Why are white people like me kept uncomfortably guilty by the jealousy of God. Why must we bear our fathers’ sins?
by Jack Hoehn | 26 June 2020 |
I don’t own one of those idiotic KKK headdresses. I have no Confederate flag. My ancestors never kept slaves. Some of my best friends are black. I worked day and night with all my energy and most of my resources for African people during the prime productive 13 years of my life. My sons were bred and/or born in Africa. I can’t stand Trump. So, I am your typical Adventist white racist.
Typical because I don’t think I am a racist, because I am nice to people who are unlike me. Typical because I belong to a church that officially never supported slavery. Typical because it is easy to feel comfortable with black people who have learned how to speak and act like white people, either to protect themselves, or as an accident of their upbringing. And typical because I don’t like it when people of color say I am a racist.
I’m even a little tolerant. I sometimes attend church when the once-a-year Black History Sabbath is scheduled at Walla Walla University. I enjoy hearing black choirs sing with different rhythm and intonations than white choirs. And I can take it, once in a while, when Pedrito Maynard-Reed stresses our church organ to sound like a theatre organ accompanying the War of 1812 instead of Bach or Mendelssohn. And, for Heaven’s sake, my wife and I strongly supported the installation of an English-trained African as our lead pastor. He speaks to our students in language they understand, and we value his skill. Sometimes he speaks to me.
So why don’t I get it? Why do I want to respond to “Black Lives Matter” with, but “Cops’ Lives Matter Too.” And, God forgive me, I dare not speak it, but “Property Matters.” Why am I weary of having to think about this every waking minute of every day for week after week after week? I just want Jesus to come and get it all over with.
I want to be over COVID-19, I want to be over police brutality, I want to be over rioting and burning and looting, I want to be over feeling bad about myself. I want to be over feeling bad about you. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, it’s all bad. I want it all to be good, better, best. Good boy (you agreed to share a room with a black roommate when you were 13); better young man (you trained with the focused goal of becoming a mission doctor in Africa); best old man (you are a stubborn political and church reformer trying to ordain women, welcome homosexuals, and vote down Trumpians). But I can’t. And you can’t either.
We Can Never Be Over It
There are many things that we can’t get over. No person born female can get over it. No person born black gets over it. Dead people don’t get over it. My brother-in-law jumped into a river and hit his neck on a rock. He never “got over” his quadriplegia. He lived with it. I don’t think a gay person can be expected to “get over it.” So too we white people facing our racism cannot expect to “get over it.” This is something we must learn to live with. Not just for weeks of rioting, not for months of COVID-19 social distancing, not for years of economic setbacks or privations, but for all our lives. From first breath to last, there is a fact of generational white supremacism that is our lifelong burden, placed on us by our ancestors, and not to be denied or squirmed out from. White people are born advantaged by whiteness; we are also born cursed by whiteness.
God Is Jealous
We read our Bible. We know what it says. “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” White Adventists, do we imagine that this does not apply to us? Yes, I know this same God shows mercy to thousands of generations. But why should we, in the midst of God’s abundant mercies to us, imagine we have the option of avoiding the visitations of guilt and responsibility for our ancestors’ iniquities?
I don’t like God being called jealous. But jealousy is a crime of love. And our God Jesus is LOVE incarnate. God the Father is LOVE originated. Invisible LOVE is the unseen Spirit operating the universe. And Love cares. Love does not permit us to have any other loves before me. Love does not permit any reduction of itself, any shrinkage of Love into any graven image, any likeness, any creature, any thing. Love may not be blackened or whitened or reddened or yellowed or purpled. And if we shrink Love, if we retract Love, if we cheapen Love, if we abuse Love, God is jealous. And iniquities are generational. Children will be visited—children are visited. It’s the law.
Freddie Gray Didn’t Die from a Police Van
If you lived in Baltimore in April of 2015, you know about Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr. This 25-year-old black man was arrested by police officers and placed handcuffed into a police van. During his arrest he cried out in pain, and was subsequently taken out of the van crying out now infamous words, “I can’t breathe!”
He died a week later from “catastrophic injuries to the spinal cord” and six police officers were charged with homicide—“murder and manslaughter.” (None were ever convicted.) But there were protests and riots, including burning and looting in Baltimore that lasted from April 25 to May 3.
As Wes Moore, author of a new book on the Baltimore riots called Five Days, revealed in an interview on CBS This Morning, Freddie Gray’s death is not an event starting with the police arrest and transport in the van. Freddie Gray was born severely underweight and many weeks premature. He was addicted to heroin at birth. When the baby was old enough and large enough to be discharged from the hospital to a mother’s care who had never made it into high school, he was living in housing condemned for toxic lead levels for his first two years of life.
Policing reform is important, but it was not just the iniquities of the six responsible police officers in 2015 that were being visited on Freddie Gray. And it is not just the iniquities of the police officers who murdered George Floyd that are now being visited on all white people. It is the iniquities of the sins of our ancestors, at a minimum to the third and fourth generations, that all of us now carry.
White people, black people, brown people—it is not enough to mourn the deaths and march and protest or burn and loot because of the untimely deaths of Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor, Tyrone West, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. What we are being required by a jealous God of Love is not to simply mourn their deaths; it is to mourn their lives before their deaths.
We must mourn Freddie Gray’s mother’s lack of education; Freddie Gray’s prematurity mirroring his mother’s economic status; Freddie Gray’s addiction to heroin at birth; Freddie Gray’s exposure to lead before two years of age. This is what we privileged must mourn, not just his death at the hands of people looking like us. But his life before his death formed by the actions, the sins, of our ancestors.
Killing by white police officers can be restrained. The generational poverty and deprivation of people of color cannot be “gotten over.” Those of us who know some measure of prosperity, who have some money in the bank, who own mutual funds based on stocks or bonds, who live in houses and drink water not poisoned by lead, who have not been pulled over because we looked dangerous—cannot ever hope to return to “like it was.” We must learn how to “live with other’s lives” every day, every election, every time we pay our taxes, every time we calculate our tithe, every time we make a donation, every time we buy a thing. Just as every person of color has to “live with it” every day of their lives, so I have to learn to “live with it” every day of my white life.
Every black child has to receive “the talk” about how her/his color will put them at risk of being pulled over by police, or make shop owners visibly track them in their shops, or decrease their chance of being hired for a position. So, every white child needs to receive “the talk” about how our Spanish ancestors “explored” this new world by severing the feet of young men in villages or plucking eyeballs from old men who refused to beg for their lives. The Spanish government’s law permitted Native Americans to be converted to Christianity IF they committed to 20 years’ labor on estates or in the gold mines after their “conversion.”
The celebrated Fathers of the United States of America include slaveholders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The grand and glorious US Constitution provided that humans who were slaves were counted in census as three-fifths of a person, but along with white women (who were counted as whole persons) were, of course, not permitted to vote. The Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3) prohibited slaves from escaping to another state where slavery was not permitted. The Constitution made illegal any attempt to stop the importation of new slaves for at least 30 years after the adoption of the Constitution.
After the blood-drenched American Civil War, the 13th amendment to the Constitution was passed, outlawing slavery. Although attempts were made to redress the unpaid servitude of black Americans, such as giving each freed man “40 acres of land and an army mule” left over from the war in 1865, these grants were quickly withdrawn by Abraham Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson. Lands given to blacks were all returned to their pre-war white owners. So began the institutionalization of black poverty as wage earners instead of landowners. The Jim Crow era began that persisted until well after my own birth.
Not Getting Over It
If you didn’t get “the talk” from your parents, if you didn’t give your children “the talk,” can’t we still give it to our grandchildren? Even if uncomfortable with having the racial sins of our ancestors visited upon us “nice people” descendants, it is still time to consciously begin to sniff out racist comments in our social groups. “I know it is not politically correct, but…” is a clue that it is wrong. Let’s begin to recognize the bitterness of white people complaining about the “unfairness” of “affirmative action” that “hurts white people” by spreading that concept of fairness out over the past 400 years.
My Italian brother-in-law, successful businessman, told me he had to consciously begin to hear. He had to swallow his cultural distastes and begin to listen to people he didn’t think he liked. He had to begin to watch and listen to rappers and musicians whose rap and music turned him off. And he discovered, by listening—on talk shows, on late night programs, on interviews—that there were people and things he did like and could understand underneath the cultural dissonance. We don’t have to enjoy Rap, but we can learn to respect Rappers. We don’t have to approve of the throwaway sexual innuendo of pop-queen performers, but we can learn that there can be a kind heart and great intentions hidden under the flounce and fluff.
Update Your Bible-ese
Here is a handy cheat sheet to help bring your Bibles up to date.
- When the Bible says “aliens” – it doesn’t mean Space Wars invaders in costumes. It means illegal and legal immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Syria, Yemen, Kurdistan.
- When the Bible says “orphans” – it includes any children with less than two functional parents—children with single fathers, single mothers, divorced families. It includes any child dispossessed from their cultures, such as people rejected by their cultures for religion, politics, sexual preferences, ethnicity reasons.
- When the Bible says “captives” who are to be liberated, that is not only prisoners of war; that means all people in jail–anyone who is involuntarily deprived of their liberty. The use of imprisonment as a punishment or worse “deterrent” to crime is a proven failure. There are undoubtedly some people best kept in prison, but there are undoubtedly many more who should be brought back intentionally to a sustainable position in society.
- The “poor” in the Bible – we are promised to always have with us. This does not mean we are permitted to leave them poor. We are told to give “good news to the poor.” That often means money, not a tract. At least a livable minimum wage. And if you can give them more than money, like a job or education, that is even better news.
- “Deliver from the hand of the oppressor” includes landlords, gerrymanderers, credit sharks, and male headship theologians.
- “Recovering of sight to the blind” includes offering health and dental care for all. Do you know of a better way than universal health/dental insurance supported by all of us lucky enough to be able to pay taxes?
The Long Haul
If God holds us responsible for the results of the racial sins of our ancestors, this is not going to be a quick fix. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “Racial disparity doesn’t make for gripping YouTube videos. It doesn’t spark mass protests because it’s not an event; it’s just the daily condition of our lives.” So I need to learn how to daily work not only on reducing my own personal racism, but also on the larger longer projects of reducing racial disparities between wealth and poverty that have led to so many of today’s repeated tragedies and riotous despair. It doesn’t solve the deep problems to simply tear down statues and burn flags, but sometimes doing something symbolic is the only option open. Give the unemployed, poorly paid, alcohol and drug oppressed other options, interesting jobs making things they can be proud of, working on helping nature thrive, and creating beauty and efficiency in our infrastructure. From hiking trails to curbed bicycle lanes to gardens and parks to freeways and bridges. In a society where having the food and environment and preventative health care needed to become the healthiest nation on earth, with universal health care a human right. Tax booze like tobacco, and have readily available non-alcoholic mocktail beverages in every bar as a condition of licensure. Develop farmers markets in city ghettos. These projects need a person to dream, and a practical person who can get things done, and lots of people who like the project to support it with money or with time and talent. A guy with an all-wheel drive truck or van, with a team of 4 unemployed guys and girls could start clearing trails, bridging ditches, making trail side benches for hikers like me to catch my breath on, or stop for a midday snack.
I can’t reform the police; I can influence the police officers I know. I can’t solve poverty; I can pay good wages and generous tips. I can’t adopt all orphans; I can help a single parent with a scholarship for their children. I can’t make the poor rich, but I can support changes that make being poor less terrible. I can’t change the past, but I can be sure I work to change the present. I can’t open the borders; I can support immigration reform. I can’t change laws, but I can vote for people who will.
Dr. Lawrence Downing coauthored a book I am reading, and in it he quoted Pablo Picasso as saying: “I am always doing things I can’t do. That is how I get to do them.” That is the challenge I see for people like me: begin to do things we didn’t think we wanted to do or could do or that God wants us to do.
Perhaps all people like me can learn to accept and redress our generational white advantages. Perhaps all dreamers can become citizens. Perhaps all police can become gentler and fairer. Perhaps jails will become largely emptied. Perhaps carnivores will become vegetarians. Perhaps the General Conference will be headed by Sandra Roberts… Who knows, perhaps even God will then be able to retire his Love-based jealousy that requires us to take action on our ancestors’ sins?
 Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, allocated Congressional representation based “on the whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons.” This clause was a compromise between Southerners, who wished slaves to be counted as “persons” for congressional representation, and Northerners rejecting these out of concern of too much power for the South, because representation in the new Congress would be based on population. Wikipedia.
Jack Hoehn is a retired physician living in Walla Walla, Washington. He reveals his ancestry: His father was Canadian of German stock. His mother was Canadian of an English mother and a Mixed ancestry Scottish line of Hudson Bay fur trappers, including a great-great-great-grandmother known as Nestisho who was a Cree First Nations woman.