I was recently part of an action for social justice standing against racism, particularly Israel’s treatment of children, but also including our treatment, on the US border in the South, of those fleeing persecution in their own countries seeking asylum here in ours. Part of this action presented the option of putting our bodies on the line, that is, risking arrest, with another option for “jail solidarity” where we not carry IDs and refuse to give our names, giving instead the name of a Palestinian child who has been a victim at the hands of the Israeli Army in the context of a military occupation that has lasted for more than a half-century. This action did not result in any arrests, however, I am still processing the conversation I had with two men of Arab descent, Mohammed* and Hanna* as we were leaving our final organizing meeting.
They both were pumped up and excited for the action when Hanna exclaimed, “I was born for this!” with Mohammed saying, “Me too.” I looked at them both and said, “I was born white and privileged, I was not born for this.” It was a somewhat jocular, but also very honest and equally serious response. They both agreed that this was a good response from a white guy as we all chuckled.
After the action I would get home and process this brief exchange a bit more. Why would our experiences and approaches to this action, Hanna’s and Mohammed’s contrasted with mine, be so diametrical? I attempted to step into Mohammed and Hanna’s shoes. They were both born with browner skin than me, and they were both born of Arab descent, both are things that are far too often dehumanized in our culture and society. I believe their exclamation of them being born for this action of civil disobedience was that it goes directly against the system that oppresses them—it is a way for them to take the power back. Whereas, for me, there is no power that I need to take back. I was born with that power merely for the fact that I am white and male.
As my wife and I sat down to have dinner last night, still processing the day’s events, my prayer was for me and Helene to recognize our power with being white. Despite, really trying to move away from binary ways of thinking the past couple of years, I believe that a binary picture is worth presenting here. We really have two options with our power as people with white skin in the context of where we position that power. Do we place it above where it continues to push down and oppress and really operates from a place of fear where we need to be the ones in control or do we place it underneath with the purpose to lift up? Of course one could say we can remain neutral. To that I would quote Dr. Martin Luther King who said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people…There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Neutrality is positioning your power above.
Positioning our power underneath can be scary because it says that I am willing to relinquish control, it says that not everything is about me and my comfort; it says rather than God being the servant of my desires, I am trusting God’s desire for Shalom that is inclusive and restorative for all humanity. In other words, God is not called to serve me, I am called to serve Her.
My jocular and honest response was true, I was not born to relinquish my power and openly risk being arrested, but as a follower of Jesus, I am called to it in the hopes that the Mohammeds and the Hannas of the next generation will be born with the same power as I was born with; born into a world of inclusive Shalom rather than a world of exclusive Empire.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.