An Interview with the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. This interview originally appeared in an insert produced by Trinity Wall Street for the September 6, 2015 issue of The Living Church magazine, called Sacred Conversations about Racial Justice: Listen for a Change, and begins an ongoing conversation leading up to the 2016 Trinity Institute conference.
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, third from right, with other bishops, including the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, at a march against gun violence during the 78th General Convention. Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
Can you tell me about a time you were aware of racism?
The first time I became aware that there was such a thing as racism I was four years old. My parents moved my brother and I to a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. We were the first black family. I remember at that time playing with all of the kids in the neighborhood. It was a wonderful place. Everybody was friendly. Everybody knew each other. Within two years or so all of the white families had moved away. What was seared into my memory, my soul, was that something was wrong with people who had my color skin because the others gave us a clear message: We don’t want to be near you. We don’t want to live with you. You are inferior. That was my first experience with that kind of bigotry.
What role did faith play?
We went to a large black Baptist church in Washington, D.C. At church my parents had dignity. At church they could be leaders. At church I was loved and accepted, and people didn’t want to run from me but embraced me. That has been the role of the black church for one hundred years in this country. Yes, it has a spiritual role of the nourishment of souls, but it’s also nourishment of whole beings.
Most of my life’s mission in the church is to keep calling us back to the core message: that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to bring good news to all those who have been oppressed, all those whom much of society wants to despise.
Have the recent killings of unarmed men by police, protests in Baltimore, and the murders in Charleston changed your feelings on race?
What our uprising in Baltimore in April and what the recent murders of those nine worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston have taught us is that in the United States of America there is an unholy trinity of poverty, racism, and violence.
You saw it in Charleston. That shooter was someone who was poorly educated, had little prospects for life, and was basically homeless. Then he fell into a racist ideology—“My problem is those people. Without those people I would have dignity.” Then you add to that [the facts that] you can easily, with a history of some problems, go into a store and buy a firearm, and that he thought that violence was the answer to his grievances. That’s the unholy trinity: poverty, racism, and violence. You have to go after all three together.
What should the Episcopal Church do?
I love the Episcopal Church, and we’re in the Anglican Communion, which is a beautiful thing. But the Anglican Church followed the colonizers around the world, and so we are particularly called to eradicate racism and address poverty and violence because of that history. Out of that tradition the historic black churches in America were formed, because my African-American forebears could not find the dignity that they deserved as human beings in Anglican and other Protestant and Roman Catholic churches at the time. So they formed their own churches.
When I am with other African-American Christians, they ask me, “Eugene, why are you in that white church?” I say, “I actually am a member of a predominantly black church. I’m an Anglican.” Most Anglicans are various hues and colors from around the world. The typical Anglican is a 30-year-old African woman.
I am happy to say that at the last five General Conventions, it’s been clear that the Episcopal Church is committed to the Gospel agenda of radical inclusivity, which was the message of Jesus. We have embraced the full inclusion of all the baptized, no matter what sexual orientation, race, gender. The message to the world is very clear: the Episcopal Church welcomes you. We’re showing the world we’re serious about this.
Your diocese has been proactive in talking about race.
The Diocese of Maryland for years has been at the forefront of addressing issues of racism. Because Maryland has done that work, [the people] were very prepared to elect the first African-American bishop. Whereas forty years before that, I would not have been welcomed as a worshiper in about half of the Episcopal churches in Maryland. But we did the work. We elected Michael Curry as presiding bishop [at General Convention]. That comes after fifty years of the Episcopal Church doing the work of combatting racism. That would be my message to all Episcopalians and all the congregations: Do the work. Have the conversations, address the issues. If we do that hard work of having those conversations, we will keep following Christ.
We think of “race” as human beings having five visual identifying markers: skin color, hair texture, eye shape, nose, and lips, as if those five characteristics were very important, but we know scientifically, biologically, genetically speaking, that they are inconsequential. Race is a human construct. When St. Paul said that in Christ there is not male or female, nor slave nor free, nor Jew nor Greek, he was onto something. Before the scientific age, he was speaking the voice of God. We are one. One family. One people.
Is there any danger that this message will be used by people to avoid talking about race?
I have been saying “we are one” for decades, and I have been saying that racism is a problem. They are both true. What you call your family, your clan, your group, your religion, your tribe—Jesus was breaking that down. “The one who does my will is my brother and sister.” Jesus was constantly breaking down these systems of classification that we constantly create as human beings. Saying that does not dilute the message that we have to combat racism. It undergirds it.