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Message from the Bishop: Dismantling Systemic Racism

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Dear Friends in Christ,

The great theologian Karl Barth is said to have admonished preachers to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other — a call to view the world around us through the lens of faith. As I prepared to write to you this week, the headline of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was, "Will protest lead to lasting change in Milwaukee," and the verse of Scripture that came to me were these words of the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, "one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13).

In some ways, this is a dangerous passage to quote. The truth is that forgetting the past is part of our problem. As Americans we need to not only remember our past - namely, that our nation was founded on the backs of enslaved persons and the genocide of native peoples — but also to repent of it and bear fruit that befits repentance. That fruit is the dismantled racism and the end of white privilege — the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream that a person is judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

The other verse of Scripture that comes to me is this, "No man, having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). This passage from Luke's Gospel is one of my favorite verses of Scripture. It is a verse I believe we need to hear in so many ways today. This verse was the basis of the spiritual that later become the song, "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," a song which also alludes to the passage from Philippians quoted earlier.

Will protest lead to change in Milwaukee? And in Madison, Racine, Kenosha, Fort Atkinson, Waukesha, Delafield, Mequon, Wisconsin Dells, Prairie du Chien, Richland Center and Platteville? Only if we keep our hand to the plow and keep working at it. Protesting and the naming of ills is easy. Working to dismantle the structures and systems that brought about the need to protest is the hard part.

And for those of us who have been privileged, the first step is humility. Last Sunday in our worship, we heard a beautiful rendition of the hymn "Come Down, O Love Divine." I still weep just thinking of it. Unfortunately, American hymnals have always omitted the third verse of the original hymn text. It reads,

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be
and lowliness become mine inner clothing
True lowliness of heart which takes the humbler part
and o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

I mention this because the work of being an ally in this quest has to begin with listening to and following the lead of those who have been its victims. It means being willing to hear the hard truths that our sisters and brothers whose skin color is different from ours have to tell us and believing and accepting their experience. The task for us is to let persons of color lead and pledge our help and support. I have made a commitment to sit down with African American pastors in Madison and am willing to do the same everywhere in our diocese and follow their lead in the work of dismantling racism. I support and encourage all members of our diocese, especially the ordained, to do the same.

Will protest lead to change? I pray it will, just I pray that each mass shooting or senseless act of gun violence will be the last. But remember, we need to keep our hand on the plow. "No one who puts their hand on the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Yours in Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Steven Andrew Miller
Bishop of Milwaukee

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