I’m still only playing at love. I’m still only playing with black lives. I’m not trying to know their world but pull them into my own. Use the Dream [Between the World and Me] that burdens them to clothe their beautiful black bodies and redeem their inhumane lives. But it cannot. The white ring of power cannot be wielded. It must be deconstructed and destroyed. So the wind can finally be at their back, too.
I find myself trying to be the “enlightened” white person. Trying to convince black people I am on their side. I am no longer ignorant. I see them. And I see me. And I see how that puts us at odds in our world. I see how our colors have wounded and blinded us. I see their skin and feel pity. They see my skin and feel anger, fear, judgement, rightly so. I wish I could unsee them. I wish they could unsee me. Our colors have blinded us to our shared humanity. Rather than the face of God in its manifold beauty, color is all we see. We have forgotten our nakedness. We don’t remember or believe our nativeness. We have traded this essential fact for damned nonsense. We are consumed by it. We take life: black life, minority life, unborn life, condemned life, disabled life, poor life, vulnerable life, any life. We take it for ourselves, for our selfish life. We feed ourselves with each other but choke. Choke on happiness, freedom, rights, choice, sufficiency, independence, dreams, envy, comparison, indifference. But like dogs and fools, we return to our vomit. Force down inhumanity. Though we all do this, we try to hide it. I know there is something inherently wrong about color dictating the value of life. Just as I know there is something inherently wrong about science dictating the value of life. Just as ability. Just as conformity. Just as innocence. Just as guilt. Just as pleasure. Just as beauty. Just as me.
I know I am not supposed to dictate the value of a life. Every day I unlearn myself as God and redeem myself in the poverty of humanity. What, indeed, was the serpent’s whisper? You could be like God. But I didn’t create myself. Nor do I even know the fullness of my own life. I spend every breath understanding and believing who I am. I have to commit to memory I am utterly needy and undeservedly loved. Knowing God wills good to my prideful, biased, greedy, and adulterous self gives me no choice but to extend some fraction of this same mercy to others, the very utmost I can muster as the Lord gives. It gives me no choice but to see what my own color has inflicted on those who do not look like me. And it transforms color from judgement to divine expression.
“How do people endure anything on earth if they cannot have God?”[Tom Dooley]
Without Him, it all doesn’t make sense. All the toil is vain. With Him, it all is inherently wrong. We thought we could be gods. We are fools now for thinking we left that sort of thinking in the past. Dictating the value of life. Playing with love. Playing with each other’s lives. Four hundred years, and we are yet to see.
“My own people own people, but we don’t own that.”[Andy Mineo]
The Creator of life dictates the value of life. Him and Him alone. And if the life He created is a life laid down for friends that doesn’t even bow to death, I have spent awfully too much of my own breath building my own and attempting to sustain it by stepping on the lives of others; knowingly or unknowingly, it doesn’t matter. If I cannot have God, I cannot have anything else. He is God with us. Without Him, I will only see color, only see science, only see ability, conformity, innocence, guilt, pleasure, beauty. I will see only empty shells of humans. An empty shell of life. I will disappear. If I cannot have love, my wounds and my color will keep me at odds with any other. If I cannot have love, my fatherlessness will keep me insecure. If I cannot have love, my singleness with keep me lustful. If I cannot have love, my gifts will keep me adulterous. If I cannot have love, my whiteness will oppose blackness. If I cannot have love, my life is choked and withers into nothing.
I do not want to take life for myself. I see my own and shudder. I only wish to know Love. Not mere acceptance or like. Love will heal my wounds and blindness. I will see others in the fullness of their humanity, not playing with their lives or using them for my own. I will know life as laying down my own for all others as others. A complete self-gift. This is the love that ought to distinguish me from the world. This is the love Jesus charges all who choose to follow Him. This is what the apostles were to proclaim and build the church on, the body of Christ.
In a nation historically claiming the Christian way, we are woefully far off. I am woefully far off. White Christian Americans guarding the city on the hill built by stolen black lives and continuously elevated by broken black bodies below.
“God didn’t mean people to own people, Gideon.”[Harriet Tubman]
The reality of people owning people has endured. And the theory of its rightness, too. The pestilence has inflicted none more than the lives of black people, yet even the atrocities of this devastation have not satisfied the ever-power-seeking nature of the sentiment of superiority. The echoes and ripples of the serpent’s whisper subtly infiltrate. How do people endure each other if they cannot have God? They try to be God. How do we endure ourselves if we cannot have God? We try to dictate the value of life by our own measures. Abortion, police brutality, sex trafficking, abuse, segregation, white supremacy, capitalism, the American Dream, Western materialism, gangs, the death penalty etc., all claim ownership to some degree. All claim a degree of power. We are feeble and fragile people fearfully grabbing at anything, even the lives of other people, to assert our own. White people, specifically, staying above by forcing the lives of black people below. More treasonous still, we have a single fountain sending out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water [James 3:11].
The Christianity of America is a Christianity, of whose votaries it may be as truly said, as it was of the ancient scribes and Pharisees, “They bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. All their works they do for to be seen of men… Ye blind guides! which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but within, they are full of extortion and excess. — Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America. They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Could any thing be more true of our churches? They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it. They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.
“Sin needs quenching in the Savior’s blood, not concealing under the garb of religion.”[Charles Spurgeon]
Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
Excerpt from Life of an American Slave by Frederick Douglas.
Racism endured under the garb of religion for a long time, under Christianity specifically. We would be foolish to think it does not still. We would also be unaware of our condition as humans if we think racism has not found other ways to endure. Poisoning our hearts and inflicting real harm on the lives of people created under the image of God. Racism, like all sin, is treasonous. It taints the very things we ought to be able to trust. It scatters and separates. The refuge of radical hope and freedom found in Christianity was reduced to belittlement and chains. Gratitude to the superior white race. Something purposed to break chains spoiled to fastening them. How do we believe in the goodness of something when so much is spoiled by humanity? By sin? How can the very institutions meant to protect lives and uphold safety be trusted when so much is spoiled by the actions of human beings? Incessant betrayal. I do not know how it can be endured if one does not believe in God. Goodness outside of humanity redeeming and salvaging our woe some choices and poor stewardship of free will. How do we even sort out this true Goodness when people claim it as their own and bend it to fit their will? True Goodness gathers; sin, under the garb of religion, scatters.
I don’t know what it feels like to be betrayed at this level. African American slaves seemingly facing the betrayal of Christianity. Black men and women facing the betrayal of the law meant to protect their life. I guess this is the nature of betrayal. It muddles what is real. Christianity and the true love of Christ is no betrayer. Men only know how to betray. Following Christianity is both knowing for goodness to be spoiled, there must have been true Goodness to begin with, and this true Goodness is the only way to endure all the spoiled goodness. My fellow white Christians, we have betrayed God’s goodness in our black brothers and sisters. We have suggested to God His body should be white.
In the Netflix film “American Son,” a mom reports her teenage son missing. Kendra is a black woman, her husband, Scott, is white, and their son, Jamal, is biracial. The original work is a theatre production, so the story consists of dialogue between the characters in the police station in the early hours of the morning. Kendra and Scott are still married but currently separated. There are many heated conversations between them, all incredibly significant, but one, in particular, is regarding the confusion Jamal has with his identity. Raised as both a white male and the token black male in a wealthy, white neighborhood and school. Kendra unveils the reality to Scott that Jamal cannot grow up as Scott did and be who he is. Though Scott may have made sure Jamal had all the resources many other kids of color did not have, it does not change the way a white supremacist society views a person who is not white. Jamal wrestles with not being white enough and not being black enough. He tells his mom he feels like “the face of the race.”
Courtney Ahn is a graphic designer, and on her Instagram account @courtneyahndesign, she posted a graphic explaining white privilege. One of the ways she mentions white people “actively benefit from the oppression of people of color” is “your [white individuals] actions are not perceived as those of all your race.”
The face of the race.
She also explains the existence of white privilege “as a direct result of both historic and enduring racism, biases, and practices designed to oppress people of color.” This includes, among others, slavery, being counted as 3/5 person, redlining, and police brutality.
Kendra wants Jamal to embrace his black identity and stand up for himself, assert his rights as a human being. Scott treats Jamal as white, as if all those human rights are automatically ensured to him by the color of his skin. The police chief at the end of the movie, in a conversation with Kendra, reminds her of the ugly truth; the law that is supposed to guarantee every person’s rights is operating in an “American society that says white lives matter more and black lives are expendable” [Jemar Tisby].
Jamal is not white enough to matter more but black enough to be expendable. This is the identity he gets to wrestle with. The wake of whiteness and current manifestation of racism.
Being the recipient of so much betrayal, how does one escape from feeling betrayed by their own identity? By their own appearance and design? Being a person of color in a whitewashed society, this is daily. Being white in a whitewashed society, I don’t know what this is like. I do recognize my responsibility to assert the truth of people of color’s identity and design, though. One of immense purpose, value and love. I also recognize this often times will be as telling a woman in the thick of the pains of childbirth that her labor will not compare to the joy experienced when her child is born. The pain is loud and real right now. How is the truth enough right now when the structures are shackles? Upholding people of color in the truth of the fullness of their humanity and abundantly loved lives does not seem to go very far in the face of giant injustice and system wide oppression. Yet, it does, and truth must not be understated. It is certainly not a place to rest, but any further effort will not endure unless it is founded in the belief that we share a divine signature and are wonderfully made. The outworking of true belief cannot be bound to words alone.
“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”[Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey]
It is in my own heart that I must begin. To face the betrayal and evil I find within it. Only in this can I resist playing the lives of others. Playing loving them. Trying to be liked or fit in rather than loving and dissolving barriers. Acts of kindness will be extended not out of some self-seeking approval but out of the burning desire for their good alone. I will love out of the deep-rooted belief in our Creator and His image we together bear. His love will send me out from the upper room to stir things up as the apostles once did. To go out in the world distinguished by the royal law Jesus Himself commanded. To love my neighbor as myself. As a white person, I recognize I have been and am very far off from my black neighbor. Betraying them rather than loving them. Betraying their very identities and betraying the God I believe in.
Lord, have mercy; bestow Your Holy Spirit upon me, so I may be sent from the upper room to love and keep betrayal at bay.