Liturgical services have an officiant, they have acolytes, and they have a congregation. So does racism.
First there are the officiants. In religious services, this role takes the form of a priest, a rabbi, a worship leader, a pastor, an imam, etc.
In racism, the role of officiant is held by those who are the direct perpetrators of racism and racial injustice. These officiants can take many forms, from the edgy friend that likes to tell awful jokes to the politicos who pass laws and policies that harm our black and brown neighbors (for example, policies that disproportionately neglect schools in majority-minority areas, enact stricter penalties for drugs more popular among minority communities than whites, or provide public assistance unequally).
Next, there are the acolytes. In religious services, the acolytes are those who have ceremonial duties that they perform as a functional and ceremonial part of the religious service. Candle lighters, cross-bearers in processionals, those who pass out the Eucharist, and church bell ringers are all examples of acolytes.
In a sense, the acolytes are the enablers of the officiants in religious liturgy, and this is their function in racism as well. The enablers, the acolytes of racism are those who give their explicit approval to the despicable racist actions occurring around them – those who laugh at and encourage the racist jokes. The enablers, the acolytes of racism are those who carry out the racist policies such as the ones mentioned previously – the bureaucrats, the police, the soldiers, the administrators.
Last, there is the congregation. In religious service, the congregation is the most obvious group. Congregants are those who attend the service (and in some ways at some times participate in the service). Those who sit in the pew, those who sing along with the opening music, those who read along in their sacred texts, or offer prayer requests. Once the officiant and acolytes are identified, everyone else is the congregation. We congregants depend on the efforts of officiants and acolytes and for the most part, we simply go along with their actions and follow their words during the time of liturgical service. The congregants are the bystanders, those who witness what is happening but take no action to intervene in the course of events.
In racism as well, the congregants are the bystanders, those who hear the racist joke and don’t laugh, but don’t tell the friend to cut it out either. The congregants are the bystanders: those who witness their congressperson support racist legislation but are too lazy to do anything about it; those who see the cop bullying a group of immigrant kids and keep on walking the other way; those who witness the continuation of segregation in our schools, cities, and churches but make no efforts to change things.
As I write about congregational bystanders, I think of myself all too often. I think about the nights spent with friends when countless (intentional and unintentional) racist things have been spoken with not nearly enough opposition from me. I think of Thanksgiving and Christmas lunches, where a family member makes a racist claim or expresses a racist attitude, with not nearly enough opposition from me. We congregants often make excuses for each other and ourselves in times like this: “Well, you know Grandpa, he’s just from a different generation,” or “That’s just how she was raised,” or “Yeah, that was racist, but he’s a great guy.”
Congregants provide a critical piece of feedback to officiants and acolytes. We let them know that what they are doing is good, or uninteresting, or confusing. We are their feedback loop, their audience. Bystanders also teach their fellow bystanders a very important and dangerous message: being racist, doing racist things is acceptable because white bystanders are fine with it and you can get away with it. We bystanders create safe spaces with our silent complicity of racism – but not safe spaces for the marginalized and oppressed among us, no; safe spaces for those doing the marginalizing and oppressing. We create safe spaces to foster racism, to let it swell and boil unchecked in society. It is from that toxic swamp of racism maintained by our complicity that so many horrible actions rise up from – the hunting and lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the murder of George Floyd, the meeting of peaceful protestors with riot cops and rubber bullets. The complicity of the congregants creates an obvious atmosphere that undeniably says that when white people do terrible things to black or brown people, the rest of the white congregation has their back.
Even when we congregants don’t do anything explicitly bad or racist (as is often the case), that is not nearly enough. If we are not being explicitly anti-racist, if we’re not challenging our friends, family, cops, and public officials when they say and do racist things, then we are guilty through complicity. We are maintaining the environment of social permissiveness towards racism, and by doing this we make the bodies of our black and brown neighbors the bread and their blood the wine of our unholy Eucharist.