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…

Text Study for Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-11

Jesus reads this text in the Nazareth synagogue and then preaches a sermon to open his public ministry in Luke’s gospel. “Today,” he declares to the listeners, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus points out that in his view this text extends the release and redemption in the text to those beyond the social boundaries of Israel. In response to that inclusive perspective, the home folks try to pitch the presumptuous preacher over a nearby cliff. So, it is a significant text for understanding the nature of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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It is literally a “messianic” text since the prophet claims to have been anointed with the spirit of the LORD God. The word for “anointed” is a form of the Hebrew Mashiach, from which we get the word “Messiah.” This anointing is a call to proclaim good news – liberty to captives and release to prisoners. It is to be the Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven and all in bondage can begin again. The word for “vengeance” has much more the sense of recompense, of paying another back in kind.

“The commission to ‘proclaim liberty’,” writes Elna Solvang in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “is language from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year. During the Jubilee property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged (Leviticus 25:10). The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication,” she proposes, “that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.”

This great reversal will “comfort all who mourn,” a theme taken up in last week’s first reading as well. The ashes of grief will be displaced by a garland of joy. Mourners will be anointed with gladness and clothed with boisterous praise. The garden of paradise shall be restored, perhaps in the rebuilding of the Temple with a forest of oak pillars as had once been the case. But those pillars will represent the righteousness of the faithful, not merely the extravagance of the monarch.

But the real world of the prophet looks nothing like the vision. “The mourning in Isaiah 61 rises out of frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory,” Solvang writes “and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community,” she concludes, “as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees (e.g., Isaiah 60).”

Disappointment with reality on the ground – the first reading once again seems to connect so deeply with events around us in the present moment. We expected The Pandemic (by now I think it deserves capital letters) to be long over by now. We expected, perhaps, that something, please God – anything, would have been concluded on the day after the presidential election – either the pandemic or structural racism or snarky tweets or political ads or pleas for money. In fact, the day has come and gone, and the ruins still surround us. If anything, the mourning deepens as the death tolls mount. The reality of life for many of us is nothing like we had hoped.

The setting of the first reading may well be at the beginning of reconstruction after the return from Exile. The building up of the ruins and devastations seems yet to be in the future of this text. It’s necessary to note the omitted verses which put the restored Judahites in positions of royal power over the strangers and foreigners in their midst.

Perhaps these images are deemed uncomfortable and require too much explanation. In fact, these verses try to describe the “recompense” the prophet sees coming to the people who have suffered for so long in Exile. We can see that fact in verse eight, where the word “recompense” reappears in English but is a different word in Hebrew. In verse eight the people receive God’s faithful reward, the everlasting covenant with them. The fruits of that covenant are described in verse nine.

Verses ten and eleven show the response of the prophet, perhaps on behalf of the people, as a result of this reward. All that the LORD promised has happened, at least in the heart of the prophet. The prophet responds with joy and trust. The LORD’s goodness will produce a witness to all the nations that the LORD is faithful and just.

We are surrounded by those who “mourn in lonely exile here” (see the hymn). Have we ever lived in a time where that phrase is clearer than right now? This is the text about moving through mourning into joy. This is not a denial of pain and suffering, despair, and death. This is a witness to the overcoming of the darkness by light. We are anointed in our baptism to be agents in that ministry of overcoming through the steady and persistent works of love.

“This reading of the poem places the contemporary audience in a different conceptual location with respect to the text,” writes Corinne Carvalho in her workingpreacher.org. comments. “Rather than hearing these words as exaltation of a deity who serves my needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world. Or, to put it in Advent language, we are called to be Christ to others.” This is, of course, precisely the role for us that Luther describes at length in The Freedom of the Christian.

This text certainly provides an opportunity to talk about the importance of criminal justice reform as a priority for Christians in the United States. The cash bail and probation systems in most jurisdictions often increase the economic distress and disability of the accused, whether they are prosecuted or not. These systems serve primarily as cash transfer mechanisms, moving money out of poor communities and into the coffers of local jurisdictions. A different system would certainly produce “liberty to the captives.” I’d refer you to Michelle Anderson’s The New Jim Crow as one resource for understanding this issue better.

I am part of an anti-racism book study group. We are currently reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. This book is, among other things, a dark journey into a criminal justice enterprise broken by systemic, institutional, administrative, and individual racism. Stevenson writes “about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America.” He describes “how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” It’s worth reading or at least skimming the book as you think about Isaiah 61.

The text proclaims a Year of Jubilee that is “off schedule,” that is, out of the scriptural sequence of every fiftieth year. The need for such a Jubilee Year is nowhere more evident among us than in the continuing disparity of intergenerational wealth between races in the United States. This disparity is due in large part to housing segregation and the educational, employment and health care segregation and disparities that have resulted.

I would suggest that you consider Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law for more detailed information. Rothstein writes, “Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” Oppression and extraction are no more accidental in the United States than they were in the first century Roman Empire. “The policy was so systematic and forceful,” Rothstein concludes, “that its effects endure to the present time” (page viii).

If this text is not an opportunity to talk about such topics, then so such opportunity will be taken. Good news means that things are going to change. Otherwise, as N. T. Wright observes, it is merely “good advice.” I wish I had preached more good news in my parish ministry and less good advice.

Resources and References

Berge, Paul. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-john-16-8-19-28-2.

Buggs, Courtney. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-john-16-8-19-28-5.

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-isaiah-611-4-8-11-4

Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-1-thessalonians-516-24-3.

Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-john-16-8-19-28.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Solvang, Elna K. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-isaiah-611-4-8-11

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (p. 14). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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.

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

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