I am white, and I'm a man. And I’ve worked for decades within several black communities, leading undoing racism workshops, fighting city governments, and facing the KKK when I was a pastor in western Pennsylvania.
But the truth is, when the day is over, I could always retreat into my own safe ghetto of male, white-skinned privilege.
The Rev. Philip King Sr., the now deceased black activist and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Farrell, Pennsylvania once challenged me saying, “Look, you can ignore it, you can run from it, but you can’t hide it. Brother, for Christ’s sake, you’ve got to use your privilege until we all share a piece of it.”
In the wake of Wednesday’s newest murderous assault on black America, I’ve been moved by the appeals from black Americans for white America to step up and step out, to realize we’ve got to show up for the work that’s before us. Alisha Lola Jones said in a Facebook post: “It is open season on black folk in their own churches, neighborhoods and homes. If you love me and mine, fight for me. My life is on the line.”
Gawd, that hurts to read—especially from the safety I enjoy sitting here in front of my MacBook Pro and from within the privilege of the predominately upper-middle class white community where I’m now living.
The Rev. Denise Anderson, a black Presbyterian pastor, says “Many of you have been on it for some time now, working in solidarity with people of color. You have been in the trenches from the beginning (or your beginning). I don't discount you, but I also caution you to not be self-congratulatory. . . . Whether you got in the game early or late, it's important to simply get in the game at all. But, if I may use an idiom that we often say, ‘It's five o'clock somewhere.’ Some of us are long overdue for our break, while others have yet to clock in. Your shift is upon you. Kindly report to work.”
Alisha and Denise, I’m starting to get the sense of urgency. And I’m sorry it’s taken so long. Lives have been lost, and we’re all worse of because of the delay.
To draw an allusion from the Gospel text from this Sunday's lectionary reading (Mark 4.35-31: Jesus’ calming of the storm), I feel like there’s a dangerous storm swirling around us and the Body of Christ is asleep in the boat. It’s time to wake up and dare to confront the storm with the peace, the shalom, of God.
As a white guy who has too long enjoyed and only modestly used the privilege that’s mine by a sheer accident of biology, I’m certainly worried that white America, and particularly, white Christians will go on sleeping. But how can we wake up and really change things?
It’s not our guilt or anger or sense of duty that we need most—though guilt and anger and duty are important factors in getting us moving.
We need our own identification with the plight of the suffering, the vulnerable, the oppressed. To allude to the Gospel story again: that we’re all in this boat together, and that, frankly, there’s no way to sit this storm out; it’s banging against the hull of everyone’s boat.
Last year, when I was still a pastor in Fresno, I sat with a group white and black leaders of Christian and Jewish communities. We were working on voter rights in California and our facilitator led us through the voting rights history in America. As we read the various legislative acts throughout America’s history, I began to sob; I was confronted with how routinely and brazenly voting rights were denied to everyone else—women, blacks, Jews, Native Americans, gays, the mentally ill, the disabled—everyone else but me, and white, privileged men like me. We’ve always had the vote and made darn sure we kept our power; anyone who’s threatened white, male power, we simply exempted from the vote.
I went home, aware that something had opened up for me; my tears were a sign that this was somehow deeply personal. This story of injustice had connected with something within my own human experience. Completely apart from the agenda of the facilitator, the exercise awakened me to feelings and memories of my own experience of violence—victimized as a child, powerless and unable to defend myself. I also came to realize how, for safety’s sake, I often retreat as an adult from conflict because when I was a child, conflict led to violence. Other people, with different wounds, live out their experience differently; their pain and fear and unresolved anger make them aggressive not passive. But both passivity and aggression are expressions of deep inner wounds, storms that rage often unabated for decades. For me, until that memory, long buried, was awakened through and encounter with the pain of others, I was captive to my own fear, my passivity—even more, I remained a prisoner to the ghetto of privilege that I could always retreat to and keep myself “safe”.
You don’t have to have experienced violence to identify with the suffering of others. Who among us doesn’t know some kind of shame, some injury that continues to wound us?
It’s this wounded aspect of our humanity that can connect us with the plight of others—or not. If we don’t face it and embrace it, we’ll pull back from the suffering of others and try to shelter ourselves from their pain. White folk, and those who share their privilege, will slip inside our gated communities and wait for the storm to pass.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented the failure of the white church, and especially his white clergy colleagues to come to his aid and support the nonviolent strategies that, frankly, needed more bodies, and more privileged ones at that, to participate if the movement was going to bend the will of the nation.
“I came to Birmingham,” he wrote, “with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”
Too long have I kept myself at arm’s distance from the struggle of black America for justice. Too long I modestly entered the fray, always able to retreat again into my privileged place as a white man. The “deep moral concern” King was trying to raise from Birmingham, a concern the Rev. Denise Anderson is trying to raise today, only stood me on my feet when I finally made contact with my own vulnerable humanity.
Most white men will never feel the monstrous inequality and injustice felt nearly universally by black Americans. Nor do we dare to speak with anything but the most chastened humility about the outrage and fear they must feel by these recent events. But when white men become acquainted with our own sorrows and suffering, things can change. We can begin to understand. And from the far edge of understanding we can enter the struggle, no longer standing idly by, no longer retreating into our places of privilege while the specter of racism assaults our common humanity.