This is the fourth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question: How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
WRITTEN BY R/B Mertz*
How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body
What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently.
– Gwendolyn Brooks
They require of me a song,
less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own
– James Baldwin
- “WE ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD”
I’m what you call a lapsed Catholic. In other words, I “left the Church,” which is less of a leaving and more of a constant not going. Two days ago, I found myself at Mass, not on purpose. I started panicking, wondering if I could stay for the high school graduation I was attending—I wanted to celebrate my nephew, but I also wanted to smoke a cigarette, to go get a drink, to get the hell out of there.
I was “in” the Church for about fifteen years, from age eight to twenty-three, during which I endured and mostly forgave constant micro-aggressions, gaslighting, and other psychological and emotional abuse. The final nail in the coffin was when one of my best friends “realized that she agreed with the Church about homosexuality,” and asked that I not associate with her or her children anymore. This broke my heart, but it also broke my heart that in this situation, I couldn’t go to the Church for consolation or guidance; in teachings and in practice, the Church taught that I was someone who you should not let your children hang out with, because I was gay. I realized that I couldn’t find more of my heart there anymore than they could understand the heart I wanted to share. That’s when, at 23, after twelve years of living in the conservative Catholic right wing, I stopped going to church. Like a paper doll, I was slowly punched out of the page of Catholicism.
While at Mass the other day, I remembered that I love Mass. For Catholics, church is basically a beautiful theater piece combining music, poetry, chant, and choreography (or at least blocking). Best of all, it’s enacted by real people, not actors or celebrities, just regular people, worshiping. Even the word worship is beautiful and mysterious.
It’s also ancient. Mass is an ancient ritual where people talk to God, and then eat God. When I got older, I learned that the Mass was the same in Edgewater, Maryland as it was in Indiana and California and Paris and Antioch and Jerusalem—fundamentally, too, it was the same as it had been for two thousand years. Everyone was somehow unified, saying the same prayers, kneeling at the same moments.
Mass is also magic. Eating God is a weird thing to do every Sunday before brunch. Yet eat God we did. The idea is that Jesus is God, and when he was about to die (for his friends, also beautiful) he said that the bread they were eating was his body, and he told them that eating it made them one with him, saved them, made them divine; then he said those beautiful words that Catholics say in Mass every day: “Do this in memory of me.” So, that’s the magic. The priest says the words, and the bread becomes Jesus’ body, and we eat it, and that makes us become Jesus.
The idea of this (for me, now) is that Jesus said he was bread, not puff pastry. He’s something ordinary, something everyday. When we digest something, science tells us, it literally becomes a part of us. So Jesus becomes a part of us. So we are Jesus, too, and so is our Mom and Dad and neighbor and whoever else. Which ultimately reminded me that the mystery of what things are is vast and profound. If a piece of bread can become God, what is not sacred?
At the high school graduation Mass, the priests and teachers kept pedantically reminding the crowd that we were in the presence of God. To which I wanted to call out, “Aren’t we always?!?!?!” If God is God, God is always everything, everywhere.
- WE NEED TO SAVE THE WORLD OR OURSELVES OR SAVING THE WORLD IS SAVING OURSELVES
While “leaving the Church,” I got an MFA in poetry, and a lot of tattoos. I shaved my head and started reading feminism, queer theory, anti-Capitalist and anti-racist texts, and now I’m that liberal college professor so many people are afraid will turn their kids into leftists. I let students research and write about whatever they want, as long as they do it thoughtfully and engage with other students about their ideas—the result is a lot of conversation about a lot of different things. Every semester, I give them the same basic final assignment: to articulate a problem they see in the world, and propose a solution. I tell them, there are no laws, no budgets, no Congress or Senate or voters to convince. Just consider what would work. What would actually help?
Most students propose fairly straightforward solutions to the problems they see. They figure out how we could have universal healthcare or free college in the U.S. They see trash and pollution everywhere, and rampant unemployment: create government jobs cleaning up everything? Why not solve our overcrowded prison problem by freeing marijuana prisoners where marijuana’s been legalized, and give them jobs in the new marijuana industry?
As a class, we try to name the main obstacles they’d face when trying to carry out their solutions. Over and over again, the same biggest obstacle arises: the people who have the power to solve big problems don’t actually want to solve them. Problems like hunger, poverty, unemployment, access to education, displacement, oppression, even pollution, to an extent—the old, big money in the world seems impervious to these problems. It’s difficult to maintain a sense that there is anything “we” will ever be able to do at all, even in the face of the facts, which say that there is enough of everything to go around.
- EARTH IS GREEN & BROWN, MONEY IS WHITE
“God is the color of water” – James Wright
For humans, money and access to money has more to do with who gave birth to them, and their access to money, than it ever will with “how hard they work.” Big, old money, the kind that elects politicians, creates jobs, legalizes or criminalizes substances, people, and ideas, is bound up in a genetic circle jerk of inheritance and venture capitalism hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old. Most, if not all, of this big, old money is directly connected to the stealing of lands and resources on this continent and the others, as well as the kidnapping, murder, rape, and enslavement of whole Peoples.
America’s biggest, oldest money is still directly traceable to the white/European looting of Africa—this ancient money, newly granted legal person-hood, elects Donald Trump to be president, and prevents anyone more radical than HRC from being on the ticket. This old money was explicitly and undeniably generated not from nothing, but from the crimes against humanity perpetrated especially upon anyone who did not qualify as white, and secondarily upon many who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “believe[d] themselves to be white.” Capitalism, and the American dollar itself, were founded on imperialism, domination, and slavery of Africans, as well as the enslavement of North and South American Native People. This conquering was seen by Europeans as blessed by God; in spite of Jesus’ warning that it was easier for a camel to pass through the head of a pin than for a rich man to get to heaven, Christians have long been equating monetary success with blessings from God.
European diseases ravaged the Indigenous population, killing millions. When later Europeans arrived, they found whole regions where the Native People had all died of disease. A majority of the first European settlements in New England were former Native villages, now filled with corpses. The first “white” people saw this as a sure sign that the Christian God had wiped out the Indigenous population so the Christians could have their lands, as if God didn’t want the Christians to have to interact with other humans peacefully, and he didn’t want Christians to work too hard. Likewise, Europeans and white Americans argued that the enslavement of Africans was ordained by God, too, because it gave Africans an “opportunity” to convert to Christianity. Whiteness has always been bound up with God and money and genocide.
While the rich in America and in Europe passed on wealth to white children, they condemned their Black children to the closest thing to Hell that most humans could imagine. Slave owner paternity was characterized by rape, violence and the objectification of people’s own children, rather than anything based on love or care or protection. Generations later, the fruit of this family tree is the New Jim Crow, an apathetic young white man shooting up a mall or a school or a church, a police officer murdering a child, or a serial rapist, racist buffoon as president.
Most whites have trouble seeing white killings as savage: As a kid, I was disgusted by the human sacrifice of the Maya, while never really questioning the generations of European youth offered up in war. I didn’t even know about the murder of people on “American soil”. Generations of white Americans attended public lynchings, where families would gather to eat and watch the victim’s life slowly end at the hands of a nameless, faceless crowd, unrecognizable except for its whiteness, defined by whiteness. Imagine, in the weeks and years following the murder of one of your sons, brothers, or neighbors, living with the fact that any one of the white people in your community could have participated in his death. Public lynchings were one way to get across the clear message, that whiteness was to be feared—not individual whites, even, as much as whiteness itself.
- GOD IS US & THEM
“Dr. King and all the prophets warned against not loving.” – Fred Rogers
In the absence of a physical church to go to, I see God in nature, and God’s motion in the weather. The earth is the closest thing God has to a body, and the weather is like God’s body moving, or God writing a poem. The weather is beyond human control. Observing how the wind can blow my furniture from one side of the yard to another, I and I can’t negotiate with the wind. Under the right conditions, the wind could move me from one side of the yard to another.
Sometimes preachers conflate the weather with God, too. Conservative Christians (such as Franklin Graham, son of Billy) called Hurricane Katrina a punishment from God. Similar claims have been made about other natural disasters, that God was punishing “them” for their wrongs, as he punished the unholy in the Flood, or destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Philistines. Whenever “they” come into it, “we” can be sure that “they” are not “us.”
But they are us. Every aspect of life on this planet is interconnected, nationally and internationally; every ripple is global. As an example, in the same sense that an event like 9-11 happened to America, so did it happen to the world: certainly the whole world has suffered the wrath of revenge the U.S. has claimed was in response to that one attack. In the same sense, public shootings and tragedies happen to whole communities and whole countries. The effects are not the same, just like ripples in a pond are different shapes. Yet if we insist on only empathizing with people in our “groups,” we will remain blind to what kills our own neighbors, and live in denial that it will ever come for us. Consider the famous Niemöller poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
If we are all God, as Jesus says, and the divine is in each of us, this means humans, and maybe even all of Creation, not just some “us”. The Psalmist writes, “You are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.” Jesus refers to this later, when he’s accused of blasphemy: He says that if God says we’re all gods, what’s wrong with him saying explicitly that he’s the Son of God? A few hundred years later, St. Athanasius wrote, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Hundreds of years after that, Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us share in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” The thing that’s inside us all that makes us God is the thing that connects us all, and whiteness kills that, as truly as the Roman soldiers killed Jesus, a man, they believed, to be of an inferior race.
Since God is every person of every conceivable identity, God has no identity and every identity, or God is unhampered by ways that human identity has to work because we have individual bodies and God’s body is plural. What’s important to me about saying “God” is that God is a Creator, and a unifying thing: maybe the anima, the soul of living things, or maybe just the fingerprint of time running through everything made of carbon. The idea of God being love is important, too, because love conquers all these differences that seem so otherwise unconquerable. Love is the great appeal, the miracle that opens seventy year old homophobic hearts to gay grandchildren and opens up white hearts to shake off the constraints of white supremacy. Dr. King said that Jesus was an extremist of love.
When I was a Christian, there was a way to appeal to other Christians about human rights and the environment by making these kinds of arguments. But my conservative students aren’t Christian anymore. In my classroom, I’m usually the only one talking about Jesus. Often, my students assume that because I’m a butch lesbian covered in tattoos, dropping the f-bomb and talking socialism, that I don’t know shit about Jesus. They didn’t see the first twenty-three years of my life. One time, a particularly aggressive Trump supporting student was sure that I was making up the idea of relics.
As an example of what kind of details to include in their essays, I had said, “Look, if you want to make Christianity or Catholicism sound reasonable, you’re not gonna start with relics. You’re not gonna say, yeah, our religion likes to collect teeth and bones and tongues. You’re gonna start with Jesus, and love, and stuff like that.”
Sometimes I forget that my intimacy with Catholicism is abnormal. While some of the older people in the room got what I was talking about, none of the twenty-something’s did. So the Trump kid, who was always trying to get me to argue with him, said smugly, “What? That’s not real.”
“Yes, relics are real,” I told him, “You can drive two miles from here and visit St. Anthony’s Church, a reliquary, which is full of bones encased in glass and gold.
“I’ve been Catholic my whole life,” he said, “and I’ve never heard of that.”
I wanted to tell him that I had been Catholic for two-thousand years. I also wanted to say, Look, God, this is what happens when you kick out gay people. You lose us. You could’ve had me on your team, Team Jesus, but instead I’m out here on queer island, and nobody thinks I know what I’m talking about. How I look, my tattoos, my weird hair, my clothes, my smoking, my general frankness, are all a product of not giving a fuck anymore because I already lost every kind of thing there is to lose—all of that looks to the world like someone who rejected a church, or all churches, when the truth of the matter is that the churches rejected me. This student can go on saying racist, sexist, xenophobic things, vote for Trump, and have his wedding in a Catholic church. He can get dressed up on Sundays and sit there with his mom or his grandparents, and feel perfectly at welcome, and send his kids to Sunday School. I wanted say all of this out loud, with a lot of fuckwords.
Instead, I told him what relics are. Jesus was God becoming human. Which redeems humanity, people are always saying. What does that mean? It means that God has been human, so humanity is now divine material, and sacred. Then he becomes bread, too, which makes bread sacred. Basically, everything is sacred. So the bones of holy people, their teeth, their bodies, their clothes, their hair, the things they touched, their books, their spaces – these are all relics, or reminders, of the people themselves, who are reminders, themselves, of the God who created them. So we don’t just throw them out, we keep them, we cherish them, we protect them from harm.
- WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT, WE ARE GODS
When I was growing up, it was considered very liberal to recycle. I tell my students this, to give them a sense that people’s ideas can and do change. Now, even the conservative students see recycling as just the intelligent thing to do; it lost its connotation with liberalism because at some point the new generation heard the information and realized that not considering what human action does to the Earth is basically like peeing all over your living room and not considering the impact of the urine on the carpet and the furniture. Previous generations have been pissing all over the living room and expecting the grandchildren to inherit the house happily, even if it’s falling down around everyone, saturate with waste.
In my classroom, when we say “we” –as in, “We don’t have enough money to give everyone everything they need, to end poverty, to educate everyone, to clean up or renovate what we have polluted– the “we” is particular. We in that room don’t have enough to do those things, and maybe we as a state or a nation don’t have enough digits in exactly the right columns—but we as a species definitely do have enough. But we don’t think of ourselves as one species, or as one anything.
Yet our human brains are powerful enough to know that people are valuable whether or not we love them. If we wanted to, we could lend our collective strength to saving each other, to saving everyone, rather than defending what is “ours” from who we don’t think of as ours. We could share, not based on who “deserves” it, or who we like or who was born closer to us. We could stop killing each other. We could start feeding each other. We can’t stop all death, but as a species we’ve figured out how to prevent or cure most of what kills us. Most of us just lack access to it.
And what if everyone was safe, fed, healed, included? Why not? Whiteness, the destroyer of worlds, did so by separating humanity from humanity, separating humanity into “races”. Whiteness shattered what was one into a multitude of broken pieces. Humanity’s heart is broken, and it seems like we can’t get off the couch.
- “…BY THEIR FRUITS YOU SHALL KNOW THEM…”
One of my brightest students, a young Black woman, wrote her final paper on a solution unlike any I’d received before. To end racism, she proposed that Black people enslave white people. As the paper developed, she decided to send white people to Africa as slaves, and to give North America back to Native Americans. Black people could stay, or return to Africa to rebuild the home of their ancestors with all the free labor they needed.
“Well,” another student asked after some conversation, “Does that mean that in a few hundred years, there’s gonna be a white civil rights movement in Africa?”
As a class, we theorized about this for a while, and the student who was writing the paper decided that hundreds of years of owning slaves would corrupt Black people in the same ways white people seem, to her, very obviously corrupt: would Black police officers be murdering white children while they played in parks?
She decided that, even if her proposal would bring about justice and equality, it wasn’t worth it if it meant Black people might end up “like white people.”
- “WE CAN’T BREAHTE”
… everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room and the space of the building that surrounds the room and the space of the neighborhoods nearby and the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands and the space of the oceans and the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere and the space of the mesosphere in and out.
– Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs
The negative things that have happened to me because I’m white are things like being excluded at a social gathering, getting my feelings hurt, maybe rarely some negative stereotyping about being over-privileged. Negative effects of not being white still include death, assault, unemployment, homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, and outright warfare. It is as unnatural, illogical, and crazy-making to deny how racism operates now as it was in 1850.
In America, a “bad neighborhood” can exist a few blocks away from a “good neighborhood,” even though both are in the same city, in the same country, where residents are far more likely to get shot than almost anywhere else in the world. Anyone who studies economics knows is that both neighborhoods are part of the same system, just as every country is part of the same continent or hemisphere or planet, and every people a part of the same species.
The lie of whiteness if you are told you are white is that what and who are not white are not you. If you are taught that you are not white, then you are taught that those who are white are not you. But the evidence of biology and psychadelics and religion alike is that they are you. Which also means that Donald Trump is you and ISIS is you and the KKK and Jesus and Buddha and the Black Panthers are you, and the Westboro Baptist Church is me and you, and we are Paris, we are Columbine and Orlando and Mosul, we are Mike Brown; we are all George Zimmerman and we are all Trayvon Martin: so why don’t we all act like it? Why aren’t white women tearing at their clothes and hair in public grief over Tamir Rice? Why aren’t the white police falling to their knees in heartache and repentance and shame?
I tell my students about the police in Iceland. When the first person ever was killed by Icelandic police the whole country mourned. The mourning was lead by the police, who, in essence, fell to their knees, weeping over their profound mistake. When I tell this to my students, they are shocked. Their mouths drop open. They had no idea that humans could be like that.
We shouldn’t have to say the lungs matter or the heart matters: a disease of the lungs or the heart will effect every breath the whole body takes. Whiteness is a cigarette humanity has kept smoking, pretending that it doesn’t hurt us, offering it to our children in the womb and with their breakfast.
The islands of trash in the ocean, the holes in the ozone layer, the levels of carbon in the atmosphere, the extreme weather—none of these perceives race or gender or nation. If humans are going to adapt to climate change, we need to do so together, if only for the very simple fact that environmental devastation knows no bounds or boundaries. There is no “us” and “them” with regard to the air we breathe or the water we drink or the earth where we grow our food. If we want to continue to naturally breathe air, without gas masks, we have to solve the problem everywhere, for everyone and everything who breathes, and cannot breathe.
R/B Mertz is a genderqueer dyke artist, poet & writing teacher. Raised a Catholic homeschooler, she’s working on a memoir currently titled Burning Butch. New poems are coming out in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Fence,and Pittsburgh Poetry Review; art can be found displayed in homes in at least seven states. Mertz is 32, which surpasses expectations. She has almost published several books, and once nearly won a prize.
*R/B Mertz would like to thank all the writers she quotes, as well as Tamika Sly, Vanessa German and Amanda Gross in particular for help with her ideas in this essay.