The Greenfield Recorder
By The REV. DR. MOLLY SCHERM
Associate Rector, The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew
Published: 2/7/2021 2:58:45 PM
One of the issues I’ve wrestled with, as a white American trying to do my part in the work of eliminating racism — in ourselves, our communities and our nation — is the problematic side of language that has been central in the Christian tradition.
Light and darkness are a recurring metaphor in the biblical tradition; more than 40 instances, between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, refer to the relationship between light and darkness, and “light” is used on its own over 300 times.
In the first creation story, light and darkness are both recognized as “good” as God separates the two (Gen. 1:4), and the Psalmist cries out to God that “The darkness and the light are both alike to you.” (Ps 139)
Jesus is never quoted as contrasting light and darkness, but he did frequently make use of light as a metaphor, equating knowledge of God’s love with transforming light, urging disciples, for example, to “let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16) In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5), clearly building on the image of light as illuminating the way.
Unfortunately, the light and darkness imagery in the biblical tradition has also provided material that human beings, in our frailty, have allowed to reinforce the sins of racism. When light and darkness are used together in scripture, the light frequently represents that which is good, and the darkness that which is dangerous, which needs to be overcome.
Lutheran Pastor Lenny Duncan, in “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.,” makes this observation about the way black and white, light and darkness are used as symbols in the Christian tradition:
“Over and over again, in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin. These passive suggestions have created an entire subconscious theology of race …” (p. 67)
Duncan goes on to observe that “these powerful symbols,” our continual association of white and light with holiness and black and darkness with evil, have “ill effects on our community that we have yet to explore.” (p. 68) The power of these symbols has impacted both the oppressed and the oppressors. He goes on to suggest that we broaden the vocabulary of our symbols, and turn our focus away from exclusive (or even primary) emphasis on symbols that have been used to reinforce racist ideologies.
So this is my dilemma: as persons committed to changing deeply embedded systems and assumptions of racial injustice, must we jettison this light/darkness imagery, use of this language and these symbols in our faith life? I can’t believe we can or should do so. For one thing, as theologian Paul Tillich observed, we cannot strip symbols of their power merely by deciding to do so. The biblical tradition is full of language and imagery that can and has been used both to include and exclude, to uplift and to debase. Our task is to be rigorous and honest in assessing the potential impact of the language we choose to celebrate in our faith communities, serving love as best we are able.
We need to think and pray and talk about these challenges. As we do so, it also seems imperative to me that as we continue to use (and pray and sing) symbols that are deeply embedded in our tradition but that have contributed to oppression, we do so with penitence for the ways and times that we have been thoughtless, complicit and complacent, and that we be intentional in our work to transform the way we understand them, to work toward eliminating language use that causes suffering.