It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I learned some other white people of my own generation grew up without ever meeting a person of color. I was shocked at the time, not only because I honestly didn’t know from my limited context that such a reality existed in America, but also because I hadn’t had to consider before how two white people could have vastly different experiences of race in the same country and still develop the same patterns of racist thinking and biases. I spent the first 22 years of my life in Pensacola, Florida, just short of the Alabama border, where the racial demographics were almost an equal divide between black and white people. Racism was overtly present in every aspect of my life throughout my childhood and up through college in both aggressive and subtle ways.
Race has always been a narrative in my story as a white person, but only through the grace of God has that narrative begun to shift from one of complicity with white supremacy to one of dismantling the racism within myself.
As United Methodists, we believe justification through faith is how God begins the process of restoring the image of God within us, setting us on a path to right relationship with God and others. I don’t remember exactly when I was saved from the sin-filled lies I grew up believing about race and my relationship to people of color, but when I think back to my childhood and teenage years, I can so clearly see the hand of God’s prevenient grace seeking to awaken me – as God does every white individual – to my condition of racist sin. I remember the “this doesn’t feel right” moments and the “I don’t think that’s funny” situations and the “something about this doesn’t make sense to me” scenarios where the Spirit was inviting me to recognize the harms of the racist world I was immersed in.
The same racist world we are all immersed in.
I don’t know the moment when I began to recognize my need for God’s ongoing intervention and grace in my life to free me from the sins of racism, but I know that being awakened to my own sin, to the brokenness of our societal structures, and to the harm I have personally and structurally caused people of color throughout my life has been nothing short of a salvation. Despite my sins of racism (and others, of course), God claims me as beloved and forgiven and sets me on a path to seek forgiveness from others. Through our justification we are free from the trappings of white guilt that paralyze us and we are empowered to follow the life and teachings of Christ who models for us how to live compassion, love radically, and turn over tables when necessary for the sake of justice.
By the grace of God, I am saved, but I am not yet sanctified.
I expect we could say something similar of the majority of white millennials in our country as a whole – regardless of what region of the country we might live in. As a people, we are often willing to confess that we have done harm in the past and that we need God’s forgiveness for that harm. We wish to be dead to the sins of racism and we long for a new world where all are equal. However, we have traded the myth of “colorblindness” and tolerance over the long-term commitment to the power of God’s sanctifying grace. White America has largely been saved but has hardly begun to open ourselves to the journey of sanctification.
The process of sanctification – the grace of God that is constantly working in our lives to restore the image of God within us so that we and all of creation reflect the love of God to one another – is a life-long journey. As Christian people, we recognize that our dependence on God’s grace means that there is not a day that goes by that we don’t harm ourselves or one another – as individuals and as part of whole communities.
Our faith gives us a way to confess that, to claim forgiveness from God and seek it from one another, and reorient ourselves again on the path to love and justice.
Over the last few years, I have learned a lot about the structures of racism, how they play out in relationships, through institutions, and how they intersect with other systems of sin like sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, etc. I am passionate about using my white privilege in whatever ways are productive in dismantling white supremacy. I deeply love the people of color in my life and seek to do them no harm. However, none of these things mean I am no longer racist. If good intentions and education alone were the cure, white supremacy might have died by now.
Racism, by nature of living in America, is ingrained into our subconscious so that no matter where our values align, our bodies, brains, and emotions are still functioning out of implicit racial bias. This original sin we are born into makes us dependent on the divine intervention of a God who offers us a new birth into freedom from this brokenness. But we are only set on this path to freedom as much as we recognize our need for God’s grace to sustain us in our shortcomings every day. I suspect that I am not the lone white person who, despite my conscious beliefs, still has racist thoughts when the messaging that has been ingrained in me creeps up from within my psyche. I know I’m not the only white person who gets inappropriately defensive sometimes when I’m called out on how I phrased something or when I didn’t speak up. I know the majority of us don’t even recognize our own commitments to normalized racism and our benefits from its institutionalization.
The more I learn about the world with the lens of my racial privilege, the more I recognize how much power racism has within me and how much farther I have to grow into love and out of my own racist commitments.
I most certainly have my own personal points of weakness, but I struggle to believe that my racism is any more deeply rooted than that of my fellow white friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. And yet, this is a conversation I have only had authentically and frankly with other white people a handful of times in my life. I have a lot of conversations about structural racism, other people’s racism, and whether or not we believe a certain situation or act was racist, but very few about the reality of being a racist person who seeks liberation.
It is nothing short of a lack of faith when we, white people, choose not to claim God’s forgiveness in our lives so that we can move beyond defensiveness, beyond guilt, beyond fear and into empowered action of speaking, listening, and living an anti-racist spirituality.
God’s grace works in our lives in this way not only in the case of racism but in all aspects of sinful things that keep us from living into love and justice individually and structurally. Our Christian faith journeys cannot be separated from the ongoing need to confess the ways we daily give in to these structures built on the lies of greed, violence, and other forms of evil. The good news is that our hope in not found in our abilities or lack thereof to transform ourselves.
Our hope is found in God who claims us as we are, promises to transform us into new creations, and fills us with the Spirit of courage, joy, and patience for the journey.
As we continue to grieve the lives taken by white supremacy in Charleston, I hope that those of us who are white can begin talking to each other about the life long journey of sanctification we have ahead of us. As much as we claim we are justified by faith and baptized into a new life, we dishonor both of those realities as much as we choose not to allow the transformative love of God to free us from our racism.
This is a conversation that belongs in our churches.
It belongs in our theology and our reading of scripture and in our Sunday schools and our youth groups and in our sermons and at our pot lucks. These conversations should not be reserved for tragedies. They are meant to be a part of this new life we claim when commit to following the life of Christ.
As white people in America, there is absolutely no room for conversation about salvation without including the lifelong spiritual work of undoing racism.
Whenever we believe we have “arrived” as “good white people” or if we choose to settle for being good intentioned white people, or if we use extreme versions of racism to scapegoat our own ongoing need for divine intervention, our country will never change, people of color will continue to suffer under white supremacy, and we will never know the freedom of living into the image of God restored in us.
God’s grace promises to sustain us on the journey. Our faith, our Methodist theologies, our scriptures, and hopefully our churches are there – waiting for us – to dig deeper, be bolder, look within and open ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. We have all the tools we need. Let’s start talking to each other – honestly, vulnerably, in confession and with hope – that we might be able to bring our full selves, racism and all, to the feet of God. Not once but every day.
We may be saved, but we are not yet sanctified.
“Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God. The Refiner’s fire purges out all that is contrary to love, and that many times by a pleasing smart. Leave all this to [God who] does all things well, and that loves you better than you do yourself.”- John Wesley
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