Essay

Who Will We Choose to Be?

By August 20, 2020 10 Comments

In this moment in history, the white American Church has a decision to make: whether or not we will choose to walk in the truth. We are rightfully – and belatedly – at a fork in the road, and we must decide whether we will deny ourselves to follow Christ or deny our Christ to follow our distorted view of ourselves. 

Allow me to tell you a story to demonstrate both the confession and decision that must be made.

I laid flat on my back on the carpeted classroom floor between two of my graduate school classmates. Lined side-by-side across the length of the room, our professor invited us to close our eyes, feel our breath in our bodies, and notice where our flesh made contact with the ground beneath us.

It was the end of the semester, the end of a class which was designed to equip us for dialogue across differences. With great care and intention, our professor – who had grown up in apartheid South Africa – had facilitated our discussions that took a deep dive into race, gender, identity, worldview development, and the art of listening to understand. 

He waited until the end of our time together – after we’d been given several months to build trust with one another – to line us up like this, curiously postured for our final dialogue question.

“Imagine,” the professor said deliberately, as he thoughtfully paced the room, “that as you lay here, you discover that your skin has a zipper. You discover that your skin can be removed. Imagine yourself – gently, slowly – unzipping your skin, from head to toe. You remove it, leave it here on the ground, and walk away from it.”

My classmates and I remained unmoved on the floor, silent, eyes still closed, lost in the visual, a ripple of rising and falling breaths across the floor. “What do you feel in this moment?” He asked. “Sit with your feelings as you imagine yourself walking away from your skin.”

After some time, he asked us to bring our awareness back to our bodies, open our eyes, and sit up. We were invited to share with each other what we felt. Slowly, a handful of students of color shared their experience – feelings of liberation, of safety and relief, of overwhelming sorrow for all they’d endured, of being honored and humanized, of excitement at the possibility of being seen for who they really are.

I began to notice that none of the white students were sharing, and I knew why. As one of the white students myself, I felt rigid, self-protective, and full of shame. But I knew that one of us needed to say something, so I decided it would be me. Our professor acknowledged my raised hand.

“I feel horrible,” I started. “I felt desperate walking away from my skin, wanting to jump right back into it because it protects me. It allows me to be automatically taken seriously and causes everyone to assume the best of me. I wanted to zip back into my skin because it keeps me safe and doesn’t require me to change and shields me from consequences; it amplifies all the good things about me and drowns out the bad things.”

I exhaled. The room was silent. Eyes were either intensely locked on me or glued to the floor, while a few slightly nodded in acknowledgment and agreement. Though I felt overwhelmed with shame, I also felt – rather unexpectedly – a sense of liberation, a weight lifted at my admission. This was a confusing combination of feelings that I needed to process. 

After the class ended, I lingered for a while to talk with my professor. “I feel terrible,” I told him in the hallway. “I’m embarrassed that I said that out loud… I’m not a bad person, and it was probably upsetting to my classmates, but I figured one of the white students needed to say something and tell the truth about what they felt.” 

He paused thoughtfully, as he always did. “It was good you spoke up,” he finally said. “Your classmates were probably relieved to finally hear a white person admit what you admitted today. But don’t stay there. Don’t just admit and be immobilized by shame. Decide what you’ll do and who you’ll choose to be now.”

As I recall that story, I’ve been thinking about the white American Church as the one laying there instead of me among a richly diverse community of believers and denominations. It is a huge loss and harmful denial of humanity that it lies there desperately holding onto (while vehemently denying) its white privilege, isolationism, and white supremacy. What a burdensome, selfish, and costly idol to uphold.

So I ask us, the white Church: Dare we choose truth? Dare we make Christ our refuge instead of our whiteness? Dare we choose surrender to a Savior that calls us to confession, repentance, and unity? Dare we let go of the idol of whiteness to free ourselves to be the body of Christ? Dare we reject our distorted view of ourselves to embrace our identity in Jesus? 

In this moment in history, that is the fork in the road we must boldly choose. 

Melissa Stek

Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist for the Christian Reformed Church, and works to network and encourage Christians to seek immigration reform. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Calvin College and a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan.

10 Comments

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Oh, dear Melissa, you bring me to tears this morning. Thank you for being vulnerable, then and now.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Melissa, for an interesting story. I have a feeling we all can feel your sense of shame. The fact is, we can all feel a sense of shame on a number of fronts, whether it has to do with sexuality, anger, greed, pride, race, materialism or just plain sin. Remove our skin, our covering, and we are not very pretty, any of us. Your professor set the class up using the topic of racism. You know what God did (according to the Bible) when human shame was exposed? He made garments of animal skins to hide their shame. Humans were allowed by God to hide their shame from others (except perhaps before their wife or husband, and of course God). And maybe that’s why sinners can feel so comfortable in their own skin. Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    This will not be easy for us because systemic problems require systemic solutions and those are hard for us to see and even harder to implement. We also cling so tightly to the idea of individual meritocracy that it is hard to recognize the privilege some have just from being part of the white majority.

  • Jim Payton says:

    This will stay with me — thank you for sharing this intense story with us. It is compelling … it embodies our truth as white folks for us. I’ll be thinking about this for days.

  • Helen P says:

    Beautifully shared. I experienced a similar feeling this year after reading a post by a college friend, a woman of color, and realizing my own complicity; not in any overt action, but simply by my not thinking about racism.
    Thank you.

  • Sheryl Beerens says:

    Wow, this is so vitally important, powerful and profound, Melissa! Thank you for sharing your experience. I was moved by what I learned as I imagined myself participating in this exercise with your class.

  • Shannon JH says:

    Thank you for sharing this reflection, Melissa. Your professor’s words ting so true, “don’t stay there. Don’t just admit and be immobilized by shame. Decide what you’ll do and who you’ll choose to be now.” It really gets at the heart of the gospel. Thank you!

  • Marc Peterson says:

    Dr. Voddie Baucham speaks often on this topic. He has experienced racism but insists it is a matter of individual sinful hearts and he roundly dismisses the theories of systemic racism and critical race theory. He says that he and I can never be on an equal footing as brothers in Christ if I am always feeling guilty even after apologizing because I’m still white after my apology.
    I don’t imagine I’m unique in this day and age but I live in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood and belong to a diverse family. In my small cul-de-sac, there are a number of black professional families, some of whom I don’t care much for and some of whom are part of my support system and we have fed and sheltered each other. Most of them make more money than I do.
    I have worked to purge the sin of racism or tribalism from my heart. But, CRT says that we must constantly focus on race, see people that way and I must constantly feel guilty about things I haven’t done while trying to have a relationship with someone to whom they weren’t done. I would highly recommend Dr Baucham or Tony Evans for more Biblical preaching on this touchy subject.

  • Steve says:

    I did not chose to be “white”, that is to say Caucasian. God did.
    I had no choice in the family that I was born into. God saw fit to make me a son of Harold and Bernice.
    I had no choice but to grow up in the home and place God ordained my family to live and work.
    I do have a choice to be gracious, kind and benevolent to all people. And I have made that choice by and through the grace of God and the leading of his Holy Spirit.

    I resent and reject the notion of “whiteness” broadly applied to all persons of fair complexion. So many of the woke variety seem to say we should loathe ourselves simply because we are white. This is nothing less than a slap in the face of God our maker. It is He who ordained that our souls would inhabit a body with the skin color we have.
    Does He not know what He’s doing?

    We are all one color in Christ. …barbarian, Scythian, slave or free… you know the phrase…these have no place in the kingdom of God.
    Christ is all, and in all. Unity in and through him is the overwhelming message of our Savior. (John chapter 17 makes no mention of skin color in Jesus’ final prayer and admonition and words to his disciples on the eve of his suffering)
    Guilt and loathing of ones self because of skin color is no less a sin than looking down on someone who happens to be different.

    God makes everyone “who they are” in terms of race, where they are born, what culture (or lack of the same) they are brought up in.
    Our efforts as Christians should not be to lower, or elevate a race and culture over another. We are to accept Gods providence, wisdom and divine will in all the aspects of our lives and find equality in Him and Him alone.

    We will never find equality in anything else.
    That should be the only message coming out of the church, IE: His body

  • Peggy MacLeod Vander Meulen says:

    It’s not about guilt or shame. It’s about acknowledging reality, the unearned privilege those of us with light skin have, and then using that privilege to dismantle systems of oppression. “For to those to whom much is given…”. Ad Ibram X. Kendi says, you are either racist or anti-racist, there is no in between.

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