A white man’s frank and repentant exploration of how racism finds a home in white folks’ souls.
Why the souls of white folks?
The spiritual problem of racism
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
I need to begin by apologizing for being just another white voice to weigh in on matters of race in the United States and in our churches. I know that part of the problem with race in our country is precisely the silencing of voices from the margins and the highlighting of white voices. So aware am I that I’ve wrestled long and hard with whether even to write this series of columns. The only reason I have decided to do so is because I am hopeful that this monthly column will be as introspective as it is repentant and because I believe that white people need to talk about their own privilege and racism.
I also owe an apology to W.E.B. DuBois for piggybacking so closely on his remarkable sociological work on race in the United States—The Souls of Black Folks. What made his work so remarkable was the way in which he plumbed the depths of the subtext of race and racism. The “text” of race is written in big, bold strokes across America’s history but reading that text gets us nowhere. It is only in going deep into our subtext—that is, those places where the truth we refuse to articulate rests dormant—that any real understanding can begin. To put a fine point on it: Your favorite talking head, be it on NPR or Fox News, mostly just gives you the text; your prayer life may get you to the subtext.
The fact that subtext rests so deep—and is in fact a spiritual issue—is the other reason I have opted to write this column. I have nothing of substance to add to the conversation when it comes to the politics or sociology of race. But as a teaching elder (aka, a pastor) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I do hope to have cultivated a few disciplines and practices that enable me to peer beneath the surface, the text, to see just what angels and demons are wrestling in my subtext. To those voices who can provide us some greater sociological or political insights, I say, “Here, Here!” (or, more appropriately, “Hear, Hear!” as I want to listen to you).
‘I am hopeful that this monthly column will be as introspective as it is repentant and . . . I believe that white people need to talk about their own privilege and racism.’
So what specifically do I hope to achieve here? First, I hope to bring to the surface the spiritual issues that exacerbate our sociological, political, and ecclesiological issues. As a pastor, I remain convinced that we must get to the spiritual dimensions of race and racism in our society and in our churches. If racism could be ended by the mere passing of a Civil Rights Act, then the last 50 years of racial tensions don’t make much sense. We are left with either the admission that this landmark piece of legislation wasn’t nearly as good as advertised or that it was as good as advertised but still left a lot of work to be done.
In this column, I hope to reveal and expose what my brothers and sisters of color have probably known all along. Namely, that deep within the white soul there is an inherent (though socially constructed) racial bias. I hope to bring this bias, in all its gritty detail, to the surface—not that it might be used against white folks, but rather to create space for grace. I also hope to guide earnest white Christians down the seven levels of hell that is their racist souls. I do so not because I hate my white brothers and sisters, but because I love them enough to want us all to be honest with ourselves. Most certainly undergirding this entire project is a deep and abiding conviction that truth telling is a holy activity and that the Truth will set us free. And because I do not want to appear pompous or bombastic, please know—right up front—that I am one of those penitent pilgrims alongside you.
Because the nature of this project is confessional and not apologetic, I do not anticipate spending any time making a defense of my presuppositions. It is fair enough to critique someone’s presuppositions if you think they are faulty. But that sort of work is for another column or another venue. This column is reserved for those who already suspect that America’s racism is also a Christian, spiritual problem. However, in fairness to those who would want more conversation about the presuppositions, allow me to briefly sketch why I have come to the place I have—not as an apologia, but as a confession.
‘Indeed, I do have black friends. And I’m still a racist. That I have black friends and am a racist is a reflection of the good, holy character of my black friends who trust that I am more who Christ is making me and less who the world has made me.’
The best that sociology and political theory teaches us when it comes to race is boiled down to this: racism is a systemic, not just interpersonal, issue. Indeed, the degree to which it is interpersonal (e.g., a white person calling a black person a “lazy ******”) is only an extension of a system of racial bias. As such, when I say that the white soul is a racist soul, I mean that it has been formed in the crucible of a society that is inherently racist. A white soul may very well have a black friend (you know, that mealy-mouthed argument always raised against one being an interpersonal racist), but still very much be a racist soul. Indeed, I do have black friends. And I’m still a racist. That I have black friends and am a racist is a reflection of the good, holy character of my black friends who trust that I am more who Christ is making me and less who the world has made me. I couldn’t pursue this column if I hadn’t had them as my confessors, allowing me to ask for forgiveness and then assuring me of my pardon: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
And this reflection brings me to my second presupposition, namely, that we are formed by our social location. Who we are is more or less a reflection of where we are. Such claims are sure to grate against modernist Christians who conflate the equality we have as God’s children with a notion of cultural equality and what happens to our souls is a by-product of the accumulation of personal decisions. I just, quite simply, don’t buy it. Such arguments deny that my skin color has granted me a boatload of privileges and perks that I never earned or accumulated but were just wrapped up and deposited with a bow the moment I made my entrance to this world as a white baby. From that time on—before I had a say in the matter and even, later, when I tried to have a say in the matter—I have benefitted from my white privilege. This is how racism is “systemic” and to acknowledge this and then think that our souls have gone untouched is absurd and abusive. However, we must also remember our deep theological truths—namely, to acknowledge that I have been formed by a racist society and am therefore a racist is not simultaneously to deny Christ’s efficacy in this place. Indeed, it is to cry out even louder and more forcefully for an incarnational Christ to come and redeem.
My plan is to present a year of these reflections. There may be more to be said, but my mind has only identified eleven more of these sorts of columns. A better mind will probably identify more. If you are such a better mind, please speak up. As we travel this road together, I hope to hear from you. I hope you come to me with your own honest reflections and, most importantly, I hope you come prepared to repent and forgive. Such acts may not stop the need for rioting in our streets (yet!), but a good place to start might be the rioting in our souls.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.