Sacred Ground Reflections: Beth Orling and Jon Quitslund

As we approach Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we'll be sharing reflections from members and facilitators from our six Sacred Ground Dialogue Circles at Grace. "Sacred Ground" is a film and readings-based curriculum created by the Episcopal Church that invites us to enter into a personal and corporate journey to understanding through America's history of race and racism. We've been privileged to join other parishes around the country in a response to our calling as people of faith as we reckon with our own complicity in the injustice of racism and step more fully into our part in building what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the Beloved Community." Read more about Sacred Ground dialogue circles here.

Photo: John McKenzie

In the Sacred Ground studies, we are reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. In this book he shows that Jesus was like the men and women today who live with their “backs against the wall.” Living in solidarity with Jesus means we live in solidarity with all who suffer racial, gender and all other kinds of systemic injustice today.    --Beth Orling


Who Are “We the People”?

--Jon Quitslund

In any language, the first person plural pronoun is indispensable, in both private and public discourse. Any two people can be “we,” so long as they know each other and desire, together, to communicate with others. “We” brings people together, possibly in larger and larger groups that find something in common.

If “we” can bring people together, the same insistence on a group identity can also divide them, once a reason for disagreement is discovered. Any two people can go off on their own, and then perhaps persuade others to join them in a new “we.” For what seems a long time now, our far-flung country has been riven by deep divisions, in which various groups find that they can’t understand other groups, or think they understand others well but no longer have much in common. “We” may feel threatened by “you guys” or by “those people,” and without sharing experiences, enjoying together the place where we live, the larger “we” are likely to become smaller and less secure, even on their own turf.

A shared commitment to the Sacred Ground curriculum has brought me together with a small group of Grace parishioners, and together we’ve been sharing aspects of our personal lives as we’ve embarked on a series of inquiries into the history of these United States, and also into the tangled skein of emotions, assumptions, good intentions, and wishful thinking that we all live within. We began tentatively, and we’ve all learned some dark truths from exploring our nation’s history and the complexities of racism past and present.

I’ve heard within our small group that what we’ve learned, and what we’ve gained in confidence and familiarity with each other, has been helpful under the stresses and surprises of an irregular Presidential transition. I can testify to that feeling myself. I live alone, but as I write this, I feel comfortable, in some communion with my Sacred Ground group and with the church that has sponsored this journey through a labyrinth.

The phrase We the People, inscribed so boldly at the beginning of the Preamble to our Constitution, raises questions that don’t have clear answers. Who are these people? I think the language of the Preamble is best understood as prophetic, somewhat like the language of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Prophetic language emerges from times of crisis, violent times. A prophetic truth transcends its time, as false prophets do not. Prophecy makes a promise, without knowing when or how the promise will be fulfilled. The prophecy acknowledges conflict, human wickedness, injustice, and suffering. Whether the promised land will be perfect remains to be seen.

Thomas Jefferson knew that his “We,” the People of whom he wrote, included his contemporaries, many of whom had not supported the war for independence. He also knew – perhaps without feeling the full weight of that knowledge – that the Constitution did not grant the rights of citizenship to more than a minority of the people who were his contemporaries. But the Constitution, augmented before long by the Bill of Rights, was designed to be binding upon future generations, over a nation whose full geographic extent could not yet be imagined. Nor could the signers of the Declaration of Independence have imagined the size and the splendid incoherence of We the People today.

As we’ve seen in the course of the Sacred Ground sessions, during the Colonial period before the American Revolution, crude and cruel racist attitudes came with the colonists to the New World, and basically the same attitudes came with the Spanish colonists who settled areas in the South and West that became territories and States of the Union in the 19th century. With the westward expansion of the United States, both before and after the Civil War, racist attitudes toward non-white populations spread epidemically, aided by military force and economic incentives. Now, in spite of enlightenment and many kinds of progress since World War II, we have seen reactionary attitudes reviving, as if our history, down to the beginning of the 21st century, had settled nothing.

I am not much inclined to call myself a “person of faith,” but I find that my deepest secular concerns – for equal opportunity, against economic inequality, for a culture of stewardship toward the natural world – push me in that direction. As I study American history – so much that I have spent my life avoiding – it imposes a spiritual burden, and it also awakens my conscience.