Acknowledging White Privilege: An Act of Veneration

Ed, a middle aged white man from North Carolina, took the microphone and said, “I frequently observe in myself a lot of racism. I flee it by fleeing social media and internet usage ... but it comes up anyway, over and over. It comes up especially when I hear the term ‘white privilege.’ I ask you, how can I combat this?” Giving up the microphone, Ed, sat down. We were both attending the annual St. Moses the Black Brotherhood conference.

I first met Ed a few years ago when he visited my church. He stayed long after others left the sanctuary. Ed loves to polish brass for the churches he visits and he’s meticulous. He even carries with him a kit of soft bristle brushes, homemade paste and scraps of rag. As he polished the furrows of a single candlestick from the altar, he revealed beauty hidden under the wax, the soot and the stain. The vulnerability and thoughtfulness of Ed’s question at the conference was as thoughtful and as revealing as his work on our church brass!

I have thought about that moment at the conference for some time now. What impacted me the most was Ed’s vulnerably in exposing his heart in front of a large group of primarily African American people. Ed broke the silence and took a risk. He began by saying, “I frequently observe in myself a lot of racism.” I remember thinking, “What would our world be like if more of us white people were willing to be this vulnerable?”

Like most white kids raised to be “Midwest nice,” my parents would not tolerate racism in our home. I don’t remember a single instance when my parents spoke in a racist way. In fact, I thought little about racism until about a decade ago when I read an essay by Dr. Peggy McIntosh entitled, “White Privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack.”  It was then that I began to understand more clearly how racism works and how it relates to me.

Dr. McIntosh writes,

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects— white privilege—which puts me at an advantage.”

As a white man I had no problem acknowledging that racism was a real struggle for many. However, I had never considered my participation in the perpetuation of racism by default, by not acknowledging how I benefit from it. Dr. McIntosh helped me to realize that racism is not only individual acts of meanness but an invisible system conferring dominance and preference on my group. This is white privilege!

I benefit from a society that is still entangled in racial bias - a society where my skin color does not put me at a disadvantage. I don’t get tailed by police when I drive through nice neighborhoods in my rusty Ford. I don’t get followed around while I shop. My name on a letter or resume does not provoke questions about my race or intelligence. When people engage me, I am automatically perceived as financially stable.

My white privilege became especially real to me recently. My friend and I both have teenage sons. I’m white and he’s black. I’ve never had to teach my son how to act if police see him playing with a toy gun. He has. I’ve never had to caution my son that people may assume he is up to no good when out with his friends. He has. I’ve never had to explain to my son that no matter how smart he is or how hard he works, he will always be seen as inferior by some people because of his skin color. He has!

Dr. McIntosh writes,

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

My personal knapsack came with economic, educational, gender and racial privileges. Acknowledging this privilege is not about feeling guilty or disavowing my heritage. Being born a white male doesn’t automatically mean I am a racist! Rather, in acknowledging my white privilege I am choosing to use this privilege to help others who unjustly bear burdens I do not.

St. Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). To acknowledge my white privilege is to engage the faith that was given by a Savior whose first public sermon began by proclaiming ‘liberty to those who are oppressed' (Luke 4:18). Racism is a heresy, a rejection of the idea that every person is made in God’s image and likeness and worthy of veneration. As a Christian I am compelled by the Gospel to acknowledge racism, to reject its every form, and to repent for it in my life and, where I discover it, in the life of my forefathers.

Ed’s vulnerability at the conference reminded me of things I had read and seen through my work at RS. Breaking silence and taking risks to talk about the impact of racism and white privilege is an act of veneration and love. Like Ed, I desire to be meticulous about cleaning away the wax, the soot and the stain left from the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation on the furrows of my heart. When I acknowledge that I have white privilege it leaves me with the question of, “What do I do with it?” For, “to whom much is given, much is expected" (Luke 12:48).

Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.

Guilt, Empathy and Veneration

I have never suffered discrimination because of my racial identity. My mother was adopted from Korea as a young child and my father was born into a white American and English family. For the most part, I have identified as white for all my life. Growing up, most of my peers were white and I didn’t really have any exposure to Korean culture. My Asian ancestry has never really been a source of discomfort for me, and my Asian physical features have only seldom been pointed out as indicators of difference. The one exception to my life of racial anonymity comes from a time when I worked at Starbucks.

It was during a slow block of time during my shift—around 2 or 3pm—when a semi-regular approached the register. He was a middle-aged white man, generally chummy with the baristas, and typically ordered a plain black coffee. I normally spent my entire shift working the bar, but on this day, I was manning the register. As the man approached the counter, I greeted him and asked what he would like to order. The man’s brow furrowed as he silently gazed through the top of my head and fixated upon the menu behind me. Assuming he had not heard me, I repeated my question, to which he responded with a grunt and crossed arms, his eyes still refusing to acknowledge me. When a few seconds had passed, a co-worker stepped in and took the man’s order without any trouble. I was later informed that the man refused to be served by me because he thought I was Vietnamese. Apparently, he had fought in the Vietnam war and was known to make derogatory remarks about Asians generally.

My gut reaction was one of confusion, but I didn’t want to react with offense. Perhaps this man had experienced trauma from his war experience. Perhaps I represented what he perceived was the source of his pain. I didn’t feel personally responsible for his trauma, and likewise I didn’t feel it right that he held a single racial group responsible for it. The experience did, however, provide me with a brief glimpse into what pain the man might be carrying, in the light of which any personal offense I held quickly faded.

Dostoyevsky says in Brothers Karamazov that “everyone is guilty for everyone else.” In the brief interaction in Starbucks the man projected blame upon me for actions that I didn’t commit. Momentarily I felt guilty for something beyond my control and initially it felt unjust. However, once the initial offense faded, I was able to see a fellow struggling human being instead of an instigator of aggression. Perhaps I would have felt similarly if I were in his shoes, I began to experience a sense of compassion.

In our culture guilt is usually utilized to demarcate the limits of moral responsibility rather than to be in solidarity with the human race, as Dostoyevsky seems to suggest. We tend to use personal guilt to confine blame to an individual person or situation. Initially I didn’t want to be held responsible for this man’s pain, especially when I hadn’t personally done anything to contribute to it (to my knowledge). Patience, forbearance and empathy for another are perhaps foreign to a common understanding about guilt and blame. However, such traits of compassion are at the core of what it means to belong to a family, and more, the human family. This image of familial responsibility is laid out in the Lord’s prayer.

St Cyprian of Carthage, a Christian bishop in the third century, wrote of the Our Father:

Before all things, the Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not My Father, which art in heaven, nor Give me this day my daily bread; nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one.

The Biblical model for asking forgiveness then, is not one of individual guilt alone. In the case of my story with the Vietnam veteran, I was held responsible for things that I personally had nothing to do with. I came to symbolize an unjust war, the lack of care for war veterans and the trauma of combat. However this man is a part of God’s family and therefore a part of mine. So the question I had to ask myself was, “could I share in his guilt and pain?” There was very little I could do in the moment, but instead of rejecting this man and his pain, I experienced grace to resonate with his suffering. I experienced grace to reflect upon ways in which I could repent of a culture of indifference .

In response to the immense suffering in this world, and the guilt that we all share, I cannot simply bow my head in detached sorrow. I want to find ways to begin to think differently and to act differently. Thinking differently about guilt will affect how I pray and how I live. As St. Cyprian suggests, I can ask for forgiveness for the pain and the guilt of the whole world. Accepting responsibility for my culture and for my history is not meant to cripple me with unproductive guilt. It is meant to remind me that I am not an individual unto myself and that I am a part of the ills and cures of this world.

Veneration is the essence of our work at RS. Veneration describes the attitude and the act of respect for “living icons” – people made in the image of God and therefore worthy of profound honor. By implication we all partake of that image, and so share in the pain and guilt of this world. Veneration, then, can also include acts of solidarity and empathy. In the last few months, there have been a number of tragic events circulating the news with plenty of pain and guilt to go around. Instead of distancing myself from the pain in an attempt to exonerate myself of any responsibility, I am striving to turn away from any of the ways in which I participate in a culture of hate and fear. I am connected not only to countless suffering people, I am also connected to those structures and histories that have perpetuated suffering. So, as I pray for the forgiveness of our debts, I also pray for the wisdom to know how to act in ways that heal the wounds inflicted by our sins.

Article by Jonathan Reavis

Racism as Iconoclasm

The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear" (Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas).

Earlier this afternoon while at Reconciliation Services I was speaking with a young man whom I have known now for about a year and a half. He is very bright but admittedly troubled and he is working through the issues that aren’t so uncommon for most young men of his age. On this particular day, he was commenting on a book about the history of Christianity in Africa which I had given him the week prior. He had just finished the section that was speaking about the repopulation of the earth by the sons of Noah; Shem, Ham and Japheth. After having a relatively simple (as much as that is possible) and quick discussion on allegory and genetic possibilities, my friend gave me a side-eyed glance and said to me, “so if Noah was given the job of repopulating the earth, then that means we (human beings) are all related, right?” To this, my best answer in the moment was to quote Jimi Hendrix, from his song Machine Gun where he assumes the character of a lamenting soldier, who in midst of the carnage and murder of combat, observes: “evil man make you kill me, evil man make me kill you, even though we're only families apart!”

The Apostle John taught that if you hate your brother you are guilty of murder (1 John 3:15). These are the strongest of words, especially for us here in the United States where we are seemingly in an unending cycle of racial tension. For many of us, the best we can do is to throw up our hands in resignation, and to do our best to “mind our own business.” I admit that this type of resignation in the face of such deeply entrenched attitudes and issues, seems like the wise choice; however, as the old adage states: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. For me, the hard fight for understanding of the theology of the Icon by the ancient Church has been the greatest antidote against the atrophying doom of ignorance.

The iconoclast period was a period in the history of the ancient Christian Church, that lasted roughly 90 years (730-787CE and 813-843CE) where the controversy over the use of the Icon in Christian worship violently erupted. In short, the iconoclasts saw the Icon as idolatry; where as the Orthodox saw the Icon as the proclamation of the incarnation of God in the flesh. The final triumph of the Icon and the reasons behind it are explained best by the hymnography sung by all Orthodox Christians on the first Sunday of Great Lent. This hymn says: 

“No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos (Mother of God), He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.”

If I were to boil this down to an essential statement, I believe it would simply say that the Icon explains what words alone cannot. It reveals to mankind that God loves His creation. That God would humble Himself and become a man like us, is too great of a mystery to simply be pronounced with words. How is it then, that racism is the new Iconoclasm? Racism not only blinds our ability to see those who simply look different than us as being made in the image of God, it can go as far as to distort our vision of them into horrific caricature. We all have family members that we struggle to get along with; accordingly, most have also had the experience of having a friend that is closer than a brother. This phenomenon is the proof, that relation is something deeper than biology. It’s about relating.

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The ancient Christian church affirmed the veneration of Icons because she discerned that the Icon could not be properly seen with just fleshly eyes, that ultimately there was something hidden behind the wood and paint. Therefore, the destruction of the Icon had little to do with the simple vandalism of a painting; rather, it was a flat out assault against the great mystery of God becoming man, to affirm his love for man. How much more of an affront is it, when we see the assault upon our brothers and sisters who are living icons, because of their outward appearance, because of biological facets like skin color and hair type? Like the Iconoclast of old, is it not because we are blind to what lies beneath? Is it not Christ who is the very archetype of every man? Panayiotis Nellas, a Greek theologian wrote:

“…It thus becomes clear that the essence of man is not found in the matter from which he was created but in the archetype on the basis of which he was formed and towards which he tends… As the truth of an icon lies in the person it represents, so the truth of man lies in his archetype (Christ).” (Deification in Christ, p33)

In looking back to ancient history, I have found that the answer to the racial strife that lies in the hearts of so many in this country isn’t an easy fix, but it is a simple one. History can be a very tricky course to navigate, but sometimes the most complex concepts are best explained simply, and in regard to understanding the Iconoclastic tone of racism, I think I’ve heard it best summed up by an abbess of a monastery in California who recently said, “God doesn’t make junk.”

Article by Turbo Qualls, Case Manager - Reconciliation Services