When a well-intentioned white person exudes white supremacy

When a well-intentioned white person exudes white supremacy August 10, 2016

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Well the Gospel Coalition is in trouble again. They wanted to participate in the race conversation so they published an article entitled “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband.” A lot of my progressive friends are upset about it. And my conservative friends are saying, “You tell us to be vulnerable about our racism, but this is what happens when we are.”

On reading the article, I saw some things I would affirm if I were having a pastoral conversation with the author and other things I would wince at. The problem is that well-intentioned white people really do hurt people of color with our words. When that happens, we can’t be defensive about whatever reaction we receive if we genuinely want to learn and improve.

First, I should say that I really appreciate the author’s courage and honesty in speaking unfiltered about the world she inhabits. I realize there are progressives who are genuinely shocked that racist Uncle Freds still exist because they don’t have any direct contact with them. It’s a bit surprising to me that in 2016, people in church would be making snide judgmental comments about an interracial marriage. But it happens. And it cannot be taboo to talk about it, or else we’ll never move past it.

I think one of the things that is off-putting about the piece is the way that everything is presented as having a clear answer. I realize I may have a philosophical disagreement with the Gospel Coalition on whether it’s helpful to present spiritual life as having clear answers in the first place. But when you’re talking about racism as a white person and you imply that everything is easy and obvious if you would just read your Bible, then you’re not really engaged in the critically important practice of confession.

To be honest, I didn’t see anything in the way of confession in this piece. I don’t think this was because of the author’s arrogance. I think it’s because she was trying to give herself and her readers a pep talk. It seems like she was writing this for an openly racist audience and trying to speak in a firm, loving way that could overcome their objections. At the same time, the piece probably would have been better received if it took the form of testimony rather than advice, and also if we got to hear something more direct from the black son-in-law.

The author’s move in giving her own engagement ring to the son-in-law to use is a great metaphor for the tremendous communication gap in the piece. It was a huge deal for her emotionally to do that after having lost her husband. She felt like it was the ultimate way to say I accept you as a son. But it was also a very controlling mother-in-law thing to do. We aren’t told whether the son-in-law could afford to get his own diamond or not. But how could he buy a ring himself after his mother-in-law gave him the diamond she got from her dead husband?

So now, the mother-in-law’s imposing self-martyrdom is quite literally the physical centerpiece of their marriage. You can’t make it more all about you than to give your black son-in-law the diamond for him to give to your daughter. But all of this happened in the context of grief and an earnest attempt to be accepting. It was genuinely well-intentioned. And who knows? The son-in-law may have actually asked her to bail him out. I’m just not seeing how that would have played out.

Now there’s a very important theological problem in the piece that I want to try to explain as clearly and gently as possible. The author says as her first piece of advice to “remember your theology.”

All ethnicities are made in the image of God, have one ancestor, and can trace their roots to the same parents, Adam and Eve. As you pray for your daughter to choose well, pray for your eyes to see clearly, too. Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises. [Latter emphases mine]

I realize the author was probably trying to say that Glenn moved from being just an anonymous black guy to her beloved son. Obviously she didn’t mean to say he stopped being black by becoming her son. But her word choice expressed more than she realized. White supremacy is not the actual belief that white skin is superior to darker skin. White supremacy is the belief derived in Enlightenment thought that there’s one “true humanity” which exists beyond cultural particularity.

As soon as we posit a generic “true humanity,” we set up a scenario where some cultures are able to realize their full human potential and others aren’t. And the historical result of this Enlightenment theory was that the stubborn savages who did not seem able to take on the true humanity of rational Christian teaching were conquered and enslaved for their own edification.

The ideological justification for colonial conquest was not the chauvinistic superiority of European Christendom but the universal nature of humanity that only European Christians seemed to grasp. That seemingly subtle distinction is what makes modern racism utterly different than the rivalry between the Spartans and Athenians or the British and French. It’s no longer one tribe vs. another. It’s people who have become truly human by transcending culture vs. people whose cultural particularity keeps them subhuman.

White supremacy is the unconscious feeling of superiority that white people have because they’re able to “see clearly” that there’s no such thing as culture or race since we’re all generic human beings made in the image of God. What makes people of color inferior is that they can’t seem to get past the trinkets of their cultural particularity and inhabit the stratosphere of rational Christianity that is Western civilization’s gift to the world. They keep on “playing the race card” when all white people want to do is just “love people as people” (which is why we’re superior).

The idea that Jesus makes us all the same is a very common misappropriation of biblical teaching. We don’t see color anymore because we’re all one in Christ. Right? Wrong! If you don’t see color, you don’t see Jesus! No, everyone does not become the same under Jesus’ cross. We are one in Christ, but we are not the same in Christ. 1 Corinthians 12 teaches that we are different members of the same body. Jesus’ body is a mosaic of cultural particularity, not a whitewashed generic universal humanity.

The author of the piece mentions a poignant passage from Revelation 7:9 which describes the multitude of humanity in heaven: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes.” This image demonstrates the way biblical teaching is so easy to misappropriate. Do the white robes nullify the multiplicity of tribes and peoples and languages? If we say, “Race won’t matter in heaven because we’re all wearing the white robes of the lamb,” then what we’re promoting is the erasure of other peoples’ cultural particularity as they are assimilated into ours.

So kudos to the Gospel Coalition for stepping into the conversation. I hope somebody in your community will process this feedback that is offered in love.

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