Disillusion to Surrender

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Juliette Read who attend a Facing Ourselves retreat in 2018.

by Juliette Read

I am mid-thirties wife and mama from rural Far Northern California. About five years ago, I felt the Lord calling me to begin learning about the realities and experiences of humanity outside of my traditional white evangelical worldview. So I began listening, learning, reading, and conversing. Using my love for speaking and writing, I opened up my journey to others, understanding that while I am no expert on racial justice, I am an expert on my own experiences.  Follow along on instagram @ReThinking_Us as I rethink the ways of race, faith, justice, and unity. 

When Dr. Liebscher (Brandy) reached out and asked if I would be interested in a weekend dedicated to learning about racism for faith-based white people, my immediate response was, “YES!” How could I pass up such an opportunity? On the journey of living actively anti-racist, I have experienced a continual clash between this pursuit and my religious expression - Evangelical Christianity. I was desperate for guidance on how to bridge these important realities. Brandy hosting an entire weekend retreat around the intersection of faith and racism was an answer to prayer. 

Before coming to the retreat I had been questioning the role of my Christian faith and the Bible in the fight against racism. I had become disheartened and disillusioned as I dove deeper into the root causes of systemic oppression in the United States and the world and saw the Christian church as an active participant at every turn. Could my religion, which shaped my life and worldview so much, be redeemed? Is Scripture, which has been used to hold people down for thousands of years, a tool of oppression?  Or does it hold freedom for all humanity? Is Jesus a participant in systemic oppression?  Or a way out of the darkness?

To be honest, I didn’t know just how real those questions were to me until the retreat started and these very real, but hidden, thoughts floated to the surface. 

The first night, after making community agreements of safety, vulnerability and creating an anti-racist and anti-oppressive space, we heard one another’s stories of conversion.

Much like the story of Nicodemus who is told that in order to see the kingdom of God, he would need to be born again, we told our stories of conversion.  These were not our born again stories, as in the moment we met Jesus, but rather our stories of rebirth wherein the realities of racism became apparent to us. We told the moments and journeys by which our eyes were converted from blind eyes that once could not perceive racial oppression, to seeing eyes that cannot overlook it. Each person’s story was unique and personal. Most were not a singular moment of conversion but rather a series of moments where the Holy Spirit opened eyes to see what could not be unseen -  the unfair and unearned advantages of white privilege, covert implicit biases, systems built on white supremacy, and the injustices perpetrated by a society bent against minorities.

We saw our stories echoed throughout the group, and while each story was unique, a common thread emerged, our faith played a role in our conversion. As our eyes opened, we saw not only the injustice, but our complicity in it. We were part of the problem, and we needed a savior to show us the way forward. 

The next morning Brandy created space for us to learn about the construct of whiteness in society and its impact on systemic and institutional racism. We learned that one of the major roadblocks to racial harmony is a lack of collective identity and connection among white people. Unlike many other cultures, white western people typically emphasize the individual over the community, the personal experience over the collective experience.  Such an individualistic lens of humanity perpetuates racism by allowing white people to ignore the collective impact that a system of white supremacy has on other peoples and cultures. Until we, as white people, reckon with our complicity in the injustice, we will never appropriately address the depth and breadth of the wound of racism in our nation.

 At this point, as we grieved our role in sustaining racism, Brandy moved into a time of teaching about lament.  Lament is a holy and sacred expression of sorrow or grief, an acknowledgment that things are not as they should be, an essential component of relationship with God, truth telling, solidarity, praise, and hope.

 Through lament your allow yourself to be disturbed by the suffering, violence, and oppression around you with the belief that the God of the universe sees all, hears all, and moves to act on our behalf.

As the atmosphere in the room turned appropriately heavy we gave way to our grief and repentance. In lament, we wrote names and situations on the board that deserved our attention and truth telling. Tamir Rice, Gaza, Flint, Michigan, Botham Jean, immigrant children in cages…The board was full and yet we kept writing, crying, and bearing witness to these losses and tragedies that never should have been.

We learned the practice of lament that day, understanding that it was never meant to be a one-time experience, but rather a cry revisited, a pathway to hope.

In the spirit of hopeful lament we turned toward scripture with a teaching from Mark 10:17-27, the story of the rich young ruler.  Rena Crocker, a fellow retreat attendee, presented a practice of connecting with Jesus specifically about whiteness. She shared what most of us had experienced, that as her eyes were open to the reality of racial injustice and white supremacy, she had no grid for how to come to the Lord with these corporate sins and her questions around them. Traditional institutional Christianity does not have a container for reckoning with whiteness, but such a container is desperately needed if we are going to continue to be transformed in the way of Jesus. 

Rena shared her experience of finding the Ignatian Discipline of Imaginative Prayer when she began a journey of contending with whiteness and found herself longing to connect with the Father in that place. This model of prayer places the reader inside scripture. It is a way of interacting with scripture that goes deeper than a simple read over. It gives the reader the ability to ask of the Lord, “What if I’m not David, the underdog, in this story? What if I’m actually the intimidating and powerful Goliath?” 

Our victoriously-minded theologies often place us in scripture as the oppressed one who have to overcome, but what if we are actually the oppressor? What if we are the Pharisees? What if we are the empire? What if we are the ones withholding power, economy, and opportunity from others? And ultimately, what does it look like to encounter Jesus carrying the collective sins of white supremacy?

These are the questions white Christians committed to being anti-racist need to ask.  Scripture holds answers and opportunity for revelation about these questions. Since we were born white at a time when having white skin holds a whole host of unfair advantages, the right thing to do is ask the Lord about it and to repent for ways we have partnered with these advantages at the expense of people of color around us. 

On Saturday evening we spent time with Liz Vaiz, Pastor of Vida Church in Sacramento, and asked ourselves, what would solidarity, displacement, and kinship look like for anti-racist white people?

In the end we landed on the idea of an intentional surrender of the comforts of white privilege. Solidarity with the oppressed looks like a reckoning with our participation and place in systems of oppression. Displacement is a movement away from a place that continues to consume at the expense of others. Kinship is a movement toward our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. 

Jesus was the prime example. He gave up all the advantages and privileges of heaven to become small, vulnerable, disregarded, and oppressed. He left the comforts of heaven to become human in all its forms, to show us love, to heal a broken world, and he told us to go and do the same. We are to be Jesus incarnate to the world. To displace ourselves from our comforts and advantages to love humanity.  And yet, we acknowledge that as white people, we will never truly leave behind our privilege, but we can pull on it to advance good, the kingdom of God, on earth.

To end the retreat we created action plans to hold us accountable to the transformation we experienced that weekend. None of us would be the same and we felt a responsibility and joy in offering our converted selves to the worlds around us anew.

The Facing Ourselves retreat was a life-changing event for me and I know I was not alone. Where I came into the retreat questioning the place and validity of Christianity and Scripture in the fight against racism, I left with my eyes opened to the truth. Oppression of all kinds is not only addressed in scripture but condemned, and a new way is offered; a way of surrender, sacrifice, lament, repentance, repair, justice, and freedom. Jesus came to reveal a way of solidarity, displacement, and kinship. He modeled what it looks like to reject systems of oppression and walk in a counter-cultural way of love and connection. So while walking a road of displacement, disruption, and truth telling can feel lonely and isolating, we are not truly alone. We are all part of the story, joining together in moments and times, and most importantly, joining together with Jesus, the true hope for humanity.

Brandy Liebscher