I am a liberal white lady and, as such, it is so very difficult to find justification to put words on the page right now. And yet, as a contributor to Women in Theology, I have an obligation to write. What follows is not an insightful engagement with the patriarchal logics that resist cries to defund the police, like what Allison Murray offers, nor an impassioned reflection, as Maria Gwyn McDowell shares. Instead, what follows is perhaps better described as a stumbling confession of my ongoing baptismal conversions—paired with an implicit question: how are you, dear reader, seeking to follow Jesus’ way of love more deeply during this time?
I grew up in an affluent white community, and have settled back into a middle-class mostly white community in the Seattle area. For a very long time it was unusual for me to cross paths with black persons in any socioeconomic setting. I learned racial dynamics through the history of Asian Americans and the (ongoing) erasure of Native folks here in the Pacific Northwest, while reading accounts of racism against black people that occurred in other times and other places. It felt provocative for me to ask the question of how liberal white folk could speak such high praise for native basketry (past tense) while, in the next breath, complain about ‘those drunks across the bridge’ (present tense). But I have resisted learning about the history of the black community here in Seattle. Starting in grade four, my school covered Japanese internment because ours was the first town from which families were taken. Later I started to learn more about the local indigenous communities, and heard about efforts through my university to work with tribes to preserve Coast Salish languages. I knew that at one point, there were only four speakers fluent in Lummi. But, if anyone asked me to name a famous African American from Seattle, I could only recount the names of Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson, and Jimi Hendrix–the latter because there is a statue up on Capitol Hill outside an art supply store. The history of enslaved peoples and subsequent wars on black bodies was always something that happened somewhere else, far away.
I have resisted speaking of race in terms of black and white. This became apparent when I left Seattle for Chicago to begin my doctoral program. I felt far more comfortable with my Asian colleagues than the many black scholars around me. Black brilliance, fortitude, and sheer perseverance intimidate me. I deflect by making a scholarly turn toward settler colonialism, and acknowledging my own ancestral history as a beneficiary of the genocide of Native communities that paved the way for my family to immigrate from Sweden and Norway to ‘open lands.’ It sounds so enlightened on paper. But I have continued to shy away from talk of black history, black lives, and even (especially) Black Jesus. This transgression is due for a reckoning, I feel. The shallow tidewaters of racial discourse with which I have become so comfortable are emptying out, the shoreline being laid bare as in the moments anticipating a tidal wave.
I confess that when I see the crowds of protesters, I worry. I worry about the spread of the virus even as I am cognizant of the much more deadly endemic racism that exists here. I also feel inept or helpless as images spin across my news feeds and social media of people walking, standing up, calling out for justice, and I think, I should be putting my body on the line. But instead I merely hit up friends’ and acquaintances’ comment threads with anti-racism reading lists. My gut shouts, I should be showing up before posting hashtags. But I don’t. For now, the threat of illness keeps me at home, sheltered, while the unfolding events press upon me to read, listen, and remain virtually speechless. Some days I stay off social media and news altogether and wonder, is it self-care, or perhaps hiding?
The pandemic that cascaded over the continent during Lent has given way to protests and riots at Pentecost. We must see the two as intrinsically and deeply interwoven. What has been revealed by a virus—itself a biochemical thing that hovers somewhere between life and nonlife—is that the existing inequalities of this land are fatal for BIPOC communities. We must not be surprised that at Pentecost fires for justice were set ablaze, and are burning still. None of this is news. The latest development, the call to defund the police, is similarly part of the much larger context of racial-socioeconomic injustice. From calls for reflection and societal introspection to total public outcry, this nation is facing what so many are calling a dual health crisis. For those of us who are white, and grew up in church traditions that claimed to be set apart from politics (yet employed particular notions of ‘law’ and ‘grace’), the language of the protest movements may sound jarring, foreign—dare I say, radical or, worse, Marxist. But it is disingenuous at best—violent at worst—to elide politics from the pulpit and maintain an apolitical veneer when the gospel preached is the almighty status quo founded on the word(s) of those who hold power. Thinking of John 9, what is normal for the blind man is blindness; what is normal for those in power is to maintain power.
As a liberal white lady whose theology now traverses creation, the environment, and ecology, I am still learning to see the imprints of racism on science and scientific studies. Last month I read Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2018). It is short, and dense, and absolutely essential reading for anyone in ecology/ecotheology—up there with Rob Nixon’s work, Slow Violence: environmentalism and the poor (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013). In setting up her project for the book, Yusoff states,
“If the Anthropocene is delivering a new geochemical earth through the excess of colonial practices, then it is not just the geophysical processes that need attention but the whole history of world making as a geophysics of being—a world making that was for the few and firmly committed to the enlightenment project of liberal individualism and its exclusion. The social life of geology, then, is not a biographical account of geology but a praxis, a world making in the present, in light of the inheritances of past geosocial formations.”Yusoff, 13
Furthermore, she notes, “The tense of this work and the impetus for its writing came out of a repeated positioning within the white spaces of Anthropocene academic events and as a response to the lack of recognition of race within those places.” In light of (blinding) whiteness perpetuated through the grammar of “White Geology” she seeks to understand “Blackness not as a metaphor but as materiality (that has symbolic, territorial, and psychic life).” (Yusoff, 17) In other words, discourse on the Anthropocene that examines extractive industries and their impact on climate systems, yet refuses to address or acknowledge the massive colonial extraction of black bodies from the African continent during the time of slavery and its ongoing feedbacks, is merely White Geology.
Given that so many (white) writers of ecotheologies engage sciences that perpetuate myopic lines of sight when it comes to race means that we are missing a crucial intersection that would provoke us to develop more ethical theologies. Certainly, in North American churches, it is difficult enough to make a case for, not merely stewardship of creation but full solidarity with the rest of creation. A significant aspect of that challenge has to do with the fact that we cannot seem to understand or genuinely engage in human solidarity. This must change.
Recently, thanks to a colleague, my research around baptismal theology is expanding to include baptismal solidarity. If we are truly all baptized into Christ Jesus, if we are part of one body—one Lord, one baptism—then how is it that Sunday mornings remain the most segregated hours of the week? What practices, what liturgies might we seek to engage in the hope of changing our hearts and minds deeper into love of all others? How will we retrain our sensory-emotional system to actually believe that every other human person on this planet is indeed a full and complete human person; not, say, three-fifths? Even as I write those words, I am aware of the privilege dripping from them, aware of the tendency toward abstraction that shifts our gaze away from the material inequalities rampant across our society. In other words, because I do not have to think much about the water in which I have been baptized, and which my church uses to baptize others, I can take it for granted that all baptismal waters are living, cleansing, “pure” even, and won’t make us sick. But that is not true for the whole family of God. So, then, when we start from the possibility—scratch that—the reality of toxic waters, here in this country, at this time and not historically speaking, are we willing to be submersed in that reality so that we might embrace baptismal solidarity?
Of course, I am wary of using the term ‘solidarity’ superficially, just as I am wary of reflecting too much on my own white privilege. But a tidal wave is coming, one which we cannot outrun or try to dominate or somehow block with a wall. The real question is not, how best to hold onto Jesus in this moment. The real question is, are some of us willing to follow Jesus and experience death (metaphorical and real) so that others might finally live?