Unfinished Business and My White Guilt

I'm currently home on paternity leave, and today the doorbell rang around midday.  I almost didn't even get up.  The doorbell has been ringing incessantly with Amazon deliveries of crib sheets, diapers, bottles and how-to books (and all the other things we didn't have enough of on "d-day"), so I'm used to hearing a single ring and finding packages left on the porch.

Today I got up and peaked through the glass and saw someone standing outside.  I opened the door to a young African American man.  A few things struck me instantly.  First, after ringing the bell, he was standing back at least twelve feet from the door.  His hands immediately came up, open-palmed, and he said, "Don't worry dad, I'm one of the good ones."  Before I could process any meaning, he said, "I'm here to talk a little bit about a home cleaning product I've been introducing your neighbors to..."

Then he made a joking comment about needing to make enough money to pay for chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aid.

From there he spent a few minutes demonstrating a multi-surface cleaning product that cost $40 a bottle.  "If I can sell this soap, it'll keep guys like me from selling dope."  And to be honest, if I had the cash handy, I would have bought it.  But what stuck with me was the initial bombardment of racial "schtick" this young man employed, presumably to make white homeowners in this white neighborhood feel comfortable enough to open their front door.

There's a black man on our front porch... but at least he's standing a safe distance back...

Then the "watermelon" jokes: a wink and nod that he understands his social "place."

This stuff breaks my heart, and moreso because for how heavily the guilt of my own privilege weighs on me (to be honest, it's one of the defining features of my adult psyche), that guilt leads to relatively shallow action and change on my part.  I try to vote as an advocate, I try to speak as an advocate, I try to choose actions and behaviors that are sensitive and responsible to marginalized and discriminated-against people.  But when it comes down to it, my privilege and comfort are as intact as ever, and my neighborhood remains white and sterile...

So the brutal truth is, my white guilt actually just allows me to feel a little bit good about the fact that I feel bad.

And that doesn't do a damn thing.

Reading Keri Day's Unfinished Business has been timely, then, because it raises questions about what the role of the church is in creating liberating communities and economies for the poor and marginalized.  Unfortunately, while the black church in particular has been a crucial leading force in the  Civil Rights Movement, Day illustrates how it has become co-opted and complicit in propagating a prosperity gospel developed and promoted by privileged whites to undergird a capitalist society, not a Christian economic structure that favors the "least of these."  To this end, to reference Gustavo Gutierrez, the only "option for the poor" is to work harder, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and pursue the American Dream.

There are folks in my local church who marched in Selma, people who made actual sacrifices to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s.  But in my lifetime of churchgoing, those people have been the exception.  So the question Day's book leaves me with, as a privileged straight white male, is what responsibility all churches - not just black churches - have for supporting the struggle to thrive in America.

In the end, Day brings her argument around to focus on the core issue of poverty, which transcends race and identity, but in an age of increasing wealth disparity automatically conjures discussion of both.  Jesus of Nazareth wasn't ambiguous about his attitudes toward haves and have-nots, but the white American church in particular has allowed and even perpetuated a perverse gospel that has little if any resemblance to Jesus' New Testament teachings.

As inspired readers, we always inevitably ask, "So where do I start?"  It's clear to me that we can start by reconstructing the missional focus of our churches.  That means doing more than giving money and volunteer time to the "right" ministries.  It means first deconstructing the classism that has malignantly crept into our communities of faith, and building fellowship that transcends socio-economic, racial, gender and sexual differentiators.  When our community reflects the values it idealizes for society at large, then it can be prepared to speak prophetically to broader systemic injustices.

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