“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the empires of earth; I have not come to bring peace to them, but a sword.For I have come to set a man against his fascist father, and a daughter against her homophobic mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law who would deny healthcare to the poor; and one’s foes who support the empire will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than justice is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than justice is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the work of justice and liberation and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life in the empire will lose the life they found in me, and those who lose their life of comfort for the sake of justice will find abundant life in me.”
These are the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:34-36, as queered/translated by me.
I intended to post daily during Lent, but school and life have gotten in the way. I’m going to pick this back up this week. After 40 reflections are complete, I’ll put them in a special section on my website.
Yesterday, we talked about how whiteness was “taken up,” adopted and used by immigrants to the United States in order for them to be safe from the machinery of whiteness that would otherwise target them and their families.
Today, I want to introduce the possibility of taking up, adopting, and using blackness as a way to resist and ultimately dismantle whiteness.
Is it possible to take up blackness?
If we go back to James H. Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation, we will hear him describe the task of Christian theology and ministry to be the work of taking on blackness. He writes:
It is unthinkable that oppressors could identify with oppressed existence and thus say something relevant about God’s liberation of the oppressed. In order to be Christian theology, white theology must cease being white theology and become black theology by denying whiteness as an acceptable form of human existence and affirming blackness as God’s intention for humanity. White theologians will find this difficult, and it is to be expected that some will attempt to criticize black theology precisely on this point. Such criticism will not reveal a weakness in black theology but only the racist character of the critic.
– “A Black Theology of Liberation” by James H. Cone
This is what Jesus called us to when he said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? – Matthew 16:24-26
Cone isn’t saying that white people should literally become black. He is referring to blackness as a symbol, in the same way I have used whiteness as a symbol. He writes:
In this connection we may observe that black theology takes seriously Paul Tillich’s description of the symbolic nature of all theological speech. We cannot describe God directly; we must use symbols that point to dimensions of reality that cannot be spoken of literally. Therefore to speak of black theology is to speak with the Tillichian understanding of symbol in mind. The focus on blackness does not mean that only blacks suffer as victims in a racist society, but that blackness is an ontological symbol and a visible reality which best describes what oppression means in America.
– “A Black Theology of Liberation” by James H. Cone
It is easy to understand why people who identify as white or Caucasian would resist this conversation. If life, theology, faith, and culture becomes about something other than centering whiteness, there is an immediate reaction to the threat of non-existence. Most people who identify as white have not had the occasion to reflect on their location at the center of life, theology, and culture.
People who have not extracted themselves from the context of whiteness are fearful people. Whiteness requires people it controls to be terrified of non-whiteness. It has corrupted and mutated the truth of their relationship to humanity, the purpose of faith, and their ability to rationally evaluate their assumptions about and their participation in the machinery of oppression.
And that’s why we are having this conversation. To develop the ability to heal the fear in people who are overcome by whiteness and to lay the foundation to dismantle it altogether.
Tomorrow, we’ll begin to look at how whiteness shows up in our reality today. We’ll turn our attention first to someone who has mistaken the call to take on blackness for a call to pretend she is black, Rachel Dolezal.
Over the last few days, I’ve attempted to articulate what whiteness is. As we progress through Lent, I’m going to engage the question of what giving up whiteness would look like. To lay the foundation for that question, I want to engage the work of Kelly Douglas Brown in her book, “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.” This was a powerful book for me and I will keep coming back to it in this study, but today I want to highlight a part of the book where she describes the expansion of whiteness in the history of the United States of America.
The construction of whiteness for these European immigrants was admittedly a complicated one. Identifying as white was the way they negotiated their “real life context and social experience,” which was riddled with contradictions, most notably in terms of their relationship with the black community. As is pointed out by a group of researchers on the invention of ethnicity, such negotiation is in fact how ethnicities are constructed. For these “new stock” immigrants, whiteness was a way “to reconcile the duality of the ‘foreignness’ and the ‘Americanness’ which [they]…experienced in their everyday lives.” It essentially provided them with security, power, and, most of all, an American identity in their “in-between” space. While these Europeans may not have been the descendants of Anglo-Saxons, they were not the descendants of slaves either. And, they “quickly learned that the worst thing one could be in the Promised land was ‘colored,’ and they distanced themselves as best they could from this pariah population.” (emphasis mine)
– “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Douglas Brown
Most white people in the United States today, I assert, don’t believe they’ve had a conscious role in their inclusion in the privileges and power of whiteness. I will address later why this isn’t the case, but for now I will at least grant that this feeling of innocence is due to what Kelly Brown Douglas is describing.
The Great White Myths of American Exceptionalism and Anglo-Saxon heritage were being severely threatened by immigration. We have used many methods to reduce this threat, but this one, the method of allowing people to include themselves in whiteness, proved to be one of the most effective.
Thus, while the “new stock” immigrants may not have had Anglo-Saxon blood, at least they had the requisite foundation—biological make-up (white skin) and cultural disposition (anti-black bigotry)—upon which Anglo-Saxon culture and customs could be grafted. Even President Theodore Roosevelt allowed that they could be properly assimilated within “the space of two generations.”
– “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Douglas Brown
Over and over again, whiteness is something that is taken up and actively used by people, groups and individuals. It is something held on to with an iron grip and only shared with those who won’t threaten it’s power, control, and resources.
Consider the words of Jesus in Luke 12:22-31
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Friends, my point is this: Whiteness is always a product of fear. Whiteness is always a sin. Whiteness was created and continues to be used as a response to the fear of non-existence. It was manufactured as a way to justify killing millions of native bodies, stealing land, enslaving millions of black bodies. Whiteness has continued to evolve today. It has become so effective it has infected every aspect of life in our country and has been exported around the world. The rest of this Lenten study will begin to highlight examples of this pervasive sin. And since the source of this sin is fear, we will also begin to engage how to heal the fear at the heart of whiteness.
I know this may seem heavy, hopeless, depressing, shaming, etc. To descend to the depths of our sin, to inspect it, and to become acquainted with the suffering it has caused seems dangerous and overwhelming.
But this task is filled with hope! With each step, each encounter with the impact of our sin, each reflection, each theologian, each video, each prayer, we are all moving closer to being able to authentically repent and turn away from this sin.
The journey of Lent is a time of letting go, of healing, of meditation, of turning towards God so that we might be ready to encounter the miracle of the resurrection at Easter.
What voices are you hearing regularly when subjects of whiteness, race, white supremacy, etc., are discussed? I invite you to regularly and intentionally seek out the voices you are not automatically hearing, especially the voices of those society puts on the margins.
Today’s focus: “White theology is a theology of oppression.”
Has whiteness infected the church? Is the theology of the Christian church perverted by whiteness? Has Christianity become the religion of the empire? Let’s turn to the work of James H. Cone, one of the architects of black liberation theology in the United States.
Consider his words in the Preface to the 1986 Edition of “A Black Theology of Liberation:
“I knew that racism was a heresy, and I did not need to have white theologians tell me so. Indeed, the exploitation of persons of color was the central theological problem of our time. “The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote W. E. B. DuBois in 1906, “is the problem of the colorline,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of [persons] in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Just as whites had not listened to DuBois, I did not expect white theologians to take black theology seriously. Racism is a disease that perverts one’s moral sensitivity and distorts the intellect. It is found not only in American society and its churches but particularly in the discipline of theology, affecting its nature and purpose.
White racist theologians are in charge of defining the nature of the gospel and of the discipline responsible for explicating it! How strange! They who are responsible for the evil of racism also want to tell its victims whether bigotry is a legitimate subject matter of systematic theology.”
Also, Paulo Freire, in the Foreword to the 1986 Edition of “A Black Theology of Liberation” by James H. Cone, writes:
“A white theology can be just as political as a black theology or a theology of liberation in Latin America. Although it is easily seen through, political concern seeks to hide the orientation of a white theology toward defending dominant class interests. This is why, though simulating neutrality, white theology is preoccupied with the conciliation of things that cannot be conciliated, why it denies so insistently the differences among social classes and their struggles, and why in its efforts for social good it does not go beyond the kind of modernizing reformisms that only shore up the status quo.
Thinking from the viewpoint of the dominant classes, theologians of this impossible neutrality employ mystifying language. They consistently attempt to soften the harsh, oppressive real world and exhort dominated classes to face their sacrifice with resignation. The pain and degrading discrimination they suffer— their very existence is a form of death—should be accepted by the dominated as purification for their sins. In short, the oppressed should thank their oppressors for the opportunities offered them to save themselves.”
It is relatively easy to see how white theology supported the oppression of black bodies during the time of slavery. It is less easy to see how white theology might be behind oppressing black bodies today. Theology, the study of God & religion, isn’t usually viewed as pro-oppression or anti-oppression.
Here’s the question of the day: If you discovered that an element of your theology, your beliefs, your religion, or your spiritual practices was the source of oppression for marginalized people, would you be willing to consider letting that element go or maybe attempting to transform and reclaim it?
Consider Jesus’ words in Luke 11:37-44
“While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.”
Holy One, give me a clean heart, a humble spirit, and a right perspective. May my work, my gifts, and my energy be used to strengthen justice and to share the love of God. Amen
Each day, I will begin our conversation about the theme of the day, regarding whiteness, with an effort to establish and expand a common language, as best we can, so that you and I will be able to actually be in the same conversation. Then, the main content of each day’s post will be using different resources every day. We will use art, blogs, news articles, videos, sermons, songs, etc., to expand on the theme of the day. Finally, I will end each post with a reflection for you to meditate on for the day.
I’m glad you’re on this journey with me.
Shall we begin?
Theme of Day 1/40: “What is whiteness?”
Creating a Common Language
A quick Google search brings up this definition:
the property or quality of being white in color.
“a landscape dominated by the whiteness of snow”
the quality of being very pale.
“the whiteness of her skin, like fine porcelain”
the fact or state of belonging to a human group having light-colored skin.
“whiteness was defined as both a racial and a regional characteristic”
This is NOT be the definition we will be using.
We are NOT talking about people who are referred to or who identify as caucasian or white. AND people who are referred to as caucasian or white may be part of what we will be distinguishing as whiteness.
Today’s Focus: “What is whiteness?”
Whiteness is a context, a perspective, that contains these characteristics:
Whiteness’ primary interest is gaining and keeping power.
Whiteness requires the condition of oppression, in other words, it can not exist without someone to oppress.
Whiteness strictly controls access to who is able to adopt and use it.
Whiteness is a collective, communal response to fear of loss of power, of influence, of resources, etc.
Whiteness is ruthless to those it oppresses.
Whiteness encourages betrayal and stratification among those it oppresses with the lure of being granted access to whiteness.
Whiteness operates at the level of system, of government, of society, of culture, of family, of group, and at the level of the individual.
Whiteness is pervasive, resilient, contagious, and is a worldwide epidemic.
To provide some clarity, let’s look at what whiteness is not:
In most cases, whiteness is not a conscious choice. Rather, it is a conversation for reality that human beings are born into. We are all wearing “whiteness” colored sunglasses and we don’t know it. Think of it as something like the idea of “original sin.” Sin is something that all of us are capable of. If another person sins, we can be harmed. We can only be free of the effects of sin when repentance and transformation have happened.
We will continue to deepen this distinction and unpack the term whiteness throughout this journey through Lent. Tomorrow, I will look at whiteness through the lens of scripture and theology.
Consider Jesus’ words in Luke 8:
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”
When you think about the term”whiteness,” where do you immediately find yourself? Dismissive, casual, angry, or open? How are your body sensations? Your blood pressure? What are the thoughts that are just right there when you hear the word “whiteness?”
Holy One, may we have the courage to look through Your eyes and listen through Your ears. We are peaceful and secure because we know Your love will be with us on this journey. Amen
Please join me here each day during Lent for a reflection on “Giving Up Whiteness.”
If you are a dyed-in-the-wool anti-racist activist, this will be for you. If you are someone who is uncomfortable talking about race and privilege, this is for you. If you want to deepen your faith in a new way, this is for you.
Every day, I will introduce topics, themes, theologians, ideas, justice leaders, authors, artists, etc. and will begin a dialogue with you about whiteness and what giving whiteness up could look like.
I’m proud to be a follower of a refugee that changed the course of history because He demonstrated that God is on the side of the oppressed and never on the side of the oppressor. I believe in love, in community, in vulnerability, in hospitality. I reject the idolatry of Christendom that prostitutes itself in the halls of power.