Been in the Struggle

In my previous posting “Seeking to Develop an Antiracist Spirituality,” I began to explore what a spirituality rooted in an antiracist perspective and lifestyle entails. I reflected on a presentation by the Anglican priest Rev. Kenneth Leech to the Episcopal Urban Caucus in 1994.  Rev. Leech maintained that an authentic antiracist spirituality needed to be both radical and traditional, material and transcendent, and prepared to live with darkness and perplexity. In that posting I concluded by saying that an antiracist spirituality needs to be both self-reflective — be willing to examine how we have been shaped by the racist attitudes, and values inherited from our elders — and willing to work in solidarity with those who are closest to the pain of interpersonal and systemic racism. In this entry I want to continue to explore these issues by reflecting on the work of Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Tobin Miller-Shearer in their book, Been in the Struggle: Pursuing an Antiracist Spirituality.

Regina, who is an African American woman, and Tobin, who is a white man, are long-time antiracist trainers with the organization, Roots of Justice (formerly known as Damascus Road Antiracism Training). I myself have benefitted from their experience, insight and training, having attended their workshops on three occasions and more recently having been trained and accepted to be on the antiracism training team. One of the distinctive features ROJ brings to antiracism trainings is an emphasis on the systemic dimension of racism. All too often white folks and some persons of color, tend to think of racism only in interpersonal terms — how individuals treat one another, the words they use and the attitudes they carry. While tending to our individual interactions across racial and ethnic boundaries is important, the often invisible and unknown dimension of racism is how it is embedded in the institutions that govern our lives. In Been in the Struggle Regina and Tobin discuss how having a perspective that takes in systemic racism is an essential aspect of an antiracist spirituality.

They define antiracist spirituality this way: “an antiracist spirituality is a way of being in the world that draws on the unknown and the unknowable — which some call Spirit, others name the divine, goes by the word of Mystery, relates to us as God —to encourage, empower and enthuse amid the intention and action to undermine the systems of White supremacy around us. It is marked by the knowledge of the warp and woof of race-based power, privilege and oppression. It fosters truth-telling — first to self and then to others. It lifts up communal efforts, is not afraid of hard conversation and invites laughter, joy and human connection. An antiracist spirituality encourages awareness of limitation while inviting all that has not yet been conceived, gestated or birthed to move into the possible and be fully realized. It is strong, it does not demand perfection. It does not easily crumble.”(p. 53)

This definition is a mouthful and Stoltzfus and Shearer take two-hundred-plus pages to unpack its meaning. However, I want to highlight three aspects of this definition (signified by the words I have underlined) and in so doing hopefully encourage you to read the whole of the book.

A Way of Being in the World

First, an antiracist spirituality is a “way of being in the world” that both connects us to the divine and our fellow human beings. It is rooted in relationships both to that or whom we call God and those who are on the journey toward a free, equitable and just society. An antiracist spirituality is not something we do alone, but rather in community with others, who know us, call out the best in us and hold us accountable to our commitments to building a racism-free society and world.

Truth-Telling to Self and Others

Second, an antiracist spirituality “fosters truth-telling —first to self and then to others.” Most people find it extremely difficult and uncomfortable to face the truth of racism in their thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions. Many of us, especially those of who are white, have grown up and gone through much of our adult lives oblivious to the way in which we have been shaped by the racist culture in which we live. We are often unaware of how our educational system has reinforced our blindness and ignorance of racism in history and in our present. We are even unaware of how things we say convey a sense of privilege and elitism that separates us from the racial others who are pained by those things. And when these attitudes, behaviors and microaggressions are brought to our attention, we can feel defensive, ashamed and combative.

Developing an antiracist spirituality largely involves an openness to truths about ourselves we do not see or resist seeing. It is to accept the fact that we have been shaped by our culture, education, socialization and much more in such a way that we have imbibed all sorts of falsities and misconceptions about ourselves and the reality of racism’s influence in our daily life. And as difficult and even painful as such admissions can be, we must remain open to learning, growing and changing. But as our definition says, growing in an antiracist spirituality does not demand perfection. Despite our best efforts and intentions, we will stumble and fall, but we can allow such moments to be our teachers, not our sources of shame and self-rejection.

However, an antiracist spirituality does not only call us to do the important work of self-examination and inner transformation, it also involves truth-telling to others about the effects of racism in their lives and the world in which they live. Sometimes that truth-telling involves calling someone out for something they said or did, and other times it involves dialogue, helping them see the false myths and lies that guide the way they think and feel. As the authors write “An antiracist spirituality affirms that the image of God resides within all of humanity,” even those most stubborn, belligerent and hostile to conversations about racism’s grip on our culture and therefore their lives. It calls us to have those hard conversations with those in our relational circles and to do so with love, with a desire to draw out the best in another person.

This call to love runs counter to our culture’s penchant to engage in debates and accusations (so-called “cancel culture”), rather than understanding. We want to diminish and degrade the other person, even as they seek to do the same to us. Love seems like the last thing on our minds. But we must remember in truth-telling, our goal is not to belittle but to draw out that Spirit within them that can override the fear, anger and hate of the racial other. Love seeks to bring out the best in a person, even when they resist that best being borne.

Sustained By Hope

Finally, an anti-racist spirituality both sustains and is sustained by hope. The authors’ definition speaks of “all that has not yet been conceived, gestated or birthed to move into the possible and be fully realized.” I have often been asked if I think our nation will ever rid itself of racism. Honestly, I have to admit I don’t know how or when that will ever happen, I am not optimistic. But hope is not about being optimistic. Rather, hope is about having a vision of the kind of society we would like to see emerge. It is a vision of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr called the Beloved Community and Paulo Freire and the liberation theologians called Utopia. Living in hope involves working toward bringing that new world, that Utopia, that Beloved community, what Christians call the Reign of God, into being. regardless of the obstacles and barriers in our path.

Our Vision: The Beloved Community

On his last night alive Dr. King, drawing on the story of Moses and the Exodus, preached about going to a mountaintop and seeing the Promised Land. He said he himself might not get to there with them, but affirmed that “we as a people will get there.” That is what it is to live in hope, to see and continue to strive, regardless of the challenges. An antiracist spirituality feeds and is fed by a persevering doggedness to live and work in hope.

While there are many other gems in Been in the Struggle I could highlight, these three stand out for me:(1) an anti-racist spirituality is a way of being,  lived in community with other like-minded persons; (2) an antiracist spirituality involves truth-telling first to oneself and then to others, and (3) an antiracist spirituality both sustains and is sustained by a hope that motivates us to work throughout our lives in all we do to bring to reality a society and world where racism is a thing of the past.