Thursday, June 15, 2017

Recognizing Race: A Guest Post from Seminary Intern Bridget Wendell

In Second Samuel, after David saw Bathsheba bathing on a roof, and murdered her husband, there is a poignant moment of reckoning between the King and his Prophet.  Nathan comes into David’s court and tells him the story of a poor man who’s lone ewe is stolen by a rich man.  In the moment after David’s anger is “kindled against the man” the prophet turns to him and in a brave assumption of risk, tells David, “You are the man!”  Following Nathan’s profession, David is convicted, and he, the most powerful man in Israel, comes face to face with his own naked sin.  Despite its glaring presence and seemingly obvious nature, David himself was blind to it until Nathan mirrored it back to him in new words.  We all have prophets in our own lives who can be easy to ignore.  When was the last time you were confronted by one of them? In my own life recently, I have felt both the pain and the freedom that comes with the prophetic mirror, especially around the issue of race. 

As someone who grew up in a predominantly white area, it took longer for me than for most people to consider the impact of race on my life.  I began seminary in September of last year and quickly found myself piled under a stack of theology books in the expansive library, with the sudden knowledge that seminary was going to challenge my beliefs about the world and God.  One of these challenging experiences happened for me in late October, in a corner room on the top floor of the building.  Twelve students and our TA were gathered in a loose circle discussing the theological perspectives of Chung Hyun Kyung, a Korean feminist theologian.  The conversation began to heat up as students of different ages, races, economic backgrounds, and life experiences struggled to make themselves heard.  As our discussion unfolded, the professor posed the question: “Can we ever really fully understand another person’s experience?”
I raised my hand. “Yes,” I answered unequivocally.  “Of course we can.”

My response was greeted with entirely justified looks of suspicion from the Black, Korean and Latino students in the classroom.  Another student raised her hand.  “I don’t think that’s true,” she said. 
We went back and forth;  I  posited that if I read enough, thought hard enough, and talked to enough people, then I could fully understand her experience. She continued to push back on me, saying there were some aspects of growing up a person of color in America I could never understand  I left the classroom feeling let down, like somehow there was no hope to end division if we couldn’t all be the same.  I realized later that uniformity was not a prerequisite to relationship, and that my comments had been informed by a set of beliefs that make white, European experiences “normal” and other experiences “abnormal”. I’ve now learned to name that system of beliefs as a system of white supremacy. 

White supremacy is “the beliefs and ideas purporting the natural superiority of lighter-skinned, or “white,” human races over other racial groups.”[1]  The term “white supremacy” has often been associated with extremist racist groups, but it in fact describes the underpinnings of a country founded on the stolen labor of enslaved people. Today, it can take the form of using stereotypes to maintain unjust systems.  It can be white flight or assuming that the “white” idea of success or practice is the right way of doing things.  For me, it looked like assuming my experience was standard, and so believing that I could understand other people’s experiences as a result. 

In that moment in class, I had made the mistake of confusing “head knowledge” with “lived knowledge.” I thought that if I could understand a concept, it would be as though I had experienced it.  In other circumstances, I would have thought this to be illogical.  I know that watching someone lose a loved one, seeing them mourn, and understanding the grieving process is not like experiencing loss for myself.  In the classroom that day, I had incorrectly assumed that the experiences my classmates of other races had been similar to mine, intelligible to me. In reality, the loss they had experienced in their lives was the lived experience of being in a world that systematically tries to tell you that what is right is something that you are not.   

My classmate held up a prophetic mirror to me that has helped me to see my own blindness to the pieces of myself that are influenced by my privilege as a white person and my participation in the systems that hurt others.  Like Nathan the Prophet confronting King David, it has called me to account.  It has led me to consider the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates and look deeply into the mirror so that I can see and sit and struggle with the injustice that surrounds me in order to become less blind to the sin in me.  In the story of King David, the King went on to repent, and mourn for the consequences of his sin.  I believe that this process for me, like the rest of white America, will be a long one, but not one without hope.  It will be a parallel process of liberation.  As Lila Watson, an artist and leading activist for aboriginal rights in Australia, said, “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time… But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I have spent the last weeks thinking about, learning about and trying to understand what it means to embody solidarity, or unity of thought or action among people with a common goal.  I believe that solidarity begins in relationship, extends to caring, listening, and then helping in ways that the oppressed group feels are needed.  As I think back to the seminar at Princeton, I realize that solidarity is not sameness, as I once thought.  Solidarity is recognizing and valuing our differences and using our social location to work towards communal liberation.  Rather than believing one should gain nothing from acts of solidarity, I think that true solidarity benefits all.  I have chosen to share my own story, not because it is original, but because it is not.  I hope that others can see begin to recognize the prophets in their midst who hold up the mirrors to their own experiences. 

As a woman who is preparing for ministry in the church, and I believe that I cannot faithfully proclaim the word of God without addressing white supremacy culture in my own life, and in the communal life of the mainline church.  This means addressing and education congregants on the history of the church and the way that we have excluded people of color.  It also means examining the effects of history on our lives and being humble enough to listen to the Nathans all around it.  We have created a culture of comfort in the mainline church that often times obscures the mirrors God places in our midst to draw us closer to God’s self.  So go out into the world this summer; be uncomfortable, be challenged.  Find the prophets and listen to them, and if you don’t see anyone in your midst who looks or thinks differently than you, reach out to people who will help you bravely confront yourself.  Find out what solidarity means to you and in the process, let’s move the church together.

Bridget Wendell was the Spring 2017 Seminary Intern with the Office of Public Witness.  Bridget is attending Princeton Theological Seminary, and is pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree.  This semester she participated in Wesley Seminary's National Capital Semester for Seminarians program.  Through this program she had the opportunity to meet with advocates and politicians in DC and delve into advocacy work with the OPW.  She felt her call to ministry while participating in a summer long mission program in Pucallpa, Peru.  A desire to do long-term mission work led her to attend Princeton Theological Seminary.  Through participation in various programs, her seminary experience, and her work with the OPW, she is continuing to discern her specific call.  Integral in this process has been her work with local churches.  Throughout last year, she worked as a Youth Minister in a PCUSA church in Glenside, PA and spent the past summer working with a Methodist church in Wilmington, NC.