Thursday, March 7, 2019

Confession of a Recovering Racist

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”[1]  Amen.

The Catechism teaches us that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[2]   St. Paul describes it as the ministry of reconciliation, which Jesus has given to us to continue in his name.[3]  St. Paul eloquently describes his own willingness to go to any lengths to remove the obstacles that get in the way of overcoming our cruel divisions.  Both Jesus and Paul endured dishonor, rejection, and death because of their steadfast commitment to the ministry of reconciliation.  

Reconciliation is the central concern of Paul’s ministry, never more evident than in his letters to the churches in Corinth.  The churches there were riven by divisions among competing leaders, rival political and ideological factions, and between rich and poor (sound familiar?).  Hanging over it all was the racial and cultural divide between Jews and Gentiles, which Paul worked so tirelessly to bridge in Christ. 

This is our mission:  claiming and sharing the power of God’s love so that the human race can become the human family.  But there are many obstacles to this work.  So, each year, the Church sets aside this season of Lent as a time to identify and let go of the obstacles that get in the way of our being reconciled with God and one another.   

This is serious business.  We aren’t playing around here.  It is too easy to treat our Lenten observance as a superficial ritual, just going through the motions, never touching on the things that really matter.  We need to pay attention to the prophet Isaiah’s warning, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble yourselves but you do not notice?”[4]  Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate or even social media.  It is about waking up, paying attention, and responding to the reality of a suffering world.  Otherwise, we become like the religious hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes; who love to look good, but are unwilling to do the deeper work of vulnerability with God and self-examination.[5]     

This year, I invite us to view our Lenten observance as an opportunity to confront a serious obstacle to reconciliation: the reality of racism.  Instead of giving up See’s Candy or Facebook, what would it look like to give up racism?  Not just for Lent, but forever, to become truly antiracist?  How might we address this most pressing need for reconciliation in our country?

I want to offer some reflections along these lines; a personal confession speaking as a recovering racist, beginning with a couple of caveats.  First, I’m going to be speaking as a white person to other white people.  White folks are responsible for doing our own antiracist work.  People of color are welcome to listen in, but racism isn’t primarily about you even though it primarily affects you.  Second, for simplicity’s’ sake, I’m going to speak about racism primarily as the expression of white supremacy over African-Americans, even though I recognize that other people of color experience similar, yet different, expressions of racism.

In offering a personal confession as a recovering racist, I do not mean confession as an admission of guilt.  That goes without saying, but antiracism work for white people is not about groveling in guilt.  I mean a confession in the sense of a confession of faith, a witness to the truth.  In my experience, people of color are not interested in my feeling guilty.  How I feel about racism is beside the point.  They are interested in my acknowledging the truth of racism, and working to dismantle it.

Now, I know it is hard to talk about racism.  The first reaction of many white people when the topic comes up is defensiveness.  “I am not racist.  I don’t hate black people.”  We are uncomfortable being made to think about it.  Looking back on my own life, I realize now that the first sign of racism was that I didn’t have to think about it.  I took it for granted that I was the norm, and lived in a rigidly segregated world in which I didn’t have to think about racism, its effects, or what black folk’s lives were like.  My racism was invisible to me, because black lives were peripheral to my experience.   And that made it all the easier to believe the lies I was told about African-Americans, and I was served up every stereotype white culture has created. 

So, white friends, we’ve got to let go of our “not racist” defensiveness.  If you were born and raised in the U.S.A, you drank in racism with your mother’s milk.  It is simply an unexamined foundation of our history and culture.  We don’t see it because it is so ubiquitous.  As historian Ibram Kendi points out, "There is no such thing as a ‘not-racist’ policy, idea or person. Just an old-fashioned racist in a newfound denial. All policies, ideas and people are either being racist or antiracist. Racist policies yield racial inequity; antiracist policies yield racial equity. Racist ideas suggest racial hierarchy, antiracist ideas suggest racial equality. A racist is supporting racist policy or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is supporting antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea. A racist or antiracist is not who we are, but what we are doing in the moment."[6]

Any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way is racist.  Social structures, policies, or practices resulting in racial inequities are racist, regardless of their intent.  For example, since African-Americans account for 5% of the population of San Francisco, yet more than 50% of the inmates in the county jail are African-American, we have a racist criminal justice system in San Francisco.  It is a result of policies that promote and protect over-policing of communities of color, prosecutorial discretion that favors white people, and judicial sentencing that punishes black people more severely.  To believe otherwise, is to believe that African-Americans as a group are more prone to criminality.  And that is a racist idea. 

While racism certainly can result in hatred of people of color, it is not rooted in hatred.  It is rooted in discriminatory policies that benefit some white people at the expense of pretty much everybody else.  And white folks at the top of the pyramid are adept at stoking racial hatred to mystify the political and economic roots of racial and class inequities and keep people divided. 

This can be difficult to grasp because it is the reverse of what we have been taught.  We think that ignorance and hatred gives rise to racist ideas that lead to racial discrimination.  But as Ibram Kendi has brilliantly argued in his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, the historical record reveals just the opposite:  racial discrimination gives rise to racist ideas to justify the discrimination, which promotes ignorance and hatred.[7] 

Being “not racist” isn’t good enough.  “Not hating” black people is the tip of the iceberg.  St. Paul, endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” for the sake of reconciliation.[8]  What would it cost white folks to get serious about antiracism work?  I do know that in San Francisco, the cost of our inaction is, on average, about ten years of life for African-Americans.  If my getting to live ten years longer doesn’t constitute white privilege, I don’t know what does.

Reconciliation requires two things:  repentance and forgiveness.  Repentance means acknowledging the harm done to others, and being willing to make amends for the harm, to set things right.  When it comes to racial reconciliation, our work as white people isn’t really that complicated:  acknowledge the harm done to African-Americans and make amends, including reparations for past harms and enacting policies that promote and protect equity and equality today.

For African-Americans, reconciliation requires forgiveness.  Forgiveness beings with recognizing the reality of the harm done to them.  One of the reasons we find talking about racism to uncomfortable, is because the harm done was and is so horrific.  If it makes us uncomfortable as white people, please try to imagine how painful it is for our black sisters and brothers.  For them, this painful acknowledgement is the necessary precondition for healing, so that eventually they are no longer defined by the harm done to them.  Forgiveness is freedom.

Reconciliation is possible only when both repentance and forgiveness are present.  It is possible.  But white people cannot set the timetable for black people’s healing.  Black people don’t need to just “get over it.” They don’t need us to help, fix, or control them.  Our job is to acknowledge the harm and make amends.  We must be willing to see, to notice the reality of oppression, before we can become repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in. 

The spiritual benefits of antiracism work for white people are tremendous.  Self-centered delusion will give way to genuine self-knowledge.  Ignorance and willful blindness will be illuminated by awareness, a capacity to be present to reality in all its pain and promise.  Cruel indifference and fearful avoidance will be swallowed up by compassion, as we become allies in the work of antiracism; co-conspirators in the subversive ministry of reconciliation which Jesus has given to us. 

How do we begin?  “By purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and in dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.”[9]  We can begin, this Lent, by claiming antiracism work as essential to the Church’s mission of reconciliation, and by engaging in conversation with each other about the obstacles that get in our way.  It begins, like all spiritual work with vulnerability and humility.   We will create the path by walking it together, one imperfect step after the other.

In the name of God, the one, holy and undivided Trinity.  Amen.

[1] II Corinthians 5:20b.
[2] An Outline of the Faith, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855.
[3] II Corinthians 5:18.
[4] Isaiah 58:3.
[5] Matthew 6:1-6.
[6] Ibram X. Kendi, “This is what an antiracist America would look like. How do we get there?” The Guardian, December 6, 2018.
[7] Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016), pp. 8-11.
[8] II Corinthians 6:4-5.
[9] II Corinthians 6:6-8a.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Who Am I?

Icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels:  Mark, Matthew and Luke. The placement of this story in the synoptic gospels, and especially in Luke’s Gospel, is significant.  In all three gospels, the transfiguration follows closely on Jesus’ question to his disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” followed by Jesus’ first prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection.[1]   The transfiguration also marks a turning point in the gospel narratives, from Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee region near his hometown to his journey to Jerusalem, where this prediction will be fulfilled.[2]  In other words, the transfiguration is set in relationship to the questions of identity and destiny:  Who am I and what is my purpose? 

These are the big questions, aren’t they?  In the gospels, the story of the transfiguration serves to deepen our engagement with these questions.  It does not provide an answer; at least not directly.  It is a story filled with evocative images and allusions to other stories that invite us to live into the questions, to love the questions themselves, and to discover their meaning in our life’s journey. 

In approaching this story, we do well to recall the advice the poet, Rilke, gave to a friend.  “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[3]

I want to consider these questions as addressed to us and about us – not only to and about Jesus. Normally, we read the gospels to help us understand better the identity and destiny of Jesus.  That is a legitimate project, no doubt.  But the purpose of that project is to hold up Jesus as a mirror in which we can see more clearly our own identity and destiny.   St. Paul makes this quite clear: “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”[4]  Let us look at the transfiguration story as in a mirror, to see what it tells us about our identity and our destiny.

The first question is “Who am I?”  Interestingly, Jesus actually poses the question slightly differently, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples give various answers:  John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.  Peter confesses, “You are the Anointed One of God.”  Jesus responds by telling them not to tell anyone who he is, and then says he will undergo suffering, rejection, murder and resurrection.

There are several tantalizing clues about the question of identity in this brief exchange.  Notice first that we receive our identity through the eyes of others.  Who do people say that I am?  Identity is relational all the way down.  It is not something fixed, stable, internal to myself.  It is always being negotiated in relationship to others, to their perceptions and my perception of their perceptions.  I am who I am in relationship to others.  And their perception of me is always colored by the lens of their experience.  We are always identifying one thing in relationship to other things.

A woman in a coma was dying.  She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up into heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.  “Who are you?” a Voice said to her.  “I am the wife of the mayor,” she replied.  “I did not ask you whose wife you are but who you are.”  “I am the mother of four children.”  “I did not ask you whose mother you are, but who you are.”  “I’m a school teacher.”  “I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”  And so it went.  No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”  “I’m a Christian.”  “I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.”  “I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.”  “I did not ask you what you did but who you are.”  She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth.  When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was.  And that made all the difference.[5]

Who are you?  Jesus resisted the disciples attempts to identity him in relationship to their own cultural conditioning, roles, and expectations.   We are not who others think we are, and so we are not who we think we are either!  It takes some real effort on our part to live into this question because we think we know who we are, confusing our identity with our cultural conditioning. 

In St. Paul’s metaphor, our perception of reality, including ourselves, is distorted by the lens of our cultural conditioning.  Moses wasn’t the only one wearing a veil.  Such distortions aren’t just a Jewish problem; though, because St. Paul was a Jew, he describes the problem in terms of his own cultural conditioning.[6]  All religion, all cultural conditioning gives us a distorted sense of identity. 

We see each other and our “self” through the veil of our conditioning.  This veil limits our perception by fixing an identity that we internalize, and then use as a lens that both focuses and occludes our vision.  Becoming a “self” in this way is how we lose our freedom. 

A student walked up to the clerk at the language laboratory and said, “May I have a blank tape, please?”  “What language are you studying?” asked the clerk.  “French” said the student.  “Sorry, we don’t have any blank tapes in French.”  “Well do you have any blank tapes in English?”  “Yes, we do.”  “Good.  I’ll take one of those.” 

Anthony De Mello comments on this story, “It makes as much sense to speak of a blank tape being French or English as it does to speak of a person being French or English.  French or English is your conditioning, not you.”[7]

The transfiguration of Jesus points to another possibility – that we can receive our identity from God, rather than from our cultural conditioning. Jesus was not Elijah, or Moses, or one of the prophets, though on the mountaintop he is seen together with them.  They are part of the relational matrix of life held in being by God.  He was not even the Anointed One, the Messiah, in any conventional sense.  God said, “You are my son, by Chosen One, my Beloved.”[8]  This identity too, is relational all the way down, but it is open to the experience of reality unveiled, moment by moment, and to the discovery of our freedom in being present to what is given, trusting that what is given is held in love. 

In the transfiguration experience, we are given an image of identity as a dynamic, evolving response to love that is continually emerging from the heart of reality; not a static fixed entity somewhere in me.  I am who I am becoming.  I am never a finished project, but rather an evolving response to love, being transformed into Love’s image from one degree of glory to another. 

In the cloud of God’s glory, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah of his impending “departure,” literally, his “exodus.”[9]  Jesus’ identity is revealed in the context of a journey of liberation.  Just as the Israelites journeyed from Egypt to the promised land, leaving behind slavery to become the people of God, Jesus realizes his identity in leaving behind his cultural conditioning to become God’s beloved child.  He drops the “self” of his conditioning and receives his identity from God instead, being transformed from one degree of glory to another, until he becomes all love.

This is real freedom, as St. Paul understood.  “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”[10]  When we receive our identity from God, then we become free.  Free to love.  This is a radically de-centering experience.  In the dialogues of St. Catherine of Siena, God is reported to have said to her, “I am He who is; you are she who is not.”  Liberation is the experience of our “is-not-ness,” freedom from the veil of our cultural conditioning so that we can flow with reality.[11]  When we are free to respond to love’s invitations, then we discover our destiny.  We will intuitively know how to respond to people and situations as they arise in each moment.  It is much easier to love people when we no longer need to receive our identity from them.

We never stop having to drop our illusions, shake off our conditioning.  We keep falling asleep and must wake up again and again.  We are tempted, like Peter, who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain top with eyes unveiled, to want to grow a little bit, to experience a little bit more freedom, and then try to fix a new identity into place.  Peter wanted to build a tabernacle, create a new religious identity.  He wanted to replace one veil with another.

So how do we begin to drop our illusions, our “self,” and receive our identity from God?  Here, I would just note that in Luke’s gospel, the questions of identity and destiny are raised and explored in the context of prayer.  Jesus is praying when he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  It is while praying on the mountain that this question is lived more deeply.   It is through the radically de-centering experience of prayer and meditation that we begin to live the question, not only on our knees or our meditation cushion, but in daily life.

Who am I?  What is my destiny?  Am I willing to be transformed from one degree of glory to another?  These are questions that must be lived.  Let me leave you with one last image: that of the dancer and the dance.  God is the dancer and creation is God’s dance.  It is not that God is the big dancer and we are the little dancer.  We are being danced by God!  When we understand this, when we trust this, then we are free.[12] 

[1] For example, Luke 9:18-22.
[2] Luke 9:51.
[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (Letter 4, 16 July 1903).
[4] II Corinthians 3:18.
[5] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight:  A Book of Story Meditations (New York:  Image Books, 1990), p. 140.
[6] II Corinthians 3:12-16.
[7] De Mello, Taking Flight, p. 141.
[8] Luke 9:35, cf. Matthew 17:5.
[9] Luke 9:30-31.
[10] II Corinthians 3:17.
[11] Anthony De Mello, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (New York:  Image Books, 1992), p. 105.
[12] De Mello, Awareness, p. 105.