This is my second post in a short series about experiences that have contributed to my quite vocal advocacy for gay rights. My first post tells about my feeling of liberation upon encountering the critical study of religion and of learning to interpret the Bible in ways other than literally. This post will be about encountering my own shadow and having the powers that systemically oppress unmasked.
Seven years later, I went to this African-American congregation with the naive notion that my commitment to the gospel and my conscious repudiation of racism had eradicated it from within me. Simply put, I was wrong. Regardless of my conscious decisions and my exercise of will, there were times when I was afraid while walking in my own neighborhood at night. I would meet an African-American male or a group and would sometimes think, “I wonder if they know who I am. If they don’t know, I wonder if they will attack me for being a white guy in the black part of town at night.” During the four years I was there this fear eventually left me, but at first it was pretty powerful. I didn’t want to be afraid. I consciously repudiated whatever it was that was bubbling up from within me, but it was there nonetheless.Early in seminary, in a Pastoral Care and Counseling class, I began to learn about unconscious behavior, about family-systems theory that talked about individuals fulfilling roles because the family system demand they do so, and about the notion of the shadow. (Some people feel that the very terminology of the shadow and its negative connotations is itself racist. I haven’t decided what I think about that, but I will use the familiar terminology of the shadow for clarity.) The shadow might be understood as everything about oneself of which one is not consciously aware (Jung), or it might refer to the aspects about oneself that one doesn’t want to acknowledge and so it gets repressed (Freud). In this second understanding of the shadow, it is almost completely negative. I do think this is true and that it plays itself out personally, socially, societally, and systemically.
During the time I was there, I read an article about social justice by, I think, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, my particular denomination. It suggested, in order to understand systemic injustice as distinct from personal prejudice, that the reader walk around their own neighborhood and simply pay attention to the condition of the sidewalks. I did just that. I walked all over that small town in central Kentucky, noticing nothing but the sidewalks. In the affluent parts of town, the sidewalks were perfect. In other parts of town, they were functional but not perfect. But in the parts of town in and near the housing projects (where I lived, by the way), the sidewalk might as well not be there. Chunks of it were missing. Sometimes it would disappear for blocks. Sometimes adjacent sections of the sidewalk might be inches or even a couple of feet apart in height, like an earthquake had hit it.
I delved deeper into the concept of social justice, and I learned about systemic classism, systemic racism, systemic sexism; and I would soon couple that with systemic heterosexism. There are structures in place that benefit some people at the expense of other people. This is not the same as personal prejudice. Sometimes people with no personal prejudice benefit from these structures without even realizing it. Look at me, a white, straight, male. I benefit from systemic injustice without even wanting it. People treat me differently simple because of this.
Sometimes, though, structures exist to enact prejudicial treatment, while masking the personal aspect of it. “I’m not racist, but there are laws against whites and blacks going to school together.” “I’m not sexist, but the rules say that only men can be in this club.” This systemic expression of the shadow goes beyond the personal.
I saw this in action after an instance of racial violence in the high school while at the congregation I’ve been talking about. As my congregation expected its pastor to be active in the community to further and to protect its interests, I was part of the conversation afterward. Sometimes the school administration invited me to meetings about the event that it didn’t invite the African-American pastors in town (see my above comments on white privilege). I guess they thought I was on their side. Here’s their side: The black kids, of course, started the fight that turned into a riot. They started the fight by being on the wrong side of the hall. In the mind of these (all white) administrators, the African-American kids were in the wrong simply by being in the “white” zone. This was in 1990, if you can believe it. Believe it.
Another instance involved small children being terrorized on the bus by others writing racial slurs in the fog on the bus windows. The mother reported this, and the administration’s response was basically, “Kids will be kids.” They did nothing. This mother and her two small children sat in my living room, telling me about it. They were hoping and expecting that I could do something about it. I did speak to the school administrators, but they didn’t think it was important enough to worry about. In the end, the only thing I could do was to tell those children that they were beautiful, that God had made them with skin that is a beautiful color just like God made me with skin that is a beautiful color, being “black” was beautiful just like being “white” was beautiful, that the kids who wrote those mean things didn’t know that yet, but that maybe they would learn it someday. The mother wept and thanked me, saying she’d never heard a white person say anything like that before. That’s quite a “something” that happened to me, something that has changed me forever.
My last post in this short series will apply my North Star of biblical interpretation and my understanding of the personal and systemic shadow to the issue of gay rights. Once again, I want to thank you for reading this. I know that the forthcoming post about gay rights will contain opinions and perspectives with which some of you will not agree. I can only offer them as my own. I love you and respect you, but I wholeheartedly think that Christians who oppose gay rights are misusing the Bible and are engaged in behavior, whether conscious or stemming from the “shadow,” that systemically oppresses a class of people. And, if you are one of those persons, I will oppose you.
(Originally published at Divine Salve)