Our White Problem

A response to yesterday’s insurrection, to “progressive” white clergypeople like us.

Featured in the IndyStar as an Op-Ed here.

1/7/21

To “progressive” white clergypeople like us,

If the news in America has flashed across your screen in any manner, then you know that ignorance, white supremacy, and expressions of white power and privilege are on full display. It’s easy to name it, scoff at it, recognize it as damaging, and know – or think –  one is on the right side of history. But, as white people, this time demands our self-reflection. While we may be able to say that we did not participate in yesterday’s actions, our inaction and silence is itself a form of participation in the same ignorance and white supremacy we so desperately wish to distance ourselves from.  The truth is, we are connected to and responsible for not only yesterday’s insurrection but every instance of violence and bigotry perpetrated in this country. Our abdication or rejection of this responsibility does not change its reality. 

Many of us watched events unfold and said, to ourselves and our friends and our social media networks: “if they were Black…” And while that is devastatingly true, it also serves us, in that it saves us from facing the full brunt of the reality that they are white. To examine what is happening is to see the blatant display of whiteness, white supremacy, and white privilege. 

The writers of this letter are white people. Perhaps you are, too. This is our problem. 

This year, and the past four, have been consumed with polarizing politics. But, it has also been a mirror we (white people) continuously fail to recognize ourselves in. Failures which have culminated or given context to what happened yesterday. 

Yesterday, white terrorists were let in the capitol building, selfies were taken with police, property was allowed to be stolen and destroyed, shots were fired, and the National Guard – the same National Guard whose full force was brought to bear against Black Lives Matter protesters in cities around the country – was specifically ordered by the President to not intervene in the midst of it all. 

And what sparked all of this? Increased voter turnout of Black and Brown folks (thanks to the tireless work of Black community organizers like Stacey Abrams) – increased political power that white power structures cannot accept or allow. A steady diet of misinformation and mixed messages from media outlets and the President himself also went a long way towards creating the situation we all witnessed yesterday. And finally, the pervasive message we’ve all been fed that violence is, in fact, acceptable, so long as it’s perpetrated by white hands. 

As white clergy of predominantly white congregations, we cannot continue failing to see ourselves and our congregants in the images from yesterday. It should be an embarrassment to us all that the name of Jesus was professed on the signs and on the lips of terrorists and their supporters yesterday. It is certainly an indictment of us all.

From the very foundations of our faith, we have believed that all people, in particular all believers, are indivisibly connected to one another. We, together, form the Body of Christ. And when there is division, disease, hatred, bigotry within the body, it is the responsibility of all of us to address it. This white nationalist “Christianity” is a malignant cancer.  Allowing it to fester out of the selfish delusion that “we” are somehow separate from “them” is not only childish and ineffective. It is killing us.

Worse still is the reality that many of us allow these things to fester out of cowardice or fear that addressing tough issues may cause members to withhold their tithe check, or go to another church, or badmouth us in our communities. 

What is our lasting work as clergy? What will be our legacy? Are we more concerned with peace-keeping or peace-making? Is our eye on keeping donations in the collection plate or with the collective liberation and justice of all people? 

It is our hope, our belief, that we can be more than we have been. That we can do better than we have been.

We invite you to join us on the journey of action, in your lives and in your congregations, by taking the following concrete actions:

  • Let’s all take a long hard look in the mirror, see ourselves, see our congregation in yesterday. Take responsibility as a white person in American society.  
  • Take note of your sphere of influence. So often, we try to act outside of our sphere of influence because it is safer and more comfortable to do so. But all this accomplishes is assuaging our guilt. So speak up on Sunday, every Sunday, and every day. And when people express their distaste (which they will), engage them in meaningful and difficult conversations around the real issues at play. Be willing to get uncomfortable regularly. Educate yourself and your congregations on doing the work of anti-racism.
  • We invite you specifically to share this statement as well as a picture of yourself in your clerical attire. Share this statement not just on your personal pages but your church’s pages along with the hashtag #OurWhiteProblem.
  • Don’t expect a reward. This work is not about optics, it is not about the selfie you take reflecting on the “good work” you did. What is true of our giving is true of this work – “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Parent in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1, NRSV)
  •  Don’t expect to be done anytime soon. This work is daily, hourly, moment-by-moment. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

One way or another, you are our partners in walking this journey. It is our prayer that we would do so of one heart, one mind, one spirit.

Yet still with hope, 

Rev. Leah Peksenak, UMC

Cassidy Hall, (Member in Discernment, UCC)

If you share this, please use #OurWhiteProblem

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