Last week, I was driving with my 9 year old on I-94 here in Michigan. We were close to Kalamazoo when a pickup started to pass us. Instead of passing completely, the pickup slowed when the passenger side window was even with me. When I glanced to my left, the white man in the passenger side flipped me the bird and started screaming obscenities. Okay, I couldn’t actually hear what he was saying, but his face was almost pressed against the window and it was turning increasingly red and sweaty. I could be wrong, but I am quite sure that he wasn’t wishing me a happy new year.
My blood ran cold. My palms started sweating. I prayed that Josiah couldn’t see it.
And I immediately exited the highway.
Now this is not the first time I have been flipped off while driving. Not even close. I have lived in urban areas with awful traffic problems, and it is a universal phenomenon that people’s tempers flare in traffic jams. I am not an awful driver, but I have been known to cut people off or pull out in front of cars periodically. I sometimes speed. So it is true that an occasional middle finger has been pointed upwards for me from another driver or passenger.
This was different. Very different.
I confess that I was worried about this and I wasn’t surprised by it. I have a Black Lives Matter sticker on my van. I have a affirming LBTGQQ sticker as well. Before leaving on our road trip, I thought about taking my husband’s car instead. I was anxious about driving through rural Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin with these bumper stickers. I also almost took my Black Lives Matter button and safety pin off my coat and shirt before going into a gas station to use the restroom. I was nervous already.
But I remembered that these thoughts were a sign of my privilege. Because I am white, I could have passed. Because I am in a traditional marriage, I could have passed. I could have avoided this scary and hostile situation easily.
I have worn a Black Lives Matter pin or shirt everywhere I have gone in public for the last seven months. At first, I wore it to show solidarity to my sisters and brothers of color. At first, I wore it to make a political statement. But it didn’t take long for that to change. I still wear it for these reasons, but I realized quickly that I am wearing Black Lives Matter for me more than anything.
I wear my Black Lives Matter pin because it reminds me constantly of my whiteness.
Race is a social construction that was developed by white Europeans 500 years ago to justify colonization, genocide and slavery. It doesn’t exist scientifically. Skin color is about melanin, period. And because race was invented by white people, whiteness is considered normative. Whiteness is the gold standard. Whiteness is invisible. White people don’t think about race. We, ever protected by SPF sunscreen, move around this Western world with immense freedom.
But when I am wearing my pin, I never forget about it. I am keenly aware of my pin and others’ reaction to it. Therefore, I am always thinking about race and racism. And thinking about my whiteness.
This has inadvertently become a spiritual discipline for me. I have the luxury not to think about race. But I put my pin on each morning so that I don’t allow myself to be too comfortable.
White, American Christianity in the US has been boiled down to “comfort.” Comfort isn’t a bad thing necessarily and comforting one another is an important aspect of community. But comfort is NOT the ultimate goal of Christian community. Jesus didn’t seek comfort. Jesus comforted the least comfortable people in his world. He comforted the leper who was living in the cemetery. He comforted the hemorrhaging woman. He comforted the paralyzed man lowered through the ceiling.
He did not comfort the comfortable. He repeatedly challenged them.
I am not advocating for church to be a hostile, mean-spirited place. Not at all. My beautiful congregation is one of the most joyful communities I know. We comfort one another all the time. We laugh a ton. We are boisterous and quirky and diverse. AND this church is a deeply political congregation with a long, long history of justice work. The harder we fight for justice, the more we grow in spirit, in love and in numbers.
Church can be comforting and political, loving and justice-seeking. That was the Jesus movement from the beginning. I believe this is the only way for the mainline tradition to resurrect itself. This is the biblical vision.
I was very uncomfortable and frightened in the van the other day. And that is okay. In fact, it was biblical.