The Comfort of Whiteness and the Self Surrender of Gospel: What is Required of the White Church

It’s been unseasonably warm in Oxfordshire during this past week that I’ve been here. As I write this, I’m sitting on a ledge near the steps of the famous Bodleian libraries, enjoying access to student-exclusive wireless and basking in the very nice weather. It’s about 60 degrees, which is positively balmy to my South Dakotan trained blood.

I’ve met several of the people in my college, which is different from my program, which is different from my department. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to experience a veritable flurry of names and faces, and I’ll be lucky if I remember half of them.

For those of you who don’t know how the university system works, I’ll explain. Oxford University is a large, somewhat nebulous institution composed of nearly 40 colleges and halls. As an undergraduate, you apply to and are hopefully accepted at a specific college within the university. As a graduate, you apply for the program with your department, and are assigned a college once you are admitted to your program. It means that things are a little bit out of your hands when it come to your college community and where you’ll live, but many colleges make a great effort to make their post graduates feel welcome.

My college is St. Anne’s, one of the newer colleges at the university. At a meet and greet last night at a pub, many of realized that the international students at St. Anne’s seem to outnumber the native Brits. For me, this feels right at home. We have students from America, students from Singapore, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, India, France, Romania and Italy. Meet and greets become a whirlwind of names and accents and questions about how a person got to the UK and chose Oxford as a graduate program. My sampling was quite narrow, but of the students I know here, I am one of the few humanities students, making every time a fellow student identified as a humanities MSt or MFA a delightful moment of “THANK GOD I UNDERSTAND WHAT THAT MEANS.” There’s a consistent, deep tension of wanting to branch out and speak to people in unfamiliar disciplines and a desire to narrow the conversation to those things we know and are familiar with. Meeting a Film Aesthetics student last night was a dangerous moment for me, because it meant I instantly wanted to talk over anything and everything related to film with him, to the detriment of any other conversations I could have had.

Now, follow me here as I make a leap that might not be as obvious to many of you: I think this is how churches tend to behave, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also not really a good thing.

Humans, in a general sense, tend to gravitate toward the familiar, toward those things and people that are comforting to us. And much of the time, we are desperately trying not to be seen as an outsider, as someone who fits in. Part of coming back to Oxford, for me, was the familiarity of the city, despite its foreign location. People here speak a form of English I can understand. I know my way around. It’s not hard to get questions answered when I need them answered. And I can feel fairly confident that when I order a soya latte in the coffee shop, I’m going to get a soya latte.

But, at the same time, I wonder if I gravitated toward Oxford as a university choice because of its whiteness. The city, while more diverse than numerous others I’ve lived in, is still largely White Upper Middle Class British. And I wonder if the construction of whiteness – this particularly “refined” to my American ear whiteness – is largely to blame for my love of this city.

And as I’m doing all this introspection, I cannot help but feel the need to urge pastors and congregants of churches to engage in this same self-interrogation. Particularly in America, where the Christian church is deeply divided between black and white Protestant churches, there is much lip service given to the need for racial reconciliation, but the effort required on the part of people who believe themselves to be white is far more of a burden than many of us are willing to take.

Our whiteness is comforting. Our whiteness and privilege are areas we feel we may rely on, easily exploiting the sameness of our skin for the automatic familiarity and comfort of similar experiences. Pastors, in particular, fail to examine their whiteness from the inside, instead blaming the lack of people of color in their congregations on neighborhood demographics, failure of the nebulous sin of racism, and lack of willingness to reconcile on the part of black people. It is far easier, as a church, as pastors, as theologians, to look outward for our failures than to realize that our own levels of comfort and privilege exert far greater control than we are willing to admit.

Simultaneously, our privilege of whiteness and desire to fight back against that comfort leads us to act out of privilege in acquiring “friends” and “voices” of people of color who become our tokens, the ready chess move in the larger debate about racism. I’m not racist – I’m deeply involved in anti-racist movements and I’m followed by Ta-Nehisi Coates on Twitter. But the fact of the matter is that I let loose a surprised look when I realized that the Japanese person I was talking to was actually from New Zealand and not just very good at English.

I admit that private shame to remind both my audience and myself that the anti-racist work on the part of white people is a continued rejection of our comfort of privilege and a continued reevaluation of our interpersonal relationships and our new fiends.

It is, in other words, a lot of work. And the fact of the matter remains that numerous white pastors and numerous white suburban parents and numerous white churchgoers are unwilling to commit to such revolutionary thought, despite it being precisely the Biblical example we are called to follow. It requires a level of humility, a daily giving up of the Self in order to understand that Other which exists outside of what we are. And all too few of us are willing to take the risk this kind of abnegation requires.

But, the hope of the Gospel continues and thrives in this, that we can commit anew, each day, to this surrender of the self, to this revolutionary negation of that oppresses. We can move toward, step by step, that which liberates. And that is a beautiful hope indeed.