“I’ve made the decision that I would rather be on the journey with others, problematic as they may be, than be utterly alone yet content in my righteousness.” I saw myself when I read this sentence in Justin Phillip’s new book, Know Your Place. Maybe I should say that I saw in Phillip’s commitment one of the pervasive tensions I experience in the ministry of reconciliation. It has felt especially taut lately.
I spent a long weekend this summer as the speaker at a Christian camp here in the Midwest. I knew little ahead of time about those who attend this camp though I assumed, given the context, that for many of these women and men racial reconciliation and justice might be more of an abstraction than a regular experience. I wanted to encourage the campers to see Christian unity across cultural and racial lines of division as a gift God intends for all of us, no matter how diverse or homogeneous our settings.
While there were some that weekend who seemed encouraged by this theme and others who, despite their wariness about my motives, enthusiastically engaged with me between sessions, my impression was that many of those in attendance were disappointed by my choice of topic. That might be putting it mildly.
In hindsight I can see some of my missteps that weekend. I had assumed, for example, a generally positive disposition toward the church’s identity as a reconciling people even if the more specific edges of that mission might be debated or even resisted. And I missed the extent to which current cultural arguments about Critical Race Theory have made their way into local congregations. For some at this camp, any mention of justice or race provoked concerns about creeping partisan ideologies. I should have done my research!
In spite these blunders, my time with these three hundred white Christians was a blunt reminder about the deeply held and, from my vantage point, unhelpful assumptions many white Christians have about racial justice and reconciliation. Thought I might have mitigated it slightly, it’s not as though the push-back I experienced would have been eliminated if I had simply chosen my words more carefully or piled up more biblical references. I’ve learned this lesson from Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil who, as she has written about, discovered that no amount of good exegesis or phenomenal preaching will move those who are content with the racial status quo. Rather than holding to the possibility of a counter-cultural witness to the gospel via a more racially reconciled church, these suggestions appear as a threat requiring a forceful defense.
About halfway through the long weekend, I was reporting by phone to my wife about some of the more animated feedback I’d received. “I guess you won’t be going back there,” she chuckled. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a return invitation, the truth is that I would return. Though they might squirm at the characterization, I saw myself in my weekend detractors. It was easy to imagine how, given different circumstances, I might express the same suspicious and instincts.
On the trip home I found myself, like Phillips, wanting the possibility of companionship with these men and women more than the isolation that comes with caressing my own self righteousness. But this desire quickly gets complicated when I read something like this in Zadie Smith’s collection of essays written in the early days of the pandemic.
Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion – contempt – from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains. So unlike other people. Frighteningly unlike! Later, in his cotton fields, he had them whipped and then made them go back to work and thought, They can’t possible feel as we do. You can whip them and they go back to work. And having thus placed them in a category similar to the one in which we place animals, he experienced the same fear and contempt we have for animals. Animals being both subject to man and a threat to him simultaneously.
Using the language of contagion we’ve grown accustomed to as of late, Smith describes racism as a virus which infects white people with a sense of superiority while causing others to appear unlike us, animal-like and threatening. And it’s here, when the evil we’re up against is articulated so plainly, that the tension snaps. After all, what does it mean to journey with those who not only deny this candid history and our active role in it, but who will deny the harm inflicted on our sisters and brothers by this history and its tentacle-like reach into the present?
I too want to choose companionship with “problematic” people over smug righteousness. (Of course, many of these same people view me as the problematic one.) I wonder though, can such a thing be done without agreeing to the lies – about history, ourselves, and those we’ve imagined as unlike ourselves – which scaffold white assumptions and imaginations? Is there any scenario in which I could show up at that weekend camp, having better prepared myself, with a message of reconciliation and justice and told these Christian sisters and brothers the whole truth? Without their retreat to defensiveness? Without my retreat to deception? I’m confessing to you that I’m having a hard time imagining such a scenario. The tension stretches past the point my imagination can bear.
I recently finished a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings. In one essay she reflects on the fear she felt while visiting Koinonia Farm, an interracial community in Georgia which suffered regular attacks during that Jim Crow era. One night a car she and another member of the community were sitting in while on sentry duty was shot at. About this racist violence and the fear it inspired, Day shared her simple prayer. “Deliver me from fear of their fear,” I prayed as I listened, using the words of St. Peter which had been part of the Epistle of last Sunday’s Mass, thinking of the hysterical fear of guilty whites, fear of the past, of the future.”
Day was writing at a time when white southerners were violently acting on their fears of racial integration and equality. We don’t have to compare our day to hers in order to apply her prayer to our own experiences. Today white fear is expressed with claims of reverse racism, beliefs that critical race theory is more threatening than white supremacy, and appeals to a nostalgic national memory. In any case, I’ve come to believe that behind much of antagonism expressed by my would-be companions lies this old fear.
This week a friend reminded me of a passage about white fear in Eddie Glaude’s Begin Again, a book-length reflection on how James Baldwin remains essential to understanding our racialized society. Glaude writes,
In critical moments of transition, when it seems as if old ways of living and established norms are fading, deep-seated fears emerge over loss of standing and privilege… In these moments, the country reaches the edge of fundamental transformation and pulls back out of a fear that a genuine democracy will mean white people will have to lose something- that they will have to give up their particular material and symbolic standing in the country. That fear, Baldwin understood, is at the heart of the moral psychology of the nation and of the white people who have it by the throat. That fear, not the demand for freedom, arrests significant change and organizes American life.
Would my white sisters and brothers, the ones who are suspicious of and at times antagonistic toward attempts at racial justice, admit to this fear? Would they agree that the heat produced by many of the partisan and ideological battles reveal what is actually at stake? That the fight is less about school board policies, federal legislation, and which party is in power today and more about an existential sense of loss?
I don’t know, but I’m curious. Can we imagine spaces where we’re invited to speak to the experience of loss? To trace the line between grief and fear? If these hidden emotions could be spoken, might the space grow to include empathy for those who’ve known far more loss and fear in this country? Or curiosity for how those neighbors have held back despair so that resistance and hope might take root?
Deliver me from fear of their fear. As of today, it’s the best I can do with the tension. I’m a Christian which means that the option to lie to white people, even a little, isn’t available to me. For those who share this faith, it also means that when the invitations to difficult conversations are extended – from a camp, a church, the Thanksgiving holiday with extended family – we will accept them with a stubborn hope that from this unresolved tension comes the occasional step toward the truth.
(Photo credit: Pexels.)