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Aug 13, 2015 | Scott Bader-Saye

Sowing Holy Questions on Race


[Diolog Magazine] I have recently indulged in some binge-watching of the HBO series, “The Newsroom.” In an early episode, one of the characters describes what she hopes to produce in the face of the dominant, commodified, ratings-driven, news-as-entertainment paradigm. We need, she says, “a nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot; a place where we all come together.”  What would it look like, they ask, to view the news not as a conduit for advertising but as a public service?  Though at times the heady sincerity can come off as sanctimonious, what is compelling about this series is its desire to explore the possibility of intelligent conversation and debate in a media culture driven by trivia, hostility, and self-promotion.


We in the church are not immune to the general cultural trends that dumb down conversation and turn moral debate into a bloodsport. In order to combat just this tendency, the faculty at Seminary of the Southwest decided, in the lead up to General Convention, to try to steer our ecclesial conversation away from apocalypse and animosity. We decided that the best way to influence the deliberation was to help shape the questions being asked and to frame those questions in distinctly biblical and theological terms. Thus began our new digital ministry, “Sowing Holy Questions.”


One issue about which good questions and holy thinking are sorely needed right now is race. The failure of fruitful discourse can be seen in the recent discussion of whether presidential candidates, Republican or Democratic, are willing to embrace the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”  On one hand, a preoccupation with the use (or disuse) of a particular phrase can take on disproportionate significance. It is easy to tweet the right slogan. The harder task is to address systemic injustice and implicit bias. On the other hand, if a candidate is not willing to say, without qualification, that “Black lives matter,” how can we trust that she or he will, in fact, work to change the current patterns of policing that make black lives disposable?


Bringing race into the political conversation is important, but for Christians this cannot be done apart from bringing race into our ecclesial conversations. Episcopalians just elected our first African-American presiding bishop, but we must be careful not to think that this signals a successful resolution to racial bias in our church family. Just as President Obama’s election did not usher in a period of racial equality, so Bishop Curry’s election will not magically make our church more welcoming of racial difference.


If we believe that the Apostle Paul is right in saying that Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14), then we must trust also that God is at work breaking down the dividing walls that explicitly or implicitly relegate certain persons to a lesser status in our church and society. We might ask ourselves these holy questions: How is my church community intentionally welcoming racial difference? Are the Christians in my town actively working to promote models of community policing that are consistent with Jesus’ teaching? Are we displaying in word and deed that black lives do matter to God and to the church?  These questions might help us take a first step toward embodying a different kind of conversation, one that is not only civil but theological, not only theoretical but productive of real social change.


Bader-Saye is academic dean and professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin.