I am in awe of cathedrals. May that be on an architectural level, entering a building that has existed for hundreds if not a thousand years. May that be on an artistic level, to stroll through the chapels and nave to view to stained glass windows, frescos, and other ornamentation. May that be on a spiritual level, to follow the lines of the columns up to the vaulted ceiling, or listen to the sustained reverberation for seconds after the organ or choir has reached the resolving chord. May that be to contemplative level, considering the hundreds of craftsmen and laborers who set the foundation, erected the walls, and created the spaces for the architecture, art, and divine connections.
When I approach a cathedral, in addition to these images, I ponder those craftsmen and laborers who started and worked on something which they probably never lived long enough to see. Such buildings take decades, if not centuries, to plan and construct. In our ephemeral culture, how few things last decades, let alone centuries or millennium?
For all the cathedrals which I have visited around the world, one which I frequently have on my visit list is our (USA) National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Services, concerts, photo tours, and garden festivals are all reasons to visit. And, believing in supporting such social institutions, we donate to the cathedral society’s foundation. And, that leads to newsletters about various activities and projects at the cathedral. And that is where I read about The Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas’ book, Resurrection Hope, the Future Where Black Lives Matter.
Cathedrals are more than museums to traditions of architecture, art, and spiritual rituals. They are churches, which are the people, not the building. As such, the ministers of those cathedrals must address the context in which their worship and community services exist.
While the title, and write-up, of the book highlights the recent and current issues about race relations in the USA, the origins of these struggles go back in our history. But, how far back? Civil Rights era? Jim Crow or Reconstruction? Civil War? Slave holding and Colonial past? European class structures?
Rev. Brown Douglas takes us back to the Greek and Roman philosophers to begin her chronology of bias against peoples from ”extreme climates” (too hot or cold). She traces these ideas through the early Christian writers with imagery of ”light/white/pure” versus ”darkness/blackness/evil”. These images become literary symbols by the age of Shakespeare (Othello and Titus Andronicus), and carry on through the Enlightenment philosophers (Locke, Kant, Hume) to our Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Mason, Madison). But, in this process an environmental idea (e.g. good actions happen during the day and sinful actions happen at night) transforms into skin color (Caucasians versus People of Color) and inherent personality traits (righteous versus sinful).
With more than two thousand years of imagery embedded as assumptions in various histories, stories, philosophical and religious texts, she has little difficulty demonstrating how this contributes to ”white gaze”. This is the phenomenon in which viewing a situation from the white person’s perspective is considered normal. All other perspectives are considered suspect and resisted. The results of such view points on events is what has become systematic racism.
But, Rev. Brown Douglas goes further to label this the white supremacy view. I would add that she views White Supremacists, with capital letters, as an extreme position, but white supremacy, with lower case letters, as much more dominant and detrimental to society. Certainly, White Supremacists with body armor, weapons, and militant organizational structure pose a threat, but usually on an event scale, such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, or the January 6, 2020 attach of the US Capitol Building. But, she views the assumption that the white gaze view as correct to be much more oppositional to progress in society. Why should one change, when one’s view point is normal?
Now many of these ideas can be found in many texts over the past few years, with the Black Lives Matter movement. What I found compelling about Rev. Brown Douglas’ essays was her ability to personalize this for us (white readers). First, she establishes the conversation from a series of texts which she has had with her young adult son, as they navigate the day to day obstacles of living as black people in a white society. Second, she address the white gaze that she encounters daily at the National Cathedral. She is forgiving, for she recognizes that when one’s view points is their normal, they do not see this building and this congregation from someone else’s view point.
She illustrate her points with Cathedral documents, from sermons to text messages from the past 100 plus years. She acknowledges that the white leadership has had social justice on his agenda for decades. But, this is social justice with the white gaze. Offenses, such as President Trump using force to clear BLM protesters from in front of a church so that he can make a photo-op in which he co-opts the (Episcopal) church in the background, are an affront to the church. But, where was the challenge when the affront was to black people in the congregation, whose ancestral home are called ”shit-holes” by the same leadership?
Of keen interest is her discussion of the two stained glass windows of Confederate Generals, positioned over a memorial to a specific President. She outlines when and how these were commissioned, funded, and selected. She provided documents to demonstrate that this was not merely honoring two leaders, but tacitly giving the church’s approval to the Lost Cause* agenda of pro-Confederacy advocates nearly a hundred years after the Civil War ended. She shows how someone whose ancestry is not white sees these as affirmations of the righteous of these two generals, their ”Christian” identity, and therefore the correctness of their defense of the USA’s prior institutions of enslaving groups of people whom they viewed as property and beast of burden.
But, Rev. Brown Douglas is not intent on tearing down the pillars of the cathedral. She is intent on reforming the church, as so many prior voices in the wilderness have called on us to repent and change. To this effect, she outlines suggestions of how her church (that cathedral congregation, as well as Christian churches in general) can facilitate reform. This is her resurrection hope.
And, at the end, she reminds us that movements, like cathedrals (my metaphor), are often built by those who will never see the end results. But, if no one ever designs the church and the movements, sets the foundation, or erects the walls, the structure will never be built. Hope is not what we have, but what we can imagine. Rev. Brown Douglas hopes that we can begin to build a society which will be a place of grand design, beauty and spiritual renewal for generation which we can only imagine today
*The Lost Cause movement began several decades after the end of the Civil War. Up to that time, the key point of the war was to eliminate the institution of enslavement from individual states. Those who set up memorials for dead Confederate soldiers, mostly hunted out battlefield grave yards to place headstones, grave markers, and regiment memorials at those locations. However as the Black Code laws became Jim Crow laws the rhetoric changed from identifying and honoring those who fought for the Confederacy to claiming that the war was about State Rights instead (of which slavery laws should be left up to each state). Thus, today we see homes, businesses, and trucks across our nation flying the Confederate Battleflag, and states enacting laws to challenge everything from voting methods to privacy, individually to marriages, all claiming that those states have the right to do so to protect the righteousness of its citizens (is the current maneuvering on limiting abortion via a potential Supreme Court ruling really about saving babies, or about asserting that the state has the right to tell people that they control them?). The Civil War is neither ended, nor civil, in my opinion, but I degrees from the book which I reviewed above.