In this moment in history, the white church has a decision to make: whether or not we will choose to walk in the truth. We are rightfully — and belatedly — at a fork in the road, and we must decide whether we will deny ourselves to follow Christ or deny our Christ to follow our distorted view of ourselves.
Allow me to tell you a story to demonstrate both the confession and decision that must be made.
I laid flat on my back on the carpeted classroom floor between two of my graduate school classmates. Lined side-by-side across the length of the room, our professor invited us to close our eyes, feel our breath in our bodies, and notice where our flesh made contact with the ground beneath us.
It was the end of the semester, the end of a class which was designed to equip us for dialogue across differences. With great care and intention, our professor — who had grown up in apartheid South Africa — had facilitated our discussions that took a deep dive into race, gender, identity, worldview development, and the art of listening to understand.
He waited until the end of our time together — after we’d been given several months to build trust with one another — to line us up like this, curiously postured for our final dialogue question.
“Imagine,” the professor said deliberately, as he thoughtfully paced the room, “that as you lay here, you discover that your skin has a zipper. You discover that your skin can be removed. Imagine yourself — gently, slowly — unzipping your skin, from head to toe. You remove it, leave it here on the ground, and walk away from it.”
My classmates and I remained unmoved on the floor, silent, eyes still closed, lost in the visual, a ripple of rising and falling breaths across the floor. “What do you feel in this moment?” He asked. “Sit with your feelings as you imagine yourself walking away from your skin.”
After some time, he asked us to bring our awareness back to our bodies, open our eyes, and sit up. We were invited to share with each other what we felt. Slowly, a handful of students of color shared their experience — feelings of liberation, of safety and relief, of overwhelming sorrow for all they’d endured, of being honored and humanized, of excitement at the possibility of being seen for who they really are.
I began to notice that none of the white students were sharing, and I knew why. As one of the white students myself, I felt rigid, self-protective, and full of shame. But I knew that one of us needed to say something, so I decided it would be me. Our professor acknowledged my raised hand.
“I feel horrible,” I started. “I felt desperate walking away from my skin, wanting to jump right back into it because it protects me. It allows me to be automatically taken seriously and causes everyone to assume the best of me. I wanted to zip back into my skin because it keeps me safe and doesn’t require me to change and shields me from consequences; it amplifies all the good things about me and drowns out the bad things.”
I exhaled. The room was silent. Eyes were either intensely locked on me or glued to the floor, while a few slightly nodded in acknowledgment and agreement. Though I felt overwhelmed with shame, I also felt — rather unexpectedly — a sense of liberation, a weight lifted at my admission. This was a confusing combination of feelings that I needed to process.
After the class ended, I lingered for a while to talk with my professor. “I feel terrible,” I told him in the hallway. “I’m embarrassed that I said that out loud… I’m not a bad person, and it was probably upsetting to my classmates, but I figured one of the white students needed to say something and tell the truth about what they felt.”
He paused thoughtfully, as he always did. “It was good you spoke up,” he finally said. “Your classmates were probably relieved to finally hear a white person admit what you admitted today. But don’t stay there. Don’t just admit and be immobilized by shame. Decide what you’ll do and who you’ll choose to be now.”
As I recall that story, I’ve been thinking about the white church as the one laying there instead of me among a richly diverse community of believers and denominations. It is a huge loss and harmful denial of humanity that it lies there desperately holding onto (while vehemently denying) its white privilege, isolationism, and white supremacy. What a burdensome, selfish, and costly idol to uphold.
So I ask us, the white church: Dare we choose truth? Dare we make Christ our refuge instead of our whiteness? Dare we choose surrender to a Savior that calls us to confession, repentance, and unity? Dare we let go of the idol of whiteness to free ourselves to be the body of Christ? Dare we reject our distorted view of ourselves to embrace our identity in Jesus?
In this moment in history, that is the fork in the road we must boldly choose.
This piece was originally featured in the Reformed Journal: The Twelve.