White face, black face

I wouldn’t call it pride or arrogance, but I certainly have a strong belief that I am doing good. Our church has a partnership with the local neighborhood community public school. It serves a largely inner-city population: high poverty, high needs and a predominantly minority population. It’s a Title 1 school, which means that over 90 percent of the children live at or below the poverty level.

So, I am trying to do my part. I’m trying to make a difference and do some good in the world. It’s not rocket science, but it does require time, energy, patience and a willingness to read with third graders. And in spite of my own personal limitations in those categories, I pretty much have the hang of it. I am the good guy, on the side of the righteous, coming in to help. And that is pretty much how our relationship has functioned this year. I was helping, they were receiving, and that was the way it flowed. I could see some gains and improvement. We get along well. Everything you could ask for in terms of these partnerships, relationships and church outreach efforts was happening. More or less, it was a success. And now more than halfway through the school year, it will continue to be a success, I hope and believe.

But something happened to me last month that helped me to see myself a bit differently. Since February is Black History Month, we decided to pick out a book on Rosa Parks. “What a noble endeavor,” I thought to myself. “Not only am I here reading with these third graders at this inner-city school, but I am teaching them about a civil rights pioneer.” So we read. Some of it was already known and some of it was new information. And suddenly I felt uncomfortable. The more we read, the more questions there were, and the more questions there were, the less I felt like a noble do-gooder giving back to the less fortunate in society. Instead I felt small, in some way responsible, implicated, and part of a society and system that would segregate, subordinate and dehumanize people whose skin color was different than mine.

One of my readers stopped and half-declared and half-asked me, “White people did this.”

“Yes, they did,” I answered in the third person. Then I had to correct myself: “Yes, we did.”

It is a lot easier to live our lives as if we are always on the side of the angels. We do good. We help others. It’s always the “them” that need our help, it’s always the “them” that need to have their ideology corrected, it’s always the “them” that do something stupid wearing blackface. Never the “us,” always the “them.”

The comedy of our redemption, though, is finding out, even as we are often content to live with the illusions of our own self-righteousness, that Christ did not come for the righteous, but for sinners. In Christ, there are no distinctions between Jew and Greek, righteous and wayward, self-satisfied tutor and truth-telling mentee. We think that there is an ontological distinction between “us” and “them.” But in the presence of Christ, all such distinctions are broken down and done away with. In his presence, as all our heavy virtues and all our weighty sins are set aside, we find out in uncomfortable and joyful ways that all our best efforts cannot enact his kingdom and all our worst sins cannot stifle his kingdom either. We are unburdened from “doing good,” and instead free to receive our true humanity from the poor person we thought we were helping. Face to face, heart to heart, life to life, where there are no distinctions. Perhaps that is where true reconciliation begins.

currieCHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.