unaddressed.
Here we bring in another spiritual teacher, Ibram X. Kendi, who wrote a book called How to Be an Antiracist, which I urge you all to read for yourself. Simply put, Kendi says that there are only two ways of acting in our world: racist or antiracist. There is no middle ground. If we are not actively being antiracist, then the default position is racist. One cannot simply be “not racist.” Kendi writes:
What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.”
There is no neutrality in racism. Ideas, actions, laws and systems are either racist or antiracist. They cannot be neutral. We as individuals will at one moment act in a racist way and in other moments act as an antiracist. This may feel harsh upon some of our hearts, but I urge us not to hear this as an indictment but rather as a call to action. Instead of being hurt by the word racist, let us instead be energized by the call to work as antiracists! As white people it is not our fault that we have been raised and enculturated in a society that favors whiteness, but it is our responsibility to change it.
This change, though, is not going to come from a purely intellectual place. As Professor of History and current Plymouth Deacon Annette Atkins recently wrote: “Because we didn’t reason ourselves into racism, reason alone won’t get us out of it. Another kind of work—soul and heart work—is required.”
This heart and soul work is spiritual practice. It is rooted in compassion, in the radical mutuality of shared humanity. It is rooted in making ourselves present in contemplative silence and listening to the voices of our non-white siblings that are demanding to be heard. Sometimes this silence is uncomfortable, such as when we stop for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to remember the knee on George Floyd’s neck. Sometimes this contemplation is uncomfortable because we are being asked to hear things that we do not want to hear, but just because we don’t want to hear it doesn’t make it wrong. But this spiritual practice will always bear some fruit. If we can truly be present with ourselves and others, that is a gift. If we can truly listen to the voices that are speaking now and for the last 400 years, that is a gift. If we can practice being present with those voices without defending or judging or fearing, that is a gift. If we can cultivate compassion towards ourselves and the others around us, that is a gift. If we can begin to use all of this to change our actions, laws and policies to being actively antiracist, that is a gift.
Racial justice is not merely a political movement, but it is the work that God has called us to do as followers of Jesus. It will not be always easy and not always comfortable, but may we do the work together to become individuals and a community that makes being an antiracist a spiritual practice.
“Contemplation,” Center for Action and Contemplation, https://cac.org/about-cac/contemplation/ (accessed June 16, 2020).
Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 9.