Prelude to a Conversion

Prelude to a Conversion October 23, 2017

I’ve begun to suspect I may be approaching a personal metanoia on race.  I didn’t think I needed one.  After all, I was raised with an unquestioned, matter-of-fact sense of racial equity and multicultural awareness, including a cross-cultural living experience, from a young age.  I was taught, implicitly and explicitly, that all human beings are equally loved by God and made in his image.  I believed this easily, and still do.

I would like to think that is enough.  I would like to take solace in the individualistic excuse that I have no control over my own race or ancestry, which is true enough on the face of it.  But it’s also true that I cannot escape these things that, though I did not ask for them, are nonetheless a part of me.  None of us has a say in the people, the place, or the piece of history we are born into.  Yet we are all born to somebody, and something, nonetheless.

For me, that somebody and something is the Mennonites – a heritage that includes a deep history of pacifistic paleoconservatism.  Of course, such terms mean something very different in the Anabaptist world than in the secular political sphere.  Still, as much as some modern Mennonites seek to align themselves with political progressivism, nonviolence is baked into our history and self-understanding in a way that racial concerns are not.  Mennonites who now seek to address race in a meaningful way (which is not necessarily the same as aligning with progressivism, as will be explained) must start with this knowledge, as in an article I came across earlier this month, which begins,

In the last two months, in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, we’ve read many white people in my Mennonite community and others committed to nonviolence reiterating their commitment to peace. In a recent article for Anabaptist historians, Tobin Miller-Sherer describes these “smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence” as “bumptious.” This is a good word because Mennonites are extremely skilled at being proud in a humble way.

The article is fairly long and provoked too many thoughts to detail.  I still have problems with parts of it, especially the idea that practicing nonviolence and opposing racism – both being moral necessities – could ever truly be in conflict, or that racial reconciliation and white supremacy are somehow mutually exclusive topics of discussion.  That said, I know all too well the tempting pitfall of invoking nonviolence as a claim to superiority.  I have fallen into it myself, on multiple occasions.

Seeking insight from others, I shared my initial attempts to digest the article in a few places on social media, saying,

This article was a challenging read for me. Most of the time I was reading it I kept talking back to it in my head, at some points pushing back against false dichotomies and overgeneralizations as I often do, but there is something else here.

I chafe at phrases like “white liberal” or “white moderate” or “white theology” or “white Christianity”, as if whiteness – ok, my whiteness – automatically and irredeemably tainted everything. And if that’s the case, what can I even do about it?

As soon as I say that, it sounds ugly and naïve. It sounds like white liberal guilt or white moderate handwringing or white conservative defensiveness or all three at once. And I don’t want to be any of those things.

So I’m left with these questions that I started out asking rhetorically, as if feeling threatened – although I then felt disturbed to notice that I felt threatened – and then sincerely, because I really do honestly want to know:

For those of us who are stuck with whiteness, is there any way out of the dilemma between self-flagellation and self-defensiveness in discussions about race? There’s got to be a third way here, but what is it?

What should I do, or say, or be, as a white person who wants to be a better Christian?

I got a few good-faith stabs at answers – or beginnings thereof – including a recommendation of Michael Eric Dyson’s pastoral plea in his recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  In this reviewer’s assessment,

This is a book that will anger some readers, especially those who reject Dyson’s central premise: that if we want true racial equality in America, whites themselves must destroy the enduring myths of white supremacy. Even sympathetic readers might mistake this extraordinary work for merely a catalog of white sins.

But such a reading fails to account for the actual experience of Dyson’s sermon, in which a black preacher speaks to his white congregants in the most tender, intimate terms, even as he preaches against a culture of “whiteness” that “grows more shameless, more cruel, more uncaring by the day.” Dyson is all too familiar with the claims of innocence and the kneejerk defensiveness that will surely greet this book, and yet he sets out to conquer such denial not only with the difficult truth but also, astonishingly, with love. “Beloved,” he writes, in the voice of one ministering to the sick, “your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in the place of the black bodies it wills into nonbeing.”

Many white readers may wince, as I did, to hear their own indifference to black suffering named with such precision, and some, desperate not to face their involvement in America’s systems of racial oppression, might abandon this book altogether. But that would be to miss an essential lesson. For again and again Dyson makes it clear that more than white guilt, he seeks action, and more than condemnation, he wants change. He wants readers to wake from their sleep of ignorance about “what it means to be black in America.”

Well then.  That’s a place to start.

I don’t want to think of myself as – or be perceived as – a white liberal, or a white moderate, or a white conservative, nor to default into whatever predictable reaction any of these might suggest. But I am, inescapably, white. And I want to be a better Christian. I want to eradicate whatever traces of racism remain unacknowledged in me. I want to extricate myself from participation in systemic racism in any form.

That’s a tall order, to be sure, and not the sort of thing that can be accomplished simply by reading a book.  And it seems presumptuous to imagine an end point at which I can claim to be completely cured.  Like most conversions, this will probably have to be an ongoing one, without a definitive end.  But this is where I need to start: to listen to what this black pastor has to say to me as a white American.

My intention is not to flagellate myself for an accident of birth in which I had no say, in a ritual display of moral superiority.  Nor do I seek to acquit myself of benefiting, willfully or not, from the undeniable privilege that comes with this particular accident.  A real conversion must be something other, something deeper, than either of these.  I don’t know what that third thing is, or where to start.  I need others, especially brothers and sisters of color, to point the way to me.

I can’t honestly claim to approach the subject unguardedly.  I may at times react, as I sometimes do when confronted with what feels to me like white guilt, with a defensive, “Well, what am I supposed to do?”  In which case, the least I can do when I find myself reacting this way is to pause a moment, then ask the same question in a spirit of listening: “Yes, what am I supposed to do?”

I don’t know what the answer to that might be.  I don’t know exactly in what ways I need to be converted.  But I believe that a national-scale conversion from what Dyson and others have called America’s “original sin” is needed, and that a conversion on such a scale must begin with each of us personally, and that each of us must include me.  I cannot rightly claim immunity to the social sickness of racism.  And the sick, all of us, need healing.

I don’t know what that healing is supposed to look like for me.  But I’m hoping to learn.

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