Dear white people, You know how horrible you felt when North Korea killed Otto Warmbier? You know how you kept thinking that could have been your kid? How you went and told stories about that movie Midnight Express and thought about all the stupid mistakes your kid made growing up and thanked God that at least he/she made those mistakes here where they were protected and not in some “foreign country” which did not privilege them? You know how you thought that if only there was some way of warning young people about the dangers of travel to “certain” places it would all be allright? Well that’s the way black and brown people, and maybe SOME who are in solidarity with them (still very much a work in progress) feel when OUR cops working for OUR country killed Philando Castille (and so many more, so very many more) and OUR jury failed to convict except, of course, it isn’t happening in a foreign country. It is happening here and there is nowhere they can go to escape it. They do warn their children with “the talk” and more, but it makes no difference. They can do everything right, just like Philando Castillo and so many others did everything right, and they will still be killed. What is worse, most of their white neighbors and co-workers and, dare I say, friends don’t even see it, let alone care. Until his life matters just as much TO US as Otto’s life, until we are just as outraged by the way our police and our courts and our prisons and our government all conspire to kill black and brown kids, often for nothing, as we are about foreign governments killing white kids for stupidity the horror will continue. So what are you willing to do today? Are you willing to at read this post and give it some thought? Are you willing to ask yourself these questions? Are you willing to talk to your friends and family about it? Don’t go apologizing to black or brown people. They are tired of hearing it. Don’t bother them at all. Bother US. We have work to do in our own families and communities. Let’s get on it.
John 19 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a Roman citizen. Like most others in his community, he did not have the rights of Roman citizens. You might say he was undocumented. He could not vote, hold office, or make legal contracts. More importantly, if he was found guilty of breaking Roman law, he could be punished in ways no citizen was ever subjected to. He could be beaten and tortured. Also, unlike a Roman citizen, he could be crucified. And he was.
Hanging on that cross, knowing he would soon die, his thoughts go to those he would leave behind, particularly his mother, Mary, who would be left with no one to care for her. So Jesus makes custody arrangements. He tells his mother “woman, here is your son.” And to John, “Here is your mother.” This is how Jesus’ community survived persecution, by taking custody of each other.
We also live in a two tiered system of laws, one for US citizens, another for non-citizens. Non-citizens do not have the same legal and rights as citizens, even less if they are undocumented. Unlike citizens, undocumented immigrants can be “detained” meaning imprisoned, for long periods of time for no other crime than trying to seek asylum from poverty, violence and war. Unlike citizens, they have to report to ICE as frequently as three times a week. Many have to wear ankle monitors. And, of course, unlike citizens, they can be deported.
Knowing they can be deported at any time, they must make custody arrangements for children they may never see again, through power of attorney or legal guardianship. Right this moment, across our country, many immigrants are saying to a relative or friend “if I am deported tomorrow, behold, this is your son, This is your daughter.” Then they are turning to their children and saying “my beloved child, if I am deported tomorrow behold, this is your mother. This is your father.” That is how their community survives. They take custody of each other.
So, my beloved Christian family, as mass deportations happen in our country, as families are torn apart, as people who have lived among us for decades are forcibly removed from what is often the only home they have ever known ? Will we look the other way, telling ourselves they are only “illegal aliens” or will we start to see them as God sees them? Will we hear God say to us “Behold, this your son. This is your daughter. This is your mother. This is your father.” Will we take custody?
Dear White People,
Maybe this will sound strange to you, but I think the time has come for us to collectively mourn the end of white supremacy, not because it was anything less than evil, but because it did do something for us and unless we can let that something go, we will never be able to work to dismantle it.
As a nation, we tend to suck at lamentation. Admitting to feelings of grief is only allowed under very narrowly defined circumstances. It’s OK right after the death of a loved one and for a limited, very limited, time afterward. We are expected to “get through it” on schedule. When grief shows up unexpectedly years later refusing to follow the path we prescribe for it, insisting on its own unpredictable rhythms, we do not make space for it and treat the mourner like there is something wrong with them for not getting over it “on time.” Similarly it is OK to publically lament acts of violence against “innocents” like children or “honors students” with as yet unsullied reputations but once we enter the murkier waters of life where less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people harm other less than perfect and/or unfairly demonized people our sense of pain and outrage is pushed aside. We need that simple binary of “good” and “evil” in order to respond. The same works for warfare. If “our brave soldiers” die, we mourn them. When the “enemy” dies we do not. Those are the rules. Only when that which we all agree is good is destroyed by that which we all agree it evil do we permit ourselves to feel the pain of loss and admit to it. Even then, our public rituals of mourning are limited to the “right occasion.” Again, grief has to follow the rules.
Except it doesn’t. Grief is complicated. It happens when it happens. Time does not limit grief. Neither does appropriateness and, yes, people grieve over the loss of that which is evil just as much, if not more, than we grieve over the good because the awful truth is, we often benefit from evil and really don’t like for those benefits to end and, yes, we DO feel grief when they do. Ask any good psychologist about why it is that people have such a hard time giving up harmful behaviors. It’s because, as dysfunctional as these behaviors may be, people do get something out of them. Which brings me to the usual topic we talk about here – white supremacy.
Every time I post a “Dear White People” letter in which I suggest we, as white people, need to change in any way I get angry comments about how I must be “self hating” or how I am the “real racist” for suggesting that any of us are racist. It seems the worst thing a white person can say to another white person is “You are racist.” How dare I call you racist! How self loathing I must be to say that I am racist too! The beat goes on. It is utterly predictable (which means, dear reader, if you are about to send me such a comment please be aware that you are being predictable).
What is behind this outrage? I think it is a weird and lethal cocktail of shame and fear and grief. Deep down, underneath all the demonic systems of oppression and dehumanization that have become so normalized we don’t even see them, we still have enough humanity to know that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, lynching and everything that went into making it all seem OK – which frankly is a whole hell of a lot of “Christian” theology – is really, really, really wrong and deep down we ARE ashamed of ourselves and our race. But we dare not admit it because that is like saying we are bad people, that God must hate us, that we have no self worth. We can’t be “self loathing.” Heaven forbid. So we stuff all that shame into a box of denial and label it “stuff that happened many years ago that my ancestors had nothing to do with” and keep on stepping. Except we don’t. The shame is still there and we fear it will show up again, like when some smart ass preacher brings it up on her stupid blog.
We, as white people, particularly white Christians, have gone on like this for a very long time. As long as we were in the majority in our nation it sort of worked. But what happens now that we are headed toward an era where we are no longer going to be the numerical majority? What happens when brown skinned people start to outnumber us? What happens when, to make matters worse, brown faced immigrants who practice other religions like, oh say, Islam keep coming to our shores? Some of us seem to be dealing with this anxiety by voting to “make America great again” as if there was something truly great about our past which was lost and can now be found and saved, a time when white, Christian, Americans were the “good guys” providing a moral example to the world which, due to our goodness, we were destined to rule, a time when we could tell ourselves that our economic strength came from “hard work” not ill gotten gain, and when we were God’s chosen people. Of course that is a fiction, but it is a fond and beloved fiction that we did get something out of. We got to feel “great” and lots of us really long to feel “great again.” It is so tempting to want to build a really big wall around our “greatness” so that we can at least hold onto it a little while longer, so we don’t have to feel this encroaching sense of vulnerability that comes with change.
The problem is, our own scriptures warn us about this sense of “greatness” telling us that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1Co 1:27 NRS) The only greatness we can hope for is the greatness of shared vulnerability, of admitting to our foolishness, and a willingness to be weak just like everyone else. It is time to come down off our self made pedestal and join humanity. There is real hope in that. Shared, human, vulnerability leads to real love, the only true greatness there is. We can get there.
But first we must admit that we are grieving a real loss, which is hard because, while we may have rituals for lamenting the loss of something good, there are no rituals for lamenting the loss of an evil we liked. I am not even sure how we do this. I am just convinced that we must. Instead of dealing with our anxiety by building walls and embracing imperial “greatness” let’s deal with it by admitting we ARE anxious and we do grieve.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived a sense of specialness from white supremacy and we are sort of sad to see it go.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we really enjoyed it when whiteness was a synonym for goodness and it hurts to realize it is not.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we derived comfort from the idea that God’s love was tied up with white Christianity, the flag, and mom’s apple pie in a way that did not really apply to anyone else except our special selves.
Let’s publically and collectively admit that we can’t even admit to how truly evil white supremacy was and is because we still gain from it.
Maybe if we can at least admit to how vulnerable we feel and lament the end of an evil we liked, we can finally begin to actually repent of it and be on the way to a whole other kind of true, and sustainable, greatness.