Archive for August, 2011

” When I think of all this I get down on my knees before the Father who has stamped his image on every race in heaven and on earth, and I beg him to give you, out of his glorious abundance, the power to win by his Spirit ruling your inner life. God grant that Christ, through your faith, might establish residence in your hearts. May love be your tap root and foundation. May you have the strength to grasp with all God’s people the width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ which surpasses all human understanding. Let God’s fullness fill you.”

Ephesians 3:14-19, Cotton Patch Version

Back in March, I was reading William Powers’ Twelve By Twelve and wrote a post called Sacrifice Your Birthright. Today I’ve been pondering again over my privilege as a white North American woman.

My thoughts rested on an experience from my college days, on a particular evening when I was waxing philosophical with a couple of friends. One was a young, naive white man who had come to college to find a wife. The other was my friend Kamran, whose parents had moved to the U.S. from Iran when he was a small child so his father could pursue a career as a doctor. The conversation bounced all over the map, until we began talking about our grade school days. All three of us had experienced some relentless teasing and physical bullying. During Kamran’s turn to tell his story, our other friend nodded vigorously and proclaimed over and over again, “Yeah, man. I know what you mean!” I could tell that Kamran was frustrated, but was a bit taken aback when he suddenly insisted, “No, no you don’t!”

He went on. “You’ll never know what that felt like, because you’re white! My family came over here with money, education, status. But I’m still treated like I might be carrying a bomb in my jacket, just because of how I look. You’ll never know what that’s like, because you blend in with all of them.”

Now, this happened back in 1997, so I’m paraphrasing Kamran’s response. But the gist of his message has stayed with me ever since that night. Because I’m white, I don’t and never will experience discrimination in the same way as a person of color. Even when I traveled to Honduras with Habitat for Humanity that same winter, and we were refused service at a gas station because our bus was full of gringos. Even when I was touring Spain in 1999, and there was anti-American graffiti because of some international situation that was upsetting folks that particular year, and some people sneered and swore at me in the streets. Even when I had dreadlocks in my hair and the airport security searched my bag for drug paraphernalia (I have never been searched before or since). Even when I took my daughter to a birthday party here in southern Georgia, and we were the only white people there, and I awkwardly made conversation and tried to help with the food preparations, making all the wrong moves.

Because in Honduras, we simply went to the next gas station and got served. In Spain, most of the people left us alone. A few months after my flight, I cut off my dreadlocks. And after the birthday party, I shook off the awkward feeling and went back out into the world where I am part of a white majority. In other words, I always had a relatively simple way out of an uncomfortable situation.

In 2002 Kamran took a winding road trip that encompassed all 49 states on the continent. During the trip, he crossed the Canadian border so he could visit Alaska. He was heavily searched during both crossings, with little or no explanation. He was even forced to use a crow bar to pry open his glove compartment, which had jammed shut years before, simply because he looks like he’s from the Middle East. When he told me about the experience, he tried to laugh it off, but he was angry and hurt by the discrimination levered against him.

I recently heard a white man say to a black friend, “When I was in Africa, the only white man in the village, I finally understood what segregation must have been like.” I wanted to jump out of my seat, to yell and scream, “No, no you don’t!” Because in Africa, white people are not forced to use separate bathrooms from the Africans. They are not forced into slavery, treated like second-class citizens, jailed for no apparent reason beyond the color of their skin, shoved into corners and forgotten about, dying nameless deaths. No, in Africa, this particular white man went on to say, he was frowned at until he smiled and waved, and then the villagers waved back. The kids were curious about his hairy arms and pale skin. He did some good deeds, and a week later he was back home. That’s all. His experience simply gave him a two-dimensional snapshot, a mere glimpse of a fragment of a moment in time, compared to the agony that black Americans have been through in the last 200 years.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow the truth of racial discrimination as it exists in our world today. In the past I’ve tried to argue that all prejudice is the same, but now I’m not so sure. Because these wrongs have been passed down through generations, and we cannot hope to right all the wrongs of slavery and genocide, of racial profiling and workplace discrimination. A few friendships across racial lines cannot heal enough wounds to bring reconciliation between people whose families and cultures have suffered under injustice for centuries. In short, it would take a miracle to bring about that sort of peace.

The truth as it stands for me is that I need to continue sacrificing my birthright. I need to listen to others’ stories, and recognize that though I can empathize, I’m a long way from knowing what it is to be in someone else’s shoes. That goes for my friends who are black, Latino, Arab, Asian, or even white for that matter. And when I admit what I don’t understand, that’s when God can step in and show me that the miracle of peace was completed over 2000 years ago, and that it continues to unfold before me every day, if I’d only take the time to listen to his word.

I’ll leave you with the text from another chapter in Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Ephesians. Translated into the dialect of southern Georgia in the 1950’s (where black and white churches had replaced Jews and Gentiles) Clarence said of his volumes, “If this humble work may be used of God to enlarge and strengthen the faith of others in his Son Jesus Christ, then indeed my joy will be full.”

Ephesians 2 CPV

1.         In days gone by you all were living in your sin and filth like a bunch of stinking corpses, giving your allegiance to material things and ruled by the power of custom. You can still see this spirit working now in the lives of those who won’t listen. In fact, at one time or another all of us were following our selfish inclinations and doing just as we pretty well pleased, because we were naturally just as big scoundrels as everybody else. But even though we were a bunch of corpses rotting in our mess, God in his overflowing sympathy and great love breathed the same new life into us as into Christ. (You have been rescued, I remind you, by divine intervention.) With Christ Jesus he resurrected us and elevated us to the spiritual household. This clearly demonstrates forever the untold richness of his favor which he so kindly bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus. So again I remind you, you have been rescued by his kind action alone, channeled through your faith. You didn’t get this on your own; it was God’s free gift. So nobody can brag that he himself achieved it. For we are his doing, made for the good deeds which God intended all along for us as Christians to practice.

11.         So then, always remember that previously you Negroes,who sometimes are even called “niggers” by thoughtless white church members, were at one time outside the Christian fellowship, denied your rights as fellow believers, and treated as though the gospel didn’t apply to you, hopeless and God-forsaken in the eyes of the world. Now, however, because of Christ’s supreme sacrifice, you who once were so segregated are warmly welcomed into the Christian fellowship.

14.         He himself is our peace. It was he who integrated us and abolished the segregation patterns which caused so much hostility. He allowed no silly traditions and customs in his fellowship, so that in it he might integrate the two into one new body. In this way he healed the hurt, and by his sacrifice on the cross he joined together both sides into one body for God. In it the hostility no longer exists.

17.         When he came, he preached the same message of peace to those on both the inside and outside. In him we both found a common spiritual approach to the Father. So then, you are no longer segregated and pushed around, but you are fellow citizens with all Christians and respected members of God’s family. This is based on the unshakable foundation Jesus himself laid down through the apostles and other men of God, with Christ being the cornerstone. Around him all the rest of the building is fitted together into a dedicated temple of the Lord. And you all are a vital part of God’s spiritual dwelling place.


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