How Does Whiteness Separate Us From God? – Collaboration Conversation

This is the seventh of a series of guest posts and dialogues. In this post, the six of us engaged in an email dialogue around the question:  How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
AMANDA GROSS: Whiteness and God – both individually but especially in combination – are rare topics for public forums. My own Mennonite upbringing emphasized sharing faith through works rather than personal evangelism. Whiteness in general is a topic reserved for like-minded company. When I do engage with these ideas publicly, I am more comfortable drawing systemic conclusions rather than making it super personal, which challenged me in my writing of the initial post. I found myself wanting to pull out your vulnerable wisdom, but realized I didn’t fully model that in my post, which has caused me to reflect on how I’ve internalized messages around “setting an objective tone” and my comfort at asking others to go first.
What challenges did you face in writing your initial guest blog post and why? What came up for you? What barriers did you work with? How did you deal with it?

View from Hotel Rooftop: Photo by Amanda K Gross

R/B Mertz: Being vulnerable was definitely the thing I struggled with most, by which I mean involving anything about myself in the piece. Initially I wrote something with a lot less about myself, a lot more about numbers and examples to prove my points. Amanda and my girlfriend both pointed this out when they read my first draft, and I spent my editing time trying to make myself visible in the piece, to show my own vulnerabilities. Which I feel like I just got to the edge of. Definitely “setting an objective tone” has been hammered into me by writing teachers (wait–mostly white, male ones, now that I think about it), and the objective tone carries over to thinking, too.

Examples of what phrases repeat in my mind, when my mind tells me to have an “objective tone”: “That’s how life is,” “It happens on both sides,” “Black people are just as racist as white people,” “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” “There are two sides to every story,” “#Not All Men” “#Not all white people,” “#Not all Cops,” “Nobody’s perfect,” “Everybody makes mistakes,” “At least things are better than they used to be,” “People are just fucked up, white, black, brown…”

The hardest part about writing about whiteness or even processing information about white supremacy and Black life in America is letting my mind actually absorb and conceive fully of the information without putting the white gaze over it like a set of rose-colored glasses that blinds you to racism even when it’s right in front of your face. My mind seems built to Not Think About It Too Much. Writing about it is like holding several balls in the air at one time with my mind, which makes me feel a little crazy–which is especially maddening because anyone who points out racism, and women who make a stink about anything, have been told for centuries that we are crazy, reactionary, etc. I also *happen* to struggle with mental illness, so I am a crazy person, though I’m technically in recovery now. That being said, in my many years of experience as a crazy person, I have to say that as a group of racism deniers, white people take the cake on collective insanity. This is not to let anyone off the hook. As a crazy person, I have recognized that the only way to “cure” my mental illness is to take responsibility for it, to seek treatment, to control my symptoms as best I can, and to keep myself from harming others, and to take responsibility and make amends for that harm if I can.

“There’s Blood On Many Hands Tonight”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

Jeannie Lynn: The longer I considered Amanda’s question, the harder it became to answer.  How would I define whiteness?  How would I define God?  I mean, really, as working models? Solidifying the answer into an articulation was very very difficult for me.

What-it-is, 5 weeks old; Photo by Jeannie Lynn

VALERIE SHOWALTER:  In the multi-faceted identity of woman, pastor, student, aunt, etc., I found it difficult to not know who my audience was, and thus, knowing how to write in a way that met them where they were at.  Within all these identities listed (and others), I’m trained to boil down my thoughts and beliefs into ideas that will also be meaningful for you…on their own, in my words, they may not serve you.  Not knowing my audience was both terrifying and liberating.  I wanted to hold back, for fear of being misunderstood; I wanted to step forward, sharing unfettered.

by Valerie Showalter

Cole Parke: As Amanda can attest, I wrote two entirely different pieces for my contribution. The first was a deeply analytical review of history and theology with little-to-no acknowledgement of what’s real, which is that I’m a person with a LOT of feelings. Fortunately, Amanda has handed me enough tissues in the course of our friendship to see right through the protective cloak of heart-shielding theory, and she gently invited me to try again.

Friends can play a critical role in helping us push past the easy option of intellectualizing our collective heartbreak, but I’m curious about other tools that can draw us deeper into our hearts (and our bodies), as I understand that that’s where the truly transformational work happens. I’ve especially been thinking about this recent piece by Tada Hozumi about why white people can’t dance. He ultimately concludes that whiteness is traumatization embodied.
“The white body is in freeze: a state of disconnection between mind and body. It is ungrounded and cannot feel the earth. … This is why, when a white ally asks me about how they can best ally with POCs, my best advice is to come dance with us. I don’t mean this just in the literal sense (although its a lot of fun). What I mean is that white bodies need to actively experience the discomfort of their body not being dominant in a space to really understand how much pain they are in – to feel and heal the white-ness that has been fortified by living in a colonized world.”
I wonder if this is why the eucharist continues to feel like such a powerful ritual for me – it’s a reminder of the embodiment of god, made available to all people.
How else do people pursue embodiment? What do you do to “feel the earth”?

altar #3; featuring art by Molly Shea, photo by Cole Parke

Amanda: Thank you Cole! This has been on my mind. This has been on my body. I have been thinking a lot about how we as white people have the choice to notice the violence of racism on Black and Brown bodies as facilitated by our privilege, but we don’t typically consider the experience of racism on our bodies.

Two weeks ago I was at a training that was all about being in body. I love to dance, which is something I’ve cultivated more or less at different times in my life. The past year, I’ve been dabbling in and out of dancing – first in Urban Ballroom class, then at Line Dancing, and as yoga warm-up. Then I was at this training addressing trauma and healing and we were being taught samba steps and house steps and I was loving it and building confidence and fully participating. At the end we formed a circle and each person danced in the middle, something done in slightly different ways in many cultures. It was a freestyle moment – to share and celebrate each of our human individuality in the middle of the collective circle with everyone watching and cheering on. Needless to say, it was a very supportive environment. And when it was my turn, I froze. I refused to jump in the middle like a stubborn 4 year old. Panic set in. Then after everyone had had their turn, it came back to me. I reluctantly stood in the middle. Did whatever came to my body. There was instant release and I burst into tears and fled the space. It was uncomfortable in so many ways.
As I was outside in the courtyard bawling I reflected on dancing in my tradition, or the absence of it. The trainer shared about how the Black Panthers would celebrate together after an intense day of organizing by dancing. I was furious and incredibly sad that there was no such tradition of dancing for me to draw on. In fact Mennonites of Swiss German ancestry historically forbid dancing. So much of embodied celebration and pleasure is seen as evil – sex, play, really anything that is not productive. White Supremacist Patriarchy only values our bodies in terms of work – reproduction, physical labor, competitive sports, pragmatic nurture. It is only valuable and worthwhile and permissible if it has purpose.
The circle moment was both terrifying and liberating and there were many witnesses.

Trust Black Women (detail); Pen and Ink on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Valerie:  To your question, Cole, I have held tight to a phrase spoken to me years ago by a person I admired:  Solvitur ambulando, which means, “It is solved by walking.”  In the variety of places I’ve lived as an adult, walking is my way of grounding myself, of exploring and encountering neighbors I otherwise ignore as I drive by, and being present to God’s presence which is everywhere and in all things (as Jeannie suggested in her post.)  These walks are generally aimless and “non-productive,” but full of purpose.  They quiet my anxious mind and gut, and often bring alignment to my whole self.

The “solving” that gets done is my own centering, never a final resolution on the issue with which I’m wrestling.  Walking is a starting point to observe my recent actions and feelings, to acknowledge and name my mistakes and prejudices, to physically work through that, and then to try again.

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

Leah Jo:  As Cole mentioned a few comments above, I too have a LOT of feelings and this tends to hold me back from jumping in quickly. I’ve seen the email chain going, knowing it was conversation that deserved space/time/and full attention to be present, and honestly I hadn’t given myself that time or space until now! (I’m constantly trying to call myself out on this as i’m aware that busyness=numbness).

To answer Amanda’s original question about what came up for us in our original blog post, it’s incredible to read so many of you had similar barriers as I did, most notably was that many of us wrote a “first” blog post, then got called out on it, and challenged ourselves to write a more genuine blog post following. Well, I don’t know if anyone else felt “called out” but I sure did.
So my first post was very outward focused, talking about society at large, “people tend to…” “more facts” “things that I’ve learned about facts”, etc. After I wrote it, I felt like it was honest and safe. Amanda quickly pointed out that she couldn’t “see Leah” shining through. I immediately got defensive (helllllo whiteness) and re-read my post about 6 times. Additionally, I spent about an hour going through some of my other writings to see how those felt like Leah. After doing this, I was surprised at how easy it was for me to be vulnerable in other types of writing, particularly around grief, death, and dying but not with confronting my whiteness as it relates to my upbringing and religion.  So I sat down and just wrote without trying to think so much about what or how it came out, and at the end I sent it quickly to Amanda before thinking about what I just did.
To Cole’s question, “how do we feel the earth?”- The first thing that comes to mind is yoga. I’ve been practicing yoga for about five years now, the past 9 months of that have been within a teacher training format called YogaRoots On Location, a transformative study of Raja yoga taught within a social justice framework (particular attention on the construction and deconstruction of racism within the United States).  Through this practice I have wanted to better understand my body as it relates to its cultural inner-workings. What is my body besides “white”?  To begin to answer this more keenly, my husband and I took a genetics test, my results have provided me the opportunity to begin to accept my body, personality, history, and my family, much more fully. (side note: I thought I was mostly Italian, turns out I’m more Balkan than Italian…which is pretty awesome to me!). Yoga has always been a practice of better understanding myself, a very introspective physical practice that challenges me more mentally and emotionally than physically. Yoga has been a constant reminder of how much more I need to learn about what true Love and acceptance looks like, and for me that begins with me being able to love all parts of myself, of loving the God that exists within me.
Do other folks feel a sense of “God” or holiness within one’s self? What would life look like if we no longer felt the need to search for anything outside of ourselves?

Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands; photo by Leah Jo

 Jeannie: I appreciated reading that piece by Tada Hozumi.  I have been in a kind of freeze for a long time, and have started, finally, to come to terms with it. I don’t know whether or not to call it “whiteness, but I think investigation into “every body” instead of just my own, changes the questions and their answers.

Four Part Harmony ; Mixed Media by Amanda k Gross

Amanda: One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation was because I was genuinely curious about how all of you are thinking about and navigating whiteness and spirituality. Talk of my individual faith beliefs/questions – along with the topic of sex, not uncoincidentally – are topics I have kept close to my chest and have been taught to keep close to my chest. One very public and vulnerable way that I am challenging that silence is this blog. But even though aspects of blogging are very vulnerable, it can easily become a platform for monologue. It has been hard and awkward for me to share these ideas and thoughts in person and in dialogue with my parents, my extended family, my church family, people who have been a part of the stories I am publicly sharing – sometimes because the foundation of relationship is not really there or I fear it is not solid enough to withstand. I’m pushing myself to do this more and do it more intentionally, but I struggle with balance because part of what birthed the blog is the dense silence and shame of unspoken lines that are not to be crossed and also because I am human with limits to my energy and emotional capacity.

How do you all manage and balance this? What has this blog post meant for your family and faith community relationships? Has anything changed for you as a result of this process?

Hear No Evil, by Amanda K Gross

Valerie: I echo your struggle with knowing how one balances truth-telling with compassion, Amanda.  When I wrote my post, I wrestled with wondering, “Can the institution where I am a student ‘handle’ this criticism?”  In the end, my sense was that institutions are much easier to critique, but also are much slower to change.  Often, no one person feels particularly that a critique is directed at them, and thus no one takes responsibility.

So, the answer to my question was “yes” and I saw it as a way to practice offering public critique at all — my personality and socialization lend themselves to holding such things “close to my chest.”  Advocacy for self and for others is something I know from my experience that I have had to deliberately practice, and this was the step I could take for now.  Small critiques are also a way to test the relationship:  is there adequate trust to work through fundamental issues of racism?  Is the relationship resilient enough to support transformation, or will this conversation end in alienation?  What’s my threshold for being the instigator of alienation, in the name of truth-telling?

White Silence, by Amanda K Gross

Cole: One final mini-thought… For much of my life I struggled with what I was told was incongruous: that one cannot be both queer and christian. It took a lot of years to navigate around and through that lie, but I’ve more-or-less come out on the other side feeling assured that I am worthy and loved not despite of my queerness, but within in. My whiteness, however, is a different story. One of the key tenants of christianity (from my protestant upbringing) is that grace is a gift available, offered, and given to all with no strings attached, no matter what. This translates directly into my commitment to prison abolition, transformative justice, and collective liberation. But I haven’t yet figured out how to internalize the notion of redemption within my white body. I can’t actually believe that I can be both white and worthy of grace, but maybe someday I’ll dance myself into that truth.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

R/B Mertz: I’ve been wanting to get involved in this conversation again, and am having a hard time figuring out where to start. One thing that I want to say comes from the identity category of white, and the lie of it.  At the same time, I want to talk about how significant whiteness is and how it influences my experience, AND I want to say that it doesn’t really exist. I don’t believe that white folks (raised with the identity of white, with “white”/passing skin) can eschew the privileges and protections of whiteness, but I do think that there is an option to mindfully disengage with the moral compromises that whiteness demands, and to disintegrate the conditioning of whiteness by understanding that it isn’t an actual biological category, but a lie, a false binary about what the full spectrum of skin color means.

Many of the labels we are born into are fluid and can change (gender, class, religion, nation) while others are fixed (race, ability, ethnicity). There are days when I wish there was a word for white people who are active against white supremacy, the same way I sometimes wish there was a word for Christians who are not patriarchal or phobic. The question always comes up, when trying to change a long-standing institution or group, about whether or not the thing you’re trying to change is intrinsic to the fabric of the group or not. Yet the existence of white people and whiteness serves no other purpose than to fundamentally separate and oppress people according to skin color. There is no other purpose to whiteness. While there might be many aspects to being French or German or Irish, whiteness is the thing that cuts off those particular roots and makes the thing-in-common not a whole body of history and cultural practices, but a surface level attribute.
In their essay, “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation,” Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad make an exception for John Brown, because he was a white man who literally gave his bodily existence for Abolition, releasing himself, in a sense, of those bodily privileges that his whiteness could have secured for him. This is a high call, and I see it as a challenge to put my whole body where my mouth is. This is not, in the Rachel Dolezal sense, a call to “convert” or transition into something besides whiteness, but a challenge to reject what the whiteness means, to de-center it from everything/everywhere, to use the full power of our bodies to challenge the system that has kept us safe at the expense of others. This reminds me of the meme that “if you object to the phrase “white people _____,” it’s aimed at you.” I don’t see this as a demand to accept about myself as true whatever is being said about white people, but a challenge to (A) note that the observation has been made and that I might be doing whatever is being called out about white people, and (B) to see the false nature of the category itself.

“Hate Doesn’t Come Overnight, Neither Does Love”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

Jeannie: I remember one time someone told me that the conscious decisions are the hardest ones.  During this process I was highly aware of what I was saying, and not saying.  And of who I told about it, and who I didn’t.  And also of the biochemical sensations which informed those decisions. I wonder what else could inform my decisions, if there is something else I could “move by” and how would that change..everything

 

Same Coin; Screen Print by Amanda K Gross

This is the seventh of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth in the series here and here and here and here and here and here.

How Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Six

This is the sixth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

Written by Jeannie Lynn

“If you want to get in touch with the reality of a thing, the first thing you must understand is that every idea distorts reality and is a barrier to seeing reality.”

-Anthony de Mello

“The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.”

-Krishnamurti

Nearly two years ago, I accidently saw God in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania.

On that particular day, I met a young woman who was waiting by the side of the road, with a cardboard box in her hands, and inside this box was God.

Its picture (after coming home) is below:

What-it-is, 5 weeks old; Photo by Jeannie Lynn

Earlier that same week, at a church down the street from my Pittsburgh apartment, I had learned the term “Panentheism” as defined by Original Blessing author Matthew Fox: “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  It seemed like a nice thought, that God could be closer than watching us from somewhere else.  But now after seeing this tiny part of God that we commonly refer to as a rabbit, the theology suddenly became a breathing thing. Standing in the July sun, I could find no words to describe the shocking transparency of this black and white thing-in-a box, which was so new to life, to its own neuromuscular system.  No description, that is, except God.

After that day, I gradually began to perceive that same startling what-it-isness more and more frequently, and I believe it is always here, in everything, although most of time I disregard it in favor of the dazzling cognitive busywork of categorization and comparison and preference and association.

One particular example of this kind of distraction, in the context of Amanda’s blog question, is whiteness. *

When I look in the mirror or down at my body and think or say “white,” the energy of my attention diverts from the actuality of my visual field, to that second screen that people often refer to as the “mind’s eye.” Somehow, I lose awareness of the textured patterns and shading, the contours, the movingness and heat of myself-as-I-am. Instead, maybe all I see are the meanings and ideas that are associated with the label “whiteness” in my mind, and which are dead outlines. **

It doesn’t seem to matter whether my associations with whiteness are positive or negative, whether I feel pleasure or pain when categorizing my self-image as “white.”  It still represents a kind of cheap thrill or sugar high which bears little resemblance to the dynamic actuality of this creature, myself. Identification with whiteness or any other label as projected onto that second screen of my mind’s eye absolutely lacks the power and potency connection to What-Is , to God.

I don’t believe that White or Rabbit or any other construct can separate what is already true from myself, itself. However, these constructs, way too often, result in a case of mistaken identity, of the thing-as-it-is.

 

 

*Because God is in everything and everything is in God, I believe that labels and categories are also a part of God, but I tend to mistakenly treat them as gods in themselves.

**I don’t actually believe that anything is dead.

Jeannie Lynn lives and works on the east side of Pittsburgh, as a nursing assistant and GED tutor. She prefers to spend most of her spare time in conversation with her rabbits.

This is the sixth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth in the series here and here and here and here and here.

 

 

How Does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Five

This is the fifth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY Cole Parke

I recently received some big and hard feedback from people in my life who have been frustrated and hurt by my behavior in a myriad of ways. There were some specific examples of racist microaggressions I’d committed, and then some more general feedback about ways that I’ve been self-centered, arrogant, inconsiderate, and unaccountable.

After taking it all in, I expressed my gratitude for their honesty and for taking the time to call out me out; I offered my sincere apologies for the harm I’d caused; and I asked if there were additional ways that I could repair and heal the damage done. Then I went and sat in my room — a space that I’ve carefully curated as a tiny sanctuary filled with reminders that I am loved — and wrapped myself in a blanket of self-hate and shame.

altar #1; Photo by Cole Parke

It was one of those earth-shattering, core-shaking moments that leaves you feeling like you can’t breathe/don’t deserve to breathe/never want to breathe again. There was now evidence that the perpetually haunting notion of my utter irredeemability was true — that my existence in the world was causing far more harm than good and that I am fundamentally a horrible monster of human and an absolute fraud of an anti-racist.

This conversation took place within 24 hours of a four-day silent meditation retreat that had been on my calendar for months.

 

Four days. Of total silence.

 

Four days of total silence inside a brain that was freshly convinced that the essence of my being is not only bad, but also dangerous. My Christian upbringing taught me that “god is love,” and in the depths of that silence, I was wholly convinced that there was no god for me.

And now I’m back in my room. The reminders that I’m loved are still here — art offerings from friends cover my walls, the flannel quilt that my mom made me for Christmas a few years ago is carefully folded at the foot of my bed, there’s a pile of letters from pen pals on my desk, a borrowed copy of Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is on my bedside table… I’m surrounded by love (god?) in abundance, but a deep seeded sense of unworthiness still dominates.

So the question of how my whiteness separates me from god feels entirely appropriate, impossibly hard, and absolutely critical to my/our liberation.

altar #2; featuring needlework by Jillian Brandl (@brawnyb), photo by Cole Parke

In Amanda’s original post for this series, she observed that most white people she passes on the street don’t make eye contact with her. She theorizes that “we do not make eye contact with strangers because deep down we are afraid that in seeing the God in them, we will be forced to look at and change ourselves and ultimately, that might make us question the truth on which we have built our lives.”

I wonder if what we’re really afraid of is that seeing the god in others will make more evident the absence of god in ourselves.

Feminist scholar and activist Andrea Smith once outlined the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which she categorizes as slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war. Reflecting on this framework, I understand that the United States of America emerged from (and is sustained by) a formula of stolen labor/lives, stolen land/resources/culture (necessary for the intended disappearance of indigenous people), and through a constant process of hierarchical othering — of labeling certain people or nations as “inferior and as posing a constant threat to the well-being of empire.” I think of this as stolen humanity.

My ancestors played a role in constructing and upholding each of these three building blocks. When I think about them, and about all the other European colonizers of that era, I have to wonder, What happened that enabled them to completely dehumanize those whose land, resources, culture, humanity, labor, and lives they stole?

In my mind, the only logical conclusion is that they had to have forfeited their souls, thereby rejecting god.

Today, this process continues. Slavery lives on in the form of the prison industrial complex; the erasure and genocide of indigenous people lives on in the form of the Trans Pacific Pipeline; the (il)logic of orientalism lives on the Muslim Ban; and white people (myself included) continue to forfeit our souls.

But even if whiteness has successfully compelled us to forfeit our souls, in order to keep getting out of bed every day, I have to believe that god/love is still stronger — that even if we forfeit our souls, witnessing the god/soul in others actually has the capacity to reveal and awaken the god/soul that forever desires to reside within us.

altar #3; featuring art by Molly Shea, photo by Cole Parke

Whiteness undeniably separates us from god, but the haunting grief resulting from that chasm suggests that there’s still a place for her within me.

That is the place that brought me into the depths of self-hatred last week, and it’s from that place that I keep fighting for a world that protects and celebrates the humanity and worth of all people (myself included).

 

Cole Parke is a rebellious descendent of Mayflower voyagers currently living in Boston, MA. They wake up every morning committed to demonstrating that love is more powerful, even when they aren’t entirely sure. When Cole isn’t spying on the right wing, you can usually find them hanging out at the post office, riding their bike, recruiting new Dandy Blend devotees, or fawning over some stranger’s dog.

This is the fifth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, third, and fourth in the series here and here and here and here.

How Whiteness Kills God & Sprinkles Crack on the Body (How Whiteness Separates us from God – Take Four)

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

“Dr. King And All The Prophets Warned Against Not Loving”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

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

  1. “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.

  1. 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.

“Deforested In Part To Satisfy Rising Demand”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. 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.

“A Mental Civil War”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. 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.

“There’s Blood On Many Hands Tonight”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

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.

“The Embodiment Of A Country Transcending Its Past”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. 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.

“A Rough Hand Shakes Me Awake”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. “…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.”

“A Voice Says If You Want To”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

  1. “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.

“Hate Doesn’t Come Overnight, Neither Does Love”; Mixed Media by R/B Mertz

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.

This is the fourth of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first, second, and third in the series here and here and here.

 

How does Whiteness Separate us from God – Take Three

           This is the third of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY Valerie Showalter

The Mennonite seminary where I attend as a student has relatively few pieces of art depicting the person of Jesus.  In one of the prayer rooms, there is a reprint of an ancient icon of a brown-ish Jesus.  This is the only image of Jesus in the areas accessed regularly by the public.

        But, as you descend into the lower level of the seminary, back in the corner of the building where there are no windows, there is a room set aside for the student study.  The room is full of little cubicles, musty biblical encyclopedias from the 1940s, and a few choice pieces of art.  On one wall, four portraits of white men are lined up next to each other – Felix Mantz, Conrad Grebel, and George Blaurock, representing “proper” Mennonite heritage.  And, finally, Charles Wesley is the fourth portrait, as a reminder that we’ve got a bunch of Methodist students around, too.  On another wall, three pastel-y pictures portray classic, mid-20th century Sunday School images of Jesus.   

Sallman – “Heart’s Door”

        The seminary provides a metaphor for how I see white Mennonites separating ourselves from God.  On the surface, in the public areas, we exude an openness to world expressions of the face of Christ.  We display our one Greek Orthodox icon because if we’re going to have an image of Christ (which we have long called idolatry) out in public, it needs to show that we are world-savvy about the multiple expressions of Christ.

        But when you enter the depths, the spaces where we form our identities, we tolerate a white Christianity because, at the core, we see Jesus as white.  And, as long as that stays hidden as we accommodate personal tolerance to that “Truth,” we are caught like a frog in the hot water that boils around us, the heat turned up while we weren’t paying attention.*  White Patriarchal Christianity subtly reinforces that we are dependent on it, not just through art, but through curriculum which is still dominated by western, white male academics.  Of the assigned reading in any semester that I’ve been a student at this seminary, a gross majority of the books have been authored by white men.  And so, white Christianity is reinforced, even when it is not intended.

        When Amanda asked me to be a guest blogger on this series, the question “How does whiteness separate you from God” showed a leniency in my own awareness of my complicity as a white seminarian in a white Mennonite Institution.  So the following observations – on Whiteness, Separation, and God — I name from my experience.

        Whiteness  Whiteness is my inescapable context.  I was born with white skin in a culture that historically has championed a particular skin tone, a particular definition of “civilization” and “religion” and “enlightenment,” ­a preference for a particular hierarchy, and a particular structure to reinforce all of this.  I take this socialization wherever I go, and in various situations, particularly where imperialist globalization has gone before me, it gives me particular power.  I wish I could relinquish my Whiteness, and parts of it I can, though to do so means I am necessarily deprived of privileges I once enjoyed.  This leads me to the next observation.

        Separate  First, I note the word “separate” in this question is used as a verb.  Whiteness works to physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, etc. distance us from God.  Whiteness widens the gap, luring us away from God.  Thus, a response to the separation between God and myself is necessarily a reaction to my Whiteness.  The first thing I am invited to do is be aware that the water is heating up around me.  Before I can react, I need to acknowledge that Whiteness is the primary actor in the first place.  Where many white Mennonites get stuck is at this point:  we can acknowledge that structurally-enforced Whiteness separates us from God and from Neighbor.  Is that enough?   

        While this stance has long assuaged our guilt, now is the chance to react against our separation.  In the Christian world, we have this notion of metanoia, which can be translated a variety of ways from its ancient Greek origins.  It can mean a change of mind, repentance, or an inner change.  There are opportunities or turning points from which we are invited to pivot.  I can say over and over that I am sorry for the way Whiteness destroys people and the planet, but it means nothing if I do not change.  If awareness produces acknowledgment, apology produces change.

Hofmann – “The Boy Jesus in the Temple”

        God  Christianity has a history of claiming that we are set apart, “wheat” separated from the “chaff” for God’s purposes and God’s glory.  A chosen nation, a “city on a hill.”  Let me be clear here:  White Christianity is not Separate because God has chosen Us; it is separate because we have made for ourselves a white God in our image, who reinforces our supremacy. For me, this truth-telling and reaction is grounded in a belief in a God, who is Essence, Event, and Energy.**  It is also what I – and all other white people – are separated from.  If we have created a white god to worship, how does that inform our interpretation of the Two Greatest Commandments, which Jesus outlines as the basis for faithful living?

        Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.  I don’t get to name God, what God prefers, or how God orders or disorders the cosmos.  God is “mine” because I have named the gulf I have created/inherited that separates me from God, which is my own investment in structures of patriarchy and oppression.  The process of faithful engagement is to continue naming the gulf between self or community and God, because the prevailing forces of whiteness are so strong.  If my experience of God is one that reinforces the privilege I have because I am white, I’ve missed the point.

        Love your neighbor as yourself.  As Amanda mentioned in her post on this, we do not get to name which people, which creatures do or don’t have Essence, Event, Energy.  Whiteness prefers to craftily challenge that, creating a hierarchy in which white is the only true holder of the Divine, and those are the only neighbors we love.  But have you noticed that perfect love drives out Whiteness?  

        Love notices that our neighbor is not our clone.  (Things Jesus didn’t say: “Love your clone as yourself.”)  The more difficult thing to do as white people is to relinquish who one must be in order to be worthy of love.  I have a terrible history of picking and choosing who I think deserves my love, and in no small way does that reflect my complicit ownership of white privilege.  In this way, I turn love into a currency, and I have inherited the power to choose where to spend my love (for the best return on investment.)

        At the end of this all, who am I as a white lady seminarian in a white Mennonite institution?  There are some things I can name:  for too long, I’ve been uncritical of the books I let inform me within academia; for too long, I’ve supported patriarchal ethics that have not only ignored gender norms but racist norms as well; and for too long, I’ve not noticed how privilege itself has gotten me to this point, well on my way to a master’s degree.  Like the seminary, these are the public areas of my identity that “exude an openness” to reflect on how I’m complicit in Whiteness.

        But there is a host of things I struggle to name, particularly as I’ve moved back “home” to my white, Mennonite family in a largely white, Mennonite area.  Without even trying, I can easily settle into a rural, white idyll, seeing only white friends and family while rolling my eyes at the neighbors with confederate flags.  And spiritually, my whiteness here in the Shenandoah Valley means I don’t necessarily “need” God, because this is the location in which my white privilege is at its height and breadth.  I can become my own little god because my white social networks effortlessly reinforce my blindness to my ingrained racism.

by Valerie Showalter

        Yet, I sense that God is calling me out of my whiteness and into my utter humanity here at home.  And I find that call is beyond frightening.  The last thing I want is to be vulnerable, because “God forbid” I get uncomfortable (and discomfort is chaos for white Mennonites.)  I wonder if “home” is where I will do my best work, and if so, I have a lurking suspicion this is where the work will be the hardest.  I balk at the discomfort, the tireless work, and having to speak up.  I balk at my whiteness, and I’m frightened of what God will say to me when I finally turn back to close the gulf.

*I’m aware this frog-in-boiling-water thing has been scientifically debunked.  So, let’s embrace it as a literary metaphor.

**Essence, as in a similar concept to Amanda’s expression in her post, regarding Quaker and Christian Animism ideas that God’s Spirit is present in all things.  Event, as this intangible idea suggested by John D. Caputo, in which God is revealed yet still being revealed, and that process itself is what we call God.  Energy, as similar to Essence in that the Divine animates the universe.  All are esoteric and incomplete, yet deeply personal and communal.

Valerie is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and a part-time pastor at Shalom Mennonite Congregation.  In her spare time, she gardens, drinks coffee, and is currently catching up on The Americans.

This is the third of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first and second in the series here and here.

How Does Whiteness Separate Us from God – Take Two

This is the second of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

WRITTEN BY Leah Jo

Hello, my name is Leah and I’m a recovering Christian. Today marks 6 years sober from a lifetime of believing that God was a gift that I was successfully able to box up and deliver to all those who needed him. After all, I’ve come to learn that  boxing up the Divine also allowed me to create my very own instructional pamphlet called, “How to Use God To Perpetuate Racism and Stay Comfortable While Doing So.” As you can imagine, my history of living a life that centered around the mantra of, “Serve God, Then Others, Then Yourself” set me up nicely in my later years to exhibit the following symptoms:

-White Savior Complex
-Co-dependency
-Internal guilt and shame
-Perfectionistic tendances
If you’re lost, that’s okay, I’ve been for years. What I’ve come to learn is that the Christianity I had fully embodied and lived from has been highly influenced by Western culture, which at it’s very foundation has been built on racism. I’m beginning to see how the Christianity I practiced and built my identity on has itself been white-washed. As I continued to live out my life as a good Christian I was living from a place of Internalized Racial Superiority (still do) which simultaneously upheld racism (unintentionally continuing to do). Still lost?

Indiana, PA; photo by Leah Jo

Let me start from the beginning:
I was born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, the youngest of four siblings, to parents that found God during the late 70s after a lifetime of drug use and traumatic adolescence. (I do actually “thank god” for this transformation as I am certain that I would not be here today if they hadn’t). My parents raised us in a conservative Christian way, attending church services and functions as frequently as I craved the sweet bread served at communion (which was often btw).

Smicksburgh, PA; Photo by Leah Jo

 We moved around a lot growing up, typically from one rural town to the next as my dad’s job as a manager at an AutoParts Store led us to different locations. Each place we moved, the communities felt the same, lower to middle class, white, blue-collar Pennsylvania workers. Each community held very similar values, which were “God, Family, and Hard Work”. So these values, in turn, were ones that we were taught as well. Our churches all felt the same as well, spaces that taught love/acceptance/sacrifice/and spreading the Gospel.
I loved every second of being at church. I loved the sense of community, the older ladies that pinched my chubby cheeks, the opportunity to be in plays, and of course the church picnics. The “church” quickly became  a second home, a place I found comfort and belonging.

“The Great Passion Play” Eureka Springs, Arkansas

 As I grew older, I began to admire and understand more the teachings of the Bible and OH BOY did I want to be the best Christian out there. I had always felt a very deep, personal connection to what I used to call God. Often times talking to God throughout the day, much like an imaginary friend. I wanted so badly to “do right” in the eyes of God, so that he may look down on me with a proud smile. I was simultaneously frightened by the consequences set aside for those who live a sinful life. Oh you know, just eternal damnation and endless pain and suffering – no biggie for a 6 year old to handle. So I came to understand that the sure-fire way to NOT end up going to hell was to make damn sure I was going to heaven. Tell me who I need to “save”, what rules I cant break, who not to sleep with, which words not to say and which drinks not to drink and I will pick up that cross and follow you (the rules) till I die.

Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Highlands; photo by Leah Jo

Enter Leah the White Savior.
I began to believe that my “pure” life morally elevated me above others. I was taught that the world needed to be saved, and that I needed to find those who needed the wisdom of God’s teachings coming directly from me, the holy one. My spiritual verbage was filled with linguistic racism, equating sin and death to darkness (blackness) and wholeness and purity to whiteness. Couple my desire to be perfect in God’s eyes with the communities I grew up in and what you have is a young, enthusiastic (fearful) Warrior for Christ on a quest to save people from the darkness (or from the “urban” environment really).
I made this my “purpose” in life and so I pursued the best path that would equip me with tools and skills to save more souls. As far as I knew, devoting a life to service was certainly going to make God proud, maybe even grant me a VIP pass to skip lines at the pearly gates
All of this self-righeousness continued until somewhere near the end of college. Being taken out of my rural Western Pennsylvanian bubble, I began to gain exposure to so much information, ideas, religions, and culture that I had never before knew, that I (finally) began questioning my beliefs and my own life. All of a sudden, my “purpose” didnt feel as certain to me anymore.

Highland Park Reservoir, Pittsburgh, PA; photo by Leah Jo

At that point, I had devoted my whole life to this pursuit and was not about to give it all up that easily. I also really wanted to stay comfortable in my certainties about life, about what was good and bad, and how I was definitely in the right (cognitive dissonance is a mind fuck). If there was no one to save, then I couldn’t be the white hero!
So I continued on in my studies (which actually only fueled my privilege as I rummaged like a squirrel in a trash can through all that I have been granted access to by being white) and began learning Social Work. It was here in this work that I can TRULY say that I was first challenged** to check my privilege, my righteousness, and my entire belief system.

Philadelphia, PA (dragon painting artist unknown); photo by Leah Jo

Since then I call what I have been experiencing, feeling, processing as the Great Unraveling. This “undoing” of myself has caused me to no longer look at my faith in the same way, and ultimately at God (formerly known as) in the same regard. I am in the process of re-examining my life in so many ways and confronting my demons. I do believe in the Divine, but not in a god that upholds racism. I’m learning to rebuild a bridge inside of myself over the void that is now ever so present. A truer, more vulnerable holiness that fosters Authentic love over fear and oppression. Afterall, if Western white culture taught me how to place God inside of a box, then I can learn how to break down those boxes and toss them in the trash for the rummaging squirrels.

Smicksburgh, PA (man and gator painting, artist unknown); photo by Leah Jo

*”Internalized Racial Superiority” – “The acceptance of and acting out of a superior definition is rooted in the historical designation of one’s race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based upon race. ” – As defined and developed and used by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
**my second breakdown challenge was in Felicia Lane Savage’s YROL Yoga Teacher Training.
-Leah Jo
This is the second of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?
For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. You can read the first in the series here.

How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

This is the first of a series of guest posts and dialogues around the question:   How does Whiteness Separate us from God?

For this exploration, a collective of critically thinking and courageous individuals – all of whom identify as white and have had experience being socialized as girls and/or women – have agreed to share their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. I (Amanda Gross) have written the first piece, with features from each guest blogger to follow, along with excerpts from a group dialogue and potentially a podcast. Happy reading and stay tuned for more! Read the second in the series by Leah Jo here.

written by AMANDA GROSS

Sin was a theme of my childhood. I was brought up in a small Mennonite church in the middle of a big city with a pretty clear definition of sin, meaning that which separates humans from God. This was most obviously applied on an individual level as things that were bad (unGodly and don’t do them) and things that were acceptable and good (Godly, definitely do them). Church and home and school mostly followed suit. Although I was aware of the little contradictions, especially that not everybody I encountered was on the same page about what exactly constituted sin and how important sin was in the equation of life and eternal damnation. Jesus was the bridge over the sin. But sin was still ever present, a threatening tsunami of danger to avoid.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

When I think back to my conversion experience inside of an emotional roller coaster of youth evangelical ministry, I remember both the surge and yearning, but also the fear. I was as much driven into the arms of Jesus by the invitation as the threat, a constant stream of compliance outlined in Christian fiction and nonfiction alike. If you do not comply, you will be left out of the Kingdom. And what teenager wants to be socially shunned? Though there are Christians who believe the number of spots in heaven are finite, I was taught that God’s love is readily available, a never-ending source for anyone to access. Why then in the face of such abundance does scarcity mentality take hold? A relationship to God has become a scarce commodity only available to Christians, just as truth has become equally scarce and only available to those same Christians. Scarcity mentality yields fear and so in turn that truth and those Christians are under the constant threat by the truths of others.

Enter dualism which explained everything*. A guest speaker and theologian introduced the concept of dualism in my college course on Environmental Justice. Dualism gave humans justification for God-sanctioned dominion over the earth, by first separating humans from God (due to sin) and then creating a hierarchical order. God over Humans. Humans over other Earthly things. Man over Woman. Civilized over Savage. Christian over Pagan. White over Black. The list goes on and history gives us evidence of the results.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

On a separate yet intricately interconnected day at college, someone shared the radical notion that everyone has God in them. I blame it on the Quakers. Growing up I had been taught that Quakers weren’t really Christians, but upon reflecting, this concept seemed pretty darn Christian-y and a sound concept at that.  It made me think of the phrase to accept Jesus into your heart. Isn’t that all about having God inside of us? The way I learned it, Jesus is available to all, an extension of God’s availability to all. It is the openness, the receiving, the acknowledgement that activates it, but ultimately God already is. There. In us all.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

In dualism, philosophically we separate ourselves from God and what follows is the sequential separation of ourselves from the earth, from the universe, from creatures, from each other, and ultimately from ourselves. So it is no surprise that when we fail to see God in other humans, we fail to recognize God in us. When we fail to know God in others, we fail to know God in us. When we fail to be in relationship to the God in others, we fail to be in relationship to the God in ourselves. And perhaps it is precisely because we fail to know the God in ourselves that we have become so capable of living in a society where not seeing the God in others is the norm. We collectively cope by dangerously, and deceptively hiding and thus take ourselves out of our own context. We learn to see ourselves as objectively and separately motivated individuals, separate from the water we drink, better than the air we breathe. We hide from ourselves by washing our hands of social responsibility, by denying our interconnectedness, and by cloaking ourselves in a blameless cape of knowing Jesus, individualism, and knowing the one right way. Rather than to Christ or to each other, we have become unequivocally devoted to dualism.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

Whiteness, too, demands unequivocal devotion. It functions to promote and insist upon a specious armor that separates and denies our interconnected social responsibility to humanity (big picture) and our own humanity (zooming in). The creation of whiteness as part of the creation and manifestations of racism is a multi-layered process of dehumanization that impacts us all.** When we are able to honor our interconnectedness to each other, we honor our interconnectedness to God. Our denial of this interconnectedness, our blindness to the ways we both perpetuate and are harmed by biased systems and cultures of domination is precisely what leads us to paths of violence – violence to ourselves, to others, to the earth, and to God. To live in these systems requires the suppression of our humanity – when we step over the person experiencing homelessness on the street, when we study for exams based on the texts of white (mostly male) heroes that erase the people who were here before European settlers arrived, when we surround ourselves by people who look and think like us, when we call the police to complain about our neighbors rather than engage them in conversation, when we stack our bank accounts out of fear of economic insecurity and hoard our resources, when we eat mindlessly and exercise abusively, when we assume, project, and suspect our self-hate, self-doubt, and self-loathing onto others.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

On an even more personal note, this historic dualism has separated me from the ability to see the God (or Goddess) in me. Many things can be true at once. My commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is precisely what has brought me down this path of rejecting the dualism of racism and of patriarchy and also how many describe the religious dogma of Christianity. My commitment to being a disciple of Jesus is precisely what has brought me to better see the God(dess) in me.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

Most white people I pass on the street do not make eye contact with me. I have a theory that we do not make eye contact with strangers because deep down we are afraid that in seeing the God in them, we will be forced to look at and change ourselves and ultimately, that might make us question the truth on which we have built our lives. Whiteness is the illusion of separation that results in very real, deep spiritual disconnects that have infected every aspect of our lives.

Weaving by Amanda K Gross

*By everything, I mean many things but not actually everything.

**I learned this and more (and you can too!) from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

Interested in exploring this topic further? You can read the second in the series on How Whiteness Separates us from God by Leah Jo here.