My Black friends claiming their liberation call on their ancestors. There’s a deep well of spiritual wisdom when they do this — a grounding in a legacy of struggle and survival by a people whose existence challenged the Powers and Principalities, who witnessed in their bodies to truth and justice.
I can’t do the same.
My ancestors were a source of or at least complicit to their social and existential oppression.
According to an uncle of mine, the Hunt line I’m a part of goes back to pre-Revolution America. Daniel Boone was the brother of someone I descended from directly. We were original colonists, pioneers of Manifest Destiny. And we thought those were words to be proud of.
There’s something that happens for white people, something that grinds in our soul or cracks in our subconscious when whiteness is first called out and the legacy of America’s racial violence is pressed unasked before our nose. I have a theory that deep down, white America is a shame culture just like the rest of the world. The difference is that our shame is buried so deep we’ve forgotten it. But when the dead we lynched and drove from their lands are raised, that shame lurches from within us, stirring up an existential fear not only for ourselves but for the legacy of our ancestors, and flings us into fight or flight.
If there is to ever be a post-white supremacist culture on this land, a hurdle we must cross is finding a way to reconcile the truth of our ancestor’s shameful legacy with the full meaning of their lives and its significance to our own life.
This is deep, complicated soul work that must be done with white people — and it is not work people of color should have to do for us. Undoing white supremacy in the hearts and minds of white people is family of origin work, it’s identity work, it’s grief work. While the work of liberation must press on immediately for the sake of those actively oppressed and submitted to violence, we cannot wash over this parallel work that has to happen among us white people. Our process should take adult learning theory seriously. It should take seriously what psychology and biology has to say about the way our thought and emotional worlds actually change.
One key to this process is the ability to experience dissonance and discomfort in a setting safe or brave enough for us to walk into fearful territory and wrestle through our preconceptions into a new way of seeing. I’m not aware of such a setting without relationships of love.
Another key, among many, is nuance. And I want to draw that theme out a bit.
Human nature is endlessly multifaceted. Unfortunately, popular theology in most white circles — particularly white evangelicals and fundamentalists — tries to reduce and simplify that complexity. Sinfulness (or better yet wretchedness and total depravity, if you’re in those fun circles; or original sin and ontological sinfulness for others) is the fundamental concept of the fallen human’s nature. Redeemed, saved, and washed clean in the blood is the fundamental nature of those who give their lives to Jesus. And so, human nature is neatly simplified: Christians are good (thanks to Jesus), non-Christians are bad (thanks to sin).
Unfortunately, it’s not just fundamentalists who lose a sense of nuance toward human nature when sizing up the people we’re for versus those we’re against. We are all susceptible to drawing lines that determine who is in and who is out. Progressives are often just as guilty of have clear categories for who is fundamentally on the right side and who isn’t — nuance be damned.
In the gorgeous memoir Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell tells the story of his evolution from a conservative fundamentalist in the rural early twentieth century South to progressive Southern Freedom Movement leader. What he discovered in the end was that he had simply changed which groups of people he drew the lines of good and evil around. In the end, Campbell goes to sit beside a leader of the KKK, seeing that man’s humanity, and through love draws him into repentance. This is what we need.
Humans are a complicated mix of brokenness and beauty endowing the same person with capacities for great goodness and terrible evil. We can do both. We are both. But there is a core truth we hold as Christians that invests us with the capacity and responsibility to love all and hold onto the capacity for transformation in every life: the knowledge that people are made in the image of God, an image that is at the irrevocable core of our who we are.
The danger with calling for nuance in this time is that it sounds to some too much like saying, “there were faults on both sides.” But this is not nuance that wrestles with complexity and actually draws out the layers of reality. This is just another dumbed down version of the same old reductionism.
Mark Charles, a Native theologian and a leader in the movement for a Truth and Conciliation Commission in the US, exposes the layers in one of our most heralded American heroes: Abraham Lincoln. For all the good Lincoln had a role in, the man still unquestionably retained white supremacist views and was publicly quite clear that he did not want equality or equity between races.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
The 13th Amendment he helped pass included the fateful clause which carved out an exception that retained slavery in this country and set us up for mass incarceration (an exception we just removed in Colorado in 2018, and that many states and the US Constitution still retain):
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
What’s more, Lincoln was intent on completing America’s self-claimed Manifest Destiny and oversaw during his term as president some of the most atrocious acts of colonizing violence against Indigenous peoples of any American leader. Likely the worst human rights violation in Colorado history, the Sand Creek Massacre of over 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers who were mostly elderly men, women, and children, happened with Lincoln as Commander and Chief.
And yes, I have read Team of Rivals, and there are many things I still admire about the man. He genuinely was someone intent on calling himself and those around him to their better angels. But he feel short, and that failure cannot be excused as a product of his time: Frederick Douglas spoke to Lincoln regularly, leaving no room for him to be uncertain about what true liberation and respecting the full humanity of all people would look like. It is both true that Douglas said Lincoln treated him more like an equal than any other white man he had met, that he played a key role in the liberation of slaves, AND that Lincoln was a perpetrator of structural racism and genocide. We have to be able to hold both of these in our minds at the same time if we are to move forward.
Many of my ancestors were white supremacists. Does that mean they’re burning in hell? Well, I don’t think it works like that. But it does mean they were part of creating a hell on earth. Does that mean there was no goodness in them, nothing we can admire or draw on? No. Of course there are positive qualities to them and beautiful elements of the culture they were apart of (my mind often goes to music here as an example). What it does mean is that they were human, humans who shaped their identity in part through a cultural claim that was evil, and like all humans there are aspects of the identity they claimed and the actions they chose that we must reject and repent of in our generation.
Growing up, I was told by a youth group leader that non-Christians weren’t capable of love because they didn’t have God in their lives. That was wrong on multiple accounts. It would also be wrong to say that a white supremacist isn’t capable of love, hasn’t expressed true love, and isn’t worthy of love. We need not hate our forefathers and mothers to acknowledge the oppression they participated in. We do not need to cease to love them, nor should we. But neither can we call on them as the source of the new identities and the new world we must build today. This existential reordering is hard work. It should be acknowledged as hard work. Spaces and tools must be created to support it. And it must be done.
Friends, this is a subject I've been wrestling with for a while: if one of the reasons white people react the way we do to the subject of racism and white supremacy is a defensiveness for our families, then how can we work through this challenge and how should we think about our ancestors? I'm not settled with how I'm articulating this, so would welcome your feedback.