“I am not a racist!” That was my response when, many years ago, I was confronted by an African American man who had overheard something I had said. He wasn’t buying any of my impassioned denials. He also wasn’t buying the assurances of my two African American co-workers with whom I’d been having the conversation the man had overheard. I’ll never forget his dismissal of them: “some of us still wear the bandana” (meaning the bandana of slavery). He eventually stopped excoriating me and went on his way, but I was devastated. To this day, I remember the shame I felt that day and for a long time after.
Only in recent years have I understood how misguided my response was in that situation. First, I had to learn that it is nigh unto impossible for any human being to never make a mistake, be it a slip of the tongue, an unconscious faux pas, or even words said in jest or in the heat of an argument. We can – and do – certainly try to avoid these mistakes, but if we’re being completely honest, we must confess that at times we do fail – in all kinds of areas.
In 2015, I wrote a blog post called “I’m About to Offend Somebody” in response to the practice of calling out one another for our slip-ups. I wrote: “Let me just say from the start: I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. So, in any expressions of thought or opinion, I’m bound to offend someone. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for political correctness. But even in my most well-meaning attempts, I sometimes step on a land mine.
“Trouble is, a land mine to one person may not be one to another. Years ago, talking with a gay activist, I said that someone had “his head screwed on straight” and got roundly chastised. Years later, I was (half) jokingly telling some members of my congregation who are gay that I’d been worried about the scripture reading that day where St. Paul visits “a street called Straight.” They thought I was being pretty silly, so I told them the story of the “head on straight” debacle. They thought the activist’s reaction was silly, too. So – who’s right?”
Since then, it’s gotten even more complicated. Our political divide doesn’t help either. We snipe back and forth about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” and unfortunately the sniping isn’t limited to the political divide. It goes on within our own circles, in an oppression Olympics that privileges one’s own oppression over that of another. For example, in a discussion about racism, a friend who is lesbian chafed against being lumped into the category of “white privilege” without a recognition of her own history of marginalization. She’s not against accepting her place of white privilege but would like there to be a better way for us all to talk about these matters.
The second thing I’ve learned is what to do when I do mess up. Back on that day, I failed to admit that I had made an error in judgement. It didn’t matter that my heart was in the right place, or that friends came to my defense, or that I didn’t mean what the man thought I had meant. I have learned that my cry of “But I’m not a racist!” is the all-too-typical White defensive response to being called out for racist behavior, no matter how unintentional. I should have apologized. And not just the non-apology of “I’m sorry if something I said offended you,” but a true acknowledgement of my cluelessness and a heartfelt assurance to do better. Maybe that would have eased the man’s mind. Maybe not. But it would have been the right thing for me to do in any event – which is to learn from a mistake.
If you want to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all
We hear a lot about racism and White privilege these days. We have anti-racism training in our synod, as well as in schools and workplaces. And yet, phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “white fragility,” “systemic racism,” and “White privilege” continue to cause reactivity and resistance.
So, amidst all our national and personal angst over what some call America’s original sin, I came to our gospel text for this week. And for the first time read the words of Jesus as a word to those of us struggling with our legacy of privileging some groups over others – whether the discrimination against Irish immigrants in the 19th century or Central American immigrants today. No oppression Olympics here. Jesus said, “”If any of you wants to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all.” He said this because he had discovered the disciples arguing about who among them was the greatest.
And we can laugh at those clueless disciples who just didn’t get Jesus, until we start applying it to our own lives in our own time. I suspect that most of us don’t see ourselves as making claims of greatness, right? We’re the blessed ones in the Beatitudes: the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Having to recognize how and where we’re privileged puts us on the wrong side of the domination system – which explains our resistance to such language. But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Following Jesus means becoming last. That means we have to search our selves to even recognize where we are first.
For example, no matter what your status is in this country, you are privileged. The current ethical dilemma is whether immunocompetent Americans should get booster shots against COVID, while in some places in the world, such as Ethiopia, the percentage of those vaccinated is under 1%. “If you want to be first, you must be last, and you must be at the service of all” says it pretty clearly. I am not advocating one way or another for getting booster shots; I have to admit that I’m torn myself. But it’s our responsibility to take the words of Jesus seriously and into account as we make our ethical decisions. And maybe taking it out to a global perspective in terms of our privilege as Americans, for example in our use of the world’s resources. According to the Sierra Club, “a child born in the United States will create 13 times as much ecological damage over the course of a lifetime than a child born in Brazil; the average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.” That’s privilege.
So, now we might be able to bring it closer to home and see the planks in our eyes when it comes to White privilege and then do something about it, starting from within ourselves. And in no way do I claim that this will be easy. I have been reading an incredibly wonderful book called Dear White Peacemaker: Dismantling Racism with Grit and Grace by Osheta Moore. Moore is an African American woman, pastor of Roots Covenant Church in St. Paul, MN. I love their website where they call themselves “Misfits on a Mission, Finding Identity in Jesus.” If I lived in St. Paul, I would definitely check it out.
What the heck am I supposed to do?
Pastor Moore gets me. I mean she gets White anxiety. She says, “This is not for the faint of heart, Beloved. And still, I believe in you. I know how you feel sometimes. The calls for action are varied and sometimes opposing:
Do your work, White people
Pray for unity, people of God
Defund the Police
Black Lives Matter
Blue Lives Matter
All Lives Matter to God
Stop centering yourself
Silence is complicity
Speaking up is exerting your privilege
Use this hashtag
Stop using that hash tag
“If there is one question I get with some regularity, it is, ‘What the heck am I supposed to do?'”
I don’t remember how I came across this book, but it’s been a game-changer for me. I confess that I’ve been pretty discouraged with the state of racial discourse, even within the Church. I’ve been reluctant to speak out in some places because I knew I’d be dismissed as a White woman, or worse, as a “Karen” and told to “check my privilege at the door.” And it breaks my heart because I truly have come a long way from that day when I didn’t get what “White privilege” means. But in Dear White Peacemaker, Osheta Moore picked me up, dusted me off, and set me back on the path. And I ‘ve been recommending the book to everybody, recently to a White colleague struggling with a board of directors tussling over racial issues, I commanded: Read this book – now!
Your Name Is Not Racist; It Is Beloved
I won’t read the book to you, although every page is brilliant. She doesn’t negate the pain of racism, nor her own times of anger. But the title of her second chapter tells us where she’s coming from: “Your Name Is Not Racist; It Is Beloved.” The basis of her thinking is the Sermon on the Mount, as she uses it to help us understand our anti-racism activism in light of two themes:
1) the ethics of the Beloved Community, beginning with Jesus’ proclamation of the upside-down social order in the Beatitudes; and 2) how those ethics help us actively dismantle White supremacy culture.
In other words, how we can turn ourselves upside-down, from being (no matter how much we think we’re not) greatest – into the last of all, at the service of all. In the midst of our struggles and strifes with one another, Jesus gives us everything we need to show us the way – together.
I’m listening to this book in the car on Audible, and when I came to her chapter “Confessions of a Judgmental Ally,” I almost had to pull over. Tears formed in my eyes as she read:
“I’ve made assumptions and perpetuated harm to other marginalized groups and individuals, and I’ve been lovingly corrected:
- I’ve assumed my gay friends who just got married wanted kids.
- I’ve called a person in their fifties a boomer.
- I’ve talked about the joys of pregnancy in a room full of women, ignoring the reality that someone may be struggling with infertility.
- I’ve asked my sons to help me move furniture and my daughter to clean the kitchen.
- I’ve called a Puerto Rican man Mexican. I’ve called a Japanese woman Chinese.
- I was surprised when a White-passing woman told me she identifies as Latina.
- I’ve used the wrong pronouns when meeting a transgender person.
- I’ve called my friend into environmentally safe cleaners, “crunchy.”
- I’ve rolled my eyes when told we’re having dinner with vegetarian friends.
- I’ve shared grammar memes just to prove I know how to use the word whom correctly.
- I’ve celebrated when a prosperity pastor was found having a “moral failure.”
“I’ve been judgmental. I have biases I need to interrogate and undo. I want to be considered an ally to all these people, but I can’t see how their shalom has been violated with my own prejudices in the way.
“The first act of peacemaking is paying attention to my own privilege that often comes in the form of a plank in my eye. I cannot see the suffering of others well as long as it’s securely lodged in there. So I offer myself grace and receive forgiveness. I remember to accept help and guidance from people – even people I would judge, for they have insights and wisdom I will never have. I invite people in to hold me accountable, and I let the Holy Spirit check me when I am tempted to use my privilege to judge instead of seek justice.”
I’m telling you, I would gladly attend an anti-racism training led by this woman! I would say to her, “Challenge me as much as I need to be challenged. Don’t hold back.” I think of the program we tried back in my Buffalo days, when we got folks from white congregations in the suburbs to visit black churches in the city, not just for worship but also to sit down and talk with one another. At the start of the conversation time, a pastor of a suburban church shared his anxiety with me. He said he was afraid he was going to say something that would come out sounding racist.
Well, I would tell that colleague today to come to this anti-racism training because, even if (more like even when) he said something that could be taken as offensive, it would be alright – not that it would get swept under the rug, but that we’d deal with together as members of the Beloved Community. We would each become last in service to the other. And in that way, we would become first in saving our lives and healing our world.
I’m serious about the transformative power of Osheta Moore’s book. I don’t think I’ve ever told the story of my experience back in the day of being called a racist. Until this last week. Being called Beloved by a person of color who has been affected by White supremacy, being called out for things that until I read the book I hadn’t even thought about and being called in to partner in the kin-dom of God, was huge.
I am reminded of one of my favorite bible verses, when in John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Without me, you can do nothing.” The work we do in the world is hard, arguably harder than ever before, with the very life of our planet at stake. Sometimes it feels too overwhelming, and we get discouraged. And then someone comes along and leads us back to Jesus, with whom we can do everything with, as James calls it, wisdom from above: “Wisdom from above has purity as its essence. It shows humility; it works for peace; it’s kind and considerate. It’s full of compassion and shows itself by doing good. Nor is there any trace of partiality or hypocrisy in it. Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness.”
I found a YouTube video of an interview with Osheta Moore. I love that the interviewer started out by saying, “I’m trying to restrain myself from gushing about this book” and then proceeded to gush about it.
“I totally get it,” I whispered to her. “I totally get it.”
According to Jesus, the greatest among us are those committed to service and honoring the least of these. Greatness involves welcoming the children in our midst and giving hospitality to the “nuisances and nobodies” (John Dominic Crossan). It is written . . .
They left that district and began a journey through Galilee, but Jesus did not want anyone to know about it. He was teaching the disciples along these lines: “The Promised One is going to be delivered into the hands of others and will be put to death, but three days later will rise again.” Though they failed to understand these words, they were afraid to question him. They returned home to Capernaum. Once they were inside the house, Jesus began to ask them, “What were you discussing on the way home?”
At this they fell silent, for on the way they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest. So Jesus sat down and called the Twelve over and said, “If any of you wants to be first, you must be the last one of all and at the service of all.”
Then Jesus brought a little child into their midst and, putting his arm around the child, said to them, ”Whoever welcomes a child such as this for my sake welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”