MONTREAT, N.C. – Anthea Butler, a university professor and a person of color, did not want to come to Montreat Conference Center a few weeks before the presidential election and talk to a bunch of white folks about race.
Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her lived reality as a black person is this: “We don’t have humanity in this country. We don’t have personhood,” but exist in a reality of “blood and death and words shouted at us,” and the prospect of Donald Trump being elected president.
“The last thing I really want to do is talk to white people,” Butler said Oct. 12 to about 400 people at the DisGrace conference on racism and injustice. Don’t take that wrong. But I’m tired. I’m tired. I can’t tell you how tired I am. Because I’ve been fighting this for a long time, and when you’ve been in a fight for a long time, you get weary.” She has friends and loved ones who generously help hold her up, “but they’re tired too. Every person of color is tired” in this country.
Butler opened her remarks by saying she’s spent a lot of time traveling outside the United States this year – to London, Rome, Spain and Canada – and remembering that she was following in the footsteps of other black writers and intellectuals (James Baldwin, Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois) who left the country too. She realized “I couldn’t stand to be in this country any more.”
Speaking on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Butler called for repentance and action. She put it this way: “America’s racist God is killing us all” – the god of white supremacy.
And she said to white people: “I’m done fixing this for you. You have to fix it. You.”
Strangers in this land. Butler, who grew up in Texas, told a little of her own family’s history. She said her story is the story of so many people of color in this country – blacks, Latinos, Asians, indigenous people and more. “We are respectable. We love our kids. We love our families.”
No matter how long their families have lived in the U.S. – in her case, for five generations – “we are strangers in our own home.” This is a land that kills and maims black people, Butler said – calling that the nation’s “original sin.”
She told of women being raped, men hung from trees, young black men left to bleed to death on the streets. She learned that in Texas, “on our family land a man was lynched.” A textbook used in her home state of Texas described slaves as “workers” on plantations.
At an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof shot 10 people last year, killing nine of them, after joining them for Bible study. He studied the Scripture with these faith-filled black people. Then he shot them, Butler said.
The families of some of those murdered at Mother Emanuel AME church said they forgive the shooter, “but there’s no forgetting,” Butler said. “You expect forgiveness from black people all the time, because you want to feel good.”
She was not offering forgiveness. “You’re going to sit in this. You need to sit in this,” to go down, “to see the places where you have allowed this racist god to do this stuff to you.”
Killing the prophetic voice. Butler spoke of the ways in which prophetic voices have been silenced – including President Barack Obama distancing himself from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and the ways in which the civil rights leader and pastor Martin Luther King has become “like Santa Claus,” used to make people feel good, but with his criticisms of the country and its failures muted – quoting the lofty “I have a dream” phrase but not (from the same speech) “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
She read from a book “Letters to a White Liberal” that the Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton wrote in response to King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” condemning whites’ preference for prosperity over justice. Upending that paradigm will involve sacrifice from whites, Butler said.
If the system changes, “you might not be as prosperous,” she said. “You might not be able to afford to come to Montreat…You’ve got to start giving some stuff up.”
Butler says Donald Trump portrays himself as one of the richest and most powerful men in America. She described the god of white supremacy: “That god wants you to love money and prestige and power” more than anything.
And Butler proclaimed that “white fear and fragility are going to be the death of us all” – whites’ fear of real equality and sharing power. “It’s going to kill you. It’s already killing you.”
Sit in silence. At the end of her remarks, Butler asked the crowd to sit in silence, in prayer. Scripture speaks of counting the cost, she said. How do you benefit from America’s racist god – a question for both whites and people of color, she said.
“Where have you gotten something you shouldn’t have gotten just because of what you look like?”
“Where have you capitulated instead of doing what was right?”
“Sometimes you have to sit in silence,” Butler said. “Merton as a contemplative knew the power of silence. Silence is convicting. As Americans, we just like to move so fast.”
And she made it clear that whites who want justice need to change and get to work.
“I can’t fix this any more. You have to fix this .You,” Butler said, her voice rising in anger.
And: “That’s white supremacy that asks me to come and bare my heart to you,” taking her energy to talk to whites about racism. “We’re still cleaning up your mess. We’re done. I’m done” – Butler said she’s not willing to clean the latrines for the whites any more.
She’s also ready to “divest the notion that respectability will keep you safe.”
If she’s approached by a police officer on the street, her education and good job won’t matter. “If I don’t comply I might be dead. If I comply I might be dead.”
She told of driving years ago with a friend – a white man with a gentle heart, whom she loved. The police pulled her over and asked her white friend if he had picked her up. The officer “thought I was a prostitute,” even though it was her car and she could prove it; she had a job and her friend was unemployed. “These are the indignities we suffer every day,” Butler said. “At the same time, we have to fix it?”
Butler warned of trouble to come – of the mental health problems that people of color develop when faced with such injustice day after day. “We’re going to have more things happen like (the police shooting in) Dallas if white people don’t step up,” she said. She said to the people of color: “You know. You know what you’re carrying.”
The previous night, Denise Anderson, a black pastor and co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly, had posted this on Facebook:
For those attending #DisGrace16, please know the people of color are finding this surprisingly taxing. Some of us are reliving some real trauma. Knowing this, please give PoC some space. We’re all doing some hard work and processing a lot right now, but the PoC in particular need a breather.
Butler asked the whites to “put your head down and start to think about where this has affected you. Because it has…You have paid a cost. You have lost something. Even if you have been the one who has gotten all the privilege out of white supremacy, you have lost” – lost a part of your soul.
At the end of her presentation, Butler asked those assembled to sit in a silent prayer of atonement.
“I don’t need your applause,” she said. “I need you to change.”
What can churches do? During a question-and-answer session, Butler was asked what it says that so many Black Lives Matter leaders come from the streets and not from churches.
Churches fail “when they are too involved in looks and not in substance,” she said. And churches present “a horrible witness. You say you love everybody, but you don’t.”
Black Lives Matter leaders instinctively know church structures are too cumbersome to move quickly when actions against injustice are being organized. But churches can offer support to the justice movement, she said, by asking “can we offer money, can we offer space” or food. Open the church doors. Preach about injustice.
If a church hasn’t mentioned Black Lives Matter from the pulpit in the last two years, “why are people still sitting in that church” Butler asked. “Why are you giving your money?”
Movements for liberation “are all part of something bigger” – about addressing inequity, be it for LGBTQ people or indigenous people or someone else seen as less than or not part of the power structure. “These movements are pushing up against something which is saying ‘You are not worthy, you are not right, you must change to be what we want you to be.’”
By saying that, “you are working against the very creator that made these people. You are denying them the right to be what they were made to be.”
The election. Another question: what are the moral and ethical obligations people of faith face in the presidential election?
Butler already had described this presidential election as a “racist reality show” and Trump as a white supremacist candidate.
Her answer to the question:
First, don’t vote for Donald Trump.
Second, speak out against him. “The moral obligation is to say ‘this man is not a man of God’…Speak up. Ask your friends if they are voting for this man – how?” And why.
“Nov. 9 is going to tell the tale of this nation,” Butler said – the day after the election.
And also: “White supremacy isn’t white supremacy” – it’s not about feeling superior. “It’s based on fear.”