Guest commentary by Mike Sears
“I don’t see how you’re not getting it!” my frustrated 17-year-old shouted.
A well-trained and fairly experienced pastor and chaplain, I’ve been trying to give him space in our conversation about police brutality. My wife interjects, “Honey, a statement like that is a sweeping generalization; and that’s dangerous.”
We often talk about “sweeping generalizations” in our household. They tend to poison a well-crafted argument built on tight premises and a logical conclusion. Yet something is happening here. My son is getting more frustrated the more we reason together. Even my 13-year-old, who normally escapes to headphones and YouTube amid these deep-dive discussions, appeared frustrated as my wife and I presumed we had created a very safe and open-minded space with our kids.
I am called to ministry, but it is surreal waking up in a country experiencing a COVID-19 death toll that well exceeds 100,000 Americans. Cognitive dissonance brings an unintentional mindfulness. So on Memorial Day, the day police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, we saw clearly what others have said our system has been playing at for centuries. As I reflected upon my call, a small knot in the stomach and a numb jolt in spirit arose.
My own spiritual imagination is whitewashed. Visions of my call early on consisted of a white church, a white community, a white seminary and a comfortable life with my white friends and family. Of course I was taught to love all people, but the truth is that I am comfortable in a white world. I never quite grasped until now how my own spirit has become whitewashed and that whitewashed spirits, like thorny weeds, choke out the very seeds God plants. What I assume good, safe, clean, right, faithful, just and always deserving of doubt’s benefit, to God is a weed among wheat (Matthew 13).
“Son, do you have to say ‘all cops’?” I asked, trying to whitewash his argument.
“Yeah, Dad, you do,” inserted my 13-year-old, heralded in headphones. He was listening?
“Unless we say it, we’ll never confront our thinking,” the 17-year-old responded.
That insight made me realize, like those noseblind commercials, I am colorblind (and not in the way En Vogue sang about in the ‘90s). Colorblind, like noseblind, means I am no longer aware of the stench so obvious to those whom I might call “other.”
The better term is “whitewashed.” Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28). Racist impulses must be brought into the light, lest they continue to hide in the impunity of shadows and decompose my soul. Because I am thick in the weeds, I must be sifted by a sweeping generalization.
Awareness is not even the first step. It is just new eyes with which to see, or maybe a view unobstructed by a log. Where am I whitewashing? When I hear the sweeping generalization of “Black Lives Matter,” my impulse to say “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” is revealed my true comfort. That’s because reasoning into the weeds perpetuates my white-world comfort. Other impulses are carried in that breeze, such as the fear over looted businesses and an appeal to uniformed law and order for help. But the very way that particular law has been ordered is racist, for it targets and oppresses people of color. Victimizing oppressors is a whitewashed tactic, summoned to secure my white-world comfort. So awareness is no more than a prerequisite to consciousness. A white-world awareness may mean we begin to realize that white-world comfort rests on the backs of a world of color. Any king of any hill does well to realize whence sustenance comes, as the wisdom teacher says: “If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them. The profit from the land is taken by all; the king is served by the field” (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9).
It appears of late that the long-sent laborers of color have indeed become fishers of people, catching in their nets a whole field white with harvest. A new Reformation creating new Protestants has germinated and sprouted in city after city, spreading the world over.
I, too, feel caught in this apocalyptic God-net, wondering how to move forward. So I reflect by translating some of Psalm 31:
In thee, Yahweh, I run for cover
never shame in your righteousness
No longer will I only respect those who stand for those who have fallen for America, but I will also respect those who kneel for those who have fallen because of her.
Get me out of this
bend your ear to me quickly
pluck me out
be for me an immovable rock
make for me a home in your capturing net
the confines within which I can move freely
for you are a rock perfect for shelter
and a capturing net to me
for your name, keep your guidance flowing
pull me out of the net set to trap me
My call is to the gospel of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray with faith through trials. My whitewashed spirit has been tried – weighed and measured – and is found wanting. For it is trapped in a net set by whitewashed comforts.
for you are my immovableness
I give you charge of my spirit
in your hands
you cut me loose, Yahweh,
sound God that you are
But I taste a hint of repentance in a new mind, one not conforming to the comforts of my white world. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
MIKE SEARS is pastor of New Kirk Presbyterian Church in Blythewood, South Carolina, and part-time chaplain at Laurel Crest Retirement Community in West Columbia, South Carolina.