The Bishop of New York Speaks

This is an excerpt from a message that The Right Reverend Andrew ML Dietsche sent to the people of New York (his diocese) on August 30. The Peace and Justice Committee commends it. Read the entire letter here.

Black Lives Matter
There is a litany of names, victims of institutional violence against Black people in America, that we carry with us all the time. Certain names, of those who have in some way so fully captured the hearts and imaginations and grief of people that their memories have been lifted above the unending background of racist killing and lives lost to become for us icons of violated innocence, powerful reminders across time of the high cost of American racism. In his day, Emmett Till was one of those names, whose lynching lit the spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement. The martyrs of Alabama and Mississippi and all who fell in the struggle for equal rights. Martin Luther King of course. Our own days have provided more names than we can bear, to shine among them in that constellation: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Deborah Danner. And more.

And over the last six months, the Martyrs of 2020. The front page of today’s New York Times features a lengthy and rewarding portrait of Breonna Taylor, shot in her bed in Kentucky back in March. Her killing and that of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging through a white neighborhood three weeks earlier, and most especially the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a brutal police officer, became the catalyst for what have been continuing nightly protests across America which have signaled for three months that we have reached and passed a tipping point, beyond which there is no going back. These people have been taken, but their names now occupy a hallowed place in the minds and hearts of America.

On the last day of May, in the week following the death of George Floyd, Bishops Allen and Mary joined me in a letter to the diocese entitled “White Supremacy Meets the Beloved Community.” We joined our voices to the out-rage felt by all of you in our churches and communities. And that outrage, and the protests, have continued to characterize the three months which have followed. During that time America lost in a single day the gentle, powerful, prophetic Civil Rights leaders Congressman John Lewis and the Reverend C.T. Vivian. When John Lewis died, it felt that our country, and maybe the world, paused, stopped, took a breath, and marked together the passing of one of the greatest among us. We may perhaps not see a saint of his grace and stature among us again in our lives. As a bold public witness, the words “Black Lives Matter” are painted now in giant yellow letters on some of the most significant streets of American cities. And the insistence over these months, never stilled, that Black Lives Matter, and the strident backlash against that claim have given us a season in which to reflect more deeply what those words mean, and what they mean in an America far from fully redeemed.

As a white American, the Black Lives Matter movement, now six years old, has been for me an opportunity, and invitation, to listen, to learn, and to go more deeply into an understanding of what it has meant and still means to be a black person in America. It has been an opportunity to grow in understanding of the ways in which we all participate in the systemic racism that characterizes our culture, our institutions, our public life, and even the church. I have been profoundly grateful for the witness and teaching and stories of black people in this movement. And I have been moved and shamed to discover how much I have taken for granted, and how much my black friends never told me — things which were perhaps too personal, too vulnerable to say — and the possibilities which were now being laid before us by a new era of honest declaration and the opening of eyes. I have been moved to receive the unfolding of human hearts which have carried so much pain. And I have been shown the poignancy of simply “mattering,” and what that modest claim says about the value and worth of African Americans in America. I believed that these learnings and discoveries were widely received, and that we were in an historic moment of transformation in America. I imagined that we were entering a new chapter in our hope to become a better people.

But one week ago today Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We see again how readily the death penalty is imposed against black people for any offense or often enough no offense. But what was astonishing was to see this shooting happen at a time when the whole world was watching. To happen so shamelessly. To happen without apology. And this week nothing could be clearer than that for far too many people in this country black lives do not matter. That the human lives of black people do not matter, and that they may be taken away with impunity.

In a time of such crisis, of divisions drawn so boldly, of the fundamental truths of human life and human dignity and of the holiness of lives lived in God becoming lines of battle, it falls to people of faith to recommit to our most deeply held convictions, and to remember who we are and the demands that are placed on us by God. John Lewis, who offered himself for the costs and sacrifices of this movement, and carried the scars of it for the rest of his life, said that “You never become bitter. You never become hostile. You never try to demean your opponents.” These are the words of a Christian man who has taken the Gospel fully into himself. But in these days, nothing could be more counter-cultural.

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