Last week as my boyfriend Matthew and I were driving through a rural and conservative area, we stumbled upon a radio preacher talking about 1 Peter 3 - a chapter which begins, "Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands..." This pastor interpreted this to mean a woman should do whatever her husband says. Even, he added, when the husband was clearly in the wrong. Sarai was right, he claimed, to go along and let Abram turn her over to the pharaoh to protect himself. We didn't listen for long, just a minute or two but it felt so long, too long. At first I was exasperated - eye-rolling. Then I got angry. I wanted to throw my phone, shatter the windshield. The pastor just kept talking. The radio stayed on 20 seconds too long and suddenly I was crying. Resigned and staring out the window, tears streaming down my cheeks. Matthew turned off the radio, put his hand on my knee, looked at me and began to speak.
"That is bad theology. It keeps women in abusive relationships. I don't believe it but unfortunately it's common down here. People wonder about how [white] women can vote for Trump but when you hear sermons like that it's easier to understand..."
I don't remember what else he said. Honestly, I just wasn't interested. It's not like I didn't already know what he was telling me.
I stared silently out the window as tears continued to roll down my face.
I know at some point, between my silences, I said these two things: "This isn't about you." and "Every word feels like someone twisting a knife deeper and deeper into my chest."
Finally, he was silent too.
Eventually, after my tears had passed and we'd just sat for a while - certainly longer than we'd listened to that preacher - he said, "I'm sorry. What do you need?"
And that it turned out was exactly what I needed.
I said, "I needed to hear you say you're sorry. So, thank you."
Perhaps he was surprised. He asked why that was what I needed. "Because right now I just hurt. I'm not interesting in analyzing the theology or politics or psychology. I can't do that right now. I just hurt and I needed to have that hurt recognized. I just need you to be with me while I hurt.
Sure, the sermon makes you angry too but you cannot feel the depth of pain I feel about this. And you will never be able to feel that depth. Those statements will never be about you and your life and the lives of people like you. There is and will always be a degree of removal for you.
If I was with another group of women we could feel the depth of hurt together. So, right now, alongside the hurt part of what I feel is lonely."
Matthew listened. Nodded. Seemed to understand. Then we continued on our way.
Our country is reeling again - still. always. - from the racism rooted deep in it's core.
On February 23rd a white father and son chased down and killed Ahmad Aubrey here in Georgia. They were not arrested until May.
On March 13th at 1 am Louisville Metro Police officers forcefully entered the home of Breonna Taylor and shot her 8 times. The FBI opened an investigation in May.
On May 25th a white woman named Amy Ross called the police on Christian Cooper as he was bird-watching in Central Park.
Also on May 25th Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds - 2 minutes and 53 seconds of which occurred after Floyd became unresponsive - and killed him.
In the wake of all this blatant visible violence - what do I do as a white person trying to be actively anti-racist? Many of those around me are wondering the same thing. Inspired by the phrase "white silence is violence" my facebook feed is flooded with reading lists, articles, and diatribes against racism. On a call this morning a woman from my church said, "We began to think what we could do so we bought a bunch of those 'Black Lives Matter' yard signs and bumper stickers." My inbox is flooded with requests for me to watch a sermon, sign a petition, or send a check. These things are easy. Make me feel good, productive. Put me on the "right side" of history I like to think.
But I have a confession to make. Not a confession like, "I ate the last cookie in the cookie jar," but something deeper. Something that touches the very essence of my soul, my humanity, and my spirituality. It is the sin that hides in the shadows of my soul. So let me begin with these sincere words of confession:
I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.
Here is my confession, the thing I am most scared to let others know and even to admit to myself.
I confess that during these times of intense pain, grief, and rage, I have cut myself off from my own emotions and thus also from my brothers and sisters. I am an over-functioner who prefers to stay busy rather than feel. I have rested in my privilege to avoid feeling. I fear feeling. I fear it will be "too much" for me to handle. I am fragile. I have kept the news at a distance. I stand frozen because I know my desire to erase history is impossible. I distract myself with other good things happening in my life. I analyze the way chattel slavery became convict leasing became Jim Crow became the War on "Drugs" and the prison industrial complex. I justify myself by the organizations I'm part of, the work I've done, or the connections I have made. I worry about what taking a job at an elite, predominately white, private school means for being grounded in cross-racial relationships. I consider where I should worship when we're allowed to be back together in person. I pretend that focusing on the joys in my life is an act of resistance. (It's not. At least, not for me, not right now.) I keep adding to the number of lingering-but-never-read tabs open at the top of my browser. And so much more.
In short, I confess giving into (living into?) my whiteness. I am doing it in the same way my ancestors gave into their whiteness. Silently with averted gazes. Patting themselves on their back for something or another. Burying the shame they feel under explanations and justifications. It is the way whiteness has always worked - must continue to work. No matter what words I use about us all being the same deep down, the myth of whiteness requires me to believe that even deeper than that sameness is my supremacy. And supremacy is founded on the idea of difference and separation. Their pain is separate from my pain. My internalized supremacy allows me to look cruel and violent death and oppression in the face and seek to explain it instead of letting myself feel it. To be a passive onlooker and not an active participant.
This ability to separate and unwillingness to allow myself to feel is making me less human. I can feel it damaging and corrupting my own soul and still I am scared to feel.
Rebuke me O, LORD but not in your anger, lest I come to nothing.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
Last summer, I visited a lynching tree in rural Missouri. The tears came easily there. Every time I think about lynchings I wonder about the white people. Not how did someone(s) feel so fueled and justified by their privilege and hate to kill another innocent person that they understood as somehow less human - I can wrap my head around the blatant acts of violence. But what always stops me is the bystanders. "How could white people have gathered for picnics to watch strange fruit - human beings - swinging from trees? How could you laugh and eat instead of cry? Or even just walk past and go about your day? What kind of mental gymnastics of supremacy and separation must one do to allow oneself to keep on living and pretending like this is normal, natural, or even just the unfortunate reality? What does that do to your soul?"
Well now I know. Day after day we watch modern day lynchings happening in our streets. We read about them on facebook, make a post condemning their death, and then go to work. Our day might feel a little off but for the most part it is alright. That is until someone reminds us again or we log back into social media. The cycle repeats. We watch the videos by the millions and consider ourselves the judge of what is murder thus and who "deserves" to die. We trust the courts to bring justice.
Someone (supposedly, but probably not actually Benjamin Franklin) once said, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are." Growing up Mennonite, a historic peace-church, I was taught that anger was close to violence and so it was bad and should be avoided. I was encouraged to turn the other cheek and forgive 70 x 7. All of that is to say, rage is not a familiar emotion of mine.
Only once in my life have I truly felt rage. Brett Kavanaugh had just been nominated to the Supreme Court despite the witness of Christine Blasey Ford. As a survivor of sexual assault, I woke up with an unfamiliar anger - rage - in my bones. I dreaded going to my Systematic Theology today where I was one of 3 women in the class. That morning I knew a few things: 1) No one would mention the trial and nomination. 2) We would spend the large majority of our 90 minute class talking about Karl Barth instead of discussing our other reading - the rivoting and timely article by Janet Soskice "Can a Feminist Call God "Father"? 3) When it came time (the last 10 minutes of class I predicted) to discuss Soskice I would be called on for the first time all class to speak and give my opinion. "At least," I thought, "my professor is a woman skilled at calling out dude's BS."
Thinking "It feels wrong that I actually have to see a man today," I tried not to slam the door as I pounded into class. All three of my predictions came true - mostly. When I saw that my professor was out of town and our discussion would be led by a bumbling supposedly "woke" male TA I restrained myself from storming out of the classroom leaving everything in my wake. As we discussed Barth, my arms folded across my chest and I kept myself from shouting curse words at everything my classmates said. The way class carried on like everything in the world was normal, like some great and obvious injustice had not just occurred before our very eyes on national television, made me want to flip the table in front of me. My eyes felt like laser beams trying to decimate every man in the class. Eventually, I looked up and locked eye contact with the portrait on the wall. Dr. Roberta Bondi - the first female professor at Candler - and I had a silent conversation above the heads of everyone else in that room. "You know. You have been here," I said. She said, "I will not leave you alone in here." When, with five minutes left in class, the conversation finally turned and I was asked (by name) my thoughts on feminism I couldn't answer. I just sat silently and refused.
Class ended and everyone left the class like normal. The TA looked at me quizzically and then also walked out while I lingered to say goodbye to Dr. Bondi. And then I lost it. Ugly sobbing everywhere. The rest of my day continued in much this same fashion. Trying not to hurt someone. Trying to only cry silently not loudly and obnoxiously. Totally unable to function.
All of these experiences whirl around in my head. What am I trying to say?
Eckhart Tolle writes about the idea of a "painbody" - "an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances, and so after some years you have a 'painbody,' an energy entity consisting of old emotion." Tolle doesn't say this but I think some of these old emotions he talk about stem from generational trauma - like sexism and racism. The idea of a painbody explains not only why I was triggered by the preacher's words despite never having been explicitly told to obey the men in my life as a form of worship to God or why I was triggered to the point of rage at Blasey Ford's testimony and Kavanaugh's nomination. It also explains why my classmates could just go about their day reading white male theologians in a white male dominated class and not notice anything askew. For them, the pain has been removed, separated, from their bodies. Their brains may understand theoretically but as Bessel Van Der Kolk writes, "The body keeps the score."
The bodies of my African-American friends and neighbors have been keeping the score for over 400 years. Trauma upon trauma upon trauma - their painbodies hold a deep knowledge my body will never know. Just like Matthew couldn't feel the pain of the radio-preacher's sermon so too is there is a depth of pain that I, as a white person, will never be able to understand. Especially during times like these. Death after death after death. Rage after rage after rage.
Yet, it is wrong of me to shut myself off from the pain that I am capable of feeling. When I refuse to let others pain enter my body I am able to maintain distance, separation, and superiority. When I maintain distance, separation, and superiority, I refuse to let others pain enter my body. I am not sure. There is pain I should feel just from the simple fact that I am human. A grown man dying under another man's knee while he calls for his mother. A "justice" system that protects white civilians who kill unarmed black men. A woman shot 8 times in her own home by the police. If you are human, these stories HURT. White people, we need to let them hurt.* When we are scared, may we find the bravery to take a step closer to the pain we fear. Let us try our hardest to look the pain in the eye and then listen deeply. This is the only way we regain the humanity our whiteness has stolen from us.
I share these two photos from the lynching tree in Missouri as a visual example of getting close to the pain and feeling it (because let me tell you, that tree knew pain) instead of standing back and observing it.
When I ask my friends what they need they say different things - connections to more black clergy, prayers, and one has even asked me to be a guest speaker on her podcast. The first thing I should say is I am completely humbled and honored by her request to speak as a white ally during this time. I know what a privilege and responsibility that is. I want to do right by her and her listeners. But I have to be honest, I am scared. I haven't been to any protests. I haven't posted on social media (until now). In fact, I've been running away and letting my whiteness have the best of me when that feels like the worst thing an ally can do. I feel woefully inadequate and at times in the last month I have felt a handful of shame about that fact too.
Yet, this is the real, messy, inner-work of liberation. I had to write this post because it was my way of shining a flashlight on the whiteness monsters hiding in the crevices of my soul - ready and willing to devour me live and this whole world with it. This is how I get free. I cannot speak as an ally if I am only trying to liberate others. I cannot speak as an ally if I am just trying to fit the part and not living it internally too. There is no hashtag to signify this kind of work. But I am learning. I am not perfect. Far far far from it! I fail every day. I am not the kind of ally I want to be. But learning to let myself feel, learning to sit in pain, learning to ask "what do you need?" will heal me, and our world, so much more than a yard sign or 280 characters ever will.
*It must be noted that while it is so important that we feel, please be aware of where/when/with whom/how you express this pain and any possible tears. White tears have a way of redirecting the emotional energy of a room away from the situation that needs addressed and into consoling the white person.
Jennifer Arnold is a St. John's member. Prior to joining she served as a ministry intern at St. John's while attending Candler School of Theology at Emory. The reflection above is shared by permission and originally appeared on her blog, The Education Exploration.