"Seeing Whiteness (Without Hating Ourselves)" (John 10:17-26)

Mark Longhurst, March 18, 2018
Part of the Lent series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Rev. Mark Longhurst
Sunday, March 18, 2018
Sermon: Seeing Whiteness (Without Hating Ourselves)
Scripture: John 10:17-26

It’s hard to see that I am white. Or at least I believe I am. It’s hard to see that I’m white, first of all, because I grew up poor. My dad took a job in a tiny farming town called Maple Rapids, MI. His earned about $14,000 for a family of four. Dad took the first church job that accepted him after a brief post-seminary at Berkshire Farm Youth Services in Canaan, New York. (We disagree on almost everything else, but we do share Canaan, New York in common). Maybe dad wanted to leave the Northeast and the perpetual shadow of his emotionally abusive father, or maybe he embraced rural ministry for its own sake. Whatever the reason for the off-the-grid Michigan move, we made do. We made do partly from the generosity of other poor folks, whether it was the dairy farmers giving us milk, or the hunters giving us game.

It’s hard to see that I’m white, but one marker of my early emerging white identity is that I could pretend to be less broke than I really was. I could pass as elite. My dad became a church pastor at an English speaking missionary church for expatriates in Geneva, Switzerland. Before long I was enjoying fine wines and dining in Geneva restaurants with church members. You know, folks like lawyers for the World Trade Organization or Swiss bankers. I had no idea how silverware stacked on my plate after I finished my meal, I never had enough money to attend both a movie and go out to McDonalds afterwards for dinner, but at least I could pretend, or imagine myself to be, similar the expatriate white elite, maybe the son of a well-connected diplomat or corporate head. And hey, there are some good restaurants in Geneva.

It’s hard to see that I am white, because I have never felt as if I was superior to people of another color. Then again, I didn’t know many, either. A sizable Muslim population attended my public school, just across the Swiss border in a French town called Ferney Voltaire, but I didn’t even conceive the possibility that Arab people of color could become my friends. I never even thought about it. It’s understandable, and I’m not beating myself up about it; we all hang out with people like ourselves in high school, but the truth remains that the very segregation of my relationships revealed, and still reveals, the poverty of my faith in the way of Jesus, the true possibility of beloved community.

It’s hard to acknowledge this, to confess this, but I inadvertently joined a long tradition. I fell prey to a tried and true strategy of the powerful, which separates poor white and people of color and tells them that they are different. There have always been poor white people in America, of course, and the first laborer cut across color lines. America’s early labor consisted both of European—and Irish!-- indentured servants, many of whom chose to be here, and enslaved Africans, who, of course, did not. Indentured servitude and slavery was not the same thing, but it was similar enough for Europeans and Africans to form common cause. Not for long. After a dangerous uprising of white servants and enslaved Africans set fire to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1676 in a revolt known as Bacon’s Rebellion, white landowners ensured that white and blacks would never join together again. They created something. It wasn’t the product of one greedy or hate-filled person, but rather an emerging collusion of systems to ensure that people who had power and money didn’t lose it. This something that they created ,that their collusion created, is called whiteness.

These landowners and these elites created whiteness by giving economic privileges to poor whites and keeping enslaved Africans legally bound for life. Indentured white servants could at least look forward to serving their time and being rewarded with 50 acres of land. They were eventually given the right to vote; they could become American citizens. Enslaved Africans, well, they weren’t even counted as a full human. They were property.

It was a divide and conquer strategy, because if white and black and brown people began relating to one another and befriending one another and identifying common cause with one another, and organizing together, the entire economic foundation of early colonial America would be overturned. And so, through, legal decisions and economic means and cultural messaging, and horrifc preaching, “Slaves obey your masters,” this system created something called whiteness. WEB Dubois asks soberly, “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it? Then always, somehow, someway, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth, forever and ever, amen.”

We’re in a Lenten series about seeing. We are asking God through the witness and way of Jesus to help us see each other, to help us see our reality, our country, see, even that which we have rendered invisible. And whiteness is that elusive elephant in the room. It’s everywhere so we are able to pretend it’s nowhere. And let’s be honest, it is uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable, precisely because whiteness is difficult to see, for those who believe we are white. But once we see, it’s impossible not to see.

Jesus, in Mark’s classic story, looks at the rich young man. Jesus sees him and Jesus loves him. Jesus loves us. We often think of white privilege, and white guilt, and feel paralyzed and full of self-hatred. I feel the uncomfortability in my body of facing hard truths, and, the more I learn about America’s history, the more I feel the temptation towards despair; it’s easier not to know. And so the conversation needs to start with this. Jesus looks at the young man, and loves him.

Jesus and the man, then, have enjoyed an engaging, if challenging, back and forth encounter. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. He seeks to impress Jesus, to flatter Jesus, and yet even his question contains the trappings of privilege. The word Mark uses for inherit is klerenomeo, which is connected to inheritance, which is connected to land. But eternal life is not something to be inherited, a parcel of land that this landowner has received from his father, who received it as an estate passed down from his father. That’s how white privilege and wealth in America works, through inheritance, because slaves could not own property to accumulate for future generations. They were property for white men’s future generations, at the lost cost of their own. And now today a white person with a criminal record is more likely to get a job than a black man without a record. And now today, unemployment for Native Americans is triple what it is for white people. And now today, nearly 1 in 3 white African American and Latino children lives in poverty, whereas 1 in 10 white children live in poverty in America. (David Roediger x, xi, How Race Survived US History).

It’s difficult to see this. It’s challenging to admit that, during the Obama years, we are the ones who pretended that we were in a post-racial society while our country continued to lock up more people of color than those enslaved before the civil war. (Michelle Alexander,) Or, we simply said, this problem of racism doesn’t concern us in Williamstown, when the possibility of not being concerned is itself a function of whiteness’s power. Or we read books, familiarize ourselves with unjust policies, and feel angered or slightly guilty about it, all without the real urgency of needing to change anything. This, too, is possible because of whiteness. Whiteness is the option to enjoy privilege and choose justice or not. If there is a silver lining in our current situation it is that reality is forcing us to reckon with where we stand.

Jesus takes the man at his word, recognizes that he is an earnest seeker, and lists off the commandments to follow. And, it turns out that the man has kept the commandments. The man is a good man; he has not murdered anyone, has not committed adultery, has not dishonored his father and mother. Mark’s Jesus slips in one commandment, however, that is not listed in Moses’s ten commandments, and it is this: “Do not defraud.” Why would Mark add an additional commandment, “Do not defraud”? Perhaps Jesus, already, is honing in on that which holds the man’s heart and body hostage, which is the man’s wealth, which, more than likely, was accumulated by taking from the poor, by defrauding others. One rarely became a person of means in ancient Israel without taking from someone.

The reality of whiteness in America is likewise built on theft. In 1860 “80% of the country’s gross national product was tied to slavery”, resources that white people literally took from black bodies. (Carol Anderson White Rage) Ta Nehisi Coates puts it this way: “When we think of white supremacy, we picture “Colored only signs” but we should picture pirate flags.”

The man insists that he has kept all of the commandments. Jesus gazes at him with intensity and love, and it’s from this place of seeing and love that Jesus gives him the command that will set him free. But it is an exceedingly difficult command, a command that privileged interpreters have tried to avoid ever since: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come follow me.” Jesus looks at him with love, and offers only compassion, but it’s too much. The young man intellectually knows all of the commandments, and has even kept them and led a moral life. But he does not have what it takes to leave behind his possessions and to follow. James and John and Simon and Andrew, they have all left their possessions and livelihoods behind, they have all joined the discipleship journey, but they did not have as much. And the more you have, the more difficult it is to let it all go, and the more we have, the more difficult it is to be free.
I wish I could tie this sermon up with a bow on it, but the tragedy of this story is that the rich young man is a nondisciple, a failed follower. I’m hopeful enough in God’s mercy that we might be a community of truth, love, justice, and reconciliation. But first we have to fit through the eye of the needle. And so we throw ourselves on the mercy of Go

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