Christians Must Stand Against Racial Intolerance

This op-ed piece first appeared in the Erie Times-News on August 18, 2017. 

Last weekend, white supremacists marched and then rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia while the country looked on in horror. We have been conditioned to fear terrorists from other countries who speak different languages and practice different religions, but these violent, hateful extremists were mostly young white men, and mostly Christian. Those of us who are Christians need to acknowledge this, and we need to respond.

The League of the South, one hate group that participated in Unite the Right, as the Charlottesville rally was called, advocates establishing a white Christian theocratic state. In February the league called for the formation of a “Southern Defense Force,” a militia to combat the “leftist menace to our historic Christian civilization.”

It is comforting to assume that our faith never truly took hold in the hearts of people who are so hateful and so given to violence. But history makes plain that we are not entitled to such comfort.

In 1493, the church “granted” to Spain the lands where Columbus had landed. The assumptions that this land rightfully belonged to white European Christians and that the church ruled the earth in God’s stead were symptoms of the catastrophic theological arrogance that would have devastating consequences for indigenous people around the globe who would be sacrificed on the altar of Christian empire.

The decree that promulgated what became known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” gave the church’s blessing to colonization which, in turn, brought about the need for slave labor to make the colonies economically viable.

Nearly two years ago, I stood in the slave dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Ghana. Beginning in 1664, the enormous fort was in the hands of the British, who used it to send nearly three million enslaved Africans to the New World. The soldiers and sailors who lived in the castle and traded in human beings built their Anglican chapel directly above the men’s dungeons. My own church, the Episcopal Church, is directly descended from these Anglican slave traders.

There are many more recent examples of the church’s complicity and active participation in racism, prejudice and bigotry.

Most churches in the United States split over the issue of slavery, with southern churches supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. But even in Union territory, segregation often prevailed. Here in our Episcopal cathedral in Erie, black people were made to worship separately from white people well into the twentieth century.

During the Nazi regime, Christians belonging to the German Evangelical Church supported Hitler and the extermination of Jewish people. Even the Confessing Church in Germany, often lauded for its resistance to Hitler, spoke primarily about the church’s independence from the state and, with few exceptions, did not speak or act in support of Jews being deported to their deaths in concentration camps. And in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church actively supported the racist system of apartheid that finally fell in 1991.

It is possible to argue that those whose hearts are filled with racially-motivated hatred have never understood the true teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but only if one acknowledges that the church itself has misunderstood these teachings. It may, however, be more accurate to say that churches, for centuries, have denied the radical egalitarianism of Jesus’ teaching for its own self-interested reasons.

If contemporary Christians are to oppose the racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia that has asserted themselves with renewed and appalling vigor since the election of President Trump, we must look beyond our self-interest. We must not be as timid as the Peter who denied Jesus on the night of his arrest, but as bold as the Peter who, after the Resurrection proclaimed that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

The President continues to send what can be described, with an excess of charity, as mixed signals on issues of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance.  The church, with a humility born of its own sins, but a boldness born of its faith in Jesus, must challenge any ambiguity with the clarity of the Gospel. It is our duty to speak out, to engage the civic organizations of our communities on behalf of those who are being persecuted, and to name evil where we see it—whether it is in our leaders, or within our own equivocating souls.

The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe is the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. He and his family live in Erie.

Have a question? Ask the Bishop!

The Diocese is getting ready to film the eighth installment of the “Ask the Bishop” video series, which means we’re looking for questions from you!

Unfortunately, Bishop Sean cannot be with every member of the diocese all the time, but he would like to be able to answer questions you may have. If there is something you’d like to hear the bishop’s thoughts on (i.e., Convention, Explorer’s Day, Bible questions, you name it!), send your questions to Megin (msewak@dionwpa.org) by August 30.  You can view past “Ask the Bishop” videos here and see what sort of topics have already been covered.

Please include your name and congregation with your submission, and then watch for ‘Ask the Bishop 8’ on the Forward blog, Facebook, and Twitter!
ask the bishop

Building Relationships

Collaboration and interdependence are keys to the deepening of our Christian life together. We’ve given considerable attention over the course of the last decade to the idea that, as a diocese, we really are One Church.  Yes, we all find ourselves in different contexts, are various sizes, and have different charisms of the Spirit, and still we are united in mission and witness that make us one—all in it together as the Body of Christ.  Our challenge to bring the Good News to the world is more apparent than ever and our ability to rise to that challenge is directly related to our willingness to collaborate with strategic partners and rely more heavily on each other.

This fall we take our collaboration with the Diocese of Western New York to a new depth by sharing our Conventions with each other—we’ll take a large group to their Convention, and they’ll bring a large group to ours.  We’ll have a chance to meet new people, see how another diocese works, and experience new mission horizons.  We’ll also have an opportunity to share our particular gifts and richness of our diocesan community.  If you are interested in attending the Diocese of Western New York’s convention, you can visit our website for more information and to sign up.

Our convention will follow a bit of a different format this year.  Though we’ll conduct the necessary business of Convention, the primary focus of our time will be building relationships and having significant and high impact conversations about the future of our life together.  The Convention this fall will be more important than ever, and I appeal to you as your bishop to make every effort to be present.  Your voice and your perspective are a critical piece of the next phase of mission.

You’ve heard me say many times that no one is going to innovate in mission and ministry for us.  There is no group ‘out there’ in the Church that is going to overcome our challenges and unlock our potential for us.  This is our call—right here and right now.  I have every confidence that God is about to provide for us ‘infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.’

We Need Your Questions for ‘Ask the Bishop’!

ask the bishop

The Diocese is getting ready to film the seventh installment of the “Ask the Bishop” video series, and we need your questions!

Unfortunately, Bishop Sean cannot be with every member of the diocese all the time, but he would like to be able to answer questions you may have for him. If you have something on your mind regarding theology, the diocese, the bishop’s views on current events, summer camp, etc. – send your questions to Megin (msewak@dionwpa.org) by May 29th. We may not be able to answer everyone’s questions due to time constraints, but all submissions are welcome (and may appear in later installments).

Please include your name and congregation with your submission, and then watch for ‘Ask the Bishop 7’ on the Forward blog, Facebook, and Twitter!

 

Follow the Truth

This article first appeared in the Reflections column of the Erie Times-News on May 20, 2017. 

About 2,000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire called Judaea, lived a ruler named Pontius Pilate. The people were angry about the power of a distant government that paid no attention to them, an economy that perpetuated an enormous gap between the rich and the poor, tax burdens that were unsustainable, and debt that ruined lives. They wanted scapegoats, and Pilate was happy to have them take out their wrath on someone other than himself.

One spring, the religious authorities handed over a troublesome rabbi to Pilate. He questioned him, trying to determine if he deserved to die. The rabbi, whose name was Jesus, told Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate replied with a question. “What is truth?” he asked.

Today, our president and many elected leaders remind me of Pilate. They would like us to believe that the truth is hard to pin down, that there are “alternative facts” and therefore they do not have to be straight with us. It is easy to understand why. No one wants to tell the truth to angry people, and many of us are angry.

According to a recent Public Religion Research Institute report, nearly two-thirds of white working-class Americans, many of whom are Christians who supported President Trump in the last election, believe that American culture and way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s. Sixty-two percent believe that newcomers from other countries threaten American culture. And six in 10 white working-class Americans “say that because things have gotten so far off track, we need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules.”

The survey tells us the truth about ourselves. But it also tells us that we are straying from the truths taught by the world’s great religions. A leader who bears false witness — who does not acknowledge that we are bound to one another and must care for one another — leads us away from the kingdom of God. We need to reject lies born of fear and political expedience and choose instead to follow the truth that will set us free.

 The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Invitation to the Diocesan Prayer Vigil – March 17 & 18

altar-boy-1190759_1920The conviction that praying shapes believing is part of our Anglican heritage.  Prayer is a core practice of our Christian faith and serves as both a foundation and covering for our common mission.

I invite you to join me in prayer for our diocese at St. John’s, Sharon, on March 17-18 from noon to noon.  We will set aside 24 hours to pray for each other, our common life and mission, and our communities.

Please join us as you are able.  I recognize that not everyone will be able to join us in Sharon, but I hope that you will offer prayer from wherever you are during that time.

+Sean

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The schedule for the prayer vigil is below.  As you can see on the schedule, we will be praying from noon to noon with services and events planned throughout the vigil.  All are welcome to join us for any portion of the vigil, whether that be attending a single service, coming just to pray on your own for a time, or being present for the full 24 hours.  There will be food provided throughout our time.

We will also have a form on the website for those who would like to submit prayer requests to be prayed over by our intercessors.  You are welcome to submit as many as you would like.

If you have any questions about this event or submitting a prayer request, please contact Vanessa.

Schedule for Prayer Vigil
March 17-18
St. John’s, Sharon
12:00 PM       Stations of the Cross
2:30 PM         Centering Prayer teaching and prayer time
5:30 PM         Evening Prayer
7:00 PM         Healing Service
10:00 PM      Compline
11:00 PM       Oral Reading of Book of Revelation
12:00 AM      Private Prayer/Intercession over submitted prayers
7:00 AM         Morning Prayer and Praise
9:00 AM        Prayerwalk & prayers for community
11:00 AM       Eucharist
12:00 PM      Lunch with St. John’s Family Kitchen (if you wish to stay)

Turning Away Refugees Violates Christian Principles

This article from Bishop Sean originally appeared in the Erie Times News on February 2, 2017.

bishop-sean-smOne of my favorite Bible verses comes from the first chapter of the Gospel of John: “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” I have been thinking about that verse lately as darkness began to fall over our country and light struggled to reassert itself.

The executive order closing our borders to Syrian refugees and suspending refugee resettlement and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries is a profound betrayal of Christian principles and American ideals. If we, as a nation, are to be that indomitable light the Scripture speaks of, we must resist the efforts to close our border to those who are in desperate need of our help.

The events of last weekend have given me reason for deep unease, but also reason for hope.

The executive order – less an embodiment of policy than an outpouring of fear – is deeply troubling, not least because it is unnecessary. According to a recent study by the Cato Institute – no bastion of liberal thinking – an American’s chance of dying due to an act of terrorism committed by a refugee was one in 3.6 billion for the 40-year period ending in 2015. Indeed, since Congress strengthened the vetting of refugees in 1980, there have been no terrorism-related deaths linked to refugees.

In a changing world with so much uncertainty we often find the need to create villains, human villains. Apparently, Muslims will fill that role during this time. This sort of paranoia, and the religious scapegoating that ensues, has precipitated millions of deaths throughout human history, and yet somehow, we are in its grip once again.

What is worse is the play for Christian support by imposing an immigration ban exclusively against predominantly Muslim countries while promising that Christians and other religious minorities from these countries will be given preferential treatment going forward. Faithful Christians should not be goaded.

Just as God in the Hebrew Scriptures commanded ancient Israel to welcome the alien and stranger among them, we are commanded to welcome people who practice different faiths. A refugee ban that specifically targets Muslim people, or that gives Christians special priority in resettlement simply because they are Christian, is, for Christians, a violation of our tradition and beliefs.

All of the power of the executive branch of our government had been brought to bear on this misbegotten ban. And yet, a light did shine. The light was the unexpected – by me, at any rate – torrent of resistance that flooded into airports across our country last weekend as Americans from all walks of life rose up in support of people who had been unfairly victimized by the poorly conceived and badly executed executive order that left a newborn here and an almost 90-year-old matriarch there in the custody of the Customs and Border Patrol.

This outpouring of generosity motivated by patriotism and principle, and the belated but nonetheless helpful response by at least some of our elected officials, made it clear that our country is not willing to sacrifice its values without a fight. We learned, too, that those Americans who were raised in Christian churches remember the biblical injunction to care for the stranger and the foreigner, and that Jesus commanded that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

By the time federal judges began staying the executive order, the light was shining brighter still. To keep it burning, though, each of us must do our part, whether that is protesting, donating to refugee resettlement organizations and those protecting the civil rights of refugees, or simply by standing up and being counted.

Right now, more than 65 million people across the globe are displaced by war, conflict and persecution – the largest number in recorded history. We have an urgent moral responsibility to receive refugees and asylum seekers who are in dire need. To turn away refugees in need is both un-Christian and un-American.

The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.