White Tourists

I am honored to be part of a reading group focused on anti-racist books. We read a few chapters at a time and then spend an hour or so a week (on Zoom, at this point) discussing what we’ve read. We began with Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist. Kendi gave us a basic and common vocabulary and a conceptual framework to house and hold our learnings.

I wish I could say we were so smart as to know that this was exactly the place for us to begin, but that wasn’t the case. We were led, quite apart from any insight of our own, to precisely the platform from which to begin well.

Then we moved to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. We’re most of the way through that book, and we’re feeling it together. As we read about the casual hatred and callous cruelty of so many of our white sisters and brothers, we experience the draining cocktail of pain and shame, incredulity and outrage, depression and despair, which result from confronting the daily realities of life for Black and Brown people in America, and our complicity in those realities, especially in the American carceral state.

It’s a cumulative experience — each week of shock and horror building on all the previous words and weeks. I know we’re not very resilient in this regard. I certainly am not. We don’t have to deal with this shit hour by hour in our lives, so we’re weak in our resistance and response. We might be getting a little better, a little tougher, a little more able to sit with the struggle and let it wash through us, but we’re really novices in this discipline.

At our most recent discussion, the weight of the grief and the pressure of the anger floated to the surface and asked to be acknowledged. There was no explosion or anything conflictual — we’re all white people in this group and thus equally culpable. So we’re not angry with each other.

We needed to name what we were feeling, to say it out loud, and to claim it as our common response to our horrific heritage — which continues to unfold before our eyes daily in headlines, in political decisions, in physical violence, and communal injustice.

We know intellectually that we are not separated from the four centuries of violence perpetrated in our names and on our behalf. We are complicit. We are responsible. We benefit from the suffering and death of Black and Brown people in our community, our state and our nation. We, as a group and individuals, are in the first moments of modest awakening and skating on the surface of an evil whose depths we cannot plumb but only study.

I imagine the pain we feel to be like that one experiences when your arm falls asleep. I sometimes sleep with an arm under my pillow. I wake up with little feeling in my arm. The process of brining that limb back to life is painful and sometimes takes a few minutes. The pain is necessary and a sign of a kind of reawakening. I hope that’s what we’re experiencing as we read and reflect together.

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Yet, even that brush with racist reality shakes us, but only at the periphery of our lives. What shames me more than anything, even as I give thanks for this group, is precisely that reality. I read these texts like a tourist reads a guide book, and I know it as I do it. I don’t live in the land where hatred toward me is the air I breathe, the water I drink, and the roads I must travel. My pain and rage are third-hand, borrowed, glimpsed through emotional binoculars from a safe distance. To think otherwise is to compound the violence and presume further on my privilege and power.

Like any tourist, I can leave whenever I choose. That’s no great insight. But then, I haven’t come upon anything in this journey which could be construed as a thought original with me. That’s precisely the point. This isn’t my experience. This isn’t my reality — at least not from the inside.

Any thoughts I might have are either derived from the natives, or they are wrong. Any conclusions I might formulate based on what I observe cannot be worth the bother, because they have no reach into the darkness of the land. I can listen and learn, but I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about.

As I read and think, reflect and listen, I am a visitor. I am a tourist. And I am a voyeur. I don’t mean to be, and I don’t leer at the evils of white supremacy for titillation or pleasure. I don’t explore for entertainment. But still I can only look and not really be touched. Even as we groan and grieve in our discussions, it’s always at a distance. It has a partially counterfeit character. And it’s best to acknowledge that as we go, so we at least don’t make things a lot worse.

Like all tourists, we can get a first feel for the lay of the land. We might become familiar with a few major landmarks. We might learn the high spots of the history. We might even learn a rudimentary vocabulary in the language of this terra incognita where Whites are always the interlopers, invaders, and intruders.

We might be able to reduce a bit the number of stupid mistakes we make as we interact with the natives and try to find our way around. We might even muster enough courage to go ahead and make the mistakes that visitors always make. That’s probably the best we can do, but that’s something.

It is a start. We can watch for cues as to how we might be less clumsy allies, working in directions that are actually useful. One of those directions is working for the dismantling of the carceral state, both our own Nebraska system and the system that undergirds our national obsession with locking up Black and Brown people, including children. Especially the work of Stevenson, not only in his book but in the overall project of the Equal Justice Initiative, offers us motivation, hope and resources to do something to help.

In Nebraska, there is a concerted effort to build a new 1500-bed prison — somewhere, anywhere that might tolerate such a social albatross burdening the moral fabric of a local community. The current system has 1500 inmates too many, and that system is projected to grow by another 1500 in the not too distant future. So the proposed solution is to build a shiny, new, efficient, modern, prison to take the load off the other facilities and to allow some of the other places to function as minimum security and work release centers.

This is precisely the wrong solution. As long as we focus only on the warehousing issues of the carceral state, we will never be able to keep pace with the hunger of that beast for new bodies. Policy and practice, law and logic, must reflect a decrease in the imprisoning of nonviolent offenders, those in need of health care rather than punishment. That’s what works in the long run. This is a priority for racial justice, of course, since the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated are black and brown bodies.

I live in Nebraska’s state senate district 12, and I’m glad that Steve Lathrop is my senator. He is active in trying to reform our perverse system and to slow down the growth of our Nebraska prison-industrial complex. I am grateful for his focus on repair and reintegration rather than revenge. I will do what I can to be part of the solutions he and others like him propose.

Of course, I’m still a tourist. But I want to leave the places I visit better than I found them. For now, that may be the best I can do. But I’m not sure…

Knowing Love

Krista Tippett had a conversation with Bryan Stevenson on the latest “On Being” podcast. You might find that on a local public radio station this weekend. But the podcast can be accessed at https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/.

Tippett is the founder and long-time host of the programs and the beating heart of a much larger enterprise devoted to, for lack of a better phrase, faith, hope and love in a changing world. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy, and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, another enterprise, as he notes in the interview, that has grown into a much larger and multi-faceted effort than he originally envisioned.

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Stevenson is committed the need for “proximity” in the work he does. “I think sometimes when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world,” he said, “the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”

This is a very Advent-y sentiment, for us Christians who are into such things. We are in the season of remembering and celebrating the God who chooses proximity to humanity as the path to redeeming Creation. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that we, who are made in the image of that God, do best when we choose proximity as well.

Stevenson knows that getting close to people is one thing. How we see people is an additional thing. In his writing, he talks repeatedly about seeing ourselves and loved and seeing those around us as beloved. “Beloved in the Lord,” one of my seminary professors would regularly announce, “God knows you better than you know yourself — and loves you anyway!” No matter how many times I heard Jim Qualben say that to a class, a congregation, or a meeting of conflicted parishioners, it made my spine tingle.

In my atheist years, I was drawn back to the church in part by way of Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.

At first I found these words offensive. I didn’t want anyone that far up in my business. And I certainly didn’t want some purported deity there. But I came to treasure these words as a source of great comfort and peace. The gift of being fully known — deeply searched out and understood (and loved anyway!) — was a source of calm and joy like no other. That hasn’t changed.

N. T. Wright talks about the “epistemology of love.” He often quotes the line from Wittgenstein, who wrote, “It is love that believes the resurrection.” He writes of this way of knowing in a recent article in First Things.

Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them.

Bryan Stevenson practices the epistemology of love. He knows by coming close, by engaging, by becoming involved. He doesn’t maintain the distance of cool objectivity. He doesn’t have good boundaries when it comes to connection with his clients and causes. He is perhaps obsessed and is certainly consumed by his work. A certain perspective would describe this as unhealthy behavior. Stevenson would describe it as his life, his work, his love and his passion.

Objectivity is an Enlightenment conceit. It can never be achieved, even though it can be approximated. Objectivity may be useful in theoretical physics or higher mathematics or similar disciplines, although the best scientists are always the most passionate about their work. But objectivity leads so easily to privileging one position or perspective above all others. In the West this leads to privileging whiteness and making it the norm and standard by which all others are measured.

Engagement — the epistemology of love — is part of the Christian account of the good news of Jesus Christ. God comes close to you and me — closer than our very breath. God is a slob just like one of us and knows us better than we know ourselves.

The deepest element of an epistemology of love is enacting that love. Stevenson calls it “stone catching.” In his conversation with Krista Tippett, he remembers the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He says, “it’s a powerful story about mercy and redemption and grace, and what I’ve realized is that in this era, I don’t think our righteous would put their stones down. I think that we have too many people who would, despite that exhortation, would still cast the stones. They feel insulated from the hypocrisy and judgment that that implies.”

That assessment could leave us hopeless and despondent (dare I say “acedic”?). But not Stevenson. If people are going to throw the stones anyway, then some of us must dare to become “stone catchers.” He describes it this way: “just because people won’t recognize what the right and just thing is to do, that it’s not right and just to cast those stones, doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the struggle. We have to stand up. We have to stand in front of those who are vulnerable and we have to catch those stones.”

Seeking proximity, looking with love, and then catching the stones — who says that Advent waiting is passive!

Remembering Who the Real Super-Predators Are

This week we have passed two closely related anniversaries. On November 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice as the boy played with a toy gun. On November 27, 1995, John DiIulio published an hysterical summary of his “super-predator” scholarship in the opinion section of the Washington Examiner. There is a direct line from the earlier event to the later and on into the present. And that line runs right through my own ignorant failures.

It is worth remembering a chilling paragraph from DiIulio’s piece.

On the horizon, therefore, are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators. They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons (for example, a perception of slight disrespect or the accident of being in their path). They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment. They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality. In prison or out, the things that super-predators get by their criminal behavior — sex, drugs, money — are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them. So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.

The results of this work were, among other things, mass incarceration, militarization of local police departments, draconian federal and state legislation, and the highest number of children incarcerated by any nation on the planet — the overwhelming majority of them children of color and some sentenced to die in prison after a lifetime behind the walls. DiIulio has sought to distance himself from his conclusions over the years and has expressed regret for their impact. But as Kim Taylor-Thompson points out, the disparate treatment given to Kyle Rittenhouse and Tamir Rice illustrates the damage done.

In 1995 I believed DiIulio (and then Bill Clinton and all the other tough on crime folks — including Joe Biden). Here was an apparent expert, armed with data and theory and method and credentials. His work (he had co-authors but bears the burden of responsibility in the public mind) was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and he was interviewed by really smart people. He was even on public radio and television, after all. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t do any research. I hardly even noticed.

I hardly even noticed, even though I was working in racial reconciliation projects through the Church. DiIulio’s work, in fact, was a source of theoretical and academic support for those projects. After all, his solution to the problem — such as it was — was…the Church! “If we are to have a prayer of stopping any significant fraction of the super-predators short of the prison gates,” he wrote with an irreverent pun, “then we had better say ‘Amen,’ and fast.” So churches had a vested interest in this theoretical and legislative framework. And we launched into the work with enthusiasm.

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Of course, we failed. And I moved on. Wow, I am disgustingly white…but more on that in a bit. How could that be? “The answer is simple and damning,” notes Kim Taylor-Thompson. “The superpredator myth glommed onto a deeper lie rooted in American soil and in the American psyche. A lie that insists that Black children do not deserve the care we reflexively offer white children. All that was needed was the barest of information,” she observes, “and our worst beliefs filled out the contours of the story.” Yes, that was — and is — correct. We dominant culture white people were, and are, the real super-predators. Or perhaps carrion feeders would be a better image.

I’m in a book group, and we’re reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. One of the big stories in the book (that didn’t make it into the film version) is his work with incarcerated children. We’re just getting to that part of the book in our discussion, so all of this is quite to the point. “It has been a generation since the superpredator myth entered public discourse and we are still living with its pernicious effects,” writes Kim Taylor-Thompson. “The justice system needs to stop referring children into the adult criminal justice system so that Black children get the benefit of the doubt instinctively given to white children.” Taylor-Thompson is chair of the board of the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization Stevenson founded) and thus knows whereof she speaks.

Yes, that’s right. But for me one question is how can I do better than I did? I read yesterday a pointed and conscience-pricking article by Robin Autry on the whiteness of sociology as an academic discipline. She references the work of Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who suggest, “there’s a ‘white logic’ to the way methods are deployed, first to help construct people of colour as walking social problems, and then to relentlessly monitor what they think we’re up to at the margins of society.”

White sociologists tend to adopt whiteness as the normative perspective and posture according to which all other life is measured. If only that were limited to white sociologists. It is even more true, I fear, of white theologians. It’s always good to remember that there is no theology without a preceding adjective. We white people tend to think about “black” theology,” “native American” theology, “feminist” theology, “queer” theology, etc. But when we think about “white” theology, the preceding adjective drops away. All the modified theologies are measured against the “standard,” “objective,” “normal” theologizing of us white people.

Yes, once again, I am a white fish discovering the ocean. I must look into the mirror of the Law (to use Lutheran categories) and see my sin. Rather than use sociology (or theology) to diagnose what’s deficient in others compared to me, I can use my discipline to describe my own sin. As a pastor and theologian (and former church bureaucrat) I am, as Autry says, an “implicated subject.” This role “involves moving beyond incredulity and guilt,” Autry writes, “to see the part that they play, directly or indirectly, in reproducing a racist system that ultimately benefits them.”

I can’t help but read and reflect as a racist (even as I strive to be an anti-racist). I think part of the task is to cultivate a white “double consciousness,” both as one doing the striving and one working in precisely the opposite direction all the time. This shouldn’t be so hard for someone whose theological tradition declares that we are all “simultaneously justified and sinner.” I know that I preach, teach, study and pray as both saint and sinner. That knowledge serves to humble me and keep me more honest about myself than I might otherwise be.

So I can not allow my “saintliness” to obscure the sinner in me all the time. I can’t help but read black accounts of racism as a sort of privileged voyeur who can check out of the conversation at any point. The role that does not allow me to withdraw is my whiteness, and I am challenged always to read from and through that place. As Autry writes, it is critical that I don’t forget that the outside world is already inside me (and inside the Church, for that matter).

There’s far too much in these brief articles to take in here. But the caution is so important, for example, in the ELCA’s future plans. Can we, by the Spirit’s power, wrestle the sinner to the ground long enough for us to see others for themselves and not as resources for our own exploitation? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

For now, it’s enough for me to wrestle myself.


Robin Autry. “Sociology’s Race Problem.” https://aeon.co/essays/urban-ethnographers-do-harm-in-speaking-for-black-communities?

Kim Taylor-Thompson. “Why America is still living with the damage done by the ‘superpredator lie.” https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-11-27/racism-criminal-justice-superpredators?_amp=true&s=02

John DiIulio. “THE COMING OF THE SUPER — PREDATORS” https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/the-coming-of-the-super-predators