Blog Contributor Jerome Daley reflects on the subversive and often dividing issue of privilege in his life as a white man. And he recognizes that he has a lot of work to do and changes to make in his heart and his life. More of his insights are below, along with a powerful video called "Unarmed and Dangerous: A Conversation on Race and Justice with Dr. Bryan Loritts."
By Jerome Daley, Blog Contributor
Have you ever felt set up by God? You read something…You hear something…You have a conversation about something. They all seem to be isolated thoughts, and on their own, they can be internally metabolized. But then they converge—and the convergence is suddenly overwhelming. You find yourself reeling, disoriented, maybe angry, maybe afraid. Part of you simply wants to reclaim the emotional security of the status quo—something safe, something familiar. But another part of you wants to wake up to a new truth and a new reality, despite the threat to your delicate emotional stability. That moment came for me three days ago.
When my wife first told me the news of George Floyd’s killing, I felt the weight of grief: Here we go again. Another unarmed black man killed by a white man…and by an “officer of the peace,” no less. When will it stop? Why does it continue? Yet despite my genuine sorrow, I managed to keep the event at a safe internal distance. That is my practiced habit of dealing with bad news of any stripe.
A Habit of Self Protection
In fact, I’ve made it a priority for most of my adult life to protect my emotional equilibrium from the turbulence of bad news. Twenty-five years ago I stopped getting a daily newspaper. I never watch the news on TV except by accident. I don’t read the news on the internet except for isolated topics. Important, must-know news events filter their way down to me via others, and I keep a safe distance from the trauma. By and large, it works…but there is also a cost to buffering myself from the tragedies and injustices of the world.
The day after I heard about Floyd, I stumbled across a video clip of the actual killing. It was probably only ten seconds, but actually watching it happen—instead of just hearing about it—horrified me, just as it has horrified millions of viewers now. I suppose that those who watch the news regularly must numb themselves; how can the human soul possibly hold the sheer weight of such endless misery? I tell myself that I don’t care too little; I care too much. That my spiritual calling must be protected from such emotional violence. But now I’m not so sure.
I had responded appropriately, I thought. I signed the online petition calling for the officers to be, not just fired, but charged for murder. I spoke to a few friends, opining that perhaps this could be a turning point. But internally, I was still protecting myself from being swept away in a flash flood of anger. Ah, and there it is. I think I’m terrified of the visceral power of that kind of anger. The only level of anger that comes close to being commensurate to the injustice is a level of anger that feels nuclear. The combination of storming internal rage in the face of perceived practical impotency feels lethal…so I’ve gotten good at dodging it. And then came God’s ambush. Three days ago now.
On the heels of our recent monsoons, Sunday morning broke gloriously sunny. After a long bike ride with Kellie, I took a fiction book out on the deck…but the first paragraph took my breath away. Here’s how it read:
For her entire life, unwittingly, she had complied with her parents' first shared principle: Make no noise in this world...Don't stand out; you have no right. No one owes you a thing. Keep small, vote mainstream, and nod like it all makes sense. Yet here she is, asking for trouble. Acting like what she does might matter.
I laid the book down, stunned, and wondered, Am I that person? Have I lived small, played it safe, tried not to rock the boat? No, I protested silently, I take a stand for the things I believe in. Don’t I? And I do…but only when the perceived risk is low. I avoid all the incendiary topics, the ones that might bring personal backlash. I found myself wondering what it might be like to live more dangerously, to actually make a little noise. Setup #1.
Later that afternoon I had a Zoom call with two colleagues from a two-year training Kellie and I had taken on spiritual formation. Over a series of nine retreats in Chicago, we had been in a small group…and three of us have continued a spiritual friendship. In the course of conversation Marilyn said something that startled me, “With the exception of the sixties, this pandemic is the most turbulent time I have ever lived through.” Wow, I thought, Is that true? Is this season of social upheaval and uncertainty the most turbulent time of my life so far? I really had not acknowledged to myself the possibility that there would be no return to “normal.” It was a strange and vulnerable feeling. Maybe a vulnerability that the black community lives with constantly. Setup #2.
After that conversation, Kellie asked me to watch a video that a friend had sent her—a video conversation between two black pastors about the dynamics of racial tension and the apathy of the white church. “I don’t know,” I hedged. It’s a beautiful, peaceful day, I thought. Why would I want to stir up all that sort of discomfort and dissonance? But I did watch the video…and the wheels came off my bus. The disparate parts came together, and I was undone. Setup #3.
Willing to Listen
Strangely, I found that facing those three setups—the call to courage, the inevitability of a new normal, and the culpability of white evangelicalism—made me feel inexplicably alive. The collision left me reeling, yes…but it also felt deeply right. Disorienting, but somehow reorienting. Hearing two black pastors talk about the view from the other side of the tracks, speaking from a place that was spiritually grounded, calling the white church to repentance but without malice—it began to give me hope that I might actually be able to hold the great tension of racial injustice without fleeing into my safe, protected, privileged world.
I would ask you too to be willing to listen—not just to this specific and brilliant discourse (watch video above), but to the larger perspective of the Black voice. Even the angry parts. To listen without rushing to defend your position. Without rushing to pat political dodges. Without needing to play it safe or live small. And above all, without thinking you know the answers. Because if there is one thing clear above all else right now, it just might be that the White community does not have the answers to the plight of the Black community. And it just might be that the white church has been part of the problem instead of part of the conversation. If we can’t accept this possibility, then we have lost our allegiance to a Messiah whose life, whose identity, and whose message was embedded in the community of the oppressed.
The Gospel, once hijacked from the context of the poor and transplanted into the context of privilege, inevitably becomes a skewed gospel. How can it not? Somehow, we who are white (poor or affluent) must humble ourselves to listen and learn, recognizing that our greatest risk may come from our white friends who will be threatened by this truth, who will feel that anything beyond empty rhetoric is tantamount to breaking ranks with our own.
But there’s a further risk that scares me more. It’s the risk that a few weeks or months from now, the news cycle will move on, and my conviction will wane…lulled to sleep by safer passions and my personal distance from the heat of the battle. These pastors challenged me with a hard truth: The opposite of being racist is not being non-racist; the opposite of being racist is being anti-racist. Is there room in the limited bandwidth of my life to bear this cause?
To Be and To Do
Listen with me to a few words from these two Black voices of faith: “There’s an emotional disconnect [with the white community]. Their ignorance about our plight may draw tears, but it doesn’t draw action. It doesn’t draw up solidarity, and it’s not drawing up change” (Rev. Jerome Gay).
To which Dr. Bryan Loritts extends a plea:
“Instead of rushing to action, sit with us! Sit in the ashes and listen. Listening counters the messiah complex with its implicit patriarchy. Stay in relationship with us and walk in community with us. Be willing to sit under the power of people of color…and then engage advocacy, but not before.”—Dr. Bryan Loritts
One of the things I learned in my studies in Chicago is that the spiritual life has classically been understood, particularly in the monastic tradition, as the intersection between two vital forces: contemplation and action. I have always identified as a contemplative more than an activist, but the Christian path requires both. Trustworthy action must be rooted in contemplation or it becomes self-righteous and violent. Yet contemplation that doesn’t generate compassionate action becomes self-indulgent and myopic.
So what might a path forward look like, one that honors both contemplation and action, one that responds to Loritt’s plea for presence…and Gay’s cry for solidarity? A path that transcends being a social media warrior and truly captures the heart so as to be fundamentally changed?
I think that George Floyd’s death is going to cost me something very personal: my emotional distance. And I have no idea where that journey is going to take me, but I think I know where it must begin. I have lived half a century so far, and most of that in communities that were half Black, yet I have never had a Black friend. I’ve had plenty of Black acquaintances with whom I was friendly, but never an actual friend. So while friendship cannot be forced, I find myself on a quest to form an enduring friendship with a person of color, an American Black man, so I can glean perspective beyond my privilege. So I can find solidarity with the oppressed and contribute toward justice. And so I can be enriched by a new dimension of friendship.
Will you join me on this journey?
Your Voice Matters
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