The Paleness of Winter Light

”Describing the indescribable/Image into idea/

the transmission of the spirit/ It cannot be done.1

Photo by Quino AI on Unsplash

I have often been required to name my race on forms. Sometimes I have paused to regard the labels for other races. What if I were to check another box, say, Hispanic, Asian, or African-American? What does it mean if I check the “Caucasian” box? What’s in these labels or categories that gives them such power to define my identity? What is a “Caucasian”?

In the early part of my life my racial identity did not figure into who I thought I was. It was only noticeable to me when it contrasted with others, and since there were very few people of color in my small Northern California college town, being white was as remarkable as having elbows. I did not think about who I might unconsciously threaten or intimidate by my whiteness, who I might offend, who might fall silent around me because of my race.

In the Sixties, with the social culture exploding around me, I began to realize the complexity of color as an identifier. I had thought of whiteness as the absence of color, almost a deficit of interest, a blankness. White was neutral. At least I thought it was.

On the other hand, Black Americans were pushing back on the sinister associations with the word “black.” “Black is beautiful,” they asserted. They shifted the subject for me from a position on the color wheel to a cry of pride in one’s own self, a challenge to deeply embedded fears about darkness: Blackness as sin, as treachery, as dangerous, as shaming, as the binary opposite of whiteness. Here was a way to flip an imposed weakness over to strength, all the more impressive for being claimed by those who had suffered under these slurs.

I began to see whiteness exercised in multiple ways. Some believed being white meant they were innately superior. Even though they might have left school after the eighth grade, they assumed the right to call a Black, Harvard-trained psychologist, “boy,” a man two decades their elder.

There were others who believed that the rights of white people were under attack. They thought of themselves as defenders of the status quo—the culture that white people had built—with an obligation to preserve it for the good of Civilization.

There were those blithely secure in the assumption that being White meant a certain status and privilege, words that would never occur to them because they had never questioned their right to that status. They liked Black Americans. They had no quarrel with them. They even knew some.

My identification, if any, was to nationality. I was Canadian, born to a man whose father was from Yorkshire. I was one generation away from being English. Despite the fact that by my teens I had lived in America longer than I had in Canada, my identity, such as it was, stood on the thin pedestal of my “green card,” something that made me different. A difference I chose from amongst the necessary facts.

When I went to college in England for a year in the early 70s, I felt like I had found my place at last. That was youthful enthusiasm pouring out of someone who had never really been away from home. But a good deal of it was a sense that I was connecting with a place where my relatives had begun their lives, in a country whose history held me in thrall. I was completing the circle. I felt like I belonged to a place for the first time.

During that year, I fell into conversation with a skinhead on a train platform in a town north of London. He was waiting to join his friends, coming on the next train, to support their football team on an away game. While we chatted, a Pakistani man walked past. This fellow shook his head disgustedly and muttered something about “the wogs.” When I asked what he meant, he was surprised. “It’s keeping England for the English, innit?” he said. Then he looked at me curiously. “Aren’t you proud of being white?” I glanced at him to see if he was joking. He was not. His train arrived just then with a rush of wind and a screech of brakes and he clambered aboard before I had a chance to answer. Just as well: my mouth was gaping like a fish and I was speechless.

“As a botanist can recognize the whole plant from one leaf,” said the philosopher Schopenhauer, “. . . so an accurate knowledge of a man’s character can be arrived at from a single characteristic action . . .”2

Schopenhauer believed this because he thought our actions are not at all directed by our reason, but by our character and our motivations. We don’t think our way to our actions: we simply do what arises “naturally,” out of the mold we were cast in.3 While our actions are not freely chosen, our character, shaped by our actions, is freely formed. We become the shape of our habits.

On the basis of that, I could confidently predict that my new acquaintance and his friends, upon arriving at their football game, would begin the aggravation they were known for as a group, leading to flying fists and possible arrests. Or I could admit that my stereotype of them, while efficiently saving time, could never be relied upon to truly characterize any one of them. The same could be said of his memory of me.

***

I remember a friend of mine in college, a Japanese American, born and raised in California, who spent a year in Japan, mostly to discover if he was Japanese or American. It wasn’t easy for him. People on the street in Tokyo spoke to him in Japanese, which he understood but couldn’t speak. When they discovered he couldn’t answer them, he said their confusion sometimes turned to contempt. No matter how much he wanted to inhabit his Japanese body authentically, it seemed he was an American. He was a California American to the Japanese; he was not quite American back home in California.

The undoing of these Gordian knots was brought home even more forcefully when I asked a Japanese American reporter for the Baltimore Sun to speak to my Intercultural Communication class. I had read his contribution to a collection of essays about being Asian in America, and since he lived not far from our college near Washington, DC, I invited him to speak to my students.

For many years he was the only Asian American journalist at a major newspaper in America. At a press conference, Spiro Agnew singled him out by calling him “a fat Jap.” At the time, Agnew was the Governor of Maryland. This man gritted his teeth and put up with years of racial jokes and slurs.

He told us he had spent most of his life wanting to be white so he could fit in and not have to respond to being Asian. It wasn’t until his daughter got her PhD in Asian and gender studies, that he finally confronted his own identity. She had grown up seeing her father’s silent humiliation for years and she urged him to go to Japan and find his place.

He went but returned even more confused. He told us—and he actually teared up in the telling of it—that he felt like a man without a country. He wasn’t fully Japanese and apparently, he couldn’t be a full American. Well into his sixties, he was still coming to terms with a lifetime of racism. He told us he had some choices to make about how to deal with it. While progress had been made in breaking down barriers for people of color, much of that had come after his retirement. So, it was up to him to make a place in America for himself.

***

Racism is never only about color. That is simply code, in the shallowness and impatience of white supremacist thinking, for dominance, color being the convenient plumb line by which everyone is measured.

If we are going to define downward the identity of people by their color, how cruelly ironic it is that in the absence of color whiteness is presumed to be dominant. On the other hand, if we whites claim that color does not matter, James Baldwin asks how many white people would choose to be Black.

As a straight white Christian male, I realize I tick all the boxes of a full-blown stereotype for some of the deepest pockets of prejudice in our time. If it is true, as Schopenhauer believed, that we characterize each other from one action, then my very existence will inevitably, if inadvertently, be seen as racist or sexist or exclusionary to someone, somewhere. And if that is true, how much more true is it that Black Americans today are subject to racist stereotypes that can get them killed.

The darkness that we face when we look within our own humanity, is met by the compassion of God-in-Christ, whose life and death call us to judgment. The darkness within us stands as judgment against us; we are capable of more than we think.

If there is truth in this moment in the Church, it must be that we see clearly the fear that distorts our vision as we regard each other. This is not a time for a glossy triumphalism that merrily denies our sin, but neither is it a time for sullen withdrawal. If we have the courage that Christ’s forgiveness can infuse us with, we can turn again and begin to make good on the promise that “they may all be one.”

Habits can be broken, and new actions can be nurtured. We can choose to stand apart from the twisted thinking that has mired many white Christians in sanctimonious prejudice through the centuries. We can, through friendship, hear and see how the world turns to look at persons of color. Or how it doesn’t.

We can, through the grace of God and our deepening and humbling education together, become dead to the legacy of white Christian racism, baked into the foundation of the American evangelical tradition. It may be a “hard and bitter birth,” but we can be born again. We may instead choose to live under an ancient idea, fresh for every follower of Jesus, that our “life lies hidden with Christ in God.”4

Schopenhauer’s life of stubborn pessimism shows that he was right about one thing: our circumstances can shape and mold us. But he was wrong about the most important thing: our circumstances do not determine our identity.

  1. Wright, Charles. “Littlefoot, 14” in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008. Edited by Philip Zaleski. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008, p. 214.
  2. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 144.
  3. Schopenhauer, pp. 144-145.
  4. Col. 3:3, NEB.

A Wider Embrace

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“The sense of identity can make an important contribution to the strength and the warmth of our relations with others, such as neighbors, or members of the same community, or fellow citizens, or followers of the same religion . . . but it has to be supplemented by a further recognition that a sense of identity can firmly exclude many people even as it warmly embraces others.” — Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence

When I was in college in the early 70s I attempted to put a collection of essays together around the theme of “Growing Up Adventist.” I was intrigued by the prospect of different authors writing from various perspectives on how Adventism had influenced their lives. It seemed to me that one’s religion, especially one as self-defined as Adventism, would inevitably encounter creative tension with other influences, like citizenship, ethnicity, gender, language, occupation, art, and politics. I thought it would be interesting, maybe even inspiring, to see, for example, what difference Adventism would make to an aspiring musician or artist or businessperson or professor of English literature. But when I pitched it to Adventist publishing houses I received polite rejections without explanation.

There are probably a number of good reasons why they turned it down, but later I wondered if the whole question of Adventist identity was simply inexplicable to the editors. To propose that there could be multiple Adventist “identities” would suggest that social and biological factors held equal influence with religious beliefs. Even more to the point, recognizing these factors would admit that there’s more to shaping a person’s life than Adventist beliefs alone. To look at Adventism through the lenses of sociology, anthropology, and history is to understand it in its context as a human response to the transcendent. Perhaps that was somehow threatening. Even so, it’s a question that haunts me still today.

I believe now that I was misguided in trying to sift out the nature of Adventist identity as if it were something to be added on top of one’s humanity. For one thing, I remembered C. S. Lewis vigorously decrying the practice of calling oneself a ‘Christian musician’ or a ‘Christian artist’ or a ‘Christian economist.’ The thrust of his argument seemed to be that Christians must not create a parallel and separate universe. Either we are part of this world as participating human beings or we remove ourselves to a panic-room away from the world, thus becoming completely ineffective as witnesses to Christ. Furthermore, the prospect of dicing up the body of Christ into thinner and thinner bits—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, United Church of Christ, First Church of Apostolic Disciples, Christian Reformed, Plymouth Brethren, and so on—each one claiming to be a purer, more refined version of Christianity—finally crashes into Christ’s prayer that we might all be one so that the world will believe that God sent him. That hasn’t worked out too well.

Our Adventist forebears lifted up the Sabbath and the Second Coming as points that Christianity had lost or at least downplayed. We emphasized healthy holistic living long before it was mainstream, we were decisive on the dignity of human beings in the face of slavery, and we cherished education that would teach students to be more than “mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.” All of these are powerful strands in the rope of faith that we grasp today. They are also nudges, we might say, to the flow of Christian praxis in the long history of the body of Christ. But should they comprise an identity, one that stands apart in some important ways from Christianity? Do we lose sight of Christ in the insistence on our differences from other Christians?

***

I took a double major in college: I took journalism because I loved to write and I took religion because I couldn’t shake off the mysterious figure of Jesus. Not at all sure I was cut out to be a “pastor,” I harbored the idea that I could still minister, so I took religion instead of theology. Like many of my classmates, I had no clear view of what I would do after graduation. My pre-med friends had their lives laid out before them ‘like a patient etherized upon a table,’ to use Eliot’s phrase. They knew what they would be doing for the next ten years and beyond. Me? Not so much.

After high school and through college I worked every summer in some sort of church-related work as a youth pastor in California, as an assistant to pastors in England and Wales, and as a member of The Gate, folk clubs established and run by young Adventists in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that in my senior year my Religion Department chair called me into his office to tell me kindly, and with sorrow, that I “would never make a contribution to this church,” I continued to think I had something to offer. I had a notion of service that was built on impressions and images from Richard Llewellyn’s book, How Green Was My Valley, about the South Wales Valleys. I fancied that I could minister to those in the coal-mining areas of Tredegar, Rhymney, Merthyr Tydfil, and Rhondda. This was strengthened by working one summer with an Adventist pastor whose parish covered those towns. I went with him as he visited his members, driving up and over the ridges that divided the valleys, dropping down through narrow lanes to some isolated farmhouse and then farther on up to another family. I loved it. It seemed to me, naive and hopeful as I was, that such a simple, lean, and spare life could be, out of sheer necessity, filled with a muscular faith.

The other vivid image I had of ministry came as I worked for a year as a volunteer in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Newly-married and just graduated from college, my wife and I worked with another couple as teachers, counselors, and general helpers in the British Columbia Conference. We lived in the basement apartment of some church members and taught at the local SDA elementary school. One night I saw a public service announcement on our small black and white television. It showed a rancher branding calves amidst milling animals, flying dust, and wind whipping around the corrals. A pickup drives up and out gets a man in black. He takes in the scene and then drops to his knees to help with a struggling calf. The job done, both men clamber to their feet. The tag line identified the Mennonite Church as the two walked toward the house in the distance, the rancher clapping the minister on the back as they talked. It was the earthiness and the “be-here-now” presence of that minister that touched me; he was not afraid to get his hands dirty, literally, in service to his parish.

It’s funny how images stay with us. They become almost totems for us, something rooted in our soil that also points heavenward. Around them forms a cloud of memories, associations, fragments of poem and song, even feelings. These two images, as romanticized as they were for me, held a core truth of a life of service, unadorned and unassuming, close to the earth and to people. It was a faith that found its strength in commonality with others. That is what appealed to me then and still does today.

***

How are we Adventists to think of ourselves now? This krisis, this cutting-point matters. The compliance vote has laid bare a divide in Adventism. If it is eventually bridged it will only be with time and courage and honesty. Are we a religion of fear and coercion or one of confidence and community?

Lately, I’ve been reading again Jurgen Moltmann’s, The Crucified God. He writes that faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly because it grasps for security and guarantees. It usually occurs, he notes, “in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever . . . When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.” Christians who ferociously defend pure doctrine and belief “build a defensive wall round their own little group, and in apocalyptic terms call themselves the ‘little flock’ or ‘the faithful remnant’, and abandon the world outside to the godlessness and immorality which they themselves lament.” They accept their increasing isolation on the margins of society and proudly proclaim it as their badge of faithfulness. Such churches display symptoms of sectarianism in the “preservation of tradition without the attempt to found new traditions . . . increasing unwillingness to undergo new experiences with the gospel and faith, and the language of zealotry and militant behavior in disputes within the church.”

Moltmann asks, “Where does the identity of the Christian faith lie?” It’s usually tagged to membership, but that simply shifts the problem, since the church is affected by so many other interests. We could point to particular experiences we have had or examples of conversion and grace. But even these do not guarantee one’s Christian identity. Ultimately, says Moltmann, our identity is not found in our own personal faith, but in Someone who is more than our own faith. “Jesus was folly to the wise,” asserts Moltmann, “a scandal to the devout and a disturber of the peace in the eyes of the mighty. That is why he was crucified.”

So I wonder if my Christian identity should not be found with Christ first of all, specifically the crucified Christ, the one who draws all the abandoned and displaced ones to him; the Christ who came for the sick and the lost. With the right vision I can see myself as I am, all pretension aside, as real as I can bear to be, in need of grace and healing.

The most compelling analogy for Christian identity that I can think of is that of salt, which brings out the best in the world and its people, while at the same time disappearing into it. It melts ice, and it can melt the cold, mirthless, calculating heart of this world too. It is quietly pervasive, but if it wasn’t there you would miss it.

Photo: Kelen Loewen, Unsplash.com