#metoo, assumptions, black, black lives matter, child of God, Covid-19, gender, George Floyd, Grow in holiness, guilt, Healing, infection, labels, liberal myth, Love, male, man, middleclass, perceptions, racial discrimination, shame, white
Three words which I want to deny but which are my reality. Three words that seem so simple, but which now seem forever tainted. Three words which shape my outlook and at the same time distort my perception.
White. In a wonderfully richly diverse world, one racial grouping has too often, and for too long, sought to dominate. In our own nation, from long before the days of empire, white was deemed as best, as superior, as having some kind of divine right. And so ingrained is that way of thinking that even in our multi-cultural, multi-racial society the default assumption is white. And with that one word comes a host of instinctive attitudes about behaviour, right and wrong, good and bad, faith and politics, culture and creativity and so much more. It is disturbing how often whites feel it necessary to refer to skin colour when expressing surprise (or assumed inevitability) about a person’s achievements or failings.
Male. Although we are slowly opening up to understanding the true diversity behind gender and sexuality, the default remains male, and more restrictive still, heterosexual man. The one word “man” is seen as sufficient to describe the whole of humanity. And in case we were in any doubt where the real superiority lies, God is He. To insist on more gender inclusive language is still most likely to invoke comment, if not outright criticism. #Metoo shone an uncomfortable light on men’s attitudes to women but nobody would claim it has ended not just the inequality, but the abuse, that distorts gender relationships.
Middleclass. Not, of course, rich enough to call ourselves wealthy but, in all honesty, not poor enough to pretend (with any honesty) that we are struggling. Class is of course more than about money, but it implies a certain comfortableness – not just in terms of money, but in terms of outlook, attitude and approach to life. It implies something we are grateful we are not (or no longer) but provides something to aspire to, or blame, depending on the circumstances. It easily becomes a place for holding on to the status quo. It buys in to the liberal myth that, although we accept there are issues that exist, basically all is OK. In the main there is no real discrimination, no massive injustices, no real poverty. There will be the occasional cause to which we need to rally but nothing, so the middleclass myth goes, is fundamentally wrong.
White. Male. Middleclass. Everything in me wants to resist these labels. I want to say they are not me. I do not want to be stereotyped. I hate it when people make statements about “all whites” or “all men”. They are generalisations and I want to say I am the exception. White. Male. Middleclass. These are very broad groupings, and are themselves very diverse categories, so I want to shout: we are not all the same. But I also know that part of my discomfort with these labels is that in part they carry a truth. However hard I try to say otherwise, these three words do shape both how I see the world and how I am seen in the world. And the heritage of those labels has not always been good and honourable.
White. Male. Middleclass. Equally the world is not helped by me just feeling permanently guilty, or for ever apologising for being what I am. In and of themselves these three words are not inherently bad. It is rather how I live out that identity.
We each need to live with greater awareness of the lenses through which we see the world, to be more conscious of the unconscious assumptions we too easily impose on others and our perceptions of reality. More crucially we need to be more open to understanding how others view the world, to validate and understand their perceptions of reality – and realise that we may find these deeply challenging, and even critical, of the things we had assumed as normal and right.
At its worst we use faith to confirm our world view, to justify our approach to life and to others. This happens when we create God in our own image. Too many churches have stained glass windows depicting Jesus as white, blue-eyed and blonde. We seek to own God and put God to our own doing. Theologically what matters is that “He” is like us.
At its best faith is the very thing that challenges me out of my assumptions. I have to learn to see the world through God’s eyes and to feel with God’s heart. In the face of the unconditional love of God, my own poor expression of love is challenged to grow in breadth and depth. I have to acknowledge that the plank is always in my eye and, until I address that, I cannot begin to speak of the speck in your eye. Theologically what matters is that I become more like Jesus, that I learn to grow in holiness, grace and love.
The images of the last moment of the life of George Floyd should sicken and appal all of us. They are images that shame us all and speak of the very worst of humanity. But for all my empathy as white, male, middleclass, I cannot fully comprehend how others of a different colour feel and experience this, nor how it speaks to a myriad of other experiences that as white, male, middleclass, I do not know and do not experience.
Yes I stand, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity but I also know I must respond in humility, willing to listen and to learn, however challenging that may be. I need to understand where, consciously and unconsciously I am part of the problem and not part of the solution. The fact that people need to hold a banner that says Black Lives Matter condemns me.
In the end I do not believe I am defined by being white, male and middleclass. I believe that I am called to live my true identity of being a child of God. Such a statement is not a way to deny the impact of those three words but is the calling to seek a better identity, one that embraces us all and which insists on equality and justice for all.
Covid-19 is not the only infection in town. George Floyd’s death is a reminder of the many ways in which humanity is wounded and needing to be healed. It is not enough to live lives that do no harm. We need to live lives which actively seek to bring healing, to be, in the best and right meaning of the phrase, true children of God.