(A sidebar at the outset: Reflecting on whiteness for today’s Lectionary Leanings is directly related to my U.S. context where the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the grief of too many hashtagged deaths demand that scripture not go untouched or unscathed by racialized violence. For our RevGals & Pals around the globe, current U.S. events may not resonate with the same intense energy … yet systemic racism is a global phenomenon that impacts all of our readings of scripture.)
This past weekend, Dr. Anthea Butler published a convicting article, “The Fire This Time,” which included these thoughts:
I’m done saving you, good white folks. You want Black people like me, who like you, to say the prophetic thing, and bail your a** out for not speaking up, for remaining quiet. … I’m not writing prophetic words to you anymore. You fix this sh*t. You figure it out. (“The Fire This Time” 7/10/2016)
(A sidebar on language: Yes, the article includes swearing. I’ve always taught my children that there’s a time & place for swearing — on the playground or as a part of name-calling are not appropriate places for curse words; a generations-long struggle for the basic recognition of humanity is absolutely a time for curse words. I encourage you to read the article even if swearing offends your eyes.)
It’s long past time for those of us who are white preachers to do the work of seeing the ways in which we bring whiteness to our reading of scripture. It’s long past time for us to stop relying on scholars and preachers of color to exegete whiteness for us or to save us by teaching us how to find liberation in biblical text.
Many white preachers took a deep breath and preached against racism this past Sunday, which was necessary, important, good work … but one sermon won’t redeem our consciences or extricate the systemic racism in which our white churches live & move & have their being. While I have doubts about white preachers’ ability to be prophetic, if there is a prophetic thing to be done at this moment, it is not to allow ourselves to count one sermon as “speaking up” but to continue preaching on racism and to add “teaching congregants to unveil their white hermeneutic” to our pastoral work, so that white Christians’ support of anti-racism does more than take aim at other white people but actually wrestles with the whiteness within.
This coming Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary texts hold the potent opportunity to lay bare many systems and attitudes of whiteness, if we dare:
- I can’t even get beyond Amos 8:1, “This is what the Lord GOD showed me — a basket of summer fruit,” without hearing the gruesome verses of Strange Fruit (sung here by Jill Scott). We must be clear. This is the harvest of whiteness: fruit plucked, lives cut short, hanging from swing sets, rotting in the streets. Heaven forbid we white preachers make racism palatable for the white folks in our pews. Heaven forbid it.
- The full RCL selection from Amos is 8:1-12 and declares the end of a season: By God’s good judgment, let it be the end of the season of white racism, white violence, white fragility, white supremacy, white lies. Let it be the end of white capitalism that buys & sells on the backs of others “from north to east.” Let it be the end of exclusionary feasts acted out at Christ’s table. Let the white Church lament and wander until penance is served.
- There are memes and hashtags and protest signs admonishing whites to understand our silence as complicity. If indeed we are complicit in racialized violence, then we cannot hide from the charge leveled in Psalm 52:3: “You love evil more than good and lying more than speaking truth.” Systemically speaking (and individually speaking more than we prefer to admit) whiteness loves complicity over justice. Whiteness loves character assassination of victims over accountability for perpetrators. Whiteness loves “All Lives Matter” over “Black Lives Matter.” Let God break down forever our evil lies.
- Martha of Luke 10:38-42 embodies the distractions of well-meaning whiteness: “Black lives matter but all lives matter, and I can save them all if you’ll just let me manage my ‘to do’ list and stop demanding that I focus only on Black lives. There are hungry lives and refugee lives and Pokemon lives and poor little wide-eyed African children lives, and Black lives matter should stop hogging the microphone.” Please hear my heavy sarcasm. As a white American with a German Protestant heritage, Martha is my chosen saint for standing on the pedestal of a strong work ethic, but her distracted determination that all things must matter all at the same time is problematic to her ability to learn an essential thing that matters at this particular moment; problematic to her ability to sit in solidarity with Mary and Jesus; problematic to her ability to let someone else say what is needed and how to go about doing it.
The work of examining whiteness is not easy, but for too long our Christian faith has been (and continues to be) the handmaiden of whiteness in the world, giving a righteous confidence to colonialism and mission work alike, showing up in burning crosses as well as white Jesus-imaging Bibles, defending itself against Tanisha since the days of Hagar. Too long. Far too damned long.
Rachel G. Hackenberg is a United Church of Christ (US) minister, soccer mom, blogger, and author. Her book Sacred Pause plays with words to refresh our relationship with The Word.
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