Some years ago, I watched a movie titled “White Man’s Burden.” It received poor reviews and, perhaps, it wasn’t all that well done, but it had a terrific cast including Margaret Avery, Harry Belafonte, Kelly Lynch, and John Travolta.
I suspect a major reason it was overlooked and so quickly forgotten is because the plot was simply too unsettling for us white folks. The movie posits an alternative United States in which African Americans are the dominant group and whites are on the bottom of the social and economic ladder. As I watched the film, despite having participated in and even having led anti-racism events and workshops, I was viscerally struck by the way the powerlessness of my people — white people — was portrayed. Along with many, many other experiences, that motion picture helped awaken by conscience.
Last week I participated in the Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC) in Charleston, South Carolina. The CNBC is comprised of eight historically black denominations, six of which belong to the National Council of Churches.
This year’s conference theme was “From Anger to Answers: Race and Reconciliation in America—Part II.” A number of white church leaders were invited to be present and, together with the CNBC we issued a final statement (to be published soon by CNBC).
Rev. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and one of the white church leaders present spoke to the conference and said the reason white people don’t speak against white supremacy because they don’t have to. He said, “The voice of the privileged will always appear muted before the distributor of justice.”
Dr. Freddie Haynes said it this way: “Privilege blinds us to reality.”
Dr. Cámara Phyllis Jones of the Morehouse School of Medicine urged white people to use their privilege to be in solidarity with people of color and offered the example of the young white man who filmed an incident of police brutality against an African-American because, he later said, “I was invisible” to the police.
Bishop Darin Moore, vice-chair of the NCC, preached on the first evening of the conference at Mother Emanuel AME Church. He reminded us that African Americans have been subjected to perpetual terrorism since coming to the shores of this nation in 1619.
Bishop Moore recounted recent incidents of violence against African Americans including the murders that took place right below where we sat and asked how we can sing Christmas carols when our children are hashtags. He expressed his commitment to the ecumenical movement but noted there comes a point when we need to stop talking and get to work. He noted that when a majority of white Christians believe police shootings of African Americans are isolated incidents, it reveals the whole ecumenical body is not experiencing the same pain.
He then reflected powerfully on the Book of Habakkuk. He noted that the people of Judah, under King Jehoiakim, had become complacent and now the Chaldeans—rich, corrupt folks— were on their way to shake things up. Perhaps, the bishop asked, we’ve become comfortable and have lost our prophetic edge?
But, he said he was not giving up. Instead, he is gearing up.
Speaking as a middle-aged man, from long experience I have concluded that if every single day that I am not working hard to make the relationships in my life better—with family, friends, and strangers—I am falling short of my calling as a Christian. And, speaking as a middle-aged white man, if I’m not trying every single day to connect with people of color and to confront the systemic racism that suffuses our society, I am falling short of my responsibility. It’s as simple as that. My reality is not normative. It is relative.
May you use this Christmas season to reflect, to gird yourself, and prepare for the coming of the Chaldeans.