Whitewashed Mary and White Supremacy

What image of Mary. the mother of God, do you remember seeing as a child? When you close your eyes and imagine Mary today, who do you see?

What color is her hair? Her eyes? Her skin? What type of clothes is she wearing in your imagination?

As a kid growing up in a tight-knit Catholic community in the 1990s, most, if not all, of the images that I remember seeing of Mary were with white skin and brown hair. I can’t remember if her eyes were blue or brown, but I definitely remember her skin being the same pale white as my own.

Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too much about those representations of Mary until last year when a friend reached out to me to request a commissioned painting.

He was working as a high school teacher at a Catholic school and was interested in commissioning a painting of a “historically accurate” Mary for his course on the New Testament and social justice.

He did some research into anthropological findings about historical Mary and sent me some reference photos of young Palestinian women from that time period. He made a point that her clothes should be un-dyed, a representation of the poverty in her native Galilee and the humble social status of Mary and her family.

I was amazed. I found myself staring into the deep, dark eyes of these young women, admiring their beautiful brown skin and gorgeous, thick, black hair. I saw nothing of the pearly white Mary that I once knew. Had I been duped?

The answer to that question cannot be reduced to scapegoating some imagined mastermind who managed to dupe Catholics worldwide for decades, but I do think the answer has a whole lot to do with white supremacy.

So I accepted the commission, eager to paint this historically accurate Mary and humbled by the opportunity to play a part in this image, which would reach the classroom of young and impressionable (and likely white) Catholic high school students.

Mary11x14OPT.jpg
Commissioned watercolor painting by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art.

And I started thinking more about what I knew about this whitewashed version of Mary, which is so central to Catholic culture.

I remembered being taught in school about the Neave forensic anthropological reconstruction of Jesus, but how could that one lesson really compete with the whitewashed depictions of the Holy Family surrounding the rest of my Catholic upbringing?

And I realized that this is precisely how white supremacy works: whiteness dominates our everyday lives so completely that we almost don’t even notice it, much less question it.

Any historian, anthropologist, or high school religion teacher could tell us that the historical Mary was definitively not white. Yet how many whitewashed images of Mary go unnoticed and unquestioned in our parishes, homes and classrooms still today?

It is tempting as Catholic white people, I think, to reject any notion of white supremacy as other than us. We wish to associate white supremacy with the violence and hate that we see on the news and can hardly imagine that such violence has anything to do with us.

Many of us white people struggle to see white supremacy as an integral part of the culture we participate in daily.

But we don’t have to look any further than our white images of Mary to see the white supremacy alive in our communities today.

While it may be difficult to see the violence in a whitewashed depiction of Mary, maybe we can see the violence in the ways we outcast, punish and dehumanize the brown and black immigrants and refugees suffering at the hands of our countries’ domestic and foreign policies.

Maybe we can reflect on the ways that we admire and revere the white depictions of the Holy Family but struggle to empathize with people of color on the margins of our society.

Can we start by imagining how our concept of God and Spirit and community might have been transformed if we had grown up seeing the Mother of God as she really was, with beautiful brown skin, deep, dark eyes and thick, black hair?

Can we imagine how that transformation might have opened our hearts and minds to see God and Spirit in more than our white reflection?

What would it look like for each of us to start replacing the whitewashed Biblical images in our parishes, offices, classrooms and homes with historically accurate images? What other actions might we take to open up conversations within our white communities about the violence of whitewashing our faith and our history?

I believe that we have a lot of work to do as white people, and changing the whitewashed images of Mary in our midst is just one action we can take to dismantle the systemic problems of white supremacy and racism. Taking concrete actions in our faith communities and in our faith lives is one place to start.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie-Barrett


Annemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

Serving up accountability this holiday season

Thanksgiving in the United States is often a time to come together with family, friends and whomever else we call community.

My favorite memories of Thanksgiving are around the table sharing food, memories full of warmth, comfort and a feeling of belonging.

But as I grew up, I also learned about the real history behind Thanksgiving; a terrible history, far removed from the supposed “reenactment” of a generous meal shared between settlers and indigenous people who I was taught to participate in as a kid in my Catholic elementary school.

And now that I know that Thanksgiving, in fact, recalls the meals that celebrated massacres of indigenous people, I cannot “un-know” that history — a settler society built the United States on genocide.

For us white folks only recently opening our eyes to the genocide, racism and oppression that founded the United States, it is only reasonable to ask, now what do I do?

One important response is to start focusing on accountability.

For the past five years I have facilitated a series of formation sessions dealing with issues of power and privilege for Franciscan Mission Service, a lay Catholic organization that prepares and supports lay missioners living and serving in solidarity in host countries outside of the United States.

And each year as I help prepare (mostly white) Franciscan missioners to live and serve in communities across cultural and racial differences, we talk about how vital it is for white folks to not only recognize and process our feelings of guilt when addressing the violence of racism and white supremacy, but also to move with that guilt into a focus on accountability

people-dinner-table-community-is-built-on-accountability
Original art by Annemarie Barrett

Accountability is a step beyond apologizing, a leap beyond feeling guilty.

It is pretty basic on a personal level: when someone hurts me I expect their apology, but that apology means nothing without accountability.

Accountability means that the person who hurt me not only apologizes for the harm caused but also makes a demonstrable commitment to change, to act and do differently from now on.

So for white Catholic folks who believe in Gospel values of social justice, inclusion and radical conversion, what if we treated this Thanksgiving as an opportunity to practice accountability?

Now that you know that the Thanksgiving holiday is not celebrating what you had been taught, how does your faith call you to respond? How might your conscience move you?

As white folks whose privilege and power was built on the genocide of indigenous peoples, what might practicing accountability mean for us on an individual, communal and even national level?

How might you move with your guilt into making concrete changes in what you do and how you act this upcoming holiday season? How might you choose to educate yourself further about this history? How might you share what you are learning and open conversations with other white folks about these challenging topics?

What might accountability mean at the level of the Catholic church?

While the Catholic church has in some circumstances recognized and publicly apologized for generations of sexual abuse in indigenous communities and Catholic boarding schools, what would it mean to move beyond apologies and focus more on accountability? What structural changes would need to be made? How might power dynamics necessarily change? What could you do to affect that change?

This holiday season is just a place to start. For white people, reflecting on accountability can become a part of a daily spiritual practice. We are invited to ask ourselves, how are we accountable to those most marginalized among us? How are we accountable to the immigrants, the refugees, the asylum seekers and the communities of color across our country surviving the terrors of police violence?

Now that we know, we cannot un-know our collective history. But, we can choose to humbly listen to marginalized experiences, actively educate ourselves to combat our ignorance, and courageously challenge our privilege and power in order to grow.

We can choose to confront the weak and problematic foundations of our communities and invest in radical change in order to rebuild on a stronger foundation of trust and accountability.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

A complicated patriotism

Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.

Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American.

In the early days of this blog, I wrote about my resistance to patriotism and the glorification of military culture. I re-read these pieces recently, and felt a bit embarrassed (it’s a bit too preachy and full of rant for my current tastes, and oh my word, why didn’t I capitalize my titles in those days?! Also, apparently, these themes were on my mind a lot in 2011.)

loving Jesus, not the nation (May 30, 2011)
some non-patriotic flag day thoughts (June 14, 2011)
This land is whose land? (July 4, 2011)

I felt reluctant about resurfacing these old posts here and now, because some of my views have changed and I don’t like writing and sharing things that may be divisive anymore (there’s enough of that being published now.) I don’t want to disrespect veterans who have risked their lives for others and continue to need healing, prayerful support. I definitely don’t want to dishonor anyone who has died, especially on behalf of others.

Yet I decided that it might still be worthwhile for me to share those old posts and to write about this topic again, because the general sentiment still remains true: my love of God and the cross will always be greater than my love for the United States and as long as this nation’s policies and practices continue to hurt the poor, perpetuate violence and increase the wealth gap, I am not likely proud to be an American. I don’t believe any of us should blindly love our nation without question, struggle or critique; I am concerned about how easily our country can become idolized if we are not careful.

I really like what Fr. James Martin S.J. wrote in this reflection from last year about the ways that the celebration of any nation should not be elevated above the worship of God and all that God has done for us:

Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).

Photo credit: Freeimages.com

The truth is, patriotism is very complicated for me; it is not a black and white matter. I am certainly benefiting from our nation’s complicated and violent history; I enjoy many comforts of being a citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations, and I am not ungrateful for the privileges. I want to share the riches. Every day I enjoy and appreciate my freedoms of religion and press, freedoms others have sacrificed greatly to maintain.

I appreciate how Christopher R. Altieri put it in his recent piece for America “We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day–but without despair”:

… many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America — not least by their example — I eschew the cup as well.

In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.

Years ago, when I still was very short and had buck teeth, I sang “God Bless the USA-I am Proud to be an American” with gusto in a gymnasium with my young classmates, loud and proud, with props and hand motions; I think we were in fourth grade. I still know the song quite welland frequently catch myself humming it this time of year around Independence Day.

But now, if I find myself making any patriotic musiceven half-heartedlyI assure you that deep down the song is more lament than celebration, more prayer than pride.

I am a citizen in God’s kingdom more than I am citizen of the United States. My loyalty is to Christ and the Gospel mission. While many Americans will be celebrating their freedoms, I don’t believe I am free while many of my brothers and sisters in Christ suffer from the experiences of being detained and shackled by the bonds of poverty and violence. Their experiences of injustice eats at any freedom offered to me.

Let us pray and labor for the day when Jesus’ words can be true for all of us, no matter what nation we are part of; let us follow Jesus and create a society where this is what we see:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

-Luke 4:18-19

 

With apologies to Agathon

Easter-cross-freeimages.com
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

“O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

~ “The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter

It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.

“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”

~ Agathon

Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.

And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.

But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.

When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.

I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.

In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

in God’s time

We can’t really know what God is up to.

But we can wonder, and we do.  Wondering about what God is doing makes me feel like I am the size of an ant in an expansive universe.   Actually, I am, in a way.

Somehow, though, I am part of it all.

Paradigms of planet, church, religion and humanity are shifting all around us.  Sometimes, these shifts are gradual and gentle, like water flowing silently downstream  Other times, though, the societal changes are so bold we almost feel damaged.  We collapse on crosswalks and sprint down the streets of tomorrow while the statues of our ancestors laugh at our blindness.  Can we see the beauty that surrounds us today?

But, it’s hard to know beauty when there is a lot of clutter.  As we listen to the news and hold it up to what we’re working for, we quickly become discouraged.  The mess is confusing and we’re worried. What’s happening to our democracy? What’s going on in Christianity? Passions and power quake the church and government and we wonder what to have faith in.

Could it be ourselves?  Or shall we, can we, have faith in God?

A week ago I was a participant in a wonderfully strange conference.  Giving Voice, a national organization for young women religious, sponsored an inter-generational conference in Chicago to discuss what is happening in this life of ours, religious life.  We came with a sense that God is up to something new and different.  Together we wondered what that was.  The wondering was strange because we were talking about something that we didn’t know.

In Madeleine L’Engle‘s book  A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tries to answer the questions of children.  “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”  I desire to explain what I’ve experienced and sensed, but what is emerging seems to be beyond anything we have ever known.

I know it though, God is up to something. Paradigms are shifting; the world is changing right under our feet.  When the earth moves, it can feel dangerous.  We don’t know what will break around us.  We grip to reactions based in fear and power and doubt survival.  We crash and forget what we most need to move on: eachother.  As tumultuous as all the crashing and changing may feel, we can trust God and have hope.  God is in control and shifts can be good.

At the “young nun” conference we sought to contemplate the goodness that vibrates through the groans.  The process was deep and profound.  We listened, prayed, shared, played, questioned, connected and organized.  We learned too.  We were blessed to be with Sandra Schneiders, who is a great historian and theologian.  She’s pretty much the expert on religious life and what is has been, is, and could be.  In other words, Schneiders is a woman who can speak quite well about how God has worked with people throughout time.

We pondered what it means to be religious women in this time of unknowing.  We leaned in, all 150 women religious seemingly stuck in 2011. We felt connected to the deep roots of our ancient tradition and movements toward the future.  In these moments, I pondered how our human minds limit understanding what time really is.  Science agrees with what my spirit senses, too.  Time, as we know it, is an illusion.

So, we’re a part of this illusive time and God needs us to work.  Schneiders’ analysis of this Kairos was based in her insights that the signs of these times are globalization, secularization, pluralization, and de-traditionalization.  We are called to respond to what’s going on and how it impacts spirituality, politics, service and poverty.  As I listened, I felt relieved, actually.  We can commune in the struggles together.

Through it all I kept wondering.  What are we supposed to do?  If the needs of this time are so great- and they are- then how are we supposed to be present?  What actions do we need to take to birth a new paradigm and way of being?

As we ponder the power of Now, we get to listen to the whispers of the Spirit who always compels us to grow and change.  At the end of the conference, consciousness brought forth the art of poetry.  We peacefully walked through the shift and blessed the words of wonder.  There was silence as we gazed at what the time had emerged.

In art there are answers.  We need not worry about how to bring forth a new paradigm, after all.  We can just focus on living the reign of God.  After we do this for some time, then we’ll be able to look around and be awed that God has used us to help create something new.  Thanks be to God!

oh, God

The solid statues seem to suggest that the horror of the cross is only historical.  We gather in dark churches to remember, and mix the meaning into our mind right along side wars, genocide, crusades and the holocaust.  Black and white photos in the history books tell us to keep telling the story and memorialize the dead.

This cross, though, is different from those other events.  Although it’s historical, it’s also eternal.  Every day we are wounded, nailed, bled, broken, bruised. We’re doing it to ourselves and each other. It happened before, and it’s happening today.  The pain we acknowledge today is as real now as it was then.

Maybe our praying with the cross today matters to our brothers and sisters of history after all.   Maybe this cross is broad and bigger than our mixed up human minds can fathom.  Maybe it can heal the wounds of history and change all humanity.