During Eastertide, I attended a meeting where a prominent public theologian declared that one cannot be White and be a Christian in America today. As she unpacked this provocative statement, it became clear, to my mind, that Kelly Brown Douglas was saying what many people have been saying this past week; since Charlottesville; since Ferguson; since the civil rights era; since the Civil War; since; since; … she was saying that sitting in the seat of White privilege is not the same as standing for a gospel of love. She was saying – what I heard – was that silence and compliance with the systems that support our supremacy is complicity. What I heard is that it is not enough to become unracist in a society that is built on the struts of White supremacy, White nationalism, White pride, call it what you will. Affirmative, off-the-butt action is what the gospel demands of those who preach peace that passes understanding, and the acceptable Day of the Lord.
Of course, it was a provocative statement and it made many of us uncomfortable. Did I squirm? I’m sure I tried to pass it off as a settling of my old, white bones in an uncomfortable chair.
There are those who say that we should not make people uncomfortable, because then they won’t listen, they won’t hear what we have to say. It is not my place to say it, but I imagine that those whose lives have been made … uncomfortable … by the sins of racism across the centuries still heard loudly and clearly the hateful philosophies that underpin oppression.
It is not my place to speak from the experience of others, except that of course I do it all the time when I preach from the Bible. In the sequel to Luke’s gospel, the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, Peter, that upstart fisherman from Galilee with the authority of a wet cod, makes many of his countrymen uncomfortable when he tells them, “That man whom you would have killed was the Messiah.” But they heard him.
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’” (Acts 1:37)
Paul, trading on his privilege as a Roman citizen to get an audience, confessed his own part in the persecution of the gospel, and was heard, was heard even by those who were afraid to have their own minds and hearts converted;
“Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’” (Acts 26:28)
Many centuries later, a couple of oceans away, Frederick Douglass was not afraid of uncomfortable language:
“What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?”
he asked; and as for the churches,
“The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support he pulpit, the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy bibles and communion services for the churches.” (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; via Google Books)
Despite his profoundly uncomfortable observations, I have heard that Mr Douglass is being recognized more and more these days.
There are a few reasons that I feel uncomfortable speaking about race; not least because my personal experience of racism is as its beneficiary; because I am late to this nation and to the conversation, and the former is no excuse for the latter.
Still, the gospel does not give me any excuse nor reason to shy away from uncomfortable conversations, nor from preaching discomfort. This Sunday, while the Canaanite woman takes Jesus himself to task, I will be hanging out with the Pharisees in the previous paragraph of the optionally extended reading. If I cause any to fall, I ask forgiveness; I am blind among the blind; but I am trying to feel my way forward.