This is part of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question: How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
WRITTEN BY Jennifer Arnold
In February I attended the Bartimaeus Kinler Institute in California which was focused on “Indigenous Justice and Christian Faith: Land, Law, Language”. While there I watched over and over as indigenous folks from around the country and the globe greeted each other. Bearing gifts they would introduce themselves and welcome the other. Their introductions were not like the ones to which I’m accustomed. They would name not only their tribe, but also the specific place their ancestors had called home. There were no white western colonized names, no “California” or “Indiana”. Instead, they would name the watershed, the valley, the native plants and insects. As I listened, watching precious natural gifts trade hands, I was struck by how much we who call ourselves white have lost, and how much we have stolen.
Just yesterday I was in a room and the speaker asked us to name where our families were from. To listen to a group of “white” folks name aloud: Scottish, German, Irish, English, and on and on is an unusual experience. It made people uncomfortable and voices quivered ever so slightly. Answers were inflected as if they were questions. We have forgotten these places and named ourselves white but to be white is to be from nowhere. To be white is to have ceded home for power, to have exchanged culture for advantage.
What would it look like if we flipped that question so commonly asked to folks of color on it’s head, “No, really? Where are you from?” Let’s try it on me first.
- Where are you from? I grew up in Indiana, but I lived in North Carolina before I moved to Georgia.
- That land was stolen. Where are you really from? Well, my ancestors moved from Germany and France to Pennsylvania in the 17th century. They came from the Alsace-Lorraine region which is right on the border of the two countries.
- Yes, but where? Where are you from? Really? Ummm…that’s all I know.
See how quickly I get stuck? I can’t name anything specific because I don’t know the places of which I speak. I can’t tell you the trees that grow there or from where my people got their water. I can’t speak the native tongue. I cannot chose a gift to represent this place I only know in name. I cannot tell you about the local creation myth. My memory has been cut so short. Surely, if you go back far enough, there was a time my people were indigenous somewhere. Everyone comes from somewhere. It’s not as if Europe was devoid of people until they appeared and all at once decided they wanted to violently conquer the rest of the world. So when did we lose our traditions? How far back do I have to go to find my ancestor who would have been able to come to the Bartimaeus Institute, shake hands, bear a gift, sing a song, tell a story, and intimately name the landscape of their ancestors? Yes, surely we have lost something. Many things. Not just the tangibles – like the name of our watershed, but the intangibles too. We have lost our ways of relating to each other and to all of creation as siblings. How far back until we can reclaim ceremonies of hospitality towards strangers instead of domination and death?
“But this blog is supposed to be about separation from God,” you’re thinking. “Why are you going on about all of this stuff about ancestral land?” I say all of this because God is not a thing that exists out there beyond us and beyond our world. Although I believe that God is always bigger than anything we know, it is also true that we are human. As such we can only relate to God through our bodies and through the world around us. If God is the Creator of all, then we are related – siblings – to all. We are one. Imagine the world as a circle with God at the center. Every living thing is a straight line from the outside in towards the center (like the radius or spokes on a wagon wheel). Following your line, the closer you get to God, the closer you get to all of creation. And the closer you get to creation, the closer you get to God. The two cannot be separated. We are one. When we lose touch with our watersheds, the wisdom of our ancestors, and our practices of hospitality and welcome, we are losing touch with God.
The more we give up in our quest to claim the invisibility of whiteness, the more our hearts ache with longing for what we have lost. I believe that deep in our hearts we folk who call ourselves white, like all humans, crave relationship and intimacy. But we have sacrificed deep connection for the cheap substitute of power and control. “Owning” land is not knowing it. Production is not partnership. Profit is not benefit.
A common definition of sin is “separation from God” and so it strikes me that the question “How does whiteness separate us from God?” is ultimately a question about sin. That’s big heavy theological language that many people want to run away from. I get it. When systems of power and privilege enter the mix, “sin” language has often been used to shame anyone who doesn’t conform to the status quo. That’s not what I’m talking about. Legality is not the same as morality. Instead, is it not sin to choose disconnection from the center of the circle, to move further away from God and from others? If God is the source of all being and love, then to be connected to God is to feel our being and the being of others. It is to be in loving relationships with that which God has made, all of creation. It is connection, not separation.
Yet, our whiteness has demanded separation, psychic and physical. When indigenous Americans first encountered European colonizers (there was no idea of “white” yet), they welcomed these strangers to their home. Ancient practices of hospitality, connection, oneness reigned. In many instances the Europeans would likely have not survived otherwise. What kind of mental gymnastics then must our forebearers have gone through to convince themselves that these folks who met and welcomed them, were less than human? Deserving of death? I think about the white folks centuries later who gathered in jubilance to watch black men swing from trees. How do you watch that horrific scene and not have your insides torn to shreds? How do you keep on living? I think of myself, who recently learned about another lynching just this month – 2019! – in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. About how I could read this and be upset certainly, but not filled with the utmost rage. How I turn on that intellectual part of my brain to “find out more” instead of sitting in terrifying pain. How I can justify my lack of feeling by choosing to believe the police who ruled it a suicide despite some super sketchy evidence. As if murder is just a misunderstanding we all need to really get over already.
Like the chicken and the egg, I wonder which came first: the belief that we were superior or the refusal to see and feel others’ pain. Really though, show me an instance where either exists without the other. They don’t. They can’t. Both are symptoms of our disconnection from others and from ourselves. Separation is like a lie you tell that quickly spirals out of control. Whiteness demands that we keep lying and denying pain (not just others’ but also our own) in order to hide the truth that are all in fact one, created for connection with God and each other, without hierarchy or power over the other. There is no “natural order” of separations where whiteness is on top. That superiority is the lie we use, knowingly and unintentionally, explicitly and implicitly, to justify our sin.
We like to pretend that when we sin and separate ourselves to the top of a false hierarchy it really only hurts those who we believe are less valuable than us. We somehow remain unscathed. Yet, there is no way to be separate and not be absolutely deformed. The problem is we’ve just lied further to believe such deformations are normal, good even. Yet, if we are honest we can feel the fragmentation of our sin inside ourselves, in our personal relationships, and in society at large. The circle where God is at the center has no hierarchy, no separation. If we want to be whole, connected to God and each other, we must stop lying. We must stop justifying. We must start feeling. Can we relearn the ways of welcome? Can we know our watersheds and native flowers? Can we allow ourselves to be filled with rage at the way whiteness has dehumanized not just others, but also ourselves?
Nothing about this is easy. We who call ourselves white must pick up our cross of tortured mental gymnastics, of hiding from our sin, of superiority. We must carry it around and feel it’s weight on our shoulders. Let it burden us and make us uncomfortable. In carrying it may we learn where it hurts in our bodies. May we learn how to feel pain. May we learn how not to throw it off onto others expecting them to bear it for us. May we learn to not be overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable. May we learn to just keep going. As we stumble towards the center of the circle, , burdened under this cross, we do not move in vain. Our God is a God of resurrection and new life. Sin, death, and violence will not have the last word in this story. Still, if whiteness is to die we must bring our crosses with us. Then perhaps, eventually, when we get to the center of the circle, where all of God and creation are one, we will finally be able to partake in that ancient ceremony of welcome. We will tell God who we are and where we really come from. We will present the cross which we have labored under as our gift. We will lay it down without hurting others. No longer separate, no longer lying, no longer superior. And God will not scorn our faulty, painful, broken gift but return it with another, better gift. The gift of connection, of love, of wholeness. Redemption. With open arms God will be there, celebrating with all of our brothers and sisters, to welcome us home.