Actions speak louder than words
September 9, 2021
I just don’t want to have to feel guilty being white. That’s what John said after my presentation at a family retreat I was facilitating for a church a few years ago. I was talking about the advantages that whites enjoy in American society that people of color do not always receive, referencing a classic article by Dr. Peggy McIntosh titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it, she points out that whites can typically agree with statements like, “If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be pretty sure that I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” or “When I am told about our national heritage or ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my race made it what it is.”
As I was going through some of these statements, John interrupted me, saying that he didn’t really care about any of the advantages that McIntosh details. As soon as the talk was over, he said those words to me about not wanting to feel guilty because he’s white. I asked him how I could help him get over that guilt. He suggested I simply say that I was not trying to make people feel guilty. I did that, but I wish that instead I had pointed him to 1 John 3:16–24, as it has so much to offer concerning the issues that John and I were wrestling with.
The Scripture reminds us that “God reassures our hearts … whenever our hearts condemn us … God is greater than our hearts” (vv. 19–20). The good news of the Gospel is that God forgives our sin in Jesus Christ. God does not want us to dwell in fear, wondering if grace could somehow be ours. This includes the sense of guilt that often creeps up on us who are white whenever we discuss issues of racial justice. This remorse sometimes prevents us from even entering into these conversations. But it is our confidence in God’s grace that can lead us to lives of gratitude, which join Christ’s mission to the world.
Our passage describes this mission as one in which Jesus “laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v. 16). Relieved of our guilt, we are freed to put others before us in radical and creative ways. Scholar Ronald Cole-Turner remarks that “Sometimes self-sacrifice can mean physical death. More often, the stakes are lower, but the principle is the same. We lay down our lives when we put others first. We lay down our lives when we live for the good of others. We lay down our lives when we make time for others.” And I would like to add that we lay down our lives when we stand up against racial disparagement.
A couple of months ago, a friend showed a socially distanced group of us a YouTube video that mocked Vietnamese siblings’ accent. I was shocked as everyone laughed and joined in with their own imitations, but I remained silent. A young woman in the group, however, spoke up with a stern “Hey, that’s not cool.” The mocking stopped, but it could have easily ended up with this brave woman being insulted herself. In that moment of speaking up, she exhibited what laying down her life looked like. And I was grateful.
“Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (v. 18). This verse challenges me to realize that talking with like-minded friends or writing columns like this is a good start, but not nearly enough. We can learn all we want about the racial disparities in our country. We are good at researching, reading, and holding book studies and discussion groups. But our passage, however, challenges us to move beyond learning, beyond talking and beyond bemoaning the need for change. If we are to bring about change, then we must learn how to love not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Chip Hardwick, Transitional Synod Executive of the Synod of the Covenant, including presbyteries in Michigan and Ohio
Today’s Focus: Laying our lives down for one another
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Dear God, help us to recognize that all good things come from you. Give us the courage to share what we have received from you for the furtherance of your work. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.