Like most white people in America, I hate talking about race. Whenever race comes up, I feel uncomfortable. But, as a Christian, I am committed to the life of conversion to Christ. A good rule of thumb for that process is to go where it hurts. I try to lean into what makes me squirm, which means I talk, think, read, and pray about race a lot.
There is no more pressing moral concern in our common lives today than racism and racial justice. We white people can no longer hide behind a veneer of ignorance of the systematic terror inflicted on black and brown Americans. Police violence against people of color floods the news and social media. To remain unaware and uninvolved in the fight to end racial oppression in America is a choice to collude with evil.
We white people who follow Jesus Christ are particularly called to end racism. That call begins–and let’s face it, we white folks are at the beginning of this struggle–with confronting our own willful ignorance of and collusion with the evil that enslaves us. A blog post isn’t long enough to outline thoroughly the social and economic benefits that continue to accrue to white people in a white supremacist society. But it is essential to say that there is no white person living in America today who does not continue to benefit in countless ways from our two centuries of chattel slavery. The Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the theft, torture, rape, and enslavement of Africans and the free labor they provided. In other words, without slavery, we would not have railroads, shipping lines, and factories and all the myriad technological advances that make our lives comfortable and connected today. The fact that I can write this blog post at home and have hundreds of you read it throughout the world rests upon the foundation of chattel slavery. All this is not even to begin to explore the benefits we “enjoy” from the genocide of the native people.
I think that one of the reasons we white people are so afraid to enter the fight for racial justice is that we are terrified of confronting our complicity with evil. We are afraid that if we acknowledge the hell our ancestors created and that we continue to create, we would be destroyed by our guilt and shame.
The thing about evil is that it divides and chains our souls. It leaves us fragmented and unfree. This is what racism has done to white people. Racism divides us not only from our black and brown sisters and brothers. It also separates us from God and from ourselves. It fragments our souls, leaving us dead inside. Racism kills black and brown bodies. It also destroys white souls. Evil leaves no one untouched.
Christians are in a uniquely powerful position here. We have in Jesus a model of one who willingly took upon himself the world’s evil, suffered the annihilation that evil brought, and was thereby filled with the eternal and abundant life of a loving God. This is the paschal mystery. We are right to believe that confronting the enormity of our collusion with the evil of racism will kill us. But the us who will die is the racist, terrified us. And when we allow that part of ourselves to crucify us, we will find that we are filled with the life of Christ. We will then be able to say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
The choice is before us, and our own souls hang in the balance. Will we choose the crucified life that really is life, or will we choose the easy death and fragmentation of ignorance and the accommodation of evil? With Christ as our model and our light, I pray we will choose life.
Unsure where to begin confronting your own white privilege and racism? The website of the Anti-Racist Alliance has a great resource for white people, including recommended reading. I also highly recommend Tim Wise’s book White Like Me as a way to begin looking at white privilege. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a beautiful and heartbreaking memoir of one man’s experience of being black in America. For a look at the systemic racism that runs throughout our criminal justice system, read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Father Marcus Halley writes beautifully about race and Christian spirituality on his website.
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