Communion and White Fear

December 5, 2014

photo by Jon BehmAs demonstrations continue around the country, protesting the deaths of African American men at the hands of police, we need to talk about White fear. Like many of the posts on this blog, it may seem to have little to do with Holy Communion, but from what I can see, it has everything to do with it — at least for those of us who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus. It’s just that our practice of Holy Communion has become so impoverished that we don’t see how deeply they’re connected. White fear is a symptom of a kind of spiritual poverty that Holy Communion, as a spiritual practice, was meant to heal. The fact that it doesn’t, the fact that Holy Communion does little or nothing to reduce White fear in this country, and in many cases actually reinforces it, speaks condemnation upon the church.

If you’re White like me, then White fear isn’t always that easy to see. It mostly looks like nice, clean neighborhoods, and employment opportunity based on hard work, and police who are willing to do the difficult job of defending communities and the rule of law. White fear sounds like the voice of reason: we need to be unified. We need to pull together and talk the problem out. Peace and safety first, then we can address grievances.

Chances are, White fear has been a little easier for you to see lately, but just in case you’re still not seeing it clearly, I’ll try, with my own limited ability, to help. When a White police officer with a gun sees a Black teen his own height as a giant who makes him feel like a five-year-old, that is at least partly White fear. When civic leaders send out armored personnel carriers and instruct police to aim loaded guns at crowds of unarmed, mostly Black civilians, that is the face of White fear. (Have you seen all the police pointing loaded guns at unruly White college students who are burning cars after football games? No? Exactly.) When the governor, or the mayor, or the chief of police speaks of unity and calm without ever acknowledging a problem, or warns protestors to stop being unruly “before someone gets killed” (Who could that be? Hint: it’s not the police), that is White fear. When gun sales in the St. Louis area go up 300 percent before then grand jury decision, that is White fear. (You don’t really think all those gun buyers were African American, do you?) When African Americans are relentlessly stopped by police while driving through White neighborhoods, or walking through White neighborhoods, or shopping in grocery stores in White neighborhoods, or standing around looking too grumpy in White neighborhoods, that is White fear.

This is not the fear of the small, helpless child. It is not the fear of the elderly woman in the store parking lot at night. It is the fear of the privileged. It’s the fear of those of us who have so very much to defend. It’s the fear of the entitled, the owners. It’s the fear of those of us who bristle and seethe at anything that might puncture our willful ignorance of the cost of our comfort.

It is also the fear of the exploited, working-class “competitor.” It is the fear of less affluent people who have been conditioned to keep their attention focused on the threat of the Mexican immigrant and the African American welfare mother, rather than noticing the corporations that are driving down wages and crop prices, and the Wall Street insiders who are risking pensions, and the political leaders (of both parties) who are selling them out in back rooms with lobbyists. It is the fear that the government will take what little we have and give it to people who are undeserving. It is the fear that the thin line dividing us from them — whatever “them” we’ve been taught to fear — might be lost.

White fear is part myth, relying upon the racialized imagination of many generations. (Ask yourself: why were at least one-third of African American lynchings based on the accusation of rape of a White woman?) It is part ideology, working itself into a frenzy to defend a worldview where the status quo, with its prison pipeline, its shockingly unequal school systems, and its disparity of life expectancy, seems justifiable. If we’re going to be honest, though, White fear is also based on a degree of reality. The truth is that, in an era of unprecedented disparity between the poor and the 1%, in an era when African Americans lost their homes in disproportionate numbers during the recent recession while many wealthier (mostly White) Americans often saw significant gains, there is, in fact, wealth, power, and privilege at stake. Deep down, White fear is based in an awareness of injustice, and potential cost of making things right.

White fear is also a symptom of a deeper spiritual loss: the denial of our deeper connectedness.  It’s the loss of the ability to encounter the divine in people who are “other” to us, whose perspectives challenge and push us.  It’s not a coincidence that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples, he comes as a stranger: on the road to Emmaus, by a campfire on the beach, as a landscape worker in the cemetery.  It’s not a coincidence that the disciples at Emmaus only recognize Jesus when they invite the stranger in.  White fear is a symptom of the disruption of this kind of spiritual maturation and discovery.

What can possibly begin to neutralize that kind of fear? The solution is complex, and I don’t think it will help to oversimplify, but here’s one piece of the puzzle, from this little corner of the blogosphere. Jesus, with an odd, seemingly sanctified genius, invited people to step outside of their silos of privilege or oppression, and join him for dinner. Together. That was key. He understood, I believe, the spiritual poverty of being separated from people whose circumstances are different, but connected to our own. He also understood the deeper communion that we all share, and the sense of awe, even sacramentality, that comes when we encounter people who are “other” within a sacred frame of reference.  And so he invited them to take risks, and eat together. “Invite those who cannot repay you,” he said. “Go out and find the poor, the disabled, the sick.” He ate with religious leaders and with prostitutes. He ate with wealthy tax collectors and with those who had nothing to eat. Take a risk. Sit down here. Before you know it, the Beloved Community of God will come near.

It’s not a coincidence that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a time when the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners would sit down at a table together.  Rev. King understood that “nonviolent resistance does resist,” but he also understood is that the goal of nonviolence is to convert the heart of one’s opponent. The strategy is to connect, to call forth the mixture of compassion and shame that will cause people who are participating in unjust systems to stop cooperating with those unjust powers and step over the line. It is aimed toward something stronger than fear.

Especially in a time of gross injustice and deep division, we need spiritual practices that push us to risk engaging each other in challenging and constructive ways. So, despite my nervousness, I will get to my point here and try not to mince words: from what I’ve been reading in scripture, we who are White can’t get together with all of our White, upper-middle class friends in our safe, clean sanctuary, and do anything that even comes close to resembling Holy Communion. It’s just not possible. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s worse than self-deception to call it that. It’s exactly the kind of piety mixed with injustice and division that made the prophet Amos so mad. He was outraged enough to imagine God saying:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.

Remember when Paul got so mad at the wealthy church folk in Corinth, because they got off work early and had already eaten (and gotten drunk) by the time the people who worked late at Wal-Mart and Waste Management had taken the bus to get there? He was as mad as Amos. He said that when the rich folks came and ate and drank without those in need, they failed to discern the deeper unity – the fact that we are all one body. He said they ended up eating and drinking judgment against themselves. In other words, when their churchy eating and drinking actually reinforced division instead of breaking it down, it was like anti-Communion or something. It was worse than doing nothing, because it made them feel like they were in sync with God and others when they weren’t. Ouch.

I have a lot of White fear. Some of it is well-founded. I have a lot to lose. But I also recognize the spiritual poverty of my White neighborhood, my friendships with only well-educated people, and my own impulse to cry, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I want my children to know the kind of spiritual growth, the spiritual depth that comes from practicing Holy Communion without self-deception. I want that for my whole family, and myself as well.  I want that even though, as the early church learned, it’s hard to sustain.  So, I will continue to go to protests, and to write to decision makers in government. And I guess I need to start looking for new ways to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion that are deeper, and outside of my comfort zone – in spite of my fear. Any suggestions?

Photo: Jon Behm

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11 Responses to “Communion and White Fear”

  1. Lara Says:

    Right on. Well said. Thank you.

  2. nov_284 Says:

    A few points I’d like to address.

    I’d argue that Dr. King’s advocating non violence was a recognition that, despite the inequalities, American society is inherently civilized, and the fact that it worked not only stands as an impressive testimonial to the acuity with which he read the society, but a vindication of the very decency he sought to appeal to. Nonviolence only works in a society that values justice. If you don’t believe me I invite you to try that in Iraq.

    I am sorry, but I just don’t find what happened to Mr Brown to be a moving example to be rallied behind. I have no doubt that if I had assaulted a police officer then tried to run, I’d have been shot too. Eric Garner or the one gentleman who didn’t even realize he was being pursued by a cop who shot him on his very door step make, in my mind,a much more effective case for trying to reign in police brutality.

    Gun ownership is one of the many rights that should not be taken lightly, nor exercised flippantly. One example is that not a single business in Ferguson was touched while armed individuals stood sentinel, another is the woman who accidentally killed herself after causing a traffic accident because she was waving a loaded gun in a car while talking trash about “being ready.”

    Finally, since you touched on illegal immigration, I’d like to say that most people don’t really care about skin color or language. I’ve yet to hear anyone publicly opposing illegal immigration on that basis. My opposition stems from the fact that the people we want in this country aren’t the ones whose first act on entry was a felony. We, as a country, are rewarding lawlessness and punishing people who try to go through the process and do it right. Not to mention creating a tier of people who have no legal recourse if their boss decides to stiff them.My mother’s last boyfriend before she died, Ramón, told me stories about when he was a kid, living on the road during harvest season, working from before the sun came until after it went down for 50¢ a day. That is what the failure to control our border costs. Or talk to people that live along the border about people being murdered so the cartels can use their houses, or the fact that there are large tracts of federal land where honest citizens don’t go because they’ll be killed.

    So….I’m having trouble seeing where my skin color factors into any of those points.


    • Dear Nov_284,

      Since this post was about encountering people who are different, it’s good that you’re part of this conversation.

      For a good discussion of how non-violence has worked better than violence in the Middle East, I recommend Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.

      Police brutality and accountability is a problem generally, but more of a problem for people of color. The point is not that Mike Brown was completely innocent. It has to do with more use of excessive force along racial lines.

      I agree that our immigration system does not work properly. I completely disagree that race has nothing to do with the way that immigrants are treated.

      This post was about White fear, and about Holy Communion. What is your experience of that fear?

    • Gary Niblock Says:

      Sir, yours is a stereotypical privileged response to the problem, i.e. it isn’t a problem, not your problem anyway. Therefore you miss the point of the piece. Re this aspect…”My opposition stems from the fact that the people we want in this country aren’t the ones whose first act on entry was a felony.” It is inherently immoral to justify on the basis of an ordinance or law, an ordinance or law that is itself unjust or immoral. That is what is going on now in this “third phase” (if you will) of the civil rights movement regarding race. I believe to some degree this is what the author at least in part is trying to illuminate in his article.


  3. Wow. Thanks for leading us behind the tidy sacristy to the vital tension and risk involved in Holy Communion. I haven’t heard anyone else’s voice speak of this– fear that may make the tranformative Meal into playing house. I’m thinking it’s a local church culture thing more than a denomination-level thing? I’m also curious how you see church furniture and fixtures contributing.
    #HolyCommunionHack #BookCrave


    • Thanks, Richard. I don’t think it’s only fear that causes us to domesticate Holy Communion to the point of “playing house,” as you put it. In my experience it’s also just the comfort of finding community and wanting to hang onto it. The famous ritual theorist Victor Turner talked about how one of the downsides of communitas is what when people experience it, they tend to want to re-create it in ways that end up leaving new people out and causing it to stagnate. The result, especially in communities of privilege, is that we come to believe that the reliable experience of “here I am with all these people I know well,” is as deep as it gets, and miss the more radical, world-stretching experience of the Realm of God come near. 🙂

      Furniture? I’m not sure. Right now I’m leaning toward a focus on the Holy as it is found in what we do together, resisting the temptation to shift our sense of the Holy toward objects – including tables and food. The best furniture is going to be whatever beautiful, functional items will help us to act in ways that collaborate with the Spirit to create alternate ways of doing power, and economics, and faith at the meal.

  4. Drew Kadel Says:

    Reblogged this on Observations.

  5. Drew Kadel Says:

    Very, very well said. I’m a white guy who is currently preaching in a congregation of Caribbean heritage in the South Bronx. Here’s what I said yesterday; http://drewkadel.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/comfort-o-comfort-my-people/

  6. Sue Wilhelm Says:

    “And I guess I need to start looking for new ways to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion that are deeper, and outside of my comfort zone – in spite of my fear. Any suggestions?”
    I’m not sure, but it could be that we begin with acknowledging that nothing is ours, all is gift; that the Earth and every created being are in fact sacraments signifying our communion with a community so much larger than we perceive. Perhaps we need the contemplative space that will allow our hearts to see large– in, with and through Love so that we see ourselves and each other rightly, and the “stuff” we try to protect as gifts to be shared. Kenosis is part of all this– the Word emptying, pouring Love out by assuming the helplessness of a Jewish Babe in Bethlehem….
    Just some thoughts.
    Thank you for your reflection and your prophetic voice calling us to remember.

  7. gillianbarr Says:

    Abp Weston, 1923, Anglo-Catholic Congress: “You cannot pretend to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Him in the slum . . . And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.. ” http://anglicanhistory.org/weston/weston2.html


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