Happy Monday, friends! Today The Episcopal Church (among others) remembers the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, the first Black Episcopal priest and the first Black person ordained by a major denomination in North America. The Old Testament lesson for today includes this passage: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness,” (Isaiah 42:6-7).
A white man who grew up in the United States, I was raised in a small town where a normal field trip in elementary school was to the county jail. I can’t fathom what the purpose or learning objective of those trips were, but the banter between the chaperones and the guards taught us that anyone in jail should be there and had done something bad. And so I was indoctrinated in the myth that if you hadn’t done anything wrong, you didn’t need to be worried or afraid of the police. The myth that if you need something or you’re lost, find a police officer also became firmly rooted in my mind. Unfortunately, these myths are not only pervasive, they affect how white people see people of color targeted by the police. Even those of us who work hard at deconstructing our racism and racist tendencies will from time to time find ourselves asking, “Well what was <insert name of POC killed by the police> doing when they were shot?” Unlike religious deconstruction, racism is an addiction and a disease with no stopping point for white people. Our only options are to daily deconstruct racism or give in and be racist.
But what do racism and white American myths about the police and incarcerated people have to do with this passage from Isaiah? Raised and indoctrinated such that I was, I always found passages about prison and freeing prisoners confusing. If people who are in prison deserve to be in prison because they did something wrong, then why does the Bible seem to insinuate that prisoners should be set free? The Biblical reason is the year of jubilee, that is the time every 50 years when all debts would be cancelled, slaves set free, and prisoners released. It was a time of mending relationships and setting broken things right. Jubilee was more than “getting right with God,” it was deeply communal and contextual in human communities. Jubilee was about releasing all bonds, including those bonds we place on ourselves.
Racism is a disease white people created and we became so addicted to it that it infected us too. It made us less human and broke our community with others. Without knowing it, we became the prisoners who need releasing and the jailers who stubbornly hold the keys.
How has racism and its lies infected you? From what other prisons do you need released?
Let us pray: Gracious God who calls us to release the bondage of hate and the falsehood of racism, give us your grace as we deconstruct and dismantle the addiction and disease of racism. Move your white children to release ourselves from our own chains and finally live into the contexts and communities you designed for all people. If the master’s tools cannot tear down the master’s house, then empower us to fashion new tools. In all things sus