On white privilege, the image of God, Jesus, and me, in the context of 2020.
In February 2020, I was on my way to work, whipped around a right turn and gunned it for the on-ramp, which was about a quarter mile away. Suddenly I see this motorcycle cop right in front of me in my lane, waving at me. What? He gestures more emphatically and I pull over, wondering what was going on. He does not look happy.
“What happened?” I ask, when he comes to my window.
“You were going 41 in a 25 mph zone. There’s the sign.” He gestures behind me. I’d driven this route every morning but had no idea what the speed limit was, nor how fast I’d been going. I realize that 15 over counts as ‘reckless’ driving; high fines and more points. Crap.
“May I see your driver’s license?” he says, woodenly. I reach for my wallet and as I begin fishing through it I realize I am now in deeper trouble.
“Look, Officer- I have a problem. I just got back from traveling abroad and forgot to put my license back into my wallet this morning. What should I do?”
“I can look up your plates in the system. By the way, where were you traveling abroad?” More discussion ensues about my trip, about my work… it sort of turns from an adversarial encounter into a cordial conversation.
Then he straightens up, pauses, thinking. He looks over toward his motorcycle.
“You know what?” he says after a moment. “I love the work that you do. Let’s just say we never had this conversation. Have a great day, and slow down please!” And with a smile he walks back to his car, and I, feeling ever so relieved, gun my engine for the on-ramp. I was not even late for work.
I’ve thought about that interaction a lot since George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered. This was one of three times I can remember being let go with no consequences after being pulled over for a traffic violation. One time it was an expired registration. Another time I went through a red light. Sure there were other times--five that I can remember in four decades of driving--when I *did* get tickets that I fully deserved.
Was it white privilege that factored into my being let off three times in three different states? Of course, it could be that the character of those particular police officers was merciful. Perhaps they would have been kind to anyone. At other times, not involving traffic violations, kind police officers have helped me out of a jam. Perhaps I’m just lucky. I don’t know. There are too many variables to conclude that it was purely white privilege. But I believe it is almost certain that a black person pulled over in each of those circumstances would have had a very different experience. ESPECIALLY if their ID was not close at hand.
But the main point is this: at none of these times did I have a shadow of fear that these interactions with the police would result in injustice or harm to me. Each time I was pulled over, I had clearly violated the law- I was not pulled over for no reason, or even because I looked suspicious. When I drive or walk or run, or enter a store, or answer my door, or knock on someone else’s door, I don’t give a thought to whether I might look suspicious.
But it’s not only that I am regularly shown mercy, given the benefit of the doubt, and not viewed with suspicion. It is that I don’t have to live in fear; I don’t have to adjust my behavior to lower the risk of being thought a suspect. I don’t have to expend energy to avoid the indignity of being unjustly accused and detained, or worse, injured or killed because of assumptions made based on my appearance alone. I don’t have to train my children to behave in ways that will minimize this risk, or worry that one day I will get that horrifying phone call. The absence of this weight of fear and necessary adaptation gives me a kind of freedom that black and brown people in America don’t enjoy.
This is just one aspect of white privilege. This is not a new realization for me—indeed I have experienced it my whole life—but it deserves to be articulated at this moment. There are many other ways white privilege plays out in the workplace and elsewhere, and it is by no means merely an American thing—I lived abroad for more than six years of my life and experienced it *everywhere*. But those are essays for another day.
As a white person, who did not choose or earn that status, what do I do at a time like this? I do not want to join the cacophony of outrage, with little thought or cost to myself or accountability to follow through. There is so much to be outraged about; the current time is such fertile soil for hatred to grow. I ran out of words several years ago.
But I don’t want to be silent now.
What do I believe? All human beings carry the image of God, whether they believe in God or not. What does this look like? For starters, we recognize beauty, we think about the past and the future, we mark time, we create things, we make plans, we love passionately, we yearn for justice. Justice is intertwined with the heart and character of God. Every person from every race and tribe bears this image. Accordingly those from “every tribe and language and people and nation” are invited and welcome to God’s Kingdom, and indeed are what make it complete.
When particular races or tribes are dehumanized and devalued, not only are we denying the image of God in them, but we are smashing the image of God in ourselves; its shattered pieces reflecting back a grotesque, horrifying distortion. And we are defacing the Kingdom of God, robbing it of what makes it beautiful. This is just one reason why the death of George Floyd, and the deaths of so many others like him, make me so very sad. It is so much more than the loss of his life, or even the lives of the dozens of others we can name. It is a blow to the image of our Creator in our shared humanity.
It makes me long for Jesus.
Why? To quote Howard Thurman (mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.):
“Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group… Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires….His message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. ‘To revile because one has been reviled—this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.’ Jesus saw this with almighty clarity…” (Jesus and the Disinherited, 1949)
Jesus understood injustice; it made him angry. He died violently and unjustly. He also understood that injustice cannot be cured with hatred- but with something far deeper; identifying completely with the image of a just God that is imprinted in each of us; resolving to throw away every encumbrance that hinders it from shining brightly out of us. Thurman was of course writing for the ‘disinherited’—in particular, for African Americans, making the case that,
“Out of the deeps of the heart there swells a great and awful assurance that because the cause is just, it cannot fail…Wherever his [Jesus’] spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them…The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.”
I highly recommend Thurman’s book. But what does this have to do with white people? Jesus also said “for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required,” which echoes the earlier covenant with Abraham—to whom God said “…I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great” following it immediately with an emphatic statement “now go be a blessing”.
I carry a privilege I was born into, and have been given much. Certainly my call is to steward that wisely, generously, and humbly, being quick to hear and slow to speak. Maybe some of you do that really well. But honestly, I know I can’t really do that at all unless my own heart is transformed. It is not only the economically/racially/socially disinherited who need the good news Thurman refers to. *I* need it. This good news is for all of us.
I can resist it—in a sense smearing spiritual sunscreen on myself so that Jesus’ radical words can’t penetrate my soul and change me. I can let myself be immunized with a fake Jesus—so that the real Jesus can’t infect me. I can say all the right slogans and yet be, in Jesus' words, like a whitewashed tomb, full of decay. I can harden myself to his gracious offer of forgiveness of my sins.
Or I can accept that offer of forgiveness, and invite its transforming, reconciling power; to infuse all I do, all the money I spend, all the words I say. I expect it will be a growth process, like a branch of a vine serving as a channel for all that is needed to eventually produce good fruit. The Gardener will prune away anything that would undermine the goal of producing that good fruit in time.
Be a blessing! Use your privilege for good.
God help me; God help my country.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8
[References: Genesis 1:26-27; Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 21:15; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:9-11; John 2:13-22; Matthew 23; Hebrews 12:1-3; Luke 23:47; Romans 10:12-13; Revelation 5:9; Luke 12:48, Genesis 12:2, Matthew 23:27, Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Colossians 4:6; James 3; John 15:1-9]
Nancy Sung, June 2020