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On Courage and Humility

Deborah Stollery

On the way to repentance…the path of self-education about racism

We at ConSpirita Consulting Network are committed to improving leadership, especially ecclesial leadership.  These times of a global pandemic and a global awakening about racism cry out for courageous and humble leaders.  This series of blogs invite you to come along with us as we humbly, courageously and consistently undertake the work of self-education about racism in the United States, in the Catholic Church and in our own white, privileged lives.  I am about to share with you just three snippets of a podcast interview between researcher, scholar, storyteller Dr. Brené Brown and thought leader, author and producer of a video web series, Austin Channing Brown (no blood relationship…but these are two fierce, brutally honest women!)  You can listen to the entire podcast by going here.

Brené and Austin are friends, so this interview is between friends.  That’s important because when Brené asks Austin how she’s doing at the very beginning of the podcast, Austin answers with brutal honesty.  “I feel everything right now. I feel really, really sad.  I feel overwhelmed.  I feel betrayed.  But I also feel inspired by protestors.  I feel encouraged by how many people are seeking reform…it feels like one, hot, beautiful, ugly mess. I feel all of that in my body right now.”  Just a few sentences later, Austin says she’s having trouble eating, that she’s nauseous a lot and Brené shares what a therapist once told her about lack of appetite and nausea in times of trauma:  that the nausea is a sign of despair.  Despair that settles deep in the bones when it becomes clear that tomorrow is going to be just like today.  Nothing changes.

And just like that, the subject of racism moves from an abstract idea all the way into the daily life, the very body of a black woman, of black people…and occasionally of this white person.  But, and this is a HUGE but that Austin makes clear just a few breaths later, the despair that squashes appetite and creates nausea is not the despair of the past few weeks…which it may be for some of us white folks…no.  It is the despair born of exhaustion.  She says, “Our exhaustion is not last week.  Our exhaustion is our parents’ memories…our grandparents’ memories.  It’s long…long…” 

Education: I cannot claim my momentary despair or exhaustion is anything like hundreds of years of oppression, of rising up just to see too little change…of crying out for hundreds of years for human rights, for decency, for safety, for life.  For all the times I try to link my episodic shock to hundreds of years of despair, heal me, O Lord.

We’re less than five minutes into this 1-hour podcast and already I am swallowing deeply, and forcing myself to stay attentive and open.  The next topic Brené brings up is how Austin’s book touched Brené’s Christian faith.  Since these blogs are for Catholic Christian leaders, I am choosing this next educative point to share.  Austin says she feels as if she’s had dual faith lives.  “My faith was born in the black church.”  Then she goes on to share that her education, from pre-school through college took place in white, private, evangelical Christian schools.  “I’ve been around whiteness for a long time.  … I learned the hard way that there is a deep difference between the Jesus that black folks worship and the Jesus that white Christians worship. … The Jesus that black folks worship does not ask the question, ‘But does the Gospel really have anything to do with race and justice?’  Black Jesus does not hesitate to say ‘Black lives matter.’  Black Jesus stands for the oppressed, cares about those who are most marginalized, and not just cares, sits with, lives with, fights for, is angered by the mistreatment, protests with…while white Jesus is primarily interested in self, in money, in capitalism, in self…in how much power can I hoard?  It’s all about self, about preservation of self, of ego, of power…a deep desire to wield power OVER others.”

Brené briefly shares her experience of being educated by Jesuits in New Orleans who supported the Black Panthers, who fought against segregation and for access to just systems and structures in that city…and asks if it’s ok if she worships black Jesus, because he’s more akin to the Jesus she knows.  Austin hopefully, wistfully wishes it were so for all Christians.

Education:  It’s time for all Euro-centric Christian denominations to ask ourselves to what degree we have sanitized Jesus’ message, taken away his humanity as a middle Eastern Jew, born of poor parents, forgotten or ignored that he lived as a refugee and threatened the existing power structures because of his alignment with the poor and outcast, and truncated his message of salvation so that we can remain comfortable?  It’s time for a collective period of self-examination.  And I think it has to start with our own reactions to Austin’s description of white Jesus and black Jesus.  Do we agree?  Are we offended by such descriptions?  Do we want to claim that our parish or congregation is NOT like that and so hide behind some sort of exceptionalism?  Do we Catholics now want to stand on the work of Jesuits, Catholic Workers and countless sisters to claim WE are not the way Austin describes? 

From my desire to protect myself from painful truth, to hide behind exceptionalism or to claim the work of a few as the character of the whole, heal me O Lord.

Just one last thought Austin shared as this section of the interview wrapped up, but it’s an important one for white individuals, white families, and white parishes to consider.  She said, “White folks want a pinch of blackness…in order to affirm itself…to affirm its own goodness, its own righteousness, to allay feelings of guilt in order to keep itself comfortable…in order to continue to practice power OVER.”  This is a straightforward call to examine all the times we’ve claimed we are not racist because we have a black friend or two in our cohort, are married to a black person, love hip hop and/or think Dashikis are fabulous.  It’s a ‘pinch of blackness’ to assure myself that I’m a good person…and then to give myself a pass on the hard work of self-examination and repentance that will lead to the will to change the systems and structures that keep me comfortable.  Period.

Education:  Do I presume my pinch of blackness excepts me from being a racist?  Allows me to claim I stand for equity and justice?  Keeps me comfortable? 

From my distaste for discomfort, heal me O Lord.

And so, I am on the self-education journey.  It is humbling.  It is taking daily courage to watch, listen, learn, pray, read, think and own…and I am grateful to live in a time when there are so many prophets, teachers and leaders among us willing to teach…and I am committed to do my part to be a disciple:  to learn.

Resources

Austin Channing Brown  I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.
Austin Channing Brown’s video web series “The Next Question” at  https://www.tnqshow.com/
For more from Brené Brown go to brenebrown.com
Austin Channing Brown  austinchanning.com

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