White folk religion

Gasping for Air Through the Ice

This weekend, I listened to the Ruby Sales conversation OnBeing. As Ruby shared the deep sense of belonging and belovedness, of meaning and hope, that the ‘black folk religion’ of her childhood bequeathed unto her, I was both captivated and validated by her wonderment over where there is a comparable ‘white folk religion’- a religion the bathes us in belovedness, liberates us from our chains, and redeems us as good.

It seems to me that we’ve been too busy bearing shame for who we are. Now, I know I tread on thin ice here, but this feels like a place where someone needs to step out and begin exploring, no matter how precariously at first, if, to follow that metaphor through, we are going to save ourselves from drowning in that sea.

So, what if instead of teaching our people to despise themselves for the sin of being born white, making them bear the deep humiliation of being born to a people who have pillaged and exploited, and requiring of them atonement, we invite them instead to recall themselves as beloved, as Good. Because it seems to me that those of us on left can’t look inside ourselves to heal the pain of learned self-contempt because we are so busy looking for the pain (caused by us, no doubt) outside of ourselves. And those on the right can’t seem to acknowledge the pain outside of themselves because they are too busy defending themselves from the perceived humiliation heaped upon them for being white.

What might it look like if we took both parties off that hook? Let us all remember and claim the goodness that we are. This is not to excuse the sins of the past, but to forgive them so that they stop poisoning us. Nor is this to proclaim our greatness ‘over and above’ in a perverse attempt to deny our mutual humanity, but to be honest without fear, to move from humiliation to humility, to a place where we all are one, no better and no worse.

Let’s face it, for many of us white folk the persons we struggle most to love are folks who look like us. There’s something broken in that, like adoring your neighbor’s child but gazing upon your own with contempt because he acts out. And if it is true that we are to Love our neighbors as ourselves, how do we begin to do that if we hate ourselves? In a personal journey of healing the heart, we soon learn that we can only love and forgive another to the degree we are able to love and forgive ourselves. More often we ‘judge our neighbor as we judge ourselves’. Shame reinforces this dynamic, in that persons who are steeped in self-shame often hurl it aggressively at others, using shame to fight shame. Shame likewise fosters dysfunctional relationships- persons acting from a place of shame will either be furiously trying  to prove they are good, or masochistically attempting to make up for being bad.

What have we to feel shame about? Shame tells us that we are unworthy, at our core defective. How many of us either feel this way about our race in response to the atrocities that have been perpetrated by our people, or conversely feel we constantly have to defend ourselves for (or against) being white?  Guilt, on the other hand can say “We feel badly about our previous behavior, and we’d like to fix the situation and behave differently in the future”. In other words, we as a people are not bad, but, yes, our people did (and still do) some really awful things. Guilt, acknowledged with humility and honesty, can be a good place to lay down the past and move forward with the grace of wisdom gleaned from our humanity.

Historical scholars have explained that it was cultural humiliation that allowed the rise of Hitler after World War I, a people shamed and blamed, their very dignity as a human race abased. To humiliate someone is to deny them of their very humanity, often publicly negating their very status as a worthwhile person. I have heard some say that the loss of status, and the humiliation which that evokes, has also in some part led to the rise of our own demagogue, a demagogue who hurled his own humiliations in a perverse attempt to elevate his followers.

When I was deep in the depths of my own personal shame, white folk religion was at its best when it took me in and simply loved me, holding my pain with human-to-human empathy and shining a light on my belovedness in all of those shadowy places that I believed to be unlovable. Where it failed me was when it refused even to acknowledge my pain, it’s very unwillingness to look at it silently indicting me.  But where it was at its worst was when it told me that I was never good enough, and so was never capable doing enough to make up for that mortal flaw.

When I was in a place of loss of status and public humiliation, white folk religion was at its best was when the story of Jesus was allowed to be my own, his empathy viscerally experienced from his own place of feeling abandoned and shamed on the cross. Where it was at its worst was when I was told that I was to blame for that crucifixion. It was only from a place of empathy that I was able to let my shame die, and then rise bearing both scars and bread.

Scars and bread. Maybe that’s as good a place to start as any in envisioning what a white-folk religion might look like. Ruby spoke of the black folk religion gathering outdoors, in the trees, along the river, on the earth. On the earth, of the earth, none of us are gods. But by loving one another’s scars, we feed one another bread.  And maybe, just maybe, the ice begins to thaw as we are gathered in our belovedness down by that riverside, and we save ourselves from drowning.



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