Repost: Willie Jennings on “Whiteness”

“No one is born white. There is no white biology…White agency and subjectivity–whiteness–forms as people imagine themselves being transformed and moving toward maturity in three fundamental ways: 1) moving from being owned to being an owner, 2) from being a stranger to a citizen, and 3) from being identified with darkness to being seen as white.”

–Willie Jennings

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“liberating Christians”

I like so many quotes from this interview, but here’s one that stood out to me right now:

“It’s an absolutely urgent matter for us as a church to help liberate our people from all forms of oppression and I can hardly think of any form of oppression more devastating than white supremacy…It’s difficult to follow Jesus into a life of poverty, for instance, if all that you’ve been taught is that poverty is a curse. And that poverty goes against your birthright as a white person. Or your birthright as an immigrant that’s trying to live the American Dream, which again is just a euphemism for white supremacy. So liberating Christians from that kind of imperial ideology–this false ideology–into the naturalness [of] what Jesus teaches about the fluidity of community and our connection to the natural world, I think has nothing short of a revolutionary effect on people who begin to understand this.”

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“our modern idolatry”

The sin of Whiteness is not really about skin tone, but about hubris and domination. The sin of Patriarchy is not really about birth assignment, but about greed and violence. Both sins are endlessly entangled in our modern idolatry of White Men.

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Review of Flame in the Night by Heather Munn

thumbnail_4554 SHARABLE-2Flame in the Night is a YA novel based on a real-life French community in the throes of Nazi occupation. It fictionalizes the community members who helped organize an elaborate (and illegal) network to hide WWII refugees (mostly Jewish children). This is Heather Munn’s third installment in her series about the village and people of Chambon-sur-Lignon. I’ve read the first two novels as well and really liked all of them, but this third book is especially haunting.

If you’ve ever prayed for peace and at the same time wondered how you would respond if your loved one or your community was under threat, these stories will reveal something to you. Not just about violence and war, but also about internal conflicts that arise in humans who face their own fear and yet continue to feel vulnerable. You’ll find characters whose motives run the gamut. Some want revenge. Some want to stop the evil, even if they can’t heal it. Some simply want to care for the ones they love. All throughout, many more quietly help in whatever way they can. They risk arrest and deportation. Some face their own death. They know the threats are real.

Author, Heather Munn, treats these courageous and hard-won stories with a kindness that allows her character’s to speak for themselves. She opens up space for conversation beyond the simple scripts and, in that way, sets this book apart among young adult fiction. She is especially good when witnessing to how young people hold onto meaningful choices in the midst of their pain, something all of us desperately need to believe is possible. For instance, take one of the story’s heroines, a young Jewish woman by the name of Elisa Schulmann. Munn writes, “She drew the sharp knife down the stone, praying again for mercy, for justice, for no more death.” Even as Elisa contemplates their untenable life in hiding, her brief prayer is wholehearted and complex.

Without being preachy or trite, this story invites the reader to take action and to do so in a way that is uncompromising. These characters believe that ordinary people, in all of their complicated mess, can stand with and shelter the vulnerable. That when there’s sin and darkness–and even a president who is deporting citizens of the world into places of danger and violence–we can all do something about it. (By the way, the actual French town depicted in the book continues to take in displaced families today. The Smithsonian Magazine recently did a wonderful job reporting on it.) Flame in the Night is a bright witness to grace in these dark moments of our history.

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“we were helpless against it”

20180731_170521I began to realize the enormity of my addiction to whiteness when I spent the summer in Lubbock, Texas. I was 20 years-old and still getting used to my new west Texas surroundings. My older brother ran a sales office in town and offered to train me in the business. As I walked from my car into the office that day, I noticed a disheveled and gray-haired black man shuffling toward a pickup truck in the parking lot. He reached into the bed and grabbed a leaf blower. It probably only took half a second for me to see this happen and then decide that this man looked suspicious. I’m not usually one to intervene in potentially risky situations, but this thought persisted. In any case, I walked over and asked him if that leaf blower was his. The man simply replied, “Yes,” and then he kept moving things around in the back of the pickup. At that point I looked around and asked, “Is this your truck?”

The man must have ignored me because from there I can only remember going into my brother’s office. I told my brother about this “homeless-looking guy” who might be stealing yard equipment out of a truck in the parking lot. Even before I finished explaining it to him, I saw his face kind of contort, staring at me in this pained way. He then quietly said that this man probably owned that truck and was likely working at his job. He instructed me not to go outside anymore and to leave that man alone.

Hearing my brother cast doubt on my assumptions was enough for me to feel pretty moronic and, given a little time, deeply ashamed. I can now see how whiteness made it quite easy to act on a racial stereotype about a man who had done nothing wrong and then made it easy for me to just move on after my racist assumptions without even an apology. This new awareness of my own prejudice came through loud and clear, yet I still had trouble fitting it in with the image of myself as a nice and helpful person. Perhaps my history inside whiteness encouraged me to take action in the first place, to imagine myself as a noble and courageous citizen rather than a young and light-skinned visitor with racial prejudice. Awareness about this poisonous air that we breathe seems to develop in people over time. At least that’s been the case for me. My own awareness grew little by little.

This story is precisely why, even today, I need a spiritual recovery program similar to the motif of the 12 steps. I need to reclaim my own best intentions, to find a community of people who have learned to overcome whiteness, and to recognize every day seeds of beloved community in our midst. Without God’s grace and my growing awareness about the lies I once believed, whiteness would only continue to inflict more and more damage.

So here I am making another attempt at translating my grandfather’s little A.A. book into a message of hope for people like me who have too much privilege and want real liberation:

FEB. 27–A.A. Thought for the Day

When we came into recovery, the first thing we did was to admit that we couldn’t do anything about our whiteness. We admitted that this racist system had us licked and that we were helpless against it. We never could decide whether or not to accept its privilege. We always took the advantages conferred. And since we couldn’t do anything about it ourselves, we put our whole whiteness problem into the hands of God. We turned the whole thing over to that Power greater than ourselves. And we have nothing more to do about it, except to trust God to take care of the problem for us. Have I done this honestly and fully?

March 9 –A.A. Thought for the Day

If we had absolute faith in the power of God to keep us from the lies of whiteness and if we turned our privilege problem entirely over to God without reservations, we wouldn’t have to do anything more about it. We’d be free from privilege once and for all. But since our faith is apt to be weak, we have to strengthen and build up this faith. We do this in several ways. One way is by going to meetings and listening to others tell how they have found all the strength they need to overcome their addiction to whiteness. Is my faith being strengthened by this personal witness of people addicted to whiteness?

Now the rest of the story is up to each of us to tell. We can’t very well move forward without first taking personal inventory of all the damage we’ve done in our addiction. We need to help others feel that there is a real way out. What story is yours to offer?

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“Privilege is our weakness”

20180731_170521June 24–A.A. Thought for the Day

Privilege is our weakness. We suffer from mental conflicts from which we look for escape by drowning our problems in excess. We try through feelings of superiority to push away from the realities of life. But privilege does not feed, privilege does not build, it only borrows from the future and it ultimately destroys. We try to drown our feelings in order to escape life’s realities, little realizing or caring that in continued accumulation we are only multiplying our problems. Have I got control over my unstable emotions?

This “Thought for the Day” from my grandfather’s little A.A. book was originally written about the weakness of alcohol. Like my previous post, I changed a few words to get at its meaning for us who live in privilege. I hope the original content shines through in spite of my editing, as it has proven to be spiritual gold for folks all over the place.

The next day’s entry (June 25th) goes on to say, “One of the most encouraging facts of life is that your weakness can become your greatest asset.” So true! If only we had this program and its resources for those of us who feel licked by an addiction to social advantages. Maybe it’s time to start one…

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“things I do not miss”

20180731_170521My now deceased grandpa Walsh gave me this little AA book back in January of 1998. Nowadays it’s held together by some duct tape and love; I treasure it and, in fact, read it daily. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in the day I was rapidly heading off the rails: substance abuse, petty crimes, as well as many other self-destructive things. I’ve been on a whole different trajectory for the last 20 years. In fact, it was in April of 1998 that I eventually came to my senses,only a few months after my grandpa handed me this book and told me to call him anytime I wanted help. Although I don’t currently drink or use drugs, I never really considered myself an alcoholic or even an addict. But I have found it fairly straight forward to apply the wisdom of the 12 steps to my own need for recovery from any number of things. If you just read between the lines (a little), the message is pretty darn clear no matter what idea of recovery might be appropriate. For example, take this passage here:

June 1–A.A. Thought for the Day

Some things I do not miss since becoming dry: that overall awful feeling physically, including the shakes, a splitting headache, pains in my arms and legs, bleary eyes, fluttering stomach, droopy shoulders, weak knees, a three-day beard, and a flushed complexion. Also, facing my loved one at breakfast. Also, composing the alibi and sticking to it. Also, trying to shave or put on make-up with a shaky hand. Also, opening up my wallet to find it empty. I don’t miss these things, do I?

I realized that the things a recovering alcoholic does not miss about getting wasted can easily be translated into the things I do not miss about seeking privilege. I now occasionally take some liberties to change a few words from these readings in order to adjust my focus to those powers. Here’s my own list of “things I do not miss” since letting go of the so-called American Dream:

  • I do not miss measuring myself with neighbors, friends, co-workers–all in secret–about who has the best possessions, job, social standing, etc.
  • I do not miss moving at the speed of machines and feeling dizzy with my anxiety, always trying to keep up.
  • I do not miss working harder and harder to plan for benefits, respect, and a future with more and more money.
  • I do not miss living in denial about all this and justifying it with words like “prudence” or “value.”
  • I do not miss churches and sermons that could only apply to people like me with way too much privilege in my hands.
  • I do not miss feeling ashamed–yet responsible for my choices–and apparently powerless to change.
  • I do not miss taking advantage of people’s labor who must work for low wages in order to survive.
  • I do not miss grabbing more than my fair share.
  • And I do not miss feeling sorry for myself.

No, I do not miss these things!

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Peru 2018: “La Hora Del Cuento”

Check out this video I edited about a new community library project in Lima, Peru that my family helped inaugurate this summer. Our wonderful friends at El Viñedo de Laderas de Chillón along with my wife, Julissa Winton, worked so hard to both host and organize this weekend-long event. We are so fortunate to have them in our lives and to actually witness them doing this great work in our communities. My love to you all!

Miren este video que edité sobre un proyecto de la nueva biblioteca comunitaria en Lima, Perú que mi familia ayudó a inaugurar este verano. Nuestros maravillosos amigos en El Viñedo de Laderas de Chillón junto con mi esposa, Julissa Winton, trabajaron arduamente tanto para crear el espacio como para organizar este evento de todo un fin de semana. Somos muy afortunados de tenerlos en nuestras vidas y de ser testigos del gran trabajo que hacen en nuestras comunidades. ¡Mi amor para todos ustedes!

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“an unclean spirit in our midst”

I’ve seen many people debate racism, social problems, and political divisions in the United States. The conversations tend to be framed around those in power and the terms they use. But the real enemy isn’t the war of certain races or nationalities against one another, with collateral damage on each side. It is the domination of human lives by people who believe in the moral righteousness of their strength. It is the scapegoating of the few by the many. It is, among other names, an unclean spirit in our midst called white supremacy.

Today, as I write, over 2000 Latino families have been separated and detained into concentration camp-style facilities simply because their full humanity is obscured under the label “illegal immigrant.”

Scapegoating in the U.S. will justify everything from the shooting of an unarmed child (Tamir Rice) to the execution of a man as he runs for his life (Walter Scott). It defines certain people as expendable and subhuman, while at the same time claiming the so-called virtue of the “good guys.”

White Christians like myself need to open ourselves to the wisdom of Jesus’ scapegoated community: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9)! This testimony, in reality, is not mine to share, but is alive in the lived experience of all marginalized people who turn to God for safety.

As we recognize our own complicity and biases, may God give us the grace to repent, seek justice, and find renewal with our brothers and sisters. May we do this in solidarity with the One who refused to wield power over others but instead delighted in becoming like a child. This is the Christ we need!

Amen

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“the promise of the church today”

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Lk 17.20-21). Church community may seem to be a sign of “the kingdom of God,” but I think in pointing to it we’re reaching for an idol of our own making. Jesus encountered brothers and sisters among those who heard and kept the word of God. That’s the promise of church today as well, not a bureaucracy like evangelicalism or even a local expression of “we, the people” in Christian fellowship. Jesus’ body is secured and monitored by the Holy Spirit (often in the midst of church community).

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