christianity in America

Not Created for Shame

By Bentley Stewart

“We were not meant to live in shame...” Richard Spencer, white nationalist who popularized the term ‘alt-right.’

I agree.

Let me state that again. I AGREE. We are NOT meant to live in shame.

Notice that I limited Spencer’s quote. There is a very limited amount upon which I can find agreement with him. Even in this limited quote, he and I understand “we” differently.

When he says “we were not meant to live in shame,” he means that white people are not meant to live in shame. His “WE” is white.

I speak as a person of faith. God did not intend for humanity to live in shame. In Genesis 3, God beckons the first human family out of hiding in shame. We are not meant for shame. Humanity, which includes white people, is not meant for shame. Shame robs us of the abundant life that God desires for us and Jesus proclaimed. 

I agree with another thing that Spencer said in this edited clip. Here’s the other comment of Spencer’s with which I (mostly) agree:

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” 

Here’s how I would state it: “America was designed for white people.”   

When I use the term “white supremacy,” this is what I mean. “America was designed for white people.” (Some use the term differently and I have much to learn from those nuances.) 

“White supremacy” is the version of racism that is endemic to the United States. In other places, there are other versions of racism. It is also important to note that white supremacy exists beyond our shores.

Before I explain what I mean that “America was designed for white people,” let me define racism.

One problem is that the term “racism” has become a shaming pejorative. Remember, I profess faith in a God who desires that we leave shame behind. Calling someone a racist does not have a good track record for liberating people from racism. When I am shamed, I have two default responses. Accept the shame and wallow in it or reject the shame by breaking relationship with the messenger. Wallowing in shame is not only miserable for me. Wallowing in shame serves no one. 

My working definition of “racism” is informed by the Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my ordaining body. 

Racism = Race Prejudice + Misuse of Institutional Power

We, all of humanity, have prejudices and biases. Don’t believe me? Take a test on implicit biases and prove me wrong. We all have prejudices. It is part of the survival strategy of mammals. In any given moment, we are experiencing too much stimuli to make conscious decisions about all of it. We have prejudices. We pre-judge, in part, to filter our experiences. Without these prejudices, we would be overwhelmed by the number of decisions we would be forced to make in any given moment. Part of what it means to be human is that we have the freedom and responsibility to question our prejudices so that we are not limited by preconceived notions. 

Having prejudices based on appearance is not racism. It is part of what it means to be human. 

Instead of unpacking the phrase “misuse of institutional power,” I will return to Spencer’s quote:  

“America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity,” Spencer said. “It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.” 

European settlers claimed the land that Indigenous Peoples had lived on for generations. Their relationship with the land was forged through generations of loving and learning from the land as they struggled to survive and thrive. The First Nations people were claimed by the land as much, if not more, than they claimed the land. 

This week used to be my favorite holiday. For me, there is no greater spiritual discipline than the corporate practice of gratitude. And, it is becoming harder and harder for me to reconcile my appreciation for this holiday and the genocide it sanitizes. 

Please do not stop reading there. Remember, I do not believe that we were created for shame.

A quick distinction between shame and guilt:

Guilt says I did something bad.

Shame says I am bad.

Guilt is about behavior and shame is about the person.

In order to face the legacies of the displacement and genocide of this land’s indigenous people and the enslavement of people from Africa, we need to confront our historic guilt over this behavior. However, we must not wallow in shame. We were not meant for shame. Shame serves no one. In fact, the insidious pathology of shame allows us to avoid our guilt. If I am a bad person, then all I am capable of is bad. I am incapable of anything good. I am not accountable for my behavior. From the place of shame, I bypass my guilt, which means I forfeit my agency to engage in any new behavior. 

When we use the sickness of shame to bypass our guilt, we then seek ways to self-medicate the shame with all sorts of numbing agents to desensitize ourselves from the pain of one another. If I collude with the lie that there is nothing I can do about how racism oppresses people, then I will strive to maintain willful blindness about racism. 

Perhaps, you are thinking. Hey, I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t own slaves. Why should I feel guilty? I strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

Again, I speak as a person of faith. 

"The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Numbers 14:18

God loves us. God did not create us for shame. And, God loves justice. God loves us so much that God cares about our behavior. God wants us to love as we have been loved. 

The verse above has been used by some to talk about “generational curses” and by others as way to talk about “systemic sin.” Whatever your preferred nomenclature, our country’s original sin is racism. The soil of our land, from sea to shining sea, is soaked in the blood of racism. We still eat the poisonous fruit from this blood-soaked soil.

For this reason, I try to avoid referring to people as “racist.” Again, it is a shaming pejorative. Shame serves no one and God never meant us for shame.

Rather, I say that we live in a country struggling with the insidious systemic evil of racism. We all suffer from how racism misshapes our God-given identities as beings of dignity and sacred worth. God wants to liberate us, ALL of us, white people too, from racism. We are meant for so much more. We are meant for the abundant life of becoming the beloved community.

As a citizen of this nation, I am confronted daily, multiple times a day, with the choice to resist racism or to collude with the powers and principalities. Other citizens, such as Spencer and other white nationalists, have decided to publicly profess their allegiance to this evil. 

The temptation is to think that just because I am not professing white supremacy that I am somehow free from racism. In my analysis, we are all confronted with choices daily that present opportunities to collude with or resist racism. I mess up all the time. I refuse to let my missteps to be the end of my journey towards liberation from racism. 

If you have read this far, I want to thank you. I want to leave you with a word of hope. Before that, I offer an invitation and a practice: begin to examine your known world for the vestiges of racism. Freed from shame, examine the ways in which you resist the powers of racism and the places where you collude with those powers and principalities.  Every morning, ask yourself how will I resist racism today? How will I be an agent of liberation from racism?

From Romans 8: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

The soil of our land is soaked in the blood of racism. Our land was subjected to the evil of racism. Creation itself is rooting for us, the children of God, to be revealed. Our liberation will be discovered in celebrating our interconnectedness and seeking justice for all.

May we seek to be better caretakers of the interconnected web of creation and by the grace of God, when we stumble on our way to becoming the beloved community, may we fall forward towards love and justice. 


Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman. 

 

Racism, Ferguson, and the Mainline Liberal Church

By Rev. Mindi

At the time I am writing this, a state of emergency has been declared in Ferguson, Missouri, as the results of a grand jury investigating the death of Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014 are soon to be released. Officer Darren Wilson has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting of the unarmed teenager.

If you haven’t been paying attention, there have been protests every day since Michael’s death. Peaceful protests. In the first week, much attention was paid to the “riots” which were, in fact, twelve businesses that were vandalized, mainly by out-of-town people according to reports. There have been no officers harmed in any of the protests, but plenty of protestors have been shot at with rubber bullets, assaulted, and arrested. Yet the protests have continued on, and they haven’t been in the media’s eye because they have been peaceful. Because they have continued on, day after day, demanding justice for Michael Brown and for other young black people who have been killed by police violence.

The state of emergency declaration means the National Guard has arrived. Police have been militarized. They are ready for war, against a people who are crying out for the right to live, the right to exist. I hear people say “It is the 1960’s all over again,” but in reality, this has been the daily life of Black Americans. When I speak to my black friends, this is the fear they live: that they will be pulled over, that they will be assaulted, that they will be presumed guilty when they walk into a store or walk down the street, that they will be hurt or killed without question. This is not a fear I live with as a white person, but it is a fear made real to me as I hear stories from the black members of my church, from the black children who have been kicked out of stores for fear of shoplifting when they were just talking loud.

Racism is rooted in the heart of America. It is rooted in our Constitution that only saw black people as 3/5ths of a person. It is rooted in our forefathers and foremothers owning of slaves. It is rooted in our economy, our history, our social construction and our community planning. It is rooted in the heart of the American church, too.

In the mainline liberal church, we have been slow throughout history to take up the cause of justice. We put our hands in our pockets or cover our ears, thinking the church doesn’t have a voice in this. We get involved slowly, reluctantly, whether it be against racism or against misogyny or against homophobia and transphobia or against ableism. And the truth is we have never, ever recovered from our sin of racism, a sin that also caused us to wipe out tribe after tribe in the name of Jesus when the church came to the Americas.

As we raise our rainbow flags, remember that LGBTQ voices of persons of color need to be lifted up and heard. As we work to include people of all abilities, let us remember the persons of color with disabilities. As we work to include more women in church leadership, let us work to include women of color into the pulpit and other leadership positions. White persons end up taking up the space in other marginalized groups. Racism still prevails, even when we think we are working for equality for all.

Pray for Ferguson now. Follow the #Ferguson hashtag on Twitter and social media. Sign up for the daily newsletter at This is the Movement. And pastors, church leaders and others: read the Faith in Ferguson blog and follow #FergusonTheology on Twitter. Preach on injustice and racism, especially this Sunday, as the grand jury decision will probably be out by then. If you follow the lectionary, the Matthew 25 passage preaches Ferguson. Involve your church in anti-racism work. If there are protests planned in your city, perhaps your church can be a safe place for organizers to gather, for protestors to rest. Or think of the protestors needs: water, hats, gloves, prayer. What can you do? What would Jesus have you do?