Ignorance is not Bliss and Silence is not Golden

Edith A. Guffey

Edith A. Guffey is Conference Minister of the UCC’s Kansas-Oklahoma Conference. Prior to serving the conference, Guffey was Secretary (1991-2000) and Associate General Minister (2000-2011) of the United Church of Christ. Recently, she shared these thoughts via the conference’s e-blast. We reprint them here with permission:

I was going to just let it go; after all, I am accustomed to outrageous words coming from the President and I am pretty tired of it all. Besides, I try to be careful about directly responding to President Trump because I know that members of our congregations are diverse in political perspectives and I want to be respectful of that diversity among us. But I realize that my being quiet is pretty hypocritical; after all, don’t I expect others to always speak up, to keep going and step up, even when THEY are weary or even when it means speaking out against the words of our President? I think the answer there is yes.

Race, politics and faith are all important parts of our lives, my life. My race is a given; my faith and my politics are a choice and my faith guides my politics, not the other way around. If the words or tweets from President Trump had come from a Democrat or an Independent, I would be just as angry, just as outraged, because it is the words and the sentiment that matter, not the political party.

But this really isn’t about politics for me, it’s about respect, and it is about race and racism. Racism is a sin: Jim Wallis calls it America’s original sin, and the church has for years been complicit and quiet about race. The church doesn’t like to talk about race; even the “progressive, “liberal church” doesn’t like to talk about race. It’s too hard, too conflictual; it doesn’t make us feel good. And there’s that guilt thing and no one knows what to do with the guilt; forgetting that maybe in the church at least, we can extend grace to each other even as we wrestle with the difficult and complex questions and legacy of racism and white supremacy that lives on in our country. And so, once again I write.

But you know, I can’t really decide which is worse: refusing to acknowledge and name racism or being silent about it. A generous explanation of what is going on in refusing to name the President’s words as racist has to do with a genuine lack of understanding about racism. While I live with the reality of racism, I know that is not the reality that others live with. There may be many who do not understand the depth and complexity of racism. So, they may honestly believe that the words from the President, “Go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places they came from,” were all about politics and not race. Their understanding of racism may be limited and they may think that it’s about burning a cross on a lawn or using the “N” word, or other blatant forms of racism. And while those things are certainly racist, we know there are many other things that are racist — some blatant, some much more subtle and more insidious.

Maybe they don’t know that using language like “go back” is historically racially charged language in the African-American culture. As early as kindergarten, usually during recess, I heard those words thrown at me. White kids would say, “Go back to Africa where you belong.” Words they surely heard from their parents and repeated to me at school, as my family had moved into a white neighborhood and my sisters and brothers “invaded” their white schools. So yes, when I hear the words “go back” in the context the President used them, they are all about race.

So, my most generous assessment is that maybe those who refuse to call the President’s words racist are just ignorant. The definition of ignorant is lack of knowledge or information; synonyms are incomprehension, unawareness, unconsciousness, lack of enlightenment, lack of awareness. And you know, that’s fixable. It is possible to learn about racism, if one chooses. If those who think it’s just about patriotism want to know why others are so wounded and hurt and angry, they could because it is possible to learn about racism. (If you are interested in this work, talk to your pastor. KO has a place and way for your congregation to start). The President who says he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body could learn why there is such an uproar about his words if he chose to. Ignorance can be used politically. It can be used to divide and separate and stir racial tensions and fear of others. But you know, ignorance, isn’t bliss; it’s just ignorance.

And what about those who say nothing? Especially when the “those” are those with power that we expect to lead and speak and stand for right? What is the message of silence? What is the message when our pastors and politicians and parents say nothing when this is all over the news? What is the message to our children of all colors, as they are all hearing such hateful demeaning words? But especially, what is the message to children of color, little girls of color, about their worth in this country if there’s not a voice in their world that speaks for them?

And what is the message to white children in our churches and families about all this, because that’s the majority of who is in most of our congregations in the Conference. What are you saying to your children and grandchildren? And what are we saying to each other in our offices, neighborhoods, churches and pulpits? Are we silent? Love of neighbor is really more than a hashtag, and telling people to “Go back” doesn’t quite fit with “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “love your neighbor as yourself.”

We say often, God is still speaking,

I certainly hope we are as well, because there are times that Silence definitely is not golden.

Tired or not, I write because Ignorance is not Bliss and Silence is not Golden.

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