White Folk, Are We Brave Enough?*
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12: 25, NRSV)
Jesus is a strong (and long) talker in John’s gospel. John takes this saying that is found in similar forms across all four gospels and turns it up a notch, from “those who lose their life will find it” to “those who hate their life”…then he adds that bit about keeping it forever.
John is always changing things up. Even the placement of this teaching is different. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this teaching comes in the middle of Jesus organizing his disciples, his community, in the middle of his work. Here in John, it comes near the end – and may not even be directed at his own people.
Some Greeks show up. They want to see Jesus. It’s unclear if Jesus’s words are spoken directly to them, or if he means them to overhear it. But here are the Greeks, outsiders, likely with more privilege than Jesus’ close community of poor colonized Jews, and Jesus starts in on seeds and death and hating your life and loss and more death.
John shifts the context of this teaching from insiders to outsiders, outsiders with privileges Jesus doesn’t have. I wonder if there is something John wants to be sure these outsiders hear from Jesus.
What if Jesus is addressing this to the Greeks precisely because of their privilege? As if to say, are you ready for what it takes to be part of this movement? If you love your Greek life, that’s death. But if you hate what Greekness does to you, then that’s life, forever. If you really want to “see” me, to follow me, that’s the deal.
What if that’s what Jesus means?
As a white person I want to take seriously the possibility that this is the meaning within Jesus’ words. That if we love whiteness, if we hold on to whiteness and the comfort and privilege it brings, that’s death. Literal death for Black and brown people and the earth, and a death to our own humanity. But hating what whiteness does to us? Hating the violence that whiteness relies on? That’s life, forever. That’s seeing Jesus, following Jesus.
Perhaps the whole thing of “hate” bugs us, but that’s what Jesus says–believe me, I checked! I invite us as white folk to sit with why that might make us so uncomfortable.
If we as white folk want to be accomplices in the movement towards collective liberation, then this is a teaching for us. We have to be willing to let the ways of whiteness go. Like the ways we white folk, especially middle and upper class white folk, rely on policing to keep us safe, ignoring how the system of policing historically and presently enacts violence against Black and brown bodies as a means of protecting whiteness, stunting our capacity to imagine other ways of being community together, ways that are transformative and center full human dignity for all.
What if we white folk let that go? Let it die?
That may feel like death to us. So much is unknown when we begin shedding the ways of whiteness: who are we without it? How do we move, breathe, live? Who are our people now?
Remember, Jesus gives us good news, too. There is the death that leads to no-life: the seed never planted, the seed perhaps held tightly as so many of us hold tight to whiteness. The death that leads to no-life. No generation.
But there is the death that leads to life. The seed allowed to go fallow under the earth and generate new life. The acorn that produces the oak. The grain of corn that produces a stalk full of ears of corn. Death that generates life.
I think that’s what Jesus means by eternal life. If we hate whiteness enough to let it die, or, said another way: do we love humanity and the earth more than whiteness?
Do we love Black and brown life more than whiteness?
Do we love freedom more than whiteness?
And Jesus might say, do you love me and my brown, colonized, poor, refugee, persecuted, targeted-by-the-state body more than whiteness?
Then we will keep generating life.
Life without beginning and end, life generating more life.
Beloved white folk: can we be brave enough to let whiteness die?
*Rev. Anne’s reflection is part of an upcoming Lenten Devotional being published by SURJ-Faith, Movement in Faith, and Seminary of the Street. Focused on white supremacy as it presents as violence against Black/brown bodies, the book includes 46 brief reflections on the lectionary by people of color, women, and queer/trans* folk. PDF available for sale here; spiral-bound print copy (limited copies) for sale here.
Rev. Anne Dunlap is a pastor, activist, and herbal warrior; the Faith Coordinator for SURJ; and UCC Community Minister for Racial Justice and Solidarity in Denver, CO. She is committed to fierce love and collective liberation, working in freedom movements with folks across race, gender, and class lines for nearly 30 years. Follow her on Twitter @fiercerev. Her website is fiercerevremedies.com.