Fifty Shades of Changing the Subject

ImageA friend and former intern who serves one congregation on the US side of the border and one in Mexico mentioned the issue of whiteness in the Transfiguration story that is read this Sunday in many churches. He writes: “In this dazzling display of divine glory, Jesus’ clothes become white. I know that the Biblical text does not say that Jesus himself is white, but centuries of euro-centric liturgical art with a blue-eyed Jesus, as well as the upcoming feature film, seem to suggest otherwise. …In the Church, with our funeral palls and baptismal garments, we often use the color white to symbolize something good, pure, and holy. …Perhaps unintentionally, our liturgical practices seem to perpetuate this white superiority. … I am considering addressing these issues head-on this Sunday, but I don’t know if I want to go there.”

My colleague is expressing sensitivity to race, privilege and power as a White pastor in a Mexican community. His comments reminded me that three days after Transfiguration Sunday, we come to Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I flagged the line and composed my own post alerting fellow clergy who might be preparing Ash Wednesday worship materials to consider the impact of the verse. Soon, the responses rolled in. Some appreciated my post. Many did not.  What’s telling is how frequently my original point about race was forcibly sidelined.

This happened in response to my colleague’s post as well when responders began to zero in on the physics of light. Here is a sampling:

Isaac Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum…if you ask a scientist, white is a color – it contains the whole spectrum – and black is the absence of color. If you ask an artist – who deals in pigments rather than wavelengths – the answer is the opposite…I am not an artist, but I don’t think white is the presence of all colors. Isn’t black made when many colors are stirred together?

This is the evasive response to a pastor seeking support to discern his ongoing response to issues of race, privilege and power. Race as a reality that shapes our lives personally, as well as the social and economic structures in which we live, was also dismissed more directly: Caucasians are not white, only albinos are white…I think sometimes we need to get over our “whiteness” and join the human race. Sure, when future Trayvon Martins can get over their “blackness.”

In response to my post, the physics of light was not addressed; instead the conversation shifted to snow and laundry. Granted the psalm uses the imagery of snow and laundry (“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”), but my concern was obviously directed to considering the impact of that imagery in a society that is still divided by race, in a church that remains 97% White. It’s easier to talk about snow:

Compare new fallen snow as opposed to that leftover pile slowly melting at the edge of the parking lot – it’s filled with dirt, leaves, etc. “White” is not the issue unless you are focusing on your own prejudice instead of God’s Word…I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to the youth in my congregation for whom snow is mostly something they see in pictures or maybe if they happen to go to Flagstaff in the winter….Clean snow is white–dirty snow is black, brown, yellow, red–whatever happens to be contaminating it. This is a fact, not a racial statement…in rural, open-country Minnesota, when the snow is no longer white, it’s not because of the gunk from our cars and such. It’s because the wind blows the snow across the fields, and when it’s done with the snow, it picks up the fine, dry, black soil and deposits it on top of the drifts. That beautiful, wonderful, rich, dark soil is what brought our ancestors out here–not the “pure” white snow!

And laundry:

I think this passage is an image of laundry practices. Beating clothes with a stick so that they are washed white… this verse is not about skin color, it’s a metaphor on laundry. You want your whites to be white, and I hate it when my clergy blacks begin to be a bit gray… Did you know there’s a special laundry soap for darks?…My guess is that part of the appeal of whiteness, in this context (i.e. laundry), is that it requires a tremendous amount of work. We forget this because we have white fabric everywhere so we think it is the default… Maybe it’s because I still do the laundry in my household, but I have always associated those words with the ability of bleach and stain spray to remove the yuck we got all over our clothes…If you’re so concerned, translate it as “De-lint me and I will be blacker than my clergy shirt.”

But I was not asking for a detailed consideration of snow and laundry. Some who addressed my comment directly stated that our words do not matter, it’s actions that count. I agree wholeheartedly that words without actions are empty, even dangerous if we convince ourselves that we have done our duty by voicing a concern. But in my experience, words can have a mighty impact for good or for ill. Words can inspire or incite. Silence can be holy or complicit in evil. It was also pointed out that skipping or omitting texts is always a BAD idea even though our lectionary omits texts all the time and I was not necessarily suggesting we skip a text. As some pointed out, other translations are available.

As in the response to my friend’s post, the very reality of racial privilege was diminished as in a comment stating that White is not always preferable—because think of the expression, “white-washing.” Yes, white-washing. I’m thinking about it. When a colleague says that he is all for sensitivity and addressing painful issues from our past, but… to me, that white-washes the ongoing pain in our present.

Facebook is probably not a good place for such a discussion, and yet, perhaps it allows our true colors to come out. As we approach Ash Wednesday, I am also thinking of Jesus’ words to remove the log from my own eye before zeroing in on the speck in my neighbor’s eye. White privilege is not an illusion. It is not something in the past. It is a log in my eye that I cannot remove by my own power and so on Ash Wednesday, I will mark the sign of ashes on my sisters and brothers and I will wear it myself. I will remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return. And I will give thanks that God’s mercies are new every morning and that our conversation and conversion continues…

3 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Changing the Subject

  1. Heidi, I appreciate your choice to wade into this conversation. At my church we recently had the youth with us during an adult forum; they co-led a sort of “base community” engagement with a Scripture passage, John 8:12 — Jesus as the Light of the world. We are mostly a white congregation, but our youth, reflect our few black families as well as several kids adopted from Africa. It was painful for me to listen as these dozen kids — over half of whom were brown- or black-skinned were led unwittingly into a spiritual lesson about Light. Asked to reflect on ways that their lives walk in the Light. Asked, also unwittingly, by adults responsible for their spiritual nurture to become accomplices in making Light/Dark a central set of axes in their spiritual world, only to learn all too late that their skin suddenly becomes the Adversary in the worst way long after the deal is struck.

    I spoke up and challenged it that morning. I am a white man with white children, determined to stumble my way toward a world where whiteness and darkness are not so univocal in their values. Here is one way I have done it:

    I have a new children’s book out, When God was a Little Girl. A story I wove for my own daughter, to help her grasp the exuberant joy of creation (it is a retelling of the creation tale through the metaphor of God as a little girl doing an art project) and to immerse her in the narrated fulness that she, too, is wholly imago Dei.

    But listen to this short exchange in the story:

    “—and whatever she sang she could see just as clearly as when you paint me a picture. And the first word she sang, softly but very clear, was, ‘Love.’ And the Love looked like . . . what do you think, Susanna?”
    “Mmm . . . darkness. It was all dark.”
    “Ah, midnight blue: the color of the sky in the middle of the night? The deepest blue you can imagine, even darker than black. Why do think Love was that color?”
    “Because, Daddy, that’s just like love. It’s there, even when you can’t see it. Love always finds you in the darkness, and when it holds you close, you know you’re home.”
    “That’s beautiful, darling. So, before anything else was made, there was Love. Love, like deep dark blue, has always been here.”
    “Yup. Love was what God felt when she was giggling. And Love was the first color God painted when she sang.”

    What if the GOODNESS of creation begins NOT with the Light, but with the love-laden darkness that fills the pregnant nothing before all things come to be. What if the Dark is cast that way from the very first? As that which, when we sense it all around us, is no cause for fear, but for trust in the wrap of God’s love.

    It is ‘just’ a children’s book, but rife with wisdom, both for kids and adults.

    I say to both you and your colleague on the border, play mischief with (or subvert altogether) the biblical tendency to give whiteness the upper hand over darkness. It may be an understandable preference in our past, but it becomes an intolerable bias in our present. Perhaps some biblical texts are just waiting to be argued with — their revelatory truth unveiled in our opposition to them. Liberatory mid rash. Push back. Because the way that race roils in our nation today … no less on Sunday mornings than the rest of the time … we need a richer array of metaphors if we’re truly more interested in offering news that is good rather than simply repeated verses with value-neutral (read: “deadly”) accuracy.

    I don’t have the answers. But I will not keep the questions to myself. I will stumble forward into this darkness … trusting that even if I have to bump into them, there are holy truths and wholly humans waiting within to be found.

    David Weiss

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