Thinking about Ferguson–A White Man’s Christian “Contrast Experience”

A teacher of mine once said: the right question to ask is not “who am I?”  The right question to ask is “to whom do I belong?”  As Christians, this is the most important question we can ask.  Not only in our relationship to God, Christ, and the Church but also to others, both individually and collectively.

This also is a good way for white Christians to think about race, racism, and white privilege.  To whom do we belong?  To a fictional “white race” or a dominating “white culture”?  To some extent, yes.  But, in the end, we do not belong there.

History is a good place to start.  “Race” is not the work of the Creator.  It was the work of Western Europeans as they voyaged to find trade routes and enrich their home kingdoms.  As they did, they had to find a way to understand the relation of their “Euro-Christian” civilization to the rest of the world. What emerged gradually was the theory of the “races.”  The “white race” was considered the superior one and was Christian and Western-European.  Others, such as “mongloid” and “negroid” occupied various places of subordination within a hierarchy that had whites on top.  Each “race” had innate characteristics that were inferior to those of the “white” race, but also in relation to each other.  The non-white “races” had to be conquered and assimilated into Euro-white Christian civilization for their own good and salvation.

This is the roots of “race” as a way of understanding the human person.  It reinforced the power structures that had been created by colonization and provided the conquerors a justification for their actions.  Its power structure has changed, but remains within the fabric of society. In short, the historical construction of “race” was a new creation that reinforced Euro-white Christians in positions of wealth and power.

Obviously, “race” has no biological basis.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.  It matters much more than most whites think it does.  Being born into a white social location confers advantages that mostly are not offered to those born in a different racialized location.  For example, an African-American child from Garfield Park is not likely to have the same life options and possibilities as a white, Scandinavian-descended child from Andersonville.  It is not the only factor.  But it is an important one.  Possessing a white social location, whether we like it or not, often gives access to things like networks for job-hunting, loans for purchasing homes, and safe neighborhoods and schools.

Since many, if not most, white people are blind to the on-going realities of racism and white privilege, there is a process of awakening that must occur.  One way to understand this is as a “contrast experience.”  This is when you are confronted with a grave injustice or evil and cannot look away.  Its negativity and sinfulness slap you in the face. This experience of negativity contrasts radically with our understanding of God as pure life and positivity—that is, the One who possesses and wields the creative power of life, redemption, and re-creation of all humanity. In response to this contrast, we protest “this should not be!”

This is a moment of revelation and conversion.  God’s will to life becomes clear along with God’s preferential option for the poor, oppressed and downtrodden.  God’s presence is always among us, through the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and calls us to work to eradicate all that causes this unjust suffering.  And to realize our own location within the structural sin, even if we ourselves did not create it.

For those of us who have been racialized as “white,” this contrast experience with racism and white privilege is an uncomfortable, strange, and even painful process.  This is why it is an ongoing conversion experience and a point of contact with God.  God meets us where we are and enables us to work for the good of the victims and the oppressed, even as the Holy One continues to redeem those who are in positions of power, whether or not the power is wanted or explicitly used for harm.  For power and privilege are not bad things in themselves.  They are neutral, yet often infected by social and personal sin.  So, we offer the benefits of white privilege to the Holy One, through the community called church that is Christ’s body.  And to trust in God’s Spirit, “For the one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” ( 1 Thess 5:24).

The fruit of the contrast experience may be as simple as this: own your social location and the history that you have inherited from your forebears, and whatever ambiguous power dynamics that go along with it, and bring it before Jesus the Christ. This contrast experience, awakening, and ongoing conversion is not a curse.  It is a hard blessing.  As I once heard preached, we often are like the gifts offered at the communion table.  God takes us, blesses us, breaks us, and gives us to the world.  The contrast experience is the blessing of a careful breaking-down of an old identity for the purposes of creating a new, more Christ-like one.  Only God knows what that will be.  But it will be one that can fully hear the cries of our brothers and sisters who have been racialized as inferior, a process that has stripped away their dignity and humanity.

Images of Black Jesus

A new, God-given identity will open our eyes to the structural sin of racism and the infection of sin that creates white privilege.  But this will also remind us that “white” is not an identity.  It is something that shapes us and has real meaning and consequences, often for our own benefit and for the detriment of non-whites.  Still, it is a social location that has been thrust upon us.  We must own it.  But we must also remember that identity lies in Christ and in the traditions that have been passed on by our forebears (even as their best efforts often were subverted to maintain “whiteness.”)

So the question remains: not “who am I?” but “to whom do I belong?”  That is the question that whites (and all of us) have to answer before God, Christ, the church, and the racially oppressed within our communities.  And it has to be lived.  So, to whom do you belong?



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