Being Anti-Racist AS an Act of Faith
July 25, 2020 – David R. Weiss
NOTE: Minor apologies in advance. This is a dense essay that’s more like an extended note to myself connecting some insights from the class I’m presently taking on Dismantling Whiteness. Really too much to pack into a 1500-word essay, but that’s all I’ve got time for right now. Feel free to listen in …
I was struck by R.A. Masters’ essay on Spiritual Bypassing (and by Layla Saad’s reflections, Part 1 and Part 2, which are variations on the same theme). Briefly stated, spiritual bypassing is the use of religious belief, ritual, practice as a way to avoid engaging in the messy painful work of remaking the world. It’s most easily identifiable when people rooted in Western culture adopt an Eastern religious-meditation practice in pursuit of an inner calm that becomes a socially acceptable (or even an enviable) posture of disengagement—bypassing the tumult that cries out in the world around us.
Partly I was struck by this notion because it’s so foreign to the way I experience my own religion. But upon reflection it’s clear that bypassing is endemic to the Christian faith as well—despite the relative absence of a contemplative tradition in the most common public practices of the church.
In Christianity spiritual bypassing has at least three primary expressions. (1) The conviction that our “goal” is primarily otherworldly—focused on getting to heaven as opposed to transforming this world in this life. (2) The related belief that even in this life Christianity is personal and private—about our individual choices, not the shape of our outward communities. (3) In its most toxic form (which finds extreme expression in the KKK, but is no less damaging when espoused in “softer” versions by mainline/evangelical churches), Christianity is weaponized to actively other (to condemn, dehumanize, or outright demonize) the very voices crying out for justice. In each case, believers are affirmed for bypassing the urgency of this moment. Their religion—which is wholly at odds with the heart of the biblical witness—serves to impede the activity of God in this world.
As I said, I have a very different understanding of Christian faith. Call it the “Magnificat manifestation of Christianity”—the one where the mighty are tossed down and the hungry are filled. That one doesn’t get as much press, but I’m convinced it’s the one Jesus actually taught and practiced. It does offer calm and comfort, but precisely for those who choose to become entangled in transforming unjust relations and systems into communities where flourishing is found.
Then, among the many insights in David Dean’s essay on “Roots Deeper than Whiteness,” this sentence caught my attention “Plantation elites manipulate[ed] the identity of the European populations … giving them membership within an exalted racial group to change the way they found meaning and sought freedom in their lives” [emphasis mine]. It struck me because James Fowler, whose seminal work on Faith Development I studied in college and later in graduate school, defines faith as the meaning-making activity that is the defining feature of humanity. And Dean’s essay is suggesting here that whiteness functions like faith in our lives—becoming a matrix through which we make meaning.
Fowler sees religions (distinct from faith itself) as time-tested repositories of meaning-making notions, rituals, beliefs, and practices. But for Fowler, meaning-making is such a primal hunger in the human psyche that we will make meaning with or without religious language and imagery. For instance, Marxist philosophy and consumer capitalism can also provide frameworks for meaning-meaning, as can any tradition that sets forth assumptions, perspectives, postures, symbols, and ultimately deeds that promise to render life meaningful. Including whiteness.
Moreover, Fowler borrows Tillich’s notion of faith as “ultimate concern,” and H.R. Niebuhr’s sense of faith as that which can reliably anchor and integrate human personality and activity, such that the goal of faith is to confer agency insofar as possible in an uncertain world. It is to position us within a world and a community of shared faith-symbolism where we act in dialogue with others and our life circumstances to fashion a future: to be free.
And Dean’s essay suggests that whiteness is form of faith—a way of leaning into life so as to live with meaning and purpose. Except—whiteness is a lie. A form of false faith. It unites us in a rush of oppositional energy, but because it is a mirage—a vacuum defined by “not-ness,” by othering those who are not white—the rush it offers is like a pyramid scheme. You can only sustain it if you can multiply the deception for one more generation, and then one more, and then one more. But no pyramid scheme is sustainable—and neither is whiteness.
In fact, as Baldwin argued, whiteness is nonexistent. It’s a construction that surely impacts life (and destructively so), but one that cannot ultimately bear the weight of meaning-making without harnessing racial violence along the way. In other words, you cannot ride whiteness to freedom. It’s designed only to get you as far as oppression, while trying to convince you that what you’re feeling is freedom. In reality, it’s nothing more than the psychological wages of whiteness (W.E.B. Du Bois), the payoff from the wealthy and powerful that reassures you, that, despite the relative precarity of your position in life, at least you’re not black. This is faith as meaning-making fraud—deadly to others and morally bankrupting to self, capable only of creating zombies: living dead who prey on others
The promise in Dean’s essay, especially for those of us raced as white—raised in the original sin that turned us faithfully(!) against others before we knew what we were doing—is that we have roots deeper than whiteness: we are capable of making meaning in ways that do not require the denigration of others OR the erasure of our original humanity.
One facet of this is historical-genealogical: choosing to uncover-recover-discover our roots going back to when we were a more particular people than white. This will involve some work, but it’s less about tracing our specific ancestry person-by-person than about re-establishing a useable bridge to the culture and the story of our people—to regain access to the particular ways they moved through life. Reclaiming our pre-white ethnicity matters because we exist communally (I am because you are) and this is true across time. In doing so we connect to a history and a people family that can anchor us in the hard work for racial justice and human authenticity. We are not limited to the ways of our past, but when that past is denied or lost to us we have fewer resources as we face finitude, mark natural and social seasons, celebrate joys, and seek transcendence. And to be clear, whiteness is NEVER a resource in this work; it is always a toxic liability.
Besides this, we ought to recognize that we can (only) choose to be anti-racist … as an act of faith. Anti-racist work may or may not be expressly religious, but it is intrinsically faith work: it seeks to make meaning, exercise agency, cultivate our humanity, and experience authentic freedom. Still, because religious traditions intend to foster faith, if we are religious, our religiosity will either support or hobble our anti-racism. Because both are invested in meaning-making, the relationship between the two will not be a matter of indifference. Recognizing this compels us to critically examine the details (that place where the devil hides!) of any religious tradition we embrace. Whether that’s a tradition of our pre-white roots, or one inherited and entangled in whiteness, or one we choose because it resonates with us here and now—virtually every religious tradition has a Magnificat manifestation. That’s the thread we need to foster a fully spiritual anti-racist faith.
And for those of us who are religious, finding that thread makes all the difference.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
 These claims could each fill their own essay. I’ll just restate them clearly here. (1) Biblical faith, from Abraham through the Exodus and the prophets—and from Jesus through Paul–clearly hopes to transform life this side of death. Any claims about a next life are meant to spill backward into this one. (2) Biblical faith is fundamentally communal. Peoples, communities, are chosen and saved (which is to say, salved … healed … made whole. Yes, we make individual choices, but from creation to apocalypse, we draw our life out of relations with others and our choices tie us back into those relations or tear them asunder. (3) And biblical faith is rooted in humanity’s imperfect but passionate response to the God whose very life is the doing of justice.
 As we plumb the depths of our past we might learn for ourselves the truth spoken by the Dakota scholar Ella Deloria: “I am not afraid; I have relatives.” Quoted by Nick Estes in “The Four Invasions,” Interview in The Sun, May 2020, pp. 4-13.
 Of course, it’s not just a simple binary of good/bad. Religious traditions are messy. Even as the Judeo-Christian tradition has a strong, piercing liberationist arc, the “conquest” of Canaan—at least as recorded in the Bible—is a story of genocidal settler colonialism. Actually, a few scholars (such as George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald) have argued that behind the biblical tale of “conquest” lies an historical event whereby other oppressed groups already living in Canaan were inspired by a band of escaped slaves and, throwing their lot in with them, this alliance of outcasts successfully threw off their oppressors. But the biblical story as recorded has shaped many “Christian” colonialist movements from Europe and in the Americas—to say nothing of its role in shaping Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians.)