An Excerpt from A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed
Far from being able to name and dress our collective wounds around racism, many of the ways in which racism most afflicts the church remain concealed from our consciousness, and sometimes even camouflaged as virtue. “When I look at a person, I don’t see color—I see a child of God” rolls off the tongues of many Christians. These words are understood and embraced as articulating the unbounded grace and generosity of God’s love. And through this aspiration of loving all people, regardless of their demographic profile, many people have felt called to practice an ethic of colorblindness.
This colorblind aspiration creates a necessary amnesia or unknowing around racialized systems, histories, and bodies. And this aspiration easily finds a home in communities deeply and often unconsciously shaped by whiteness and white culture. These white-derived aspirations and habits are seamlessly coupled with many of the common assumptions of privilege—that systems are fair, that individuals are the center of how we understand rights and responsibilities, and that being educated in and conforming to societal norms is possible for everyone when they are given the “right tools.” In the church these values manifest as mission statements and faith practices. And the resulting collective habituations and dispositions encouraged and practiced by churches focus on things like radical hospitality, service, and outreach to “the least of these.”
Often, the rhetoric heard in mainline Protestant worship— from prayer, to sermon, to offering—reifies the assumption that everyone in church is called to help those in need. These people in need are described (sometimes subtly, other times not so subtly) as being outside the faith communities who seek to help them. “We” the church are helping “them” the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the disadvantaged. These impulses toward service, charity, and outreach are taught as universal Christian virtues. The habituations and assumptions that they entail are not collectively explored in terms of race or social location. The stealthy affliction of colorblindness permeates faith communities with a fluid infiltration—it infects institutions of white culture, like the church, camouflaged as the very virtues to which we aspire as communities. And these virtues are not understood as culturally derived; they are to be exercised without regard to color and culture.
With reverberations of Paul Tillich’s category of the demonic, the habits and practices of colorblindness distort and contort provisional goods by totalizing them, by being blind to their own finite and limited origins. Tillich uses the fictional character of Faust to illustrate the demonic. Faust desires all knowledge and so makes a deal with the devil to know everything. Knowledge itself is not demonic; the desire to attain all knowledge, to collapse all of reality into oneself, is demonic. Colorblindness is blind to its own color, to its bias toward the absence of color. Colorblindness distorts a culturally derived value by making it an infinite value—a God-derived value. The language of colorblindness in the church takes the aspirations of whiteness to erase distinctions, to ignore histories of oppression, and to bypass dissonant narratives and overlays them onto what God wants for us as people of faith.
God’s kingdom, we hear again and again, is a place of unity. Christ’s Body, we hear again and again, is a place where we are all one body. These aspirations of oneness and reconciliation are not necessarily demonic; blindness to the originary desire to make them in the image of white culture, however, obscures a demonic reality. These aspirations are instilled with a dangerous obliviousness to the power of whiteness and its habit of obscuring its own woundedness and its own capacity to wound. Surfacing the marks of colorblindness in eucharistic practice means inviting visibility where there has been invisibility. This invisibility has the capacity to conceal our collective wounds around race in plain sight. And our very stories, aspirations, and habituations geared toward overcoming racism are some of the dynamics that have increased its hold and its harm among us.