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What the Monarch Knows About Undoing Racism

How do monarch butterflies know the precise route of their migration, when it takes more than a generation of butterflies to complete it? How did the stonemasons who built the cathedrals of Europe know how their generation’s part of the work fit into the plan of the whole great structure without blueprints, over the course of a century or more of building?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but the questions themselves point to the wisdom people are going to need in working to untangle the centuries-long trauma of American slavery that so disfigures our common life. Dismantling racism is our cathedral, our generations-long migration, and the first efforts need to be made by the people implicated in the harm: White people, of whom I am one.

One of the issues that I see making the work daunting is that it is simultaneously long and urgent. We’re used to distinguishing between a sprint and a marathon, things that require a burst of intense energy and things that require steadiness over time. But our striving to undo racism is both urgent and long, requiring both intensity and persistence.

Yet we are not without resources. The knowledge of generations of butterflies and stonemasons is surely held more in the body than the mind, pointing us toward the embodied practices of our spiritual traditions—handed down by generations of saints—that may in the end have the power to free us. Long-haul repentance is a collection of practices that may help us move at long last from harm toward healing.

The biblical practice of repentance involves the whole person.

  • The Hebrew word, shub, refers to physical turning, making a course correction, turning back from having gone in the wrong direction.
  • While the Greek term metanoia in the New Testament signifies a profound change of mind.

Together, the two words point toward a wholly human, fully embodied practice of repentance. Apparently, in Jesus’s time (as in ours?) a sharp call to repentance could threaten the status quo enough that John the Baptist was arrested for it. When Jesus, undaunted, picks up the same provocative proclamation, we know from the very first moment that he is in grave danger. So repentance is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and stamina. We will need to lean into the embodied wisdom of our forebears.

Repentance is communal. When John and Jesus called people to repent, they were not thinking so much of individual sins, but of individual complicity in larger scale societal sin.

  • Part of the healing power of communal repentance is that it releases us from the bonds of individualism that are related to the sin of racism from the beginning, the refusal to see oneself in the skin of the neighbor.
  • Deeper, more significant community, community as essential to one’s own identity, is a great gift of participation in repentance that is larger than the self.

An oft-quoted African proverb describes the embodied wisdom of communal repentance: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Who will go with you on this long journey? And to whom will you teach repentance so that it continues after you?

Repentance is economic. The sin of racism has its roots deep in corrupt economic systems that construe people as something to use for financial gain.

  • Reparations are an important large-scale commitment to repentance.
  • And almsgiving is an equally important small-scale linking of one’s personal finances to the needs of others.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. How can you express your hopes through your giving? How can you reverse something that grieves you through your giving? 

Repentance is physical. Sometimes we may forget that the practice of Sabbath rest was a physical act of resistance by the Jewish people during the times when they were under foreign occupation or living in exile.

  • Essentially, Sabbath-keeping affirms that people are all made in the image of God, and that no one’s worth depends upon their usefulness but simply on their existence as God’s own.
  • Rest is an act of radical resistance to letting economic gain or economic survival rule our – or anyone else’s – life.

It is an essential act of faithfulness to pursue opportunities of rest for others. The ways in which combatting racism in the U.S. has come to be something that BIPOC people are expected to offer leadership on at all times is verging on an insidious new enslavement. And fair wages that support families are also critical to the possibility of Sabbath rest. What is your role in creating the possibilities of rest for people in your community? How will you create space in your own life for the sacred resistance that is Sabbath?

Repentance is spiritual. This is another way of saying that repentance is not a task we have assigned ourselves, but is a response to the Spirit’s invitation.

Last May, six days after the murder of George Floyd, when south Minneapolis was on fire, there came the feast of Pentecost, the day when we remember the tongues of the Spirit’s fire that appeared among the disciples of Jesus. Amid the conflagration in Minneapolis, a freshly renovated center for American Indian Youth called Migizi burnt to the ground. Migizi’s director pulled a flaming piece of wood from the fire, wondering how to tend the flame of the non-profit until it could be rebuilt. He crossed the alley to Holy Trinity Lutheran church, saying to the pastor and gathered lay leaders, “I’m thinking maybe you know how to guard a flame. I’ve seen it in your church.” They took the flame from him, lit a votive candle, and have been caring for the flame ever since, passing it from person to person.

  • What Migizi’s director knew is that, while fire can be destructive, it can also serve as a pilot light, a flame of the Spirit to keep us going over the long-time labor of mending what has been broken, rebuilding what has been destroyed, healing what has been wounded.

How will you tend the fires of long-term repentance? By what practices of prayer will you invite the fire of the Spirit to fuel your repentance, to guide you beyond self-interest to God’s own purposes?

Repentance of this magnitude is a powerful reminder of how small is the life of any one of us. Even bringing all our energy to each day, we will not see the end of our migration. We will not see the cathedral. And yet the way itself is radiant. 

This spring, the Sowing Holy Questions blog will focus on issues of racial healing. Writers will reflect on what has been done, what change ought to happen, and offer visions for healing in our communities. 

The Rev. Jane Patterson, PhD, is associate professor of New Testament. She joined the full-time faculty in 2013 after teaching part-time and serving as interim director of Theological Field Education, 2003–2005. She is the author of Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians (SBL Press, 2015). In biblical studies, her academic interests include the intersection of literary, political, and theological study of the scriptures. She also teaches in the area of Christian formation, where her work focuses on vocation and Christian practice. She serves as co-director of St. Benedict’s Workshop, a ministry devoted to helping laity live their faith in daily life, and serves the Diocese of West Texas as missioner for adult formation and as a member of the diocesan examining chaplains. She is active as a preacher, teacher, and parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio.

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