Four Faces of Conversion
An increasing chorus of people question the use of native American names and images as mascots for sports teams. Controversy surrounds teams with native mascots: Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, and especially that team in Washington DC.
Recently a backlash erupted on the twitter-verse in response to a protest by Bomani Jones about the Cleveland Indians. The Cleveland team uses a racial caricature called “Chief Wahoo.” Bomani wore a shirt printed in the style of the Cleveland team; but instead of “Indians” it read “Caucasians” and had a caricature of a white person.
The host interviewing Bomani asked him about his shirt. Bomani wore it to call attention to the injustice of native mascots. As he said, “If you’re quiet about the Indians and now you’ve got something to say about my shirt, I think it’s time for introspection.”
But the call to introspection went over the heads of Cleveland fans. White people sent tweets to ESPN that called Bomani a racist for wearing a shirt with a white caricature. Tweets accused Bomani of “playing the race card” and accused him of being racist.
When ESPN came back from commercial break, one could see Bomani’s sweatshirt zipped up to mostly conceal the shirt. ESPN producers explained later, “we felt Bomani had made his point and had openly discussed why he was wearing the shirt, and we wanted to keep the focus to the topics of the day."
ESPN wanted to look away from the controversy of Bomani’s shirt. But here at Plymouth we want it to be the topic of the day. After worship I hope you will join in the important and essential conversation we will have about white fragility, white privilege, and racial equity led by Jane Audette, Curt Anderson, and Sally Witte.
The white backlash to Bomani’s shirt, and the discomfort of ESPN producers, seems to me a perfect illustration of white fragility. Author Robin DiAngelo coined the term to describe a series of reactions white people have when confronted with racism or the harm racial inequity causes. As she writes, “White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
DiAngelo once gave a clear example of white fragility. It happened while she led a workplace anti-racism training. A young white woman received feedback on how one of her comments during the discussion affected several people of color in the room. The young white woman left the discussion and went back to her desk. Colleagues checked on her, reporting the white woman was so upset she seemed to be having a heart attack. The colleagues truly thought the young white woman might die because of feedback in a diversity program. As DiAngelo explained, “Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.”
The defensiveness of whites to conversations about race and privilege works to reinforce an injustice racial status quo. A young white woman was so overcome by feedback that she had to leave the discussion and take all of the focus with her. In a similar way, Bomani’s attempt to raise the question of Indian mascots got buried underneath an avalanche of white anger, as if he was the cause of racism as opposed to the messenger calling attention to it.
As we move more and more into conversations about racial equity and face white fragility and name white privilege, I want to seek guidance from scripture, to see how conversion in the New Testament can frame our conversion today. We can learn from John, Peter, Paul, and Ananias as we try to navigate racial questions in Milwaukee and America today.
John and Peter went fishing after all the tumultuous events of Holy Week and Easter. Even though they both saw the empty tomb, they returned to their normal work - fishing. The fishing didn’t go well. At dawn the frustrated disciples saw a man standing on the shore who told them to try fishing on the other side of the boat. It was a ridiculous suggestion and yet it worked; the disciples hauled in a considerable amount of fish. The amazing catch caused John to exclaim, “It is the Lord.”
All the disciples experienced it but John was the first to perceive what was going on. “It is the Lord.” John demonstrated perception as a kind of spiritual gift: he saw and named what everyone else experienced. All the disciples knew there was a man on the shore; but John perceived him. When it comes to race and racism, do you have knowledge or perception?
We live in a country with a troubled and extensive history of racism; and in a community where racism still shapes where we live and work. And yet it can be hard for us to perceive. In the last few years people increasingly talked about race and racism. For some it began with the killing of Trayvon Martin. For others with the killing of Dontre Hamilton. For others with the killing of Michael Brown. Many began to perceive issues of race in new ways after those incidents.
I wish I could say I was one of them. I had knowledge of these incidents, but I didn’t fully perceive them until the killing of Tamir Rice. Rice, a twelve-year old boy, played with a toy gun in a park. Someone called the police; a video captured the squad car arriving, officers jumping out, and shooting Rice in a matter of seconds. After watching that video, I perceived something different. Perception differs from knowledge. One knows facts. But perception means seeing with the heart. When I watched the video of Tamir Rice, my heart saw my own children.
What moves you from knowledge of race and racism to perceiving it in the depths of your hearts?
We need the spiritual gift of perception; to perceive accurately who we are and what’s going on around us, to perceive our embeddedness in a racialized culture and the privileges whites receive from this brokenness. Who will be like the disciple John, naming what we all experience?
John’s perception led to Peter’s action. Peter heard Jesus was on the shore and he jumped out of the boat. Now close listeners may have noticed a puzzling detail. Peter fished naked. As the Gospel reported, “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.”
I’m probably reading this with too much of my gay interpretive glasses on, but think about this. John and Peter go fishing at night. Don’t catch a thing. But when John said, “There’s my beloved Jesus,” then a naked Peter jumped into the water. It sounds gay. Brokeback Mountain Fishing Trip Gay.
But recently a Biblical scholar straightened me out on this text. He pointed back to Adam, who was naked in the garden. Eve and Adam lived happily naked until they ate of the forbidden fruit. Suddenly they felt ashamed of their nakedness, covered their privates, and hid from God.
The scholar suggested the Gospel described Peter as naked in order to show the very different way he acted. Instead of feeling shame, Peter faced God. Instead of hiding, he swam ahead to shore. Vulnerable in his nakedness, but committed to action.
Discussing race and racism can make us feel vulnerable. But how will we respond - like fragile Adam, trying to hid behind some fig leaf, defensive, or like Peter, moving ahead, committed?
Two months ago I attended a MICAH training on racial equity. The training brought together religious leaders from throughout our community. During one presentation, a white pastor and an African-American pastor each presented on their experiences of privilege and racism growing up. The white pastor shared several times when he clearly benefited from our racist status quo. While telling his story he had a sort of laugh in his voice.
The conversation did not go well. A woman of color in the room confronted him. His underlying chuckle made it seem to her as if he was pleased with the stories he told; as if he thought it were all a joke; as if he didn’t take seriously the painful stories he told.
The critique laid him bare. It was as if he stood before us naked.
The presenter could have reached for a fig leaf. Could have reacted out of his own fragility. Could have explained the half-laughter in his voice as an expression of deep discomfort (for some people do laugh when embarrassed). But instead he took the feedback, heard how his actions caused pain, and committed himself to learning.
Talking honestly about race and racism can lay us bare. But can we act like Peter, not hiding our shame but rushing ahead, committed?
Paul was laid bare too. The Book of Acts introduced Paul - who was called Saul at this point in the story - as part of the elite religious establishment, someone who worked to maintain the status quo, someone privileged. When the higher ups decided to stone Stephen, one of the early followers of Jesus, Paul stood by watching over the coats. He didn’t throw the stones but he stood by in support. Afterwards, Paul searched the City of Jerusalem for other followers of Jesus. I’m sure he told himself, “I’m not prejudiced; it’s just a matter of law and order.” Law and order. The rally cry so often used to justify injustice.
Paul rode off to Damascus on his law and order campaign; as the Bible said, “he went still breathing threats and murder.” Just pause over that description: “still breathing threats and murder.” It might be the best description of prejudice in the Bible. For on the one hand it captures the seething violence of bigotry. But it also makes it so mundane, something so familiar and integral to Paul as breathing. When did he learn his prejudice? When did he learn to breathe? White people often focus on the seething anger of the neo-Nazi, but we forget that we’re so immersed in a racist culture that it’s as familiar as breathing. White people can see the racism in the person waving the confederate flag, but we forget that the language about good schools and safe neighborhoods is just code for all white.
But God intervened. “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’”
To call this moment a conversion may not be a big enough word for what happened in Paul’s life. He so completely changed his life that it was as if he learned a new way to breathe.
Paul’s conversion reminds us what’s at stake when we talk about race and racism. We need to do more than topple a few confederate statues, need to do more than make some token changes. No, we need to learn new ways of being, rooting out internalized patterns of racism which are as deeply ingrained as breathing. Are we, like Paul, ready for radical change?
It took Ananias for Paul to learn a new way of living. Of course at first Ananias was fearful as Paul had been sent with arrest warrants. Yet he took a risk to reach out to Paul. The act of courage and friendship healed Paul. “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” Something like scales - something like the broken lens of intolerance, the broken spectacles of privilege.
The Holy Spirit filled Paul. The Spirit of God, the breath of God, the rush of wind, till he breathed no more with threats and murder. Who can be that risk-taking Ananias who helps people learn new ways to live?
As we move more fully into conversations about racial equity, we need different models of how to engage this conversation than the old, tired model of white fragility. We can find our models in John, Peter, Paul, and Ananias. Their stories chart out four important steps on our journey: perception, commitment, radical change, and risk-taking friendship.
May God lead us on this journey. Alleluia and Amen.