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Martin Luther King Jr. seen during his “I Have a Dream” speech.AP
Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. We’re all familiar with the ringing cadences that close the speech—from “I have a dream” to “Let freedom ring”—but we rarely revisit the first part of the address, the section where King describes the perilous situation faced by blacks in America. Fifty years later, of course, “Whites Only” hotels and segregated restaurants are mere memories. But as you read King’s words today, you’ll note how little has changed:
King’s words remind us both of what has been achieved and of what has yet to be done. To be sure, America is a better, healthier place for all of us because of the Civil Rights movement and the ensuing legislation of the 1960s. But we are self-deluded if we think, as some seem to, that we live in a “post-racial America”. Yes, we have an African-American president. But we also have a Supreme Court that overturned a central provision of the Voting Rights Act. Certain kinds of discrimination are gone, but racial profiling is alive and well. Even black Americans like our attorney general must teach their sons the risks of “driving while black.” And while de jure school segregation is gone, de facto discrimination still obtains, certainly with regard to access to quality education.
In 1963, my great predecessor Dean Frank Sayre joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march. In 1968, he invited Dr. King to preach what would be his final sermon in the cathedral’s Canterbury Pulpit four days before his assassination. Over the decades, both the Episcopal Church and the cathedral have advocated for racial justice, and I am grateful for that legacy.
But let us not delude ourselves. The Episcopal Church, as a denomination, participated in both overt and tacit segregation. Today nearly 87 percent of American Episcopalians are white. The Washington National Cathedral’s staff, congregation, and leaders are overwhelmingly white. We are at once the cathedral church for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and among the most visible faith communities in the nation’s capital. Yet we have a largely non-existent record of involvement or investment in the other three quadrants of the District of Columbia. How can we, with integrity, presume to “speak truth to power” about racial justice when we are, in fact, implicated in the very structures of injustice?
As a prophetic community we have been appointed, like the prophets of old, to call our nation and our society into healing and justice. But we have been slow to realize that we are called not only to shine the spotlight on Congress, the courts, and state legislators, but also on ourselves.
As a straight white man, I am coming to understand how much of my life has been lived under the protective canopy of privileges I have not earned. As one who has led four Episcopal Church institutions, I am increasingly aware of how—from our histories and our demographics to our hiring practices and investment policies—we are enmeshed in the institutional racism that we decry so vocally when we observe it in others. It is meaningless for me to criticize the Supreme Court, proposed voter identification laws, or the decisions of mostly-white juries when I have not examined, confessed, and changed the sinful practices of the institutions I both lead and serve.
Jesus once offered his followers a practical piece of advice. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Luke 6:42).
It is time to acknowledge that many Christian institutions have a very big log in our eyes. Racism is not only personal. It is also interpersonal, institutional, and social. This fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s speech and the march that occasioned it demand that we take an inventory of ourselves personally, interpersonally, institutionally, and socially. How can we make real the dream articulated by Dr. King when the evils we face in 2013 are so much more insidious than they were in 1963? The enemy back then looked and acted like Lester Maddox and Bull Connor. The enemy today looks and acts very much like me and my well-meaning friends and colleagues.
At Washington National Cathedral, we are initiating a process of self-examination, renewal, and reform by exploring the racism inherent in our worship, ministry, staffing, and governance. We will never be able to overcome entirely the legacy of racism that infects our culture and our relationships. But we, and all Christians, can commit ourselves to making progress by acting in new ways—ways that reflect the inclusive, gathering, indiscriminate love of God in Christ.
God calls us into a new and risen life and ministry in which our actions and practices will actually reflect our commitments. There is nothing more important we have to offer our nation, our city, and our church that to put our own house in order. It is the best and most fitting way to respond to the call of Jesus and to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.