White Fragility

  • October 15, 2019

Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:2-4, 2:1-4

I will never forget the day I visited the Voortrekker monument in South Africa.  This monument celebrates those of Dutch descent who travelled from the Cape Colony on the tip of the continent to settle further east. Like many monuments, this one is imposing: set on a hill, with a great bank of steps leading up to the door. As I entered the building, I was surrounded by yellow light, and the biggest marble frieze in the world.  It was beautiful — until I got a closer look.  The frieze was full if images of conquest. Some were gruesome in and of themselves. Others were gutting because I knew what they led to: the collapse of the Zulu empire, a nation of Apartheid, and a modern South Africa of unspeakable inequality. This monument marks the beginning of it all. Worse, it celebrates that beginning. It is constructed so that once a year, a beam of light shines directly on the center of the monument, symbolizing God’s blessing on the Voortrekkers and their achievements.

Just being in the room made me nauseous. How could anyone build such a monument? How could anyone leave it standing? I walked out into the sunshine and sat down on the great steps, full of self-righteous disgust for the white peoples of South Africa. Then, suddenly, my world turned upside down.

I thought about the pilgrims and pioneers who we so often celebrate in New England. I thought of the indigenous communities who were systematically cheated and destroyed here. I thought about the African peoples and their descendants who have endured 246 years of enslavement, followed by racial segregation, and continuing disparities in incarceration, health, wealth, and so much more. Of course, I had known about all of this history before; this was just the first time that I realized it had anything to do with me. Witnessing the price of white dominance somewhere else, I began to grasp the cost of my own racial privilege.

You may wonder, what does the bible have to say about race and racism? That’s a complicated question.  It’s important to remember that our scriptures contain passages like the one we heard today from the gospel of Luke, where Jesus equates discipleship with slavery.  By doing so, Jesus implicitly condones the institution of slavery. Now, slavery in Jesus’ time and place was not exclusively based on race.  Still, Jesus’ implicit approval is deeply problematic. Biblical passages accepting or even promoting slavery have been one brutally effective tool in the effort to legitimize slavery and other forms of racism in our country.

At the same time, our scriptures speak strongly against violence and injustice, and champion those who are excluded or vulnerable.  The Prophet Habbakuk, who testified to God’s word in Jerusalem around 600 bce, is so overcome by the injustice of his time and place, that he offers a rare prophetic challenge to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you do not listen? Or cry to you “Violence” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.  The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.”

Today we begin discussing the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.  DiAngelo invites us to a new level of awareness of racism as “a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.”  Those of us who are white have been carefully taught to think of racial injustice as somebody else’s problem. It’s the problem of folks who are on the receiving end of discrimination. It’s the problem of folks who speak and act viciously, out of hate.  Yet those of us who consider ourselves both white and well-meaning are integral to this pervasive system of institutionalized bias. We are the ones who benefit from it, and we are the ones who uphold it – consciously or not. 

Put away all your excuses, Robin DiAngelo tells us. Maybe you have a great education, unique personal experiences, or family ties that persuade you that you cannot possibly be party to this vast and often subtle system of racial oppression. Do not believe it. Racism is not the sin of a few scattered extremists. Racism is not even a matter of personal intention.  Racism is a natural consequence of socialization.  None of us can escape the disease. Therefore, to deny the diagnosis, and to refuse treatment, is to doom the whole body of society to graver illness.

So what do we do?  If racism is an integral part of our history, a part of our country, a part of our scriptures, and even a part of us – what can we do?

One step is to shift our dominant historical narrative.  This season marks the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery in the United States. There has been some great journalism exploring the impact of that history. The Massachusetts Council of Churches chose to mark the event by celebrating Black Resiliency in our commonwealth. They remembered the writer Phillis Wheatley; and the first woman of African descent allowed to purchase a house in Boston, Zipporah Potter Atkins. They remembered children who rode busses to unfamiliar school districts, and youth who marched to protest police brutality. They remembered Belinda Sutton, who was enslaved in Medford, who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court again and again for her back pay. They remembered Prince Estabrook, who though enslaved, fought with the Lexington Militia in the Revolutionary war. They remembered Lucy Foster of South Church in Andover, who ran a tavern as well as a stop on the Underground Railroad. They celebrated so many folks who have lived with courage and determination through these 400 years.  Why isn’t that part of the story I learned in school, a part of the story we tell ourselves, this legacy that includes both white injustice and black strength?

Another step is to change our monuments. On the cover of your bulletin is a photograph of Kahinde Wiley’s new statue, Rumors of War. Standing 27 feet high and 16 feet wide, it was inspired by equestrian statues of Confederate generals in Richmond, VA. Instead of a Conferederate General, however, it features a young man of African descent, with dreadlocks, a hoodie, and ripped jeans.  At the unveiling, the artist described his experience of seeing the Confederate monuments: “I’m looking up at those things that give me a sense of dread and fear… Today,” he said, “we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.” Soon this statue will join the others in Richmond.

There is so much that we can do, so much that we need to do.  We can change our historical narrative, our monuments, our holidays.  We can challenge our scriptures and shift our policies.  All of this, though, will only be possible if we stop lying to ourselves about the pervasive, pernicious nature of white supremacy.  It will only be possible if we develop both deep curiosity and deep humility, about how white supremacy operates in our lives, and in the world around us.

The prophet Habakkuk, surrounded by wrong-doing, does finally receive word from God. She says: there is still a vision for the appointed time. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. Until then, live by faith; put your trust in God. Later, Habakkuk writes: Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines… yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17a, 18).

We may not always recognize the vision that will transform our troubled time. We may not always find fruits of righteousness in the world around us, or even in ourselves. Still, it is our duty and our joy to rejoice in the God of our salvation. For it is this God who invites us into freedom from every falsehood, and forgiveness for every error.  The One who led the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt will not abandon us to the injustices around and within us today. Thanks be to God.