Giving up the ghost: Toward a new theology of white allyship

May 18th, 2015

The last nine months here in St. Louis, Missouri have changed our lives irrevocably. It is still too soon to begin to explain in everyday words how we feel about what transpired last August, and what continues to transpire, between police and residents of the city I love so deeply. We are still in shock. We are still in mourning. Police are still killing our young Black citizens.

We have tried to go to sleep to the sounds of police helicopters buzzing over our neighborhoods as they keep an overly watchful eye over peaceful protestors. We are furious that we keep having to preface “protestor” by making sure you know that we are peaceful.

We have tried to live our normal lives, do laundry, go to the grocery store, and read our homework all while somehow simultaneously processing trauma. And that is what we are still having to name: trauma. Sometimes, when we talk deeply about what is occurring, our voices stick in our throats and we realize that we skipped past the hurt to get to some semblance of normalcy. We have to get by.

We have tried to discuss our problems openly as people all over the world have critiqued our missteps. Since we are afraid to make mistakes, since we are unwilling to create safe spaces where we can be wrong and be hurt and say dumb stuff, so many of us have given up on the conversation. “Ferguson fatigue,” a term coined by a member of the Ferguson Commission itself, is real and is taking effect.

During mid-August of last year, scores of mostly White Christians called, emailed and Facebook-messaged from all over the country wanting to help. The version of help they were usually wanting to bring, however, looked like a standard American “mission team,” a group of folks with enough money and time to spend a few days on a short-term trip to Ferguson to hopefully staunch the bleeding. They wanted to clean up streets after protests, pass out water bottles and take guided tours of the Canfield Green Apartments. They purported to address hundreds of years of systematized, racist oppression by making sandwiches. This is no longer acceptable. We need a new theology of White allyship.

As Wesleyans, we know that personal and social holiness can build upon each other, that time in one’s prayer closet informs how one loves one’s neighbors, which then informs how one returns to one’s prayer closet, and so on. It is in the midst of this praxis of externally acting and internally praying that we should begin to construct this new theology. If we are not living out what we pray, and not praying about how we live, we are misunderstanding this core dynamic of discipleship. We cannot simply believe our way to a day when Black lives matter. We must actively pursue it. This is what we mean when we pray for the Kin(g)dom to come. We are solemnly asking God to create an earth where every single day is woven through with joyful Jubilee.

Once we can establish this dynamic, we must come to some painful realizations about our missiology and how much destruction it has wrought and continues to work, specifically in our United States landscape. The reason those mission teams could justify their short-term mission has much to do with White privilege. If there is something that needs fixing, White people have been accustomed to being able to fix it.

However, one repeated request I have heard from Black leadership in our ongoing protest movement is that White folks have much work to do within White spaces (For a helpful primer, search Twitter for the hashtag #whitefolkwork.). Dismantling the insidious powers that continue to birth situations where White officers can murder young Black women and men with no consequences will take more than a few days off with a group of teenagers in a church van. The first step, fellow White people, is introspection, conversation and repentance. Talk to other White people about privilege. Listen to Black people about their own lack of privilege. This is not about us. This is about God and about our neighbors.

Once we can practice our true discipleship dynamic and come to some honest realizations about our harmful missiology, then we can begin to examine our basic theological tenets about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church and humanity. In doing so, we would be forced to return to square one. We have been living out so many religious beliefs poisoned by White supremacy for so long that we no longer see the poison. This is what privilege does. We are like fish who have been swimming around blissfully for so many years in the fishbowl we own that we forget we are moving through water.

Nonetheless, we must not let the task ahead of us intimidate us. To be sure, it is gargantuan and it will take time, longer than any of us will be comfortable with. Our job as people of the Way is not to give up hope. We are not allowed to be hopeless. Our God is a God who speaks into a tomb and says, “There is life here.” Our God is a God who takes an everyday Bible meeting where Luther’s preface to Romans is being read aloud and starts a revival movement by strangely warming a heart. Our God is a God who sees our shrugged shoulders at the disproportionate deaths of young Black women and men and says, “Black lives matter.”

Let us commit to a new theology of White allyship.

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