One of the things I connect with most in Reformed theology is the understanding of sin not as an individual act, but a systemic problem. We confess our sins together to acknowledge sin is not something that begins and ends with each of us, but is pervasive among and within all of us. This approach allows us to name sin as a thing we all experience, and it opens our eyes to see the abundant grace God gives.
And yet, when the conversation turns to racism, it’s as if those of us who are white forget all we know about sin and grace. Rather than seeing the systemic nature of white supremacy, our attention goes to individual actions: we focus on what we – or others – have said or done. We get defensive, point fingers and become upset.
If we push past these initial defenses, many of us get so caught up in our own guilt or shame that we are unable to draw from the well of resilience necessary to remain dedicated to the work of dismantling white supremacy. We get tired and the work seems too great.
We as white people often approach the work of anti-racism as an intellectual exercise. We approach white supremacy like we approached the SATs, trusting that if we study our anti-racist flashcards long enough, we will end this thing called white supremacy. But the work of anti-racism is a lifelong endeavor — and it is not an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual practice.
White supremacy perpetuates the idea that our value is in our ability to fit within norms set and maintained by whiteness: intelligence measured by IQ tests or worth measured in dollars. White supremacy sells us a false image of what it means to be good and worthy. Yet, it remains so invisible to us that we continue using the same tools that built these systems of inequity to try to dismantle them, never questioning whether the tools themselves need to be replaced.
White supremacy is a sin. It is pervasive and systemic, and it prevents us from recognizing ourselves and one another as God’s beloved children.
As disciples of Jesus, we are called to work for a world where all of God’s children know they are seen, loved and able to live into a life of abundance. Being honest about our sinfulness means calling to task governments or individuals that have aligned the language of religion and patriotism in a way that distorts them both, and it challenges us to see the ways we have all been complicit in maintaining and supporting systems that dehumanize and criminalize some while turning a blind eye to injustice all around.
As church-going people, it challenges us to see the ways our traditions have been misused to justify atrocity after atrocity. It means naming the things we’d most often like to leave unnamed. We are in a time when the wounds of racism have gone ignored for too long, and the stench is noxious. Thank God for that stink. Because only when we acknowledge both the things that are broken and our complicity in the breaking will we begin to truly see both God’s healing and our own belovedness.
Jess Cook is the program and communications manager for More Light Presbyterians, and lives in Richmond, Virginia.