"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Black Lives are Sacred Day 15: Apologizing for Racism

For centuries Christians have called Mary the Ark of the Covenant. As they used other Jewish titles for her, seldom have they accepted the fact that she was a Jew. If Mary had lived in Nazi Germany, Mary would have been thrown into a concentration camp with other members of her race. Jewish Mary is the archetype of the Christian church, a church that stood by silently while her people were being exterminated. This icon is an act of repentance for Christian indifference, then and now. We shudder at what the Nazis did, but 1,000 years of forced conversions and violent persecutions by Christians paved the way for the Nazi Holocaust.

Robert Lentz, "Captive Daughter of Zion." More info/Purchase.

I'd planned to post another Black Mary this Saturday. And I had planned this post as a low-key one following up on "Confessing Racism" --mostly consisting of quotes and links discussing helpful and unhelpful ways to respond to being called out for racism by others and/or the Holy Spirit. And I had a couple of tame anecdotes about what I think were fairly effective apologies-one to a colleague and one to a friend--it's still a relatively new part of my personal experience since having actual black people in my life is too.

The Spirit, She had other plans--as did St. Teresa of Avila, whose feast is today and who was the daughter and granddaughter of persecuted, forcibly converted Jews publicly shamed by the Spanish Inquisition. Because this Yom Kippur they brought me to face the deep well within me of another deadly racist sin of hatred, bigotry, and profound structural injustice and abuse: anti-Semitism. So the Black Lives Matter Madonna went up yesterday leaving time for much challenging prayer and reflection which was also a good reminder as I become more comfortable with wearing my BLM t-shirt on Fridays to consider it more like sackcloth and less like a medal. And it feels like the only way to address this topic with integrity is to posting and discuss the apology I posted on the friend's Facebook wall where it happened:

You are totally right, N., and thank you so much for the sisterly correction confirming and deepening the Spirit's points in my examen that night and allowing me to offer public amends for the public offense. I am heartily sorry for all the ways I hurt you and your readers by both comments: harsh judgment, rash judgment, self-deception, arrogance, defensiveness, willful ignorance of my privilege, sexism...and especially anti-Semitism, which is appalling in a theologian and must have been especially traumatic on Yom Kippur. I would be humbly grateful for your forgiveness and especially--since your friend exercised wise self care in blocking me--for your passing the message of amends on to her with, of course, no expectation of a response unless she would find it more healing.

Rather than going into the details of my immense fail, I will focus on the the dynamics of the process both internally and in the associated conversations. It is profoundly characteristic of the defensive, dismissive response that people with structural unjust power and privilege often give when confronted by a member or ally of an oppressed group for hurtful behavior. And it is certainly the one I have found most frustrating and traumatizing in male responses to my own prophetic speech on sexism--both my own partner in dismissing my analyses of the concrete injustices in our own relationship and men who claim to be feminists and use this to aggressively justify rather than apologize for sexist behavior.

One of the reasons I have been so shaken by it is finding the exact same thing in myself on an issue where I felt highly, smugly, and judgmentally confident of being totally immune due to my theological training and advocacy in teaching and ministry against the many forms of unwitting anti-Semitism often found in Christian preaching, exegesis, iconography, and spirituality....Which is also why I am so grateful to God and Her courageous human voices for getting through to me when I resisted so strongly and came so close to staying in that defensive place and missing this huge and really important invitation to repentance, learning, and growth on this specific issue as well as all the other ways that I hold unjust power and privilege.

So, long story shortish: Wednesday night I find a really cool feminist language blog by a linguistics scholar and start gobbling up the posts. I come across one post on women (supposedly) apologizing too much and post the link on my FB, tagging a dear friend whom I knew would be interested because of some past discussions on apologies and overapologies. She reposts it with an acknowledging tag, adds her own helpful comment on the topic, as does one of her FB friends I have occasionally conversed with at her place. I visit her page, weigh in with an appropriate comment sharing my own perspective...and then another comment with some intense and unprocessed venting about another blog that I felt recently blew off, rather than acknowledging, two polite and grounded critiques.

I attribute this to a combination of moral cowardice and privilege on their parts--both what is clear from their bios and what I assume, and pretty similar to mine--remarking in passing that as far as I can see their only oppressed identities are being female and, in one case, Jewish. (Kind of questioning should I mention the latter since I know that my friend's friend is Jewish, but rationalizing that I mean it well as an acknowledgment of not being totally privileged). Needless to say my friend's friend is hurt and protests with some warmth; I respond with total defensiveness focusing on a niggly point of what I thought she thought I was saying, and the even more traumatized friend's friend responds to say she is blocking me.

Still totally closed-hearted and clueless, I vent some more to Katie and ComputerGuy about my innocence and good intentions and her oversensitive overreaction; and some minor imperfection in one earlier conversation; and Christ have mercy, think to myself that Jews aren't really oppressed any more, they're white and well off; and put it out of my mind totally convinced that I am the victim. And Christ have mercy again, looking forward to more venting about the blog I critiqued in this very post since the topic is directly related. Soon afterward I go into the bedroom, light my oil lamp, and start praying about my hurt feelings...and somehow, slowly and very gently and frankly miraculously, parts of the truth start to dawn on me and send some shoots into my intensely closed heart and mind.

I start to see disturbing mirrors when I remember a white friend in grad school saying another friend isn't really oppressed because his subgroup of Latinos are relatively comfortable (I snickered right along with him). I see the likeness of my behavior to the men who haven't listened to me and the standard public salt in the wound non-apologies whenever a celebrity is called out for racism; recognize it as similar but far worse defensiveness as that on the blog I mocked; start to recognize some of the immense and unjust Christian privilege I hold over the blogger I mocked, and my friend's friend, and the 8th grade friend whose courageous protest about Christmas carols at a secular prep school I totally dismissed; and realize with horror that it is Yom Kippur, of all days surely the worst to both harm a Jewish person and fail to apologize when confronted. I pray with calm, mild contrition and gratitude and resolve to write an amends message to my friend and to ask her to forward one to her friend, and put it out of my mind until it becomes possible on Friday morning after my weekly personal day of rest from work and internet on Thursday.

Friday morning I awake refreshed and ready to take action--even looking forward to it a bit--and start reflecting on what to say to my friend when I contact her, and how much to apologize to her personally since I am not sure how seriously she may be taking the whole thing. Something nudges me to review the actual conversation before writing so I visit her page. And it plunges my heart to a totally new depth of the sweet and searing Truth that is Jesus the Jew tortured and murdered by imperially privileged Gentiles like me to find that she has written a profoundly calm, incisive, kind, and respectful comment. And that it is a stunning example of how to embody the spiritual work of mercy of admonishing the sinner as well as the ally work of using her unjust privilege--Christian, in this case--to advocate for an oppressed person deprived of it, without a shred of the shaming, triumph, and self-satisfaction that characterizes so much of call-out culture and has often tainted my own practice.

It starts by acknowledging my two valid points about the blog, which begin to feel very small; asks me to examine my own privilege; and points out that both misogyny and anti-Semitism are endemic in public discourse right now and that the bloggers have no doubt experienced both. It is so effective not just because of its quality but because it draws from a rich account of relational capital: the bond we share as scholars, mothers, and women of faith as well as her constant readiness to both honor my achievements and insights and offer compassion for the the injustices and traumas I have faced. And it is reinforced by her modelling of integrity and accountability including a post earlier that day acknowledging posting an article that said "not-x," with the comment "Both the article and I were wrong, and here is a reference demonstrating x, and this is why it is really important that we all clearly recognize x."

A private person with the utmost respect for the dignity of others, I knew that she must have engaged serious discernment about speaking publicly--and the fact that she did, combined with the way that she did, drew my attention to the gravity of the offense like nothing else could and enabled me first to see and then to name the constellation of sins in the apology above. And to start making lived amends by finding Jewish blogs, especially feminist ones, and being even more horrified to learn that anti-Semitism is alive and real and hideous today.

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