The Pharisee in me. Part II: Pharisaism or Pha[racism]

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes eight woes regarding the Pharisees. Each woe could be the subject of an entire paper in of itself, but for the purposes of this post, I am going to stick to just a couple.

Here is the first.

25″Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26″You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.”

I am a perfectionist through and through. In high school and during my undergraduate years at TCU, I would stay up long into the night making sure assignments, papers or projects were spotless. However, I also suffer from major procrastination, so many of those nights I could have saved a few hours of sleep if I only would have started working on these things earlier. Perfectionism and procrastination are patiently plaguing. I am glad to report my graduate study was not so stained by perfectionism (admittedly may have swung too far in the other direction), but procrastination saw to it that this degree still felt the effects of this pernicious partnership. So too do other areas of my life. Perfectionism and procrastination were and still are not limited to the classroom. They are utterly pervasive.

Honestly, though, if these are the thorns in my flesh I have to endure, they aren’t so bad right? Standing up against addiction or lust, they don’t even sound an alarm. And this is the trouble. Perfectionism and procrastination leave the cup and the dish quite clean on the outside; the same may not be said for addiction and lust. Not only do perfectionism and procrastination keep the outside relatively clean but also create a false reality of the inside. How could this shiny dish without a blemish possibly be flawed on the inside? Looking at only the outside for long enough convinces you it cannot be. This is the patient plague of perfectionism and procrastination. The lens through which I see myself is subtly changed to be the reality I choose to see, not that which actually is. I see the outside as both the outside and the inside. The outside is clean, the inside is clean. The outside is good, the inside is good. The outside isn’t racially offensive or problematic, the inside isn’t racially offensive or problematic.

On to the second.

27″Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28″So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

There is a wonderful paved trail by my house. It connects my small subdivision with the downtown and neighboring communities. It is my favorite place to be in the fall season. The leaves of the trees lining each side of the path are transformed into every shade of red, yellow and orange. The woods inhale the cool air and breathe out this magical mixture of renewal and bark. The dogs certainly enjoy long morning strolls on the trail, taking in the new smells of the day and hopefully seeing some of their canine counterparts. From our entry point, there is a choice to go east or west. This choice ends up being quite significant, as each direction leads to two different worlds.

“Life in the United States is deeply shaped by racial segregation. Of all racial groups, whites are the most likely to choose segregation and are the group most likely to be in the social and economic position to do so. Growing up in segregation (our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, shopping districts, places of worship, entertainment, social gatherings, and elsewhere) reinforces the message that our (white) experiences and perspectives are the only ones that matter. We don’t see people of color around us, and few if any adults acknowledge a lack of racial diversity as a problem. In fact, the classification of which neighborhoods are good and which are bad is always based on race,” –White Fragility pg. 65

Going east on the trail leads to economically lower communities, communities inhabited by mostly people of color, the majority black people. Going west on the trail leads to economically higher communities, communities inhabited by predominantly white people. The unwritten classification of these white communities is nicer and safer. Growing up I remember going west on the trail for the most part. I talked to my mom about this, and she mentioned we did go east when my brother and I were young to a park further along in that direction. I am sure she is telling the truth, but the unproportionate ratio of going west versus east left me with a subconscious bias. West is better and east is avoidable, I am not missing out on much by not going east very often. Yes, there are parks and quite beautiful areas but nothing you can’t find going west. Except the people.

“The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss. Not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value. I could live my entire life without a friend or loved one of color and not see that as a diminishment of my life…I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color- that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained- while simultaneously denying that fact. This attitude has shaped every aspect of my self-identity: my interests and investments, what I care about or don’t care about, what I see or don’t see, what I am drawn to and what I am repelled by, what I can take for granted, where I can go, how others respond to me, and what I can ignore. Most of us would not choose to be socialized into racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that choice.” –White Fragility pg. 69

I hope that you would read the above one more time and let it settle in your thoughts. After considering this reality for the first time, it left me sad, disgusted and convicted. The truth of it in my own life is pretty much played out exactly as the author describes it. I didn’t grow up having close relationships with people of color. In the schools I attended, the populations of people of color were very low, and I definitely didn’t go out of my way to befriend anyone. It really wasn’t until college, mostly due to playing a sport, that I started to build close relationships with people of color. Even then, these relationships were limited to two or three below the surface and a handful of “say hey and check in when I see you but don’t hang out” type relationships. Now, thinking about not having these relationships, thinking that it wouldn’t be a loss not to know these people, leaves a hole in my chest.

What does this all mean? Is the cure just to go and find a couple more black or Asian or brown people to be friends with? This seems quite disingenuous, like checking off a box, so I can say I am good. The truth I have to wrestle with is why it is uncomfortable for me, why is there a bit of resistance or hesitancy to seek authentic relationships with people of color. When I let myself dig deep into this, pushing past all the desires to look good to other people, to save face, and to maintain my status as a good person, I find that I have subconscious racial stereotypes and biases. My thoughts often follow racially problematic and offensive patterns. The messages below the surface that I pull out are that white is the norm or standard for a human being and that I am a part of a superior group. The America I know is one of meritocracy and individualism, of the achievement of the American dream, that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. The original story I believed was that I may be white, but I am not complicit in racism. I don’t actively seek to harm or slander or belittle people of color. The reality I have come to see is racism is a structure, and I cannot escape white history; I carry it with me always as a white person. White history means putting people of color in chains, specifically black people, and claiming it is okay because they are a biologically inferior race, not actually human beings equivalent to white people. A white person is the standard for humans.

I look back at events in my life that seemed relatively normal at the time. However, looking at them without the scales over my eyes, I see the underlying presence of white supremacy and bias. I see the tension of this social construction called race we created yet refuse to acknowledge because acknowledging it would mean first, threatening the cultural dominance white people enjoy and second, dismantling our status as good and moral people. As the author of White Fragility, Robin Diangelo, discusses in the book, we operate by a good/bad binary. People who are racist are bad, so if I am good, I cannot be racist.

By believing this, we check back to the second woe Jesus tells of the Pharisees. We look beautiful. We are whitewashed tombs who outwardly appear clean and innocent to men. However, inwardly, we harbor dead men’s bones, and white people specifically, dead people of color’s bones. Hiding this about myself to save face to the people around me puts my finger on the trigger of Amber Guyger’s gun. My internal judgements and stereotypes of people of color wound them irreparably, though I may never say or do anything inherently harmful. It is this position of my heart that keeps me from loving them as I should, loving them as I love myself and loving them as God loves them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeats the commandment you shall not commit murder and that whoever does will be guilty before the court. He goes on to say that whoever is angry with his brother is also guilty before the court. My understanding is the wrong comes first from the position of the heart. This is where our error lies, and it then manifests itself outwardly in different ways. Thus, I may never hold a gun in my hand, but if I let bias and judgement fester in my heart, just as Amber Guyger, I am guilty before the court.

I was talking to a dear friend of mine and mentor who is black about this and what to do with it all; it seems too big, too weighty to move. Not being interested in just leaving my response to white guilt and indulging self-righteousness with thinking my feeling of guilt means I am still “good,” I genuinely asked him how I could possibly be proud of being white, what about being white could I be truly grateful for when it seems all constructed and privileged. He told me simply that God created me as a white person. This doesn’t excuse or make right all the wrong white people have done by any stretch, rather it gives me as a white person an immense responsibility to seek out my subconscious biases and thought patterns that have been cultivated by a whitewashed culture and most importantly, be real about them, so they can then be changed. Jesus tells the Pharisees in the first woe to first clean the inside so that the outside may be truly clean also. The outside becomes more transparent to the condition of the inside rather than acting as a cover to the hypocrisy and lawlessness of the inside. It is exhausting to keep pride fed, to keep up lies and manufacture a face that always appears whitewashed and clean. The paradox here is that the whitewashed appearance is both desired and ignored. I want to appear outwardly unbiased and objective in my treatment of all people, but in doing so, I ignore not only the reality that I am doing it intentionally to maintain that status but also that it is truly an impossibility. I cannot treat people equally or objectively because I am a human conditioned by social constructs that tell me directly and indirectly that not all people are equal. To believe the opposite would be to ignore much of history and be uninformed of the human condition. However, realizing the deception that having thick scales over our eyes can bring and not being exempt from falling to this deception myself, it remains both shocking and not shocking at all to me that we can be so misled. Yet this doesn’t excuse us for our misled thoughts and actions.

As Paul wrestles with the truth of human nature in the book of Romans, understanding that there is evil within him and constantly fighting doing what he knows is wrong and not doing what he knows is right, so too do we take up the lifelong battle of learning about ourselves and submitting the evil we find in ourselves at the feet of the Lord to be changed and redeemed. I don’t want to indulge the Pharisee in me and fall into the pit of feeding pride and always defending an innocent whitewashed appearance that in no way reflects the hypocrisy and lawlessness I find in my heart. I want to be real about the bias and judgement I find to release its grips over my thoughts and actions, so I may love as I ought to.

I have loving relationships with people of color, and I have racially problematic thought patterns and attitudes. However, I choose not to operate by the good/bad binary. I hope to rather understand and be humbled by my human condition, not seeking or accepting excuses, not expecting forgiveness or absolution, not indulging self-righteousness or guilt but welcoming feedback, learning, transforming and ultimately, loving well.

Woe is me, Lord, there is indeed Pharisee in me. Grant me the grace to acknowledge this, not to hide from it. Help me to bring it into Your light to be transformed, that I may see and love Your people as You do, desiring that we all be gathered as little chicks under Your wings.

Love,

Lauren

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