Spiritual Blindness in White Privilege
Marisa Guerin, PhD - January 26, 2021
We can only live our lives as embodied physical beings, with our own gender, race, sexuality, and abilities – and this includes how we live our spiritual journey.
I have had an inkling of this truth because I am aware of the difference that my being a woman makes. It influences my personal images of God, and it definitely impacts my sense of inclusion (or lack thereof) in my Roman Catholic faith community. However, what I didn’t really appreciate so much before is how my spiritual journey is also inescapably influenced by my life experience as a White person in a society infected by systemic racism.
I found myself reflecting on this recently, as I encountered the words of theologian James Cone in one of the daily emailed meditations that I get from Fr. Richard Rohr, on the theme of the liberating experience of worship in the Black community. I read it with interest, because my husband and I have been members for years in a Black Catholic parish. Here is part of the quote from James Cone:
“Black worship itself is a liberating event for those who share the experience of the people that bears witness to God’s presence in their midst. Through prayer, testimony, song, and sermon the people transcend the limitations of their immediate history and encounter the divine power, thereby creating a moment of ecstasy and joy wherein they recognize that the pain of oppression is not the last word about black life.
“… the meaning of this event, according to the people, is found in their liberating encounter with the divine Spirit. In this encounter, they are set free as children of God. To understand what this means for black people, we need only to remember that they have not known freedom in white America. Therefore, to be told, “You are free, my children” is to create indescribable joy and excitement in the people. They sing because they are free. Black worship is a celebration of freedom…. For black people’s singing, praying, and preaching are not grounded in any human potentiality but in the actuality of God’s freedom to be with the oppressed as disclosed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is their freedom.”
The resonance of these words with my own experience of worship in our parish rose up within me as two insights. First, I recognized of the truth of this description; it matches my own observation of the fully-embraced joy, passion and reverence of the music, scripture, and times of prayer in our weekly Sunday Mass. And second, with some pain, I recognized that my own path to welcoming God’s freedom is not the same, and cannot be the same, as the path of my fellow parishioners who are African Americans.
Because I am White, I have been protected my whole life from the stress and traumas of life as a Black or Brown person in these United States. That’s just a fact, as consequential as anything can be. I understand many of its ramifications and I do my best to be anti-racist. What I didn’t think about before, however, is that the whiteness that protects me from racial unfreedom also produces in me a kind of spiritual blindness. The illusion of safety veils my eyes, putting me at an invisible remove from the visceral yearning for liberation that springs from genuine need.
It makes sense to me that my brothers and sisters who cannot escape the implacable threat of dangerous racism may be more directly in touch with the spirit’s desire for liberation and more immediately joyful in recognizing the gift of God’s grace. Perhaps one of the great dangers of privilege is that it can seduce me with a false security. It can obscure the truth of my radical dependence on the Holy One who sustains my life. There is no thirsting for the waters of love and justice if I live under the illusions that my racial privilege saves me.
As I have turned these thoughts over in my mind, I found words for an experience I did not know how to name before: I am being evangelized by my parish. Belonging to this parish community is leading me into a more profound place of worship and praise, even though I will never be confused about the difference between how I am privileged to move through the world as a White person, versus the barriers that racism erects for so many of my friends and neighbors.
Mike and I have been sorely missing our parish life during these recent months of resurgent covid, and we are anxious to return. Today, I am feeling deeply grateful for the gift of being graciously included in this community, as we each in our own ways open our hearts to the One who makes us free.