Being White These Days
Being White These Days
Robert P. Hoch
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
May 19, 2019
1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
In June of 2017, I was invited to teach a course on preaching at my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary. My students were preachers, in their own right, just a year or so out of seminary. We had a lot to talk about. But near the last day of the class, the subject became uncomfortably personal – for me. One of my students, an African American, asked, “What does it mean for you to be a white preacher in a majority Black city like Baltimore?”
I didn’t know how to answer the question. Maybe part of it is because I don’t self-identify as white (it’s complicated). But if I’m honest, as a social phenomenon and as a public persona, whiteness explains part of my lived experience.
You’d think that whiteness, being so basic, I would have been ready for his question. But I wasn’t. I was baffled. I felt suddenly very tongue tied.
Nell Painter, author of The History of White People, writes that “being white these days is not what it used to be.”
I’ll say. That question, it felt like I was being undressed, exposed. And I didn’t feel as if this was a great kindness being done to me.
Who would? Most white people don’t want to be called out as white — and don’t want to talk about it either. Social philosopher, Linda Martin Alcoff describes three impediments to white people talking about whiteness.
One, shame. We’ve all seen the pictures of white people yelling at African American children during integration. That gets internalized and when the topic comes up, we don’t think, we physically react. Shame is a public emotion. It’s different from guilt. Shame is something you feel in front of others.
Two, fear. By the year 2050, whites will no longer be the majority. They haven’t been the majority in Baltimore since the 1990s. If you’re a liberal, that means even if you’re committed to equity and social justice, you’re no longer setting the terms for the progress. You’re just one party among others. That’s a big change.
Three, the idea race is overstated or on its way out. So what’s the point of focusing on it? We have lots of understandable reasons for avoiding talk about whiteness. Of course, we live with that quiet reality all the time. But occasionally, it surfaces, in a classroom, in a book, or perhaps in a sermon.
I’m beginning to think that maybe my African American colleague in ministry, who was only posing as a student, actually gave me a gift, a gift not of clarity about my whiteness but of its incoherence. It’s taken me a while to unwrap it, or even see it as a gift, but I think incoherence, awkwardness, an inability to say why I am here in Baltimore, was in fact a gift.
Maybe the possibility that it was a gift comes from the bewilderment evident in today’s text. There’s incoherence aplenty, as we will see in a moment. Traditionally, we focus on the longer arc of this story, that is, as a story of conversion, or as it says in the final verse of our reading, a form of “repentance that leads to life.”
But before they get to that life, they experience confusion, puzzlement, out of placeness.
I feel like we need to spend some time in that place. In their respective visions, both Cornelius and Peter experience confusion and even disgust. Technically, it is called a “double vision” or a “double dream” since the two visions stand side-by-side. Cornelius has a vision in which he “clearly sees an angel of God” and that figure speaks his name. And he is terrified.
Peter, while praying, also has a vision, which and God commands Peter to eat things that he would never dream of eating. “No way,” he says, “I’ve never eaten unclean food. That’s just gross!” And God says, “I’ve made it clean. Don’t say that it’s not clean.” And Peter was “greatly puzzled about what to make of this vision.”
And that was just the beginning.
Throughout the text, Cornelius and Peter seem like they are out of their respective elements. Cornelius isn’t sure whether Peter is a god or a human being. Imagine a high ranking, decorated officer being confused, about anything. As for Peter, when he arrives in the house of Cornelius, he hasn’t the faintest idea why. When do Jews ever associate with Gentiles?
When Peter arrives, explains that he’s not a god, he asks, “Now may I ask why you sent for me?” And it’s not a rhetorical question. He’s really bewildered, as in, I’m standing here with you, and I don’t know why, or for what purpose because we’re so different.
Our text recounts the opposition of Jewish Christians to the fact that Peter was hanging out with Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. They had heard about how the gentiles believed the word of God. Heard about it. And they resisted it. They didn’t object to the conversion of Cornelius so much as Peter’s close intimacy with a gentile. And not just any gentile, but a Roman commander. Rome was an occupying force. In the view of Jews and Jewish Christians, a lot was to be lost by consorting with the occupier. And while Cornelius may have been empathetic to Jewish customs, he was still a Roman soldier.
This morning, I’ve read this text as an analogy for the experience of whiteness. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it is useful. White people, because we benefit from whiteness, may have more in common with Cornelius than they do with Peter. And yet, something was different about Cornelius. Evidently, he wasn’t completely owned by the Roman Empire. It was a lot of him, but it wasn’t all of him. And that’s important for us when we think about whiteness.
Whiteness isn’t an absolute. Whiteness seems like it is indelibly marked by racism. It’s like a Roman centurion, sworn an oath to defend empire. A centurion’s body armor goes deep, not only coloring the skin, but shaping the imagination. White people in our society don’t see whiteness unless somehow, they are thrust outside of the borders that secure their worldview.
You know what they say: we don’t know who discovered water, but we can be pretty it wasn’t a fish.
Maybe Cornelius was that unusual fish, who gets the uncomfortable view of water from dry land.
In other words, in this double dream/vision, Cornelius gets a small taste of what W.E.B. Du Bois calls double consciousness, something people of color in America know intimately. An ability to see the world through other eyes. He’s still a fish but suddenly, at least, he sees the world through the eyes of a Jewish messiah, crucified. He’s a Roman Centurion but not that’s not all he is.
You almost think that Cornelius is the very incarnation of the deep state. Or that Peter is the Alpha Christian. But in this story, we find that neither Cornelius, nor Peter, nor Jerusalem, nor the 100 or so soldiers and close friends of Cornelius are in charge. The Spirit commands, sends, baptizes, the Spirit interrupts. Which means, they are all very human, very contingent, very contextual. They aren’t dictating the next thing. In fact, they are as bewildered as any. But it’s almost as if they trust in the Spirit’s voice, a voice behind them, saying, “Go this way!” They show an openness to God’s Spirit, prompting them to go, to open their doors, and to join other communities, to ask questions, to listen, to adapt their social identities to the sense of a lived narrative.
In a lived narrative, the border security we set up around identity is breached by first by the Spirit and then by encounter with others — Spirit powered encounters are liberating in themselves. Cornelius and Peter can’t put these meetings into their preferred forms of social transaction. It’s not charity. It’s not helper and helpee. It’s not you’re the waitress and I’m the big tipper. Those are chains which the Spirit breaks, time and again.
With every moment, the Spirit’s prompts lead to puzzlement, questions, mistakes, awkward feelings, with large helpings of hospitality along the way, moving things forward, whether we’re quite ready or not.
And that I think is where we are today. Ready or not we are being led to a form of repentance that leads to life. Maybe part of that means we are called to begin to rearticulate whiteness as a practice appropriate to conversion unto life. If we don’t, white supremacists will do it for us and they will do it unto terror. In fact, they already have. We’re not here to deny whiteness. Or feel ashamed of it. Or to fear it. We fear God alone. But rather, we are here to rearticulate whiteness so that it has a less racist future.
Peter goes back to Jerusalem to explain, step by step, to Christians and Jews about what happened with the gentiles. What did Cornelius do next? I wonder if Cornelius goes back to the Roman military and tries to explain what he has learned from this Jewish preacher, Peter, who professes a crucified Jew as Lord and Savior.
We don’t know. But I wonder if, among white people, our vocation isn’t so much to “save” Baltimore, but to engage in a form of white repentance leading to life. Whiteness isn’t the only thing about white people, but it is a thing about white people.
So maybe I ask this majority white congregation in a majority black city, “Why are we here?” In a sense, as white as this church is, we are in the house of Black America. What does it mean to drop some of the body armor of whiteness? Or what does it mean to even acknowledge that we’re wearing it? And perhaps what does it mean for us to name whiteness not as a majority power but a minority power in Baltimore?
If Cornelius went back to the emperor, maybe white people should organize our next neighborhood walk not in Darley Park, but in Roland Park or in Bolton Hill or in Fells Point.
Maybe we should go to white enclaves of privilege, from which many of us come, with testimonies of how our lives have been touched and changed by the hospitality, courage, and vision of Black people in Baltimore.
Who knows. Whiteness might change as a result. Or it might not. Cornelius was a commander of one hundred Roman soldiers.
He was also, by God’s grace, more than this.
Ellis didn’t seem like more of anything. He was poor. He was less than everything and everyone. He was white, poor white. And it showed, in his clothes. He felt inferior. And he was treated as an inferior. As a young person, he worked at a gas station. And he was poor.
One day, a group of KKK people came by, going to a meeting, and invited him along. He joined. No one had invited him to anything in his whole life. He rose through the ranks. He was an organizer. He organized terror, but still he organized. And in his own words, he said, “I felt very big.”
Looking back, he said he had never felt so affirmed, so important as when he belonged to the Klan. Then integration came. And he was useful, especially to middle class white people, who were fighting integration. But something happened one day to make him think that maybe he was just being used. He was still racist, but somehow the lie got to him.
Meanwhile, he’d been approached by a person who had been charged with integrating the schools. Since he was a leader in the Klan, and had connections in the white power structure, he was tagged as someone who might be instrumental in organizing the support of the white constituencies. To do so, the organizer said he would need to work with a Black woman, Ann Atwater, who was also known to use violence in her commitment to civil rights.
Ellis could not imagine working with a black woman, forget eating with her. But when he got the sense that he was being used by people who would never actually share his hope for his children, something snapped. Or something was set free. He saw her sitting alone, following a meeting. And he walked over. Things were weighing on him. He sat down next to her and they started talking. He had children and she did, too.
And he said what they knew, that when integration happened, the middle and upper-class whites would move their kids to the private schools. And the economic base of the public schools would evaporate. As he talked, he started to cry. She touched him gently.
It was the beginning of something different, maybe you would call it a conversion to life. And when he got the sense that white racism was wrong, that there was something beautiful between people, he went to the Klan with all the zeal of a convert. His erstwhile friends weren’t hearing it. He was turned out and, suddenly, unemployed. Eventually, he got work as a machinist at Duke University. He was the only white man on a unionist team. He was elected to chief machinist, by his peers. He continued to stay in touch with Atwater. When he died, she came to his funeral.
She came in early, sat down in the front pew. An usher saw her and walked up to her. From just behind she heard him clear his throat: “Excuse me,” he said, “this service is a private service.”
“I know,” she said.
Pause. “It’s for family only.”
“Yes, I know,” she replied, irritated. “Ellis was my brother.”
The usher scuttled away.
Ellis was white. Poor. Racist. But that’s not all that he was. He was someone’s brother. May it be so for all of us. Amen.
Story adapted from Linda Martin Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness