As I write to you today, I am watching the barbwire being put up by the courthouse to prepare the Derek Chauvin trial (the former officer who murdered George Floyd). Derek Chauvin looks a lot like me. I have often wondered what does it mean to be faithful as a cisgender, straight, white Christian male in this moment, trying to be authentic in my desire to participate in God’s justice and invite others to do the same, knowing someone who looks like me did this? How can I write and teach about the subject of dismantling white supremacy while benefiting from it? How can I claim an anti-racist ethic as a member of a church body that is 97% white? How do I facilitate change in my communities while I am still a work in progress myself? These are the tough questions I continue to ask myself. Danish Physicist Niels Bohr once said, “the opposite of a great truth is another truth.” In my Lutheran theological tradition, we also assert that there can be a “simul” relationship between two seemingly opposite ideas. So, as I balance these truths in my own life, I share them and wonder if they might have resonance for some of you or the people you are leading:
Interrogating Whiteness AND De-Centering Whiteness
It has been so important for me to understand what whiteness is and how it functions in my life. One of the most powerful ways that white supremacy functions is by going un-named. If we say we have not been complicit in the sinful system of oppression, we deceive ourselves and the truth isn’t in us. When I began to see how my own white cultural patterns were normed, I was able to adapt them to create more space in my life for other cultural ways of being. As I found mirrors that helped me see my own racial-ethnic-cultural identity, I found new redemptive models of whiteness that were more liberative. That said, what also happened quickly for me as I dove into the field of critical whiteness is that BIPOC voices began to take a backstage to MY development and MY culture. Suddenly anti-racist white authors replaced black authors on my bookshelf. I had to make sure that I was finding both mirrors into my own culture and windows into other cultures as well. Self-examination cannot stop at becoming curved in on one’s self but must always include a rhythm of other-oriented-ness. Jesus’ desire for his disciples to love others as much as they love themselves is an imperative to avoid neglecting either of those important relationships.
Practicing Allyship AND Accompaniment
I have tried to learn how to discern when I am being called to disrupt injustice with my voice and when I am called to be quiet and listen. In some moments, I am able to use my power to help amplify the voice of a BIPOC sibling whose voice can get drown out by white supremacist patterns. In other moments, however, my sincere desire to help can become infantilizing or paternalistic. This requires a continuous conversation with those to whom I am trying to be helpful. Mutual relationship tends to mitigate the paternalistic allyship that many of us white people can fall into. As a white person attempting to “ally”, I hear these two truths from my BIPOC friends, “We are fully capable of speaking up for ourselves, thank you!” and “If we could have solved racism by ourselves, we would have done it by now.” Like Jesus, walking alongside Peter on the beach, or walking with the woman on the road to Emmaus, my desire to be helpful in this messy and difficult reality must start with questions rather than answers.
Maintaining a Posture of Humility AND A Posture of Confidence
During my efforts to reflect Jesus in my anti-racist bridge building work, I have had constant reminders of my own fallibility and limited perspective. I cannot pretend to fully understand the experience of someone who is different from me. To quote Paul, “For I do not do the good I want to do” (Romans 7:15) This humbles me greatly. I am also, however, made fearfully and wonderfully in God’s image. I am called by name and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live and love boldly. Without this confidence, I cannot begin to engage in this important work. For me to continue on this journey, I have had to remember both my sinful brokenness and my redeemed beloved-ness. When I mess up and say or do the wrong thing in this work, I have tried to remember that this has no bearing on my worthiness as a human. God’s grace propels me forward to not get caught in the paralysis of my own shame and to continue doing the work without fear of failure. Nelson Mandela says “I never fail. I either win or I learn.”
Urgency AND Patience
In an urgent situation like the Chauvin trial where the “right answer” feels so easy for me to see, it is very tempting for me to draw a line in the sand with everyone in my life and say, “Either get on board with the right view about this right now or we’re done!” What is much harder for me is realizing that racism didn’t start yesterday. I have learned so much from my BIPOC friends who have fought this battle for many years. They constantly remind me that we didn’t get here overnight, and we are not going to solve it overnight either. Secondly, I must remember that not everyone is on the exact same trajectory of growth as me. It’s harder for me to stay committed to those difficult relationships in my life where we disagree and not “cut bait”. If we are going to need everyone in God’s Shalom enterprise for the planet, then I need to stay in dialogue with those that do not agree with me. God has dealt patiently with me in my development and I must do the same for others.
So, even though there are some very clear moral mandates from Jesus that we have been given about how we treat one another, what we do with those who have violated those mandates can be nuanced, especially when we ourselves have sinned against our neighbors. As I try to respond to the current chapter of racial violence in our society while being overwhelmed by my own shortcomings in the work, I have tried to remember the cross. It is situated in this place where we encounter a God who is big enough to somehow hold together Law and Gospel, Accountability and Grace, Love of Self and Love of Others, and many of the other complex paradoxes that responding to racism poses. It is situated in this place where we will encounter the Holy Wisdom needed to move forward with confidence. When I meditate on the cross, it gives me the strength to bring my whole self to this work and say, “God you made me just the way I