Rev. Allen V. Harris
As the horrific events have unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia the last forty eight hours or so, my heart has been profoundly heavy even as my mind has been filled with bitter anger. A “Unite the Right” rally was called to be held yesterday by white nationalist Richard Spencer which attracted large numbers of people from several different groups, including activists from the so-called “alt-right,” Nazis, Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists groups. Peaceful counter-protests were called, many by people of faith, to stand in visible and vocal opposition to the hateful rhetoric these groups have openly promoted. I considered going myself as your Regional Minister.
I have over the past decade had an emerging understanding of the feelings of persons who are what we call “white,” myself included, as to the growing challenges and increasing responsibilities of what it means to live in a richly diverse world and to be confronted with the pain and anger of those who have been marginalized and who have borne the brunt of injustice in our nation, a land committed, in writing at least, to be a “land of the free” and welcoming the world’s “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But even as I have a fuller awareness of these feeling, they have not taken me anywhere close to the hard and bloody place that the protesters in Charlottesville, and those across the country who expressed themselves clearly in the campaign for and election of the President last fall, have gone. I cannot go there primarily because of my faith in Jesus Christ.
In the past year I have been meditating more and more on Philippians 2, particularly verses 1-8, where the Apostle poetically and powerfully exposes the chief motivation of God-in-Christ, and therefore of those of us who follow this Christ: love. And this love is a love that is made manifest not in hubris, superiority, privilege, rights, or competition, but of selflessness, humility, even servanthood. The writer sings,
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
As I have engaged intentionally and whole-heartedly in the tough and revealing work of pro-reconciliation and anti-racism, within the church and within society, I have confronted time and time again within myself deep and potentially consuming desires to respond to the challenges of my brown and black friends, neighbors, co-workers, even family members to face my white privilege and white fragility with defensiveness, copious apologetics, excuses, even anger and rage. I can easily see how the constant need to check my language, my actions, my thoughts, my power, my comfort, my past, my present, my future, even my place in this world against the history of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, Urban Renewal, the War On Drugs, and the overwhelming systemic and institutional racial bigotry and bias in our society, might lead me to let my anger turn into violence, such as the violence that shockingly was made real in Charlottesville these past few days.
But it has not, and will not I am quite certain. Why? Why does this profound existential confrontation with my white self, which is now not simply daily but almost as often and near me as my own breath, not lead me to the same cry for protectionism, racial superiority, and race-based violence, as those who rallied in Charlottesville? I cannot know completely and for sure, but I do have a deep sense within the fiber of my very being (my soul) that it is because of my faith in Jesus Christ and my overwhelming sense that the God of the universe, born in a baby, who lived and breathed and taught and healed and laughed and cried among us, who confronted the racial and institutional powers and fears of his own day, is the very one who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, even taking on the form of a servant, a slave, and was willing to die rather than engage in the competition and superiority to which the powers that be provoked him. (Luke 4:1-13)
Let me be clear, however, that even I as attribute my own response to the task of addressing my white privilege and racism to my faith, I believe one can come to this exact same point on philosophical, humanistic, practical, and even patriotic grounds! I will leave that to others more well versed in such things. The history of peace and justice giants in the non-Christian and secular world are many and are those from whom great lessons can be learned.
I do not respond to the challenges to my white identity, white privilege, white power in this society with resentment, a sense of inconvenience, or violent vengeance for many different reasons, but first and foremost because I have given my life to Christ, a humble and serving incarnation of the One who created all things, enlivens all things, and redeems all things.
It has become part and parcel of my existence to call myself to accountability for my own history of racism and racial and cultural prejudice, AS WELL AS my culture, society, church, and nation for OUR COMMON history of institutional racism and racial and cultural prejudice. I get it that I cannot be who God fully intended for me to be if I do not completely and unapologetically give my life to addressing racism and white privilege. Does this feel like a “hijacking” of my purpose in life by a “contemporary social issue?” Not for a minute! It IS my life purpose to bring justice to this world and should be the purpose of all of humanity, especially those of us who were born into and who reap the rewards of a nation built on the backs and by the blood, sweat, muscles, and tears of our African, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Asian ancestors, and whose legacy continues to demean, demoralize, inhibit, imprison, and murder our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members who are not of the lightest skin tones. In this moment in history, into which I was born and in which I live, this is my calling: to address and seek to transform my own racism and white privilege and to be an agent for change in a nation that has slavery as its original sin and systemic racism as its core identity. I am bold enough to say it is every white American’s calling, for our citizens who are brown and black have absolutely no choice in having to shape their lives around this original sin and core identity. It’s not the least I can do – it is what I HAVE to do.
What can you do to respond to Charlottesville? How can you begin to make a difference in yourself and our world? Well, if you are a Christian, as I assume many are to whom this blog post is addressed, I would ask you to begin by meditating on Philippians 5:1-8 and praying about how it’s message might affect and change the way you live and breath and have your being in the world. What does it mean to not look for supremacy in our world, but humility?
I would also invite you to hear and seek to understand the pain and pathos of our neighbors who are of a darker skin tone. I am a reader, and reading helps me get my mind and heart wrapped around an issue. Three books (there are, of course, so many others which address a breadth of issues) that I have personally read recently that have dramatically affected my perceptions and practices are:
· Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25489625-between-the-world-and-me
· The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8171378-the-warmth-of-other-suns
· The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6792458-the-new-jim-crow
If you are a pastor and teach a “Pastor’s Class” or a Regional Minister who teaches a “Disciples History & Polity Course” I would urge you to add to your reading list books which broaden and deepen the full history and mission of our church:
· Room at the Table: Struggle for Unity and Equality in Disciples History by Sandhya R. Jha. St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2009 http://www.chalicepress.com/Room-at-the-Table-P111C6.aspx
· Journey Toward Wholeness: A History of Black Disciples of Christ in the Mission of the Christian Church: Vol. 1, From Convention to Convocation, by Brenda Cardwell and William K. Fox, Jr. http://www.chalicepress.com/Journey-Toward-Wholeness-P1698.aspx
And for everyone, I would ask that you gather together – perhaps at table fellowship in some way, shape, or form – persons of various ethnicities, skin colors, nationalities, and cultures and listen and learn from one another, and to do this on a regular basis. I would especially invite those of us who are white to curb our seemingly unquenchable need to explain ourselves or take the lead in a conversation, and to mostly listen and learn, even when (especially when) the conversation becomes tense, and anger might be expressed. If we can stay at the table through our own frustrations, uncertainties, and uncomfortableness, we will not only learn a great deal, but we will embody what the Apostle described was the essential nature of Christ Jesus.
Will this prevent the next Charlottesville from happening? No, not at all. But it may just start or move us along the long journey road to transforming ourselves for good of the world. And that, my beloved, is what we are called to do.
May it be so.