17 As (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
19 You know the commandments:
‘You shall not murder;
You shall not commit adultery;
You shall not steal;
You shall not bear false witness;
You shall not defraud;
Honor your father and mother.’”
20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22 NRSV)
This rich man in Mark’s story could be my neighbor from the suburbs. He’s a good person insofar as he obeys the commandments on an individual level. He has not murdered, raped, stolen, lied in court, or ripped off anyone personally, and he is an obedient son, both to his parents and to his cultural heritage based on his diligence in abiding by the commandments. He could also be me. I may know the Lutheran tradition well enough to intellectually concede that I am not ‘good’ but I live scrupulously and frugally. I support the right causes that empower more people and include more people in what it means to be the church. I am pro-women, pro-LGBTQ, pro-people of color, pro new ways of being church, pro-differently abled people, pro-multi-tradition dialogue. I am pretty good!
And I could be all this things with never having to address a central part of who I am that I have always been and will continue to be as long as I live. I am white.
When Jesus encounters this man, he identifies one central thing that keeps him from the Kingdom. As a reader who is white I am beginning to inhabit this text by finding there my whiteness.
This ‘one thing,’ whiteness, confers on me many possessions. (See Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack article for an outstanding, quick resource.) I receive many gifts from looking white and being received as a white person. For example, I worked at a Halloween City in a suburb for an October and on a busy day my coworker asked if people were putting the money right into my hand. I said, always. I watched them do that, he said, and I put my hand out and still they slide the money on the table. When people engaged me as a person in a white body they conferred trust upon me, and my coworker, in a black body, was degraded by the refusal to place money directly in his hand. A small example from a myriad.
My experience of discovering myself to be white carries a disappointment akin to the man in Mark’s Gospel. When I began to discover more elements of ‘white privilege’ in my own reflection and narrative, I felt angry, lied to, ashamed, guilty, a broad range of things. Discovering myself to be white has been a process of loss, dismay, and, as I grow, horror. I remember distinctly a moment when I felt this loss, a ‘rich, white man come to Jesus’ moment like Mark 10. I was driving listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates read Between the World and Me on my CD player when he expressed and demolished with his words a sense of being onto which I’d continued to cling.
I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, breakable humans. (143, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau 2015.)
I have been brought up all my life to believe I am a or the protagonist in some story, and the revelation is that, no. Insofar as I am white, I am not a protagonist. To use another movie/pop-culture analogy like Coates, I cannot be Neo. Insofar as I believe myself to be white I am in a warm bath in the Matrix by which life is sucked out of black bodies to power a world that is safe and happy for white people.
The temptation at this point would be to walk away disappointed: to discover what is true and real and then to select stay in the dream, to take the blue pill, keeping with analogies from the Matrix. If I, as many white people do, take this option of enjoying whiteness and holding onto its Dream and its possessions, then I, like the man in the story, walk away disappointed from true community and discipleship. Like the rich, young man who encountered a Rabbi who could teach him to inherit life eternal, I could hold tightly to my goodness, my protagonism, and my many possessions which come from being white. Then, like him, I would rather live in the Dream than free.
But what did the man do next? With the Gospel’s characteristic reticence, Mark does not tell us. The story moves onto Jesus and his disciples, who are alarmed by this encounter. Perhaps the man sulked about this and forgot all about Jesus. On the other hand, perhaps he went home and inventoried all his things and had a hard conversation about what he truly needed and what he could let go of.
Obviously whiteness cannot be sold or let go of, but its effects can be noticed and addressed, if it is defined not as a color of skin but as a hoard of possessions. Whiteness can be inventoried and a white person can go through the painful process of awakening from the Dream. My encounter with Coates’ text left me disappointed, but it also urged me to continue an on-going inventory of what it means for me to be white, recording my possessions. My Grandpa would always say that the GI Bill was very good to him. I later learned that this incredible government handout was administered locally so that many black World War II veterans were kept from this benefit by Jim Crow-inspired government workers. My block was safe because my community would mobilize against the ‘wrong kind of people’ moving in. I can remember hearing someone proudly announce they ‘got rid of’ the group home on our block. I go back through these stories not to shame the people involved, like my grandpa, but to note the places where I inherited wealth and power that was denied and, as Coates reminds us, plundered from other people. Slowly, I am beginning to find new ways that I can relate to my possessions and to the version of reality and history I have inherited.
Even so, this process feels shameful. Encountering the riches of my whiteness has had a stifling effect on my voice and at other times has induced me to speak defensively. I have caught myself speaking ‘prophetically’ to other white people as a means of justifying my own righteousness over theirs and as a way to avoid the shame of believing I am white. Jesus, however, does not shame or vilify the rich, young man. He looks at him and he loves him immediately with no further qualification. Holding him in loving regard, Jesus identifies the ‘one thing’ that keeps this man from the freedom he seeks and he asks for him to let it go. As a white interpreter of Scripture, I find forgiveness in this moment. Jesus loves this man whether or not he can follow through. The only thing keeping him from freedom is his willingness to live inside the prison of his own making because it feels easier and more beneficial. He can be forgiven, literally ‘let go’ from trying to be rich, an identity built on other people’s backs.
In the same way, can I be forgiven from believing I am white? Can I undergo the process, extended by Jesus, of letting go of my shame along with my many possessions so that I might relax into a love that I do not deserve? As a white follower of Jesus and a white theologian, the teaching and the experience of the forgiveness of sins is something I need more than ever. Can this ancient symbol, so central to the Lutheran tradition, be renewed once more with the particularity of its implications for people of European descent who believe they are white? And if we truly ask for and accept such letting go, what possessions of ‘whiteness’ will be let go each year as seek the Kingdom? This may sound like or even be an impossible task for us white folks, but Jesus anticipates this fear too. “For God, all things are possible.”
Chris Hanley is the pastor of Glenwood Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio. He first received Anti-Racism training from Crossroads at a Lutheran Volunteer Corps Orientation in Washington DC prior to an LVC year in Wilmington Delaware (09-10). He received an MDiv from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School while cross-registering for classes at LSTC, and he interned at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bradenton, Florida. Following this internship, he completed a chaplain residency at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. In each of these communities, he has attempted to find a self-consciously white and Christian voice through stumbling, writing, listening, and being mentored.