A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

Woman hand pointing down

These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

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In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.

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There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.

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The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.

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Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.

j

a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.