I went over to the coffee shop downtown today and bumped into my neighbor Rob. We got chatting about the season and--knowing that I am prone to do this sort of thing--he asked me what I am "giving up" or taking on for Advent. I told him I was struggling against my own racism.
It is true, but I hate to say it. It sounds like just the thing a caricature of a liberal Christian minister would say. It sounds holier than thou. Perhaps it even appears a bit more pointed. "Look at me! I am doing minister-purification stuff! What are you up to? Just having coffee?" It is easy to tune out things like that.
However, I don't feel that pure. I am a Calvinist (albeit a liberal--Universalist--one) and my racism--like many of my faults--stands out to me as a power to be fought. I first truly clued in to being a racist while I was in high school and working for the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. It turned out that over the years of my upbringing, my whiteness (or, really, pinkness) in a white community had instilled certain assumptions within me, certain feelings, certain fears that required (and still require) my attention. I am a racist. This is how I see it.
Now, neither you nor I are likely the kind of racist that immediately springs to mind. We get angry at those racists and we should. We may even feel a certain superiority. That, my friends, is the problem. Charles Blow in today's New York Times writes, "racist is the word that we must use. Racism doesn't require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise." Liberals have biases, too. We need to remember to be vigilant.
I could say that I am a "person with racism" and label it like the disease it is. However, I worry that it will let me off the hook. "Don't worry about Adam. He has racism. He can't help it."
OK so...why is this struggle my Advent discipline? This year, it is hard to figure out how it wouldn't be. For work I think about Advent. I also pay attention to what is going on in the country. My days swing between these foci. Fruitcake...then Ferguson. Planning worship...then Michael Brown. Practice the Nutcracker on the ukulele...then Eric Garner, who was 43, exactly my age. How could I not be thinking about race in this country? How could I not wonder about those assumptions once again. How could I not wonder how my daily existence differs from Eric's? How could I not want to do something about it? I believe racism is a disease that can--ultimately--be cured. You need to work at it, though. Everyone has caught the bug and there is no pill.
A couple years ago I was stopped by the police while walking through my neighborhood. Someone thought I looked suspicious. When closer inspection revealed my harmlessness the police wrapped up pretty darn quick. Back then I wondered what would have been different had I been someone other than Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot, pastor of that church down the street. I kinda knew, frankly, but right now the illustration is stark.
Is there hope in all this? Yes. I think there is. Many of my colleagues are reporting disagreements with people over various aspects of these cases. I am not surprised. Folks are at war with each other because they are at war within themselves. People are struggling with their own deeply embedded notions of their own goodness. I have received push back, too. However, I have also been amazed by the outpouring of anger concerning these verdicts and concerning the underlying institutions that make them possible. I am glad folks are waking up. After centuries of generally ignoring the unequal response of our society toward people of color--the historical record is embarrassingly clear--we are fighting back against our own dogmatic slumbers. It is painful but it has to be done.
The trouble seems to arrive when we have to examine ourselves. Not everything is holly and ivy and mistletoe after all. The world is still ugly even when we look away.
Again, why deal with race during Advent? That is easy. The Advent story is about oppression. It is about displacement. Christmas may be a party but Advent is not. Right now is the best time to take a look at that story in the Bible and to live our way way into it. The Hope of Advent isn't a hope to maintain things as they are. The Peace of Advent isn't about hushed silences, carols and hot chocolate but about equal justice. This isn't a time to ignore the violence we do but to face it. It is also time to acknowledge our own complicity and to act in the midst of our flaws.
One. More. Time. This is the moment for white people--even or especially the purportedly liberal ones--to acknowledge our complicity. It is time for the white church--perhaps particularly the suburban one--to acknowledge its (our) complicity as well.
This is the season of preparation for nothing less than the birth of God. Perhaps we will never be pure as individuals or as a society. However, we cannot afford to throw our hands up in despair. This holiday season it is time to fight the racism we see in our institutions and in ourselves. Let us talk. Let us march. Let us act in ways large and small before the moment is lost.
Here is the article that I quote from Charles Blow.