Coming Out Against White Allies

Coming Out Against White Allies
June 21, 2020 – David R. Weiss

I’ve invested a lot in being an Ally. I’m done.

We don’t need more or better Allies in the pursuit of racial justice. In fact, the very notion of “Ally,” while perhaps well intended, is ultimately misguided and, worse, constitutively incapable of framing the work that must be done.

I’ll credit Catherine Pugh’s recent essay, “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally’” [1] as the catalyst that brought together a whole set of inklings long simmering inside me. Here’s a brief review of her argument. An Ally is a person who helps someone else meet a challenge or solve a problem specific to that other person. Thus, to be a white Ally is to assist Black persons with “their” problem: racism/white supremacy. BUT, she asserts, racism isn’t “their” problem; it’s white people’s problem. Yes, racism/white supremacy does cause problems for black people: it regularly kills them and limits their flourishing in a host of nefarious ways. But to frame our (white) response to it in Ally language sets this problem of racism/white supremacy somehow at a distance from us—so that being an “Ally” seems like optional, however praiseworthy, activity. And this is to seriously misdiagnose the problem itself as “out there.”

So long as we see racism/white supremacy as a problem “out there” (created and maintained by others) we miss our ownership of it as white people. Moreover, as long as we insist on being “Allies,” we implicitly demand that Black people assist us in our self-deception about where the locus of the problem lies. And Catherine Pugh is done with that. So am I.

Racism/white supremacy is OUR problem. It only accidentally involves blackness (Black people are the target, but not the cause). It absolutely involves whiteness (even if it was constructed long before our birth, it was made by white people for white people). So long as racism/white supremacy endures, it poses a damning, sometimes life-and-death challenge for Black people. It limits their flourishing. But its enduring presence stands in a qualitatively different relationship to white people: it contradicts our humanity. It fundamentally morally condemns our very existence as white people. While the prospects, fortunes, and lives of Black people are clearly at stake here, the soul of white people is entirely at stake as well.

As King (and others before him) put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Here’s the particular edge that Catherine Pugh’s essay adds (I’m reading this into it, but I think she’d agree): white people must either own racism/white supremacy as our mess to clean up—and do so with existential urgency … or we forfeit our moral right to exist. As the arc bends, we (white people) either DRIVE the bending with all our might, or—for the love of God—the moral universe has no place for white people. Yikes.

Pugh’s essay, on the heels of George Floyd’s murder and the multifaceted uprising it sparked, pressed me to recover and join together a set of convictions I’ve held for a long time. And dispensing with the word “Ally” is central to putting this insight into practice.

The phrase “Kingdom of God” sits at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and message. We read “kingdom” as a noun and so think of it as a place, maybe the land where God rules. But, as I learned in seminary, Norman Perrin, drawing both on the Aramaic words behind the Greek text and the richness of Hebrew Scripture, clarifies, “The Kingdom of God is the power of God expressed in deeds; it is that which God does wherein it becomes evident that he is king [emphasis added]. It is not a place or community ruled by God; it is not even the abstract idea of reign or kingship of God. It is quite concretely the activity of God as king [emphasis added].”[2] This isn’t just word trivia. The way Christians hear that phrase shapes—or misshapes—the way we understand the gospel and Christian discipleship.

Now add in José Miranda’s evocative reading of God’s self-revelation to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3), also encountered in seminary. He notes that YHWH, the Hebrew “name” God offers to Moses, can be rendered as either present tense (“I am who I am”) or future tense (“I will be who I will be”). It’s the same word; the tense is determined by context. Miranda argues, based on the string of future commitments God makes to Moses as part of this self-declaration (“I will bring you out … I will deliver you … I will redeem you … I will take you … I will be … I will bring you into … I will give it to you … ” Exodus 6:6-8) that it only makes sense to render YHWH also as future tense. And he suggests very provocatively that in this scene God makes their own ‘godness’ contingent upon God’s ability to deliver liberation.[3]

For the first 22+ years of my life I was given a “domesticated” sense of Christianity. One that seemed certain (maybe even intended) to prevent me from unleashing any of its real strength. But if the God to whom the Bible bears witness defines their divinity, hinges their being itself, on the fulfillment of a pledge to liberate the oppressed, this means that God is irrevocably committed to challenging every condition of existence that oppresses anyone—including racism/white supremacy.

And if Jesus’ message and ministry centers on “the Kingdom of God”—the liberating deeds by which God is king—then he was interested foremost in fostering liberation for the oppressed in this life. And in fashioning a community to do those deeds … with the urgency of those who somehow “get” that God’s very being depends on their determination to conspire in freeing everyone. This is a God who is far less concerned with “law and order,” and far more ready to “burn shit down” (think the Exodus plagues or the Temple cleansing). Who knew?

Finally, 25 years ago in graduate school I read Sharon Welch who confirmed and deepened my growing conviction. “Within liberation theology and within a feminist theology of liberation, authentic Christianity is identified as that which liberates. … The truth of liberation faith is rooted not so much in its correspondence with themes and practices of the church in the past, but in its power to liberate people in the present.”[4] For Welch, liberation theology and faith begin the search for truth, not with what Scripture or tradition declare but with the lived experience of those who are suffering. Like Miranda’s provocative reading of God’s name, Welch argues that Christianity, as a lived response to that liberating God, realizes itself only—as it provides liberation. In any other expression it is merely window dressing for the status quo, or, like Trump’s recent photo-op with a Bible outside St. John’s Church, it is the very betrayal of that God.

So I’m done being an Ally. Words matter: they shape and channel the energy that enters life through humanity. To call myself Ally hobbles the energy necessary to make justice happen. It undercuts the existential urgency in front of us. Racism/white supremacy is a gaping breach in the moral universe. A breach opened by white people, maintained by white people, and benefiting white people—while causing ongoing harm to Black people, indigenous people, other persons of color, most other persons marked by “difference” of any sort, and most other life forms. Of course, Black people are organizing against this. Their lives are at stake in this breach. And their power is rising. But we (who are white) own racism/white supremacy. And the “royalties” of that legacy are paid out to us whether we’ve asked for them or not. So there’s nothing “helpful” about “assisting” others in doing work—on our own house.

Photo by Hjalte Gregersen on Unsplash

I’m not saying white people should lay claim to leading all this work. Black people are and continue to be the architects of their own liberation. We (who are white) need to be listening to their voices because only through them can we fathom the underside of racism/white supremacy that has been (mostly) hidden from our view. There is plenty of work to go around. Our particular work involves several things. Self-education: recognizing that “Black history” is OUR (white) history—told from the underside. Calling out our own: we must engage our fellow whites in challenging racism; graciously when possible, bluntly when necessary. Making our voices—and votes—loud in the political arena. And standing with our Black siblings as they rise up.

Henceforth, I commit to seeing myself—to acting—as a Co-Conspirator in the work to end racism/white supremacy. A Co-Conspirator alongside many others, but not an Ally, because this is fundamentally my work to do.

Theologically, to frame our work for racial justice as being an “Ally,” doesn’t simply fall short: it completely misses the mark. We work for racial justice because in a moral universe only this work justifies our being here at all. We work for racial justice because only so do we bring the church into being. We work for racial justice because only when we conspire in this work do we meet the God who meets Moses in the burning bush and cries, “I can’t breathe.” The truth of God’s name is that holiness only IS in so far as liberation occurs. We either conspire (breathe together) with God in liberating deeds … or we have our knee on God’s neck. It’s that simple.

*     *     *

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

[1] From June 15, 2020: www.blog.usejournal.com/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-white-ally-469bb82799f2

[2] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1967), 55.

[3] José Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974), 293-297.

[4] Sharon D. Welch, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), 52-54.

4 thoughts on “Coming Out Against White Allies

  1. Love this post. I never knew that definition of kingdom but it certainly resonates with me now. Thank you. I also appreciate you explaining the error in thinking we are allies. God bless you and our nation!

    • Thank you, Diane! I sometimes use the phrase the “kin-dom of God” as well, because it captures from another angle the “activity of God reigning as king”: which is making all of us kin. In both cases, I think it’s helpful to remember that when Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom, in Aramaic his meaning was “the activity of God reigning as king looks like this …”
      And, of course, there will be others who would argue with my position on being Allies. I use my blog as a place to “think theology out loud,” and my hope is that even when persons disagree, that my presentation presses them to think their own position through more clearly.
      Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: Good Christian Racist | Full Frontal Faith

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