Reflections on the Weight of White Christian Innocence

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(RNS) — I traveled a lot last month, and in the wake of my travels, I reflected on the novelty of the experience against the backdrop of a pandemic. What used to be routine now seems exotic; what was comfortable seems disturbing.

I’ve seen a lot of talk about the loss of chatter skills and other social graces during the lockdowns and social distancing of the past two years. But as my journey over the past month has expanded beyond my little oak desk in the corner of our spare bedroom to PRRI’s downtown offices twice a week, and as I have slowly started traveling again for in-person speaking engagements, I realize my basic ability to track my possessions as my body moves through space has severely atrophied.

I seem to have lost my ability to move competently and confidently through the world. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve lost in the past month: a suit jacket in a rental car (salvaged!), my favorite lightweight puffer jacket on a plane (hope it’s found a good new home), my laptop (alas, waiting for me on my dining table when I get back), my iPhone (it took a long ride to the end of the red line, where I met it).

Now, it’s true that I don’t have an impeccable track record when it comes to tracking my possessions. I lost no less than five winter jackets in the eighth grade pubescent fog. And as an adult, I’ve lost iPhones at the Great Wall of China and the Jefferson Memorial Reflecting Pool. I like to imagine these lost electronic companions – faint blue dots that my mind adds to the FindMy map – as testimonies of my past presence, much like the nameless stone you might add to a cairn on a hiking trail, or as artifacts of tourist culture awaiting a future archaeologist.

The frequency of my recent wanderings, however, points to something more than bad luck. I’ve lost touch with that inner voice that berates, “Don’t put your phone on the seat”; chimes, “You didn’t have a jacket on?” and sings “Wallet, keys, phone, laptop, pens”. This tutor now seems distant, much like some social ties with family and friends that have been stretched by the pandemic.

But this rocky re-entry into the world of spinning has also helped me appreciate some of the gifts of the pandemic, at least for those, like me, who are lucky enough to be able to work remotely. With the shattering of my routines and assumptions, I became aware of the unnecessary clutter that is an obstacle – as my cousin Carl, who plays old-school mountain music, would say – to “moving lightly in this world”. (Look at Carl sing here.)

Over the past two years, there have probably been more days than not that I haven’t worn shoes. The dress shoes, in particular, now appear to be an experiment invented by a sadistic cosmic scientist. I wore the same black belt every day for two years. If I’m not moving around town, I have time to exercise. I can cut my hair myself. If you cycle somewhere, you understand the place better. Cooking something decent isn’t always time consuming.

I also believe that the breakups of the past two years hold deeper lessons, especially for those of us who grew up identifying as white and Christian. The pandemic has revealed how we have reflexively clung to all sorts of assumptions about the trappings and structures of pre-pandemic daily routines; and calls for racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have exposed how white supremacy still haunts our laws, our institutions and our lives.

Damarra Atkins pays tribute to George Floyd during a mural in George Floyd Square on April 23, 2021 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Moreover, the 2021 backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement—expressed concretely in the elevation of “white unease” as the new definition of discrimination—revealed the greatest burden of all for white Christians: the insistence on our own innocence.

This piercing insight from James Baldwin in “The Fire Next Time” gets to the heart of the matter:

The American black has the great advantage of never having believed in this collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country that the world has ever seen, or that the Americans are invincible. in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always treated Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors honorably… The tendency has really been, as far as possible, to dismiss whites as the victims somewhat crazy about their own brainwashing.

These white American myths – staples of former President Trump’s rallies and rhetoric – are not the mark of a great people but of fragile egos that refuse to grow from adolescent naivety. This unsustainable version of patriotism is an obstacle not only to the realization of our democracy, but to becoming authentically human. And, I would add, such indignant insistence on our own innocence is an obstacle to Christian growth and discipleship. It’s contrary to basic Christian teaching—contained in one of the first Bible verses I was taught to memorize—that we have all sinned and failed to live up to what God expects of us.

Driven by cynical GOP operatives looking for a midterm election weapon, white conservative Christians are expending tremendous energy exposing critical race theory, trying to narrow down how the history of racism in the states States is taught to our children and banning or burning books on these subjects. They are desperate ploys to cling to white innocence as the rising waters of counter-evidence — pent up for centuries by a dam of white Christian power that no longer holds — lap past our ears.

This persistent denial of our own guilt has weighed us down and now threatens to drown us all. But these troubling trends also remind me that there is another way, spelled out quite clearly in the New Testament (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV):

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also throw off all weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the course set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith, who, because of the joy that was before him, endured the cross, heedless of his shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

As the country’s racial, ethnic, and religious demographics continue to shift, preserving the myth of white Christian America will require increasingly heavy-handed efforts from an increasingly small and aging. White conservative Christians can continue down this path, trying to introduce the next generation to this big lie about who we are and how we got here. (We already have evidence, however, that many of our children and grandchildren reject this legacy.)

But the cultural soft power that ensured the dominance of this false narrative in the 20th century will be insufficient in the 21st. With white Christians making up only 44% of the country, preserving a narrative that continues to protect white supremacy and Christian nationalism will require increasingly undemocratic and violent means. The next mile on this road will be littered not only with the bodies of political enemies, but also with the ruins of our democratic institutions.

The world is certainly watching how the United States navigates this transition in the life of our nation. If we white Christians set aside the tiresome and endless efforts to maintain our innocence and allow honest conversations about our past, we might just experience another New Testament promise: that the truth sets us free. .

Robert P. Jones.  Photo courtesy of PRRI

Robert P. Jones. Photo courtesy of PRRI

(Robert P. Jones is CEO and Founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article originally appeared on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. Read more on robertpjones.substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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