Wo(k)e Is Me
Talking about race is a difficult task for many, if not most, white people. The reason for this is that it often leads to feelings of guilt, anger, fear, and sometimes even embarrassment. These feelings inevitably lead to feelings of shame. Once shame settles in, we generally go down one of two paths.
The Path of Denial
Denial takes place on one of two levels. On the cultural or social level, we deny that racism exists because black people now live in our neighborhood, go to school with our kids, and work next to us in the office. Shoot, I even have…(wait for it)…“black friends.” In this sense, Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated society now exists and thus (we argue) racism is over. When issues do pop up we are quick to point out the progress we see. We assume these incidents are rare and will only get more infrequent. I mean, our 44th president was black!
On a personal level, we may deny that we ourselves are racist. As noted above, I have “black friends” and on an even deeper level, I personally do not fit my definition of what it means to be “racist.” Racists are mean, belligerent and outspoken. They say mean things and speak derogatorily towards people of color, sometimes even acting out with physical violence. If you look up the term “racist” in the dictionary, this is the idea you get.
I don’t necessarily expect anyone to confess or recognize systemic racism right away. If you don’t see it, I wouldn’t want you to pretend you do. On the other hand, as followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to listen. In the case of systemic racism, we must be willing to listen to the voices and experiences of black men and women while also critically thinking through the statistics and circumstances surrounding their experiences.
If we are unwilling to do so, we are signaling to others that we lack faith and trust in POC (persons of color). Unfortunately, this is normal and expected when initially engaging with racial justice. We live in a culture and system that inherently trusts white authority while being (sometimes inadvertently) taught to question black testimony. In a future post I will explore how this tendency is where we should start when defining what it means to be “racist.”
The Path of Guilt
Whereas denial seeks to deflect shame by justifying both self and society, the second path to dealing with shame is to feel the full weight of it. Rather than turning a blind eye towards history or looking at our current culture through rose-colored glasses, we develop red puffy eyes as we take in the full history of the middle passage: slavery, convict leasing, the Jim Crow Laws, and mass incarceration. We now look at our present reality through tear-filled eyes, watching the death of another unarmed black man - or child - and drop our head in shame.
Woe is me…
The weight of guilt that thrusts our head downward in shame is reminiscent of Isaiah’s cry in Isaiah 6. Standing before the throne of heaven, Isaiah realizes, maybe for the first time, that he is a man of unclean lips and lives among a people of unclean lips. As the prison of guilt settles in around him, the realization of his sin stirs an emotion that breaks his silence. Lamenting his place in time and history, he cries out, “Woe is me.”
The next moment is key to your story and mine. The seraphim comes down to Isaiah and touches his lips with the burning coal, saying: “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” God does not awaken us for judgment. Revelation is never about condemnation. Revelation is about salvation and liberation! God is liberating us from false ideologies and fallen systems that have made us complicit in unjustly stripping our brothers and sisters of their humanity for centuries.
Wo(k)e is me...
The hard work of confession and repentance will lead us from a feeling of “woe is me” to a place of “wo(k)e is me.” Once we have realized and confessed our sins of racism, as well as the implicit and explicit racism of those we live among, the Spirit of God is waiting to cleanse and forgive our complicity. Once we have repented, God is waiting with a question: “Whom shall go? Whom shall go for Us?”
Will you join us?
Ways to join the journey:
- Stay tuned as we continue discussing, with more depth, how we can make the journey from “Woe is me” to “Wo(k)e is me.”
- Join Jeff Saferite and Lamont Hartman as they host Facebook Live conversations with leading practitioners and thinkers who are moving the church towards a more faithful presence in the area of racial justice. You can join their conversations at www.facebook.com/mindfulsojourning.
- For coffee or lunch, email Jeff at .