As some of you have noticed, I can be a bit stubborn and quirky as a clergy person. There are a lot of reasons for this that I don’t need to go into right now. But one thing I will almost always do is explain my rationale for some belief or practice when asked. Now, there is always a chance that my answer is “I don’t know; I never thought about it. That’s just how I’ve always done it or how I learned to do it.” This happens a surprising amount when I’m asked about the traditions of the Episcopal Church.
A few years ago I realized that there was a tradition that I, and most of the Episcopal Clergy I know do every week, and very few of us know why we do it:
Why we all wear white at the Altar.
Now, you might have noticed that I don’t wear white at the Altar. And even when I do, my alb is flax, not white. The Bishop, on his visit honored my preferences and wore flax instead of white.
I don’t wear white because when I realized I didn’t know why we wear white at the Altar, I did some research.
And the answer sent shivers up my spine.
Purity. Because white means pure.
We wear white to show how pure we are; and that we are clean. Because white is the color associated with goodness, with cleanness, with purity. It has been for centuries, perhaps millennia, beginning when the ruling elite had the paler skin from being inside, and those who worked had darker skin from being in the sun.
That we wear white to show purity is nearly undisputed. It started long ago. Christians started wearing white because it was what the Romans wore to symbolize citizenship, and the brighter white the toga was, the more important the person wearing it. The wealthiest Romans actually had their enslaved people color their togas with white chalk, to make them even brighter.
Clerics didn’t start wearing white right away, but slowly evolved into wearing white beginning in the Eastern Churches around the 6th Century did so to show they were pure enough to administer the sacraments. In 1566, white became the official color worn by Popes, to show how pure they are.
In and of itself, this maybe isn’t a problem to everyone. Certainly not to those of us who are white. But when we look into the history of how and when white became lauded what we find is a history of making sure that some are seen as better than others and using white to do so. To show wealth, to show that you don’t work in the sun. To show that you can afford the most expensive cloth.
The Pope, in 1556, started wearing white to show purity somewhere around 50 years after enslaved Africans started arriving in Europe. Also at that time there was a shift in how good and evil was portrayed in art and theater. Suddenly white was good and black was evil. And this is when the Pope made it official to wear white at the Altar to show purity.
Since I learned this, which was between when I was ordained a Deacon in November of 2016 and when I became a priest in June of 2017, I have not worn a white alb. I will not wear one again. I did not wear white at my own ordination.
Maybe the association of white with purity doesn’t bother you. But it bothers me. A lot. Cotton, for those who have never seen it in person, isn’t bright white; it’s a yellow-ish off white. The white that we think of as white in fabric is caused by bleach and a bit of blue dye – that’s why white clothes fade to yellow over time.
There are many hundreds of year years of tradition behind wearing white to show how pure we are. But the white has actually gotten whiter and whiter over the last two hundred years. Especially since the 1800’s. Literally. This is when bleach was invented and became widely available for textiles.
But this tradition of brighter white being better is grounded in the belief of the supremacy of things that are white over those things that are color. Maybe that wasn’t understood long ago, or at least not cared about, but we care now. I certainly care now.
I know a lot of good priests and deacons, good Godly people, who believe they are honoring a tradition by wearing white at the Altar. And they are. But it bothers me no end that they are holding a tradition of the church as more important than breaking a tradition that is grounded in white supremacy.
Now why, you may be wondering, on Christ the King Sunday, on Ingathering Sunday, am I preaching on upending several hundred years of tradition in the church.
Well, that’s kind of my style.
And also, this Gospel, this one, is Jesus looking at the most powerful person in Israel by human standards and saying “your ‘power’ is nothing. Your sense of being better than me, isn’t true. Your understanding of how the world works, how power works, is wrong. Your chalked white toga doesn’t mean you are better than me in my dirty, non-white cloak.”
The truth, Christ says. The Truth is the power.
The truth, my friends, is that there is no such thing as race. It’s a social construct. We are all descended from Africans, it’s just that some of our ancestors left earlier than others.
Modern American racism, as we know it, was actually created in large part by the Episcopal Church in Virginia (with a little help from the Catholics in Maryland, and the Anglicans throughout the colonies). Because it was the vestries of the local parishes at that time who made and enforced laws.
The church was complicit in creating American racism with 3 changes to law and Christianity as it had been passed down.
First, up until the buying and selling of human beings became the major world industry, being a Christian, even converting to Christianity, meant that a person could no longer be enslaved. This created a major problem in the American Colonies where enslaved people of all skin tones appreciated the message of Christ. A few people converted to Christianity and then sued for their freedom. And at first, they won. So the local clergy, vestries and Bishops changed the law, and this was approved by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury, they changed the laws so that being a Christian did not mean you were entitled to freedom.
Then, vestries decided that it needed to be illegal for people with different color skin to marry, have children, or even to talk to one another. Now, they “had to do this” because the white indentured servants were talking to the enslaved people of color, and they were joining forces to revolt. And the landowners, which would have included all of the men of the vestry, well they couldn’t lose their property to revolt. So the Bishops again changed canon laws. And the legislatures followed suit.
So it became illegal for people of different skin colors to talk, to marry, to have children; and a social hierarchy was codified into law to give whites, even those who were enslaved, more rights than people of color. Again, all changes in law were approved by local clergy and vestries.
[trigger warning: I’m now going to mention sexual assault]
And then, a new problem emerged, in that the white male enslavers were raping enslaved women of color. Now the problem to be dealt with wasn’t that men were raping enslaved women, which was against many laws at the time, no, the problem was that those women were getting pregnant.
At the time, property, title, status as slave or free, even your religion, was passed down through the father. Well, this was of course a problem, so a solution was created and the local churches enthusiastically signed off on a new law, which changed THOUSANDS of years of tradition, to make it that the rights of a child were the same as the rights of the Mother. Again, these changes were approved by the Bishops and then codified into law.
These three laws, acts of overt racism and white supremacy, were created and endorsed and codified by churches throughout the “New World.” All while clergy were standing at the Altar wearing white to show how pure they were.
If you are curious about learning more, I highly recommend the book “Baptism of Early Virginia” by Dr. Rebecca Ann Goetz, who is now a professor at NYU and a national Endowment for the Humanities Fellow.
This is what I learned about when I went down the rabbit hole of “why do we wear white at the altar.”
And that is why I stopped wearing white at the altar. I want to break my participation in the cycle of white supremacy, and, I never want a person of color to walk into this church and see a clergy person who is willing to wear outward sign of white supremacy. I stopped wearing even this flax alb because I know it’s difficult to see the color differences through a camera, because this is close to the color that was originally worn to show purity, and because I’m still working through all of this. I’d rather not wear it. But I understand the value of tradition and I’m trying to find a compromise. I just don’t want anyone to think this is a place that promotes white supremacy, ever.
Now, I know that not everyone feels as urgently or as passionately about dismantling white supremacy as I do. I’m sure there are several people in this very room who disagree with me on struggling with white representing purity.
But, this is, without question, an issue that God has called me to.
It influences how I lead this church, and not just in how I dress or what I preach on.
Breaking the cycles and patterns of white supremacy influences how I lead this church because I intentionally try to lead in a way that goes against the power structures as they have been passed down in society and the church. I literally give my power away in situations where it is appropriate to do so. I try to lead in a way that invites you all to give of your passions and energies.
In here we invite everyone to give of your treasure while outside those red doors, society says you should hoard your wealth, keep it for yourself, rather than giving it away. That treasure includes money, passion, time, energy, ideas.
Society has made us consumers of goods and services and this has led to the commodification and capitalism-ization of the church. Where it seems as though we can just go to church once a month, get what we want, ignore or criticize what we don’t like, and then go home after dropping a $20 in the plate, and feel good about doing God’s work and getting into heaven.
I’m not the gatekeeper for who gets into heaven or not, so I don’t know if that’s enough to get into heaven. But I have to tell you, I really don’t think getting into heaven is the main point of the Gospel nor of church.
The Gospel offers us a way to live, now, here, today.
The Gospel invites us to live into the fullness of who God created us to be. And, to help others live into the fullness of who God created them to be.
I laid my heart, my soul, all of my love, on the Altar before God, and God placed this call on my heart.
My call is to leave this world with less white supremacy than it had when I entered this world. And in this week, this week where a white man has once again been acquitted of murder after he, looking for trouble, took a weapon of war to a protest for police shooting another unarmed black man; a protest he wasn’t welcome to nor needed to be at, while carrying a semi-automatic weapon not registered to him, and murdering 2 people after he was surprised that people took offense to having an AR-15 pointed at them. This week shows me that I have a lot of work to do to make even the slightest difference.
And if you don’t think Christianity is in anyway involved in the news out of Wisconsin, and the white supremist who now walks free, his defense fund was hosted on a Christian site designed to fund missionaries, GiveSendGo. Which means that some Christians think Kyle Rittenhouse was doing the work of Christ.
This makes my blood boil. And I believe it should ignite a flame within us all to stand up to the systems that have so viciously corrupted the word of God, exactly as Christ did in this Gospel reading!
This week, as we pause to celebrate Thanksgiving, I invite everyone to continue considering what we would lay on the altar before God. And, as we prepare to enter a season of Advent, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that has a true history that differs greatly from what we have traditionally been led to believe, I ask us to further consider what are we called to lay at the foot of the cross, to die and resurrect as something new and powerful?
Because there are many traditions that have been passed down to us, wearing white, or even promoting purity at all, even the myth of Thanksgiving and that this land we stand on was “discovered” when white people landed on it’s shores. The myth of Thanksgiving that ignores the genocide that happened on the very ground we are on.
What traditions in our lives have we participated in, do we participate in, that need to be looked at anew and maybe changed a bit?
This is hard work, and it should uncover some uncomfortable truths. But do not be afraid of the Truth even when it flies in the face of tradition. Because the Truth will set us all free, free from white supremacy, free from the myth that somehow some of us are better than others. When the Truth is that God loves us all, equally.
Let it be so.