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Sharing our Faith: Confession about our neighbors

I confess, before God and all God’s people, that my life and the life of the world are broken by my sin.

When Gary first asked me to share about “neighbors,” he asked me to talk about our sick and dying neighbors – those to whom I minster at VCU. But in the wake of all that’s happened over the past week, I feel like God is asking me to talk about my non-white neighbors. And to talk about that, I have to use the language of confession.

Three years ago, when I attended the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in Detroit as an observer, I remember one morning’s worship service, in which they invited us to turn to our neighbor and discuss a question together. I was sitting next to a black woman. I smiled as I turned to her – I was totally friendly and welcoming – and as she spoke, I felt myself thinking, “Wow, she’s really intelligent!” I can’t tell you how shameful I feel as I confess that thought to you. It was unconscious, it was reflexive – and it was racist.

I am not ever going to march with a torch through the night, trying to instill fear into people who don’t belong to my race. I don’t make racist jokes or perpetuate racial stereotypes. I won’t refuse to work with someone who’s black, or move to another checkout line because the cashier is Asian. I’m certainly smart enough to be able to denounce Nazis without any hesitation or equivocation.

I want to think of myself as a “good white person.”

But a quick glance through my friends list on Facebook this week showed that just seven percent are non-white. I can only think of one person of color who’s stepped inside our home, and he’ll be replacing some drywall for us this week. I remember how I greeted you the Sunday morning after the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church – I acknowledged the fear we were feeling, even though the truth is we had little to fear that day, being a church full of “good white people.” I know my shock at the events of last weekend is a function of my own white privilege, which has allowed me to ignore the ways my neighbors of color are brutalized all the time.

And then there’s that moment from General Assembly – the realization that, deep down, a part of me thinks I’m better because of the color of my skin.

Racism in this country is a problem invented and perpetuated by white people, and it’s important for us to recognize the ways in which we participate in systems that enhance our own lives to the detriment of our neighbors of color. Nazis and white supremacists exist, and we must resist and denounce them as forcefully as possible.

But just as importantly, we need to look in the mirror, look inside ourselves, and acknowledge the role that we’ve played and the ways we’ve benefitted from these systems of injustice. We need to partner with our neighbors of color, to hear and believe their experience, to stand by them even and especially when it costs us something – even and especially when it hurts.

Even as I say these words, I find myself becoming defensive. “That’s not me! I’m not racist!” That’s why I’m grateful that our denomination emphasizes the role of confession in corporate worship. In the Presbyterian tradition, confession isn’t meant to be a list of the bad things you did that week; the Companion to the Book of Common Worship explains that the prayer of confession is designed to help us confess not “primarily specific [personal] acts … but rather the tragic brokenness of our human condition, in which, even without intending to, we are constantly running away from God and our neighbors.”[1]

Ever since that realization at General Assembly I’ve been trying to do better, to be more aware, to grow as a person. It’s hard work, and it requires me to be intentional, and I’ve got a long way to go. But the refrain from the responsive confession with which I began this reflection gives me hope:

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.


[1] Companion to the Book of Common Worship, p. 23

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