The skin I didn’t ask for: Bemoaning my white privilege and the evil of racial violence

I am afraid this blog post is going to be a terrible, tangled mess: sorry about that. But considering the mess this is all about, a jumble might be the best I can give.

My thoughts are tangled because so much has been stirring within me since last week when I learned about the killings of Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and Philando Castile (in Minnesota), and then police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith (in Dallas).

My heart has been heavy with more sadness—too similar to my grief for the 50 people killed in Orlando on June 12th. I’ve been praying prayers of lament and trying to lean on my faith; that love prevails. As a Christian who desires to be an agent of nonviolent social change, I have also felt overwhelmed, helpless, disappointed, doubtful and frustrated—how can these horrific events and lingering tensions lead to healing and peace?

Mostly though, I have been feeling a lot of guilt.

(And I understand that some people perceive white guilt to be another type of racism, but I don’t think they’re referring to guilt in the context I’ve been dealing with.)

I didn’t ask to be born with this white skin. I never wanted to inherit centuries of stolen privilege and power. I’ve never wanted to be an oppressor and blindly participate in social structures that keep my brothers and sisters of color in poverty, assumed criminals. I’ve never wanted to walk around wearing white privilege every day, but I do.

I understand now (but didn’t before: more about it later) that much of the racial violence flaring up throughout our nation has been centuries in the making. As a nation we’ve never healed our racist wounds and now racism has become an infection, sickening and slowing our chances for unity and peace. The disease of racism has corrupted our economics, communities and ways of relating to one another.

We can’t blame anyone for the racial conflicts but ourselves, as we’ve all contributed to the causes that ignite anger and hate among us; structural racism is real and creating a mess of problems, tangled together and killing our children. When we submit to lies and take a side, when we ignore the suffering of anyone—this is sin and evil staring us down and laughing.

Whether I like it or not, I participate in the evil of racism every time I enjoy my white privilege. When I feel the tinge of excitement over seeing a “run-down” neighborhood flipped into an area with funky shops and remodeled homes (that’s what gentrification is), I’m ignoring the plight of the poor. When I savor easy access to healthy food and transportation without anger for the lack of attainability my black and brown brothers and sisters have of such beneficial basics, I’m failing to love. And, when I experience nothing but respect and kindness from police officers and assume it’s everyone’s experience, I’m turning away from the Truth.

I had to leave the nearly all-white farming community in Iowa where I grew up in order to learn the ugly truth: racism, as portrayed to me in history class, didn’t end after the civil rights movement. I discovered this in college partly through Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (which really impacted my life); while studying abroad in South Africa; while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and witnessing lack of health care for people of color. I first heard about predator police patrolling black neighborhoods from my students at an all-boys African-American high school on Chicago’s south side. The powerful truth in this video mirrors their stories (but be warned: it’s violent and contains offensive language).

It’s taken years of observing, listening and relationship-building to get to my current consciousness; to understand the privilege of my skin color and the complexity of our social sins; to realize that practically every inequality I’ve encountered is an aftereffect of our shared racial wounds; to move beyond white guilt and to white responsibility. I want to share the principles that have guided me as I clumsily deal with my white privilege, hoping to contribute to racial reconciliation.

Please white brothers and sisters, join me in these actions for everyone’s sake. And, brothers and sisters of color; please comment and correct me where I’m mistaken; suggest what we could do to better share this privilege—rightly yours—with you.

1.) Always avoid paternalistic thinking and behavior. Never give people your pity and create projects you think will increase their standard of living without asking what is needed, wanted. (And keep in mind that cultural dynamics may cause people to agree with your ideas no matter what they believe.) Similarly, make sure organizations serving people of color are not managed solely by white people.

2.) Celebrate diversity. Culture is a beautiful gift from God that ought to be understood, reverenced and appreciated. If you serve a culture not your own, it’s necessary to move cautiously yet eagerly to see all the beauty in the difference (especially if you’re a white person).

3.) Listen. While teaching in Chicago, I was frequently the only white person in the room. It was incredibly important for me to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Whenever I didn’t understand something I had to put aside my pride and fear and let my students explain their world to me. I’m sorry for not engaging in this way more often.

4.) Become allies. Any action you can muster to offer the privilege of your well-respected voice, advocacy for peace and healing, is crucial. It can take a lot of courage and skill but is very important to correct racial language, assumptions and attitudes when necessary. (Be aware that the sin of racism can creep into all of us.) Talk about racism even when it’s uncomfortable, donate to organizations of social justice governed by African Americans and ask your elected officials what they’re doing to ensure peace for the people most marginalized—our black and brown brothers and sisters.

5.) Educate yourself and the next generation. Watch the news and pay attention to bias; search for balanced news sources. Ask critical questions, read, study and share information that helps others understand the truth. If you have children under your care, especially white boys, make sure they are learning narratives about humanity that reveal the God-given dignity and equality of all people.

6.) Pray and witness. Now is a time for communal reconciliation and prayer services for peace. Join in a solidarity action or peaceful protest (like this one, recently in Madison). Plan one for your community or hold a prayer service in your Church or home and invite people of color to contribute to the planning, music and dialogue. Remember that reconciliation is God’s work and we are made to be instruments of peace, working for God’s mission. In order to build up God’s reign of love, we must truly love and pray for each other.

It will remain tough and messy, but all of us who are white must act. It’s just as Jesus said: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48)

As I wade further into the mess I’m aware that as one of many, I have a lot more to learn. Yet I’ll remain in this struggle and not tire because it’s what we are made for—to be one, arriving together to the time when justice and freedom is known by all on earth as it is in heaven. Through God, by God, and in God’s love, one day we’ll arrive.

Amen!

Source: missionallyminded.files.wordpress.com

People watching and categories

I have a confession to make. I’ve noticed something about myself while I have been bopping around Chicago the past few days.

Here goes: I tend to be really judgmental. There, you have it. What an ugly admission.

Let me explain. As I walk down streets, go through crowds and sit at train stations, I try not to ignore people. Basically, I do a lot of people watching. As I watch people, I try to be open to whatever interaction I may have with them.

"People Watching Zone" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I play a little game as I people watch. That’s where the judgmentalism comes in. I guess what categories people fall into and what their life might be like. I imagine stories about the characters I encounter based on a few clues: what they are wearing, what’s in their hands, and their body shape.

I am totally jumping to conclusions and trying to read a book by its cover! This all happens exclusively in my mind, simply for entertainment or as a distraction from the studying I ought to be focusing on. It’s like I have a habit of playing a little traveling game, meeting people and then making up stories. I am just not sure that it’s a good habit.

I hope it’s not mean or un-loving. But, still, I realize it’s judgmental.

I know I am not unusual for noticing things about the people I meet and making guesses about them. I am pretty sure I am not strange for categorizing people and things.

The thing is, I am learning that it’s not necessarily helpful or holy to categorize people into different types of groups.

For example, this was in my reading for the moral theology class that am taking:

“We can neither divide the morally relevant features, the related moral norms and principles, nor the people involved into neat little compartments labeling the “good” white, the “bad” black, and/or the “ambiguous” grey. Life and therefore morality are not monochromatic, and any moral evaluation that would seem to suggest such a simple dichotomy should be suspect. Our moral analysis has to capture a wide variety of colors, textures, and hue, while trying to weave together from an assortment of loose threads a tapestry that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise.”                                            

 – Bretzke, James T. (2004, p. 145) A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press p. 145 

I’ll admit it. I frequently oversimplify my intake of the world and people around me because of my bad habit of categorizing.

In order to inspire appreciation of how our Christian lives need to “capture a wide variety of colors, textures and hue … that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise” I have created a little photo mediation. Enjoy!

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lent: divorcing our bad habits

I’m going to flip a song over on its head. I want to offer a spiritualization of something that probably was supposed to be completely secular. Lent, by British indie-pop band Autoheart, is totally onto something.

I got absorbed into the song’s catchiness the other day, and I naturally found myself thinking about the love of my life, Jesus. Then I was thinking about my bad habits–those that I am, in a way, “married” to, and that block me from getting as close as I desire with Love Himself. Noticing my bad habits, after all, is a great reflection for Lent.

Yup–from my point of view the song Lent totally has a great lesson for us. The lesson is not about how and why to divorce, which seems to be the story it tells. No way! Jesus himself tells us that divorce is not OK. The song’s lessons are much deeper than you might think.

You see, Lent is about making changes, all for the sake of true freedom. We fast, we give alms, we pray and engage in all sorts of practices in order to renew our relationship with Jesus. We’re getting ready for Easter but in order to really experience the joyous freedom that the resurrection offers, we really gotta be real with ourselves and acknowledge our sinfulness. If we are real, this part can get ugly.

We are called to take an inventory of what occupies our heart, our time and our thoughts. When we’re real with ourselves, God will highlight what we can let go of.

I desire to return to God with my whole heart but I know that first I must get rid of some things. I must really say I’m sorry. I must repent or I could perish, like last Sunday’s Gospel said. In order to repent, I gotta throw some stuff away. Like the song says: “Give it up, give it up, give it up for Lent. Take a break, pack it in, take it out to the bin.”

Once we really throw those bad habits away–or divorce our marriages to them even more dramatically–we can run to Jesus and ask for grace and forgiveness. We can whole-heartedly sing, like the voices in the song do, “I don’t want to act like this. You know, I want to be free! I want to be free!”

Love is ready and waiting.  Come Easter Sunday, Jesus will joyfully dance with us and together we’ll get to rejoice! We are free!

"What will you see in the shadows?"  Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“What will you see in the shadows?”
Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

the weirdness of witnessing

It’s not easy living a public life. Sometimes I’d rather be anonymous or just completely unnoticed.  It’s a lot of pressure because those who know that I am a Franciscan sister, a Christian and a modern follower of Jesus are paying attention to my moves.  What type of picture am I painting about what radical Christian living looks like?

When I was a teen in the 90’s I listened to a lot of DC Talk.  On some recorded versions of their song “What if I Stumble?”  there is a really profound and challenging statement for all Christians to heed:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door and deny Him with their lifestyle.  That is what a unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” 

It’s lent now.  I am going to be honest with you, because lent helps me feel like I can be.

I stumble as I try to follow Jesus.  I am concerned about what my lifestyle says about Christians.  I am totally aware that I am a sinner.  When I am really honest about who I am I can quickly see that I am just as messed up as everyone else, in my own Julia sort of way.  I can be mean, selfish, lazy, rude, and prideful.  I have bad moods and don’t always show up to serve with a joyful spring in my step.  Just because I am a sister doesn’t mean I am better at living a Christian life than any other Christian.  Maybe God called me to be a sister because this lifestyle personally helps me do a little better job at being a Christian that other life options would.

One of the criticisms I receive about this blog is that it is too much about me.  If I were really dedicated to the poor and the suffering maybe I’d tell more stories about them.  Do I think that I am so great that I need to show off what I am up to?  I am not a journalist and it is not appropriate for me to tell the stories of other people.  My job is to be true to who I am.

No, this blog isn’t all about me.  It’s about Jesus and how Jesus is living today.  This blog is supposed to be about how young Christians follow Jesus in today’s world.  I suppose my life is an example.  I hope that it’s a good one.  I am really not that great and my message isn’t original.  I am one voice in a big, beautiful, diverse community of disciples.  I am one woman who is trying to be faithful and is struggling on my walk with God just like everyone else.

The thing is, I feel called to witness.  For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with God and I am eager to share my Love.  I believe Christians are supposed to act and live differently than the rest of the world.  I feel called to live a more public life of faith that shows others an alternative Gospel lifestyle.  I feel like I need to give a testimony about the greatness of God with my life.  St. Francis directed his earliest brothers to “preach the gospel at all times but only use words when necessary.”  I’ve been taught that the boldness of testimony is part of Christian living.

It’s a big job to be bold and put myself out there all the time.  I can’t say I love it.  God and I get into little arguments about it sometimes.  I complain that I want to be a “normal” woman and I am sick of the standards that attention gives me.  Sometimes I cry about it and sometimes I get really crabby.  (See?! I told you I am not that great! A holy woman would serve her Love with pure joy!)

God keeps inviting me and encouraging me.  God shows me that the world is hungry for people who are being alternative and radical with their faith and devotion.  Jesus is like a coach who brushes the dust of my sin off my uniform and shoves me back in the game.  He seems to believe in me and totally fills me with the graces I need to keep going.  I gotta try to keep loving.

I am so grateful that I am not in this alone. I couldn’t be and that’s the whole point.  Christians are community people. We have to be. If we weren’t community we wouldn’t be anything.  We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and cry out to God and one another for help.  Even when the worst of us comes out, we’re still one body.  It’s the life of community that helps shine us up- like jewels- so we can be more beautiful.  Rough edges get worn down and we help each other be holy.

So, if I do stumble and mess up, I am sorry.  I pray that this season of Lent helps convert me- and all of us- a little closer to Christ. I pray that my time in the desert helps me become more enlightened about what my growing edges are.  Once I am enlightened, I trust God that I will grow.  I pray that I can be a good sister to others who are struggling in their discipleship.  I pray that how I live helps Christians look good in this world and inspires belief.  And, I am so thankful that we’re all in this together. Let’s pray for each other. With God’s grace, we’ll move the right way.

"desert way" by Julia Walsh, FSPA