I was never very good at feeling guilty, so the concept of “white guilt” was always for someone else who was responsible for something that happened somewhere else to someone else. It was an entirely “other”-ly concept, stemming in no small part in the way that I was raised. It played out in small ways, like the times I was told, “You should do this” or “you need to do that.” My deeply ingrained response was, I actually don’t have to do shit. In obligation, I managed to identify an extra step of choice. That is, I choose to be obligated to a person or some community commitment. There was no automatic compassion. Simply, my selfishness was exposed and entrenched early on, justified, and equally hard to move. When I heard about the Native Americans’ plight throughout American history, ongoing, my elementary school self could not connect that these events took place in the exact places I occupied. Seeing how my Asian and black friends in school were doing “just fine,” I supposed that there was no need for my guilt. I don’t even know that I could have mustered up the feeling had I tried. My father being who he was would pick and choose what to feel and when to feel, up to and including the inconvenient sentiments that one typically owed family. He never announced the decision to forgo attending either of his parents’ funerals, it was just something that happened. A series of trick questions, leading him off of his canned responses would have the potential to uncover his “feelings” about the decision, but mostly that wasn’t going to be happening. There were many a conversation, many years later, about whether I would be at Christmas church service, or Thanksgiving dinner at some relative’s house, and in my deconstructed concept of loyalty there was just no need. In fact, in the suspension of family obligation, it was incredibly easy to make the case for my non-attendance. “Remember that verbal slight? Yeah, I do too. So I definitely won’t be there.” The underlying message was, I did not need those people. If I wanted to be with those people, then I could choose, just as I could choose not to be with those people if I did not want to. As freeing as it was to not need anyone, it was also incredibly isolating.
The “others” that I didn’t need were everyone from my immediate family to the rest of the world. It was within the bounds of social norms at first, knowing that few white, suburban youth will proclaim a found “need” among those most unlike themselves. Every practical need I had, education and support, existed within my own family system and community. Just as I did not need my extended family’s fake grins and sarcastic insults, I certainly didn’t need every last person in my community. There were plenty, and easy to spot, who did not add anything to my life, and within that group there were some who obviously took from me. It was logical, to me, that I would have my chosen group and not apologize for it.
When it came to issues of race, I was able to relate well, at least from my vantage point, outside of my own race because I was immune to, even while being the cause of much awkwardness. Being mostly deaf to guilt, I would ask presumptuous, sometimes rude questions. There were those who found it endearing, while others were put off by it. I didn’t care. Seeing as how I was not going to starve to death if I offended one of the few black kids in my high school, I wasn’t afraid of “going there,” no matter what the topic was. Later, in college, I recognized a much broader spectrum of views to spark my curiosity. My questions didn’t get any softer, and I ended up in lots of trouble. Portland State University, my college of choice for my first two years of undergrad work, fielded many tense political discussions throughout my time there. Land rights issues, women’s suffrage, the voices of the oppressed in city planning and civic decision making, among others, were covered in various classes — often classes that were not directly related to those topics. My “Power of Place” class had both the pitfall and benefit of extreme ambiguity in purpose, giving opportunity for every agenda to make its case. I bucked up against all kinds of people, and enjoyed it for the most part, since I was not properly afraid of losing those people in my life. I could earn respect here, lose respect there, and it seemed to have no bearing on my bottom line or my conscience. As God changed me, I found that I was following a common pattern in my life. There were “safe places” to which I would retreat after dropping grenades, my questions and ideas. These places were my spiritual and relational home, where I was in power. On the other side of it, I was both figuratively and literally going into someone else’s house, their safe place, and challenging them. At times it was a mere factor of my being who I was. I would go into a classroom, a church, whatever group of friends it was, and say whatever I felt like saying — the damage caused, or even the benefit at times, was really none of my business. I had no stake with those people. I was particularly careful, not out of guilt, but out of self-preservation, to watch what I said around people that I needed. The handful of people I identified as “needed” shrank as I became more and more self-reliant. When I didn’t physically need my parents, when they stopped paying for my food and rent, I felt all the more free to rattle their cages. The pattern was, as my issues culminated during that time in my life, I would enter into a situation from a position of power and shoot off my mouth. And it wasn’t just my mouth, but the lines of relationship changed to where I was always going to end up winning, safe, or coming out clean. I could always go back to my “safe place.” I was ignorant not only to who I needed, but the potential benefit from being with other people in that way. The “with” being the kind of with-ness that stems from relationship.
I don’t think there are many people, aside from the tiny minority who are actively involved in the modern-day KKK and similar groups, who would openly call themselves “racist.” Being one of the few and the proud in my high school with multiple races in my friend group, I certainly would never have considered the possibility. Again, it seemed that my pocket of the world was sufficient for all of my needs. It wasn’t until my third year of college that I identified an ethnic group that I didn’t like. For a time, I would say I hated those people. The unfortunate reality is, many of the Russian immigrants in this city come from the Russian equivalent of eastern Kentucky, with their ultra-strict religion, cultural acceptance of violence, and general country-survivalist style. The older generation firmly stuck in their country of origin, while their young people run wild in the freedom of a culture their parents cannot understand. One of the things I’ve recognized in retrospect is, there are countries sending their best and brightest around the world. Their most educated, most upwardly-mobile, most hard working end up in western Europe and around America. Other countries send their political refugees, their poor, even their criminals end up in other parts of the world. So being the classy, educated college student that I was, the Russians that I saw at the gym, at the coffee shops where I studied, or the restaurants that my friends and I attended late on weekends, were the enemies I never knew I had. They were breaking every social norm, with everything from their tipping habits to the way they parked their cars. The young man wearing croc-skin boots and pants while practicing marital arts in the gym. That guy was “that guy.” I could not believe, even as these thoughts and emotions burned through me, how much I disliked this group of people. If I spotted some Russians at the mall or something, I would immediately look at them with disdain. I couldn’t help it. I kept thinking, even while I was doing some cross-cultural ministry, to the poor no less, that I knew better and that I was better than being a straight racist. Through that lens, I have to admit that it was more likely that I had never dealt with my own prejudices before then. New, and incredibly painful was the cross cultural experience where I could not escape. That there was a group able to break across that threshold and get my attention that way called me to account in a way that was not possible before. The Russians in this community are universally hated, unfortunately, by people who are honest and willing to confess as much. It was this culmination of so many things. They would not leave me alone, like other groups of people would. Looking back, I think it was convenient at times to say, “hey I have never had a problem with this or that type of people — sure, maybe one or two bad eggs, once in a while.” This was new, where I was constantly having these overtly, blindingly frustrating interactions with this ethnic group. Other times, in my growing up, I had these fun relationships with other races that taught me something. I learned a new song or a cool phrase to use. I would enjoy their food, or whatever common social activity we all enjoyed. This just wasn’t one of those times. There would be no Russian language lessons, or borrowing of recipes. It was just not that way between them, this monolithic people group, and me.
It eventually became obvious that I was interacting with other races from a position of power. If there was no benefit for me, then I wouldn’t bother. It was obvious, too, that I had no threshold for discomfort beyond what stoked my reputation and honor. If I was robbed, insulted, or otherwise took some kind of loss in a cross-cultural relationship, it was okay as long as I looked good doing it. I had a last-straw experience in a classroom where I was helping some students with their homework. This young man named Vedim, who was proudly eastern European, told me how Jesus hated gay people, and Jesus was “Christian” and white. It went on and on like this, where I was educated on this boy’s views on the world. I would occasionally disagree, but this one time when I corrected him, he slapped me right in the face. Full, open hand, across my mouth, as he told me to shut up. It was brave of him, and fortunate for him that it was under the watchful eye of the nearby teacher. She gave him a stern talking-to after getting a replay by me. I was ready to kill the kid, but I chose to just avoid him as best I could.
That’s probably the worst solution, isn’t it? Besides actually killing him, avoiding the people that are difficult seems to be the antithesis of the Gospel message. I never needed the approval of a non-white person, professionally or personally, until I met the woman who would be my wife. Similarly, I had never been in a position where a non-white person was both in a position of power over me, and was so firmly opposed to me because of my race. Yes, there were other situations where I had a black principal at my school, and a whole color spectrum of peers and bosses at different jobs. This was a new lesson in humility, as I faced what some people face every day — their race being viewed as a liability and not an asset. While being from a perceived lesser race, I didn’t have other options to which I could escape. There was only one woman I wanted. A complicating wrinkle in the situation was, among a thousand other things, my father-in-law is a Christian and would never admit that his prejudice was anything but Biblical. It was, for him, a reorientation of the long-lived equation that had kept him safe. His guiding understanding of the world is basically, everything but Chinese — people, but also practices, behaviors, attitudes — is bad. Even where my life lined up with his core values, these components were these spikes sticking out of a poisonous cactus. I was still a cactus, dangerous and deadly, no matter the faith I professed. These “spikes” were, to him, not something to be ignored; they were and would always be a member and demonstration of a cactus. What was, and still is frustrating to me is that I suddenly had need of another man’s approval in order to begin a marriage relationship with his daughter. It was and still is incredibly important to my marriage what he thinks about me — it’s not that the need was a single, one-time event, but that here and now I have a need for this other man. He was, and still is in a position of power over me in the sense that, being my wife’s father, his words have incredible value and importance in how she sees herself. It exposed for me, over and over, how I am freely loving when I am in a position of power, but I essentially run to safety when I am subordinate. I never had to love an oppressor, in any sense of the word before. I never had history with someone, a people group or otherwise, who had done my people wrong. And I always had an escape. If my needs can’t be met on my terms, I will flee just the same. Then, I would visit my many other options for fulfillment and growth.
What changed was seeing a broader need for “others.” I continue to find that the fear in me was keeping me from entering into situations where I was unable to escape. My honor would not go unscathed if I enter into this or that situation — that’s an incredibly scary thing for me. The brass tax of it is, I need to be in a place where I am powerless. I need to be on the other end of the equation with my love — not just where the downtrodden and the poor can receive my curiosity and my charity, but where I can be ministered to by them. I have found the most excellent, faith-building ministry, from someone else to me, comes from those who have less, in every conceivable way. I have found that, rather than seeking higher academics and the most affluent businessmen I can find, I can learn by being with what the world would call the least. It is incredibly counter-intuitive to think that a homeless man has something I need, but it’s true. The first assumption I found myself making was that I was further along in life, in faith, in all these different ways, and that I was better somehow. I recognized that I was looking at these foreigners in my community as less than me because of the social code they were breaking. Even if it was worse — if the foreigner was a threat — I have no right to think that I am better than them.
The standard conversation when it comes to racial reconciliation on the “white side” is that of needing to help the other. The ministry organization of which I am a part is talking about finding multi-cultural leaders to lead in multi-cultural communities. Latino men among predominantly Latino areas, and the like. We, and I throw myself in with their misunderstanding, cannot imagine a Latino man coming into an affluent, white area and ministering to those people. They would see nothing in him that they need, when in fact, there would be a revival-sparking change in a ministry like that. Sure, a white person could come in and save the poor, black people. But the reverse? Imagine if there was a community-level humility, supernatural as it would have to be, where any African-American minister could come in and minister to the needs of some rich white people. The typical paradigm is, our leaders and ministers have to be “better” than us. Our “betters” can show us God’s love, and teach us what we need to learn. The assumption is, there are no means by which a “lesser” person can meet our needs. What I am arguing is that there is a palpable, real need for this exact kind of thing — the poor ministering to the rich, for the foreigners to minister to the locals, and so on. Not that the ignorance would be exposed and corrected — that’s a secondary effort, at best. I am saying that among the “outsiders,” whoever they would be to you and I, is some unmet, unrecognized need. Beyond the physical needs are spiritual needs that are only met on the other side of these metaphysical walls. There’s a spiritual reason why it is incredibly hard to gather together two mutually-opposed people to socialize — let alone have them pray together. What happens in the midst of that, though, is a heart changing, life changing love. For too long my love was limited by the perceived or felt needs I had. The usual mantra is, “love your neighbor” with the unspoken caveat, “because they need you.” As hard as it is to imagine, it is equally true that you need them. What good is my love if I can’t love people who I would naturally hate? I need the love of my neighbor, the Russian and the Chinese — their brand of love, on their terms, on their turf. I need to experience the pain of their words, customs, attitudes, all bumping against the invisible walls I have in me that are keeping the truth of the Gospel out of me. These invisible walls come in many ways, and they’re preserved through so many different means. For me, it was the dabbling, the “going on safari” style relationships that I experienced, before returning, over and over, to my safe zone in suburbia. Love, I think, sticks around.
When I found myself going to war, in my heart, with my father-in-law, the resolution from Jesus was for me to make peace. It would not be the kind of peacemaking terms that were standard in my upbringing. On the other side of the table was a man who was basically saying, “You have to answer for everything that your people have done in the past to my people in the past.” I had heard it before, in different settings, and laughed at the idea. I get it, I get what he was saying. I was born into a family where both my parents, still married by the way, have their Master’s degrees. Both were raised by the same. That’s a great inheritance. Am I going to answer for it? No. In fact, you can go to hell. Besides the fact that I can’t “give away” my inheritance in the sense that you’re asking me to — giving my upbringing to you is impossible — I don’t feel bad enough to do anything about it. I was faced with a situation where guilt was demanded, and I had none to give. I can imagine, but certainly not empathize, the kind of heinous, cold hatred many have received at different times in their lives because of their race, culture, sexuality, height, speech, and so on. But I still go, I can’t answer for that — even if I look like, or am exactly like the person that did that to you. I get that with my father-in-law it was way more complicated than his past experience. I was trying to steal his daughter away from him, after all. My honor was offended by this man, and as much as he demanded compensation from me for violating his daughter by falling in love with her, I wanted proper respect. I was not about to be disrespected for being a white person, no matter how hard he had had it, no matter how great he thought Chinese people were. And then, it hit me. I had a foil, for some God-ordained reason. He was doing to me what I was doing to him, in reciprocal, culturally unique way. I saw the trampling of his world in which I was engaged. I was that guy, coming in and taking whatever he wanted, because I own the world or something. And not just taking the best table at a restaurant, I was taking his daughter. It was a “you love me first” showdown that I had started long after I had already usurped the man, taken away his power and honor, and then demanded he respect and honor me. I suppose that this is what it would take, since he wasn’t about to enter into my spiritual safe-space and start moving my furniture around. So I went into his house, started walking out with something he dearly valued, and then we had to deal with each other. It’s unfortunate for both of us that we are figuring out how to love each other after being blind to the cultural rules we were both breaking. And by way of warning, I see that this is nearly always the case. It’s rare that I, or anyone, can walk into a situation and love all over people without breaking something. The kind of depth, longevity, and commitment of relationship required to love is hard enough when it’s in your own house. When it’s a cultural world away, it is a lesson in grace for everyone involved. But I would not trade all the pain and the mistakes, and the love I have received in this process for anything in the world. There’s nothing more beautiful than living out the Kingdom of God by loving and being loved by people who are “other” than.
The relationship between love and power is it. It’s the crux of the whole Gospel message. It goes far beyond the “If you give a man a fish” wisdom. To take North Portland, a historically black community, and “empower” them to meet their needs and reach out to others requires someone to give up power and give it over to them. The standard, the easier and safer way is to get the tax write off, create the program that meets the momentary need, and keep the subscription going. In the vacuum of that community’s power, where strong fathers and mothers in strong families might otherwise be empowered, there are hundreds of good, improvement seeking charities and programs that serve there. It’s the same story all over. For one to look at the situation through the lens of power, one would see that kind of charity grants the donors, investors and such more and more power. Injecting love into the situation turns it on it’s head. It the impossible way to do it, but rather than handing over a percentage of yearly income in help, it would be handing over a percentage of assets — property ownership, city-wide decision making, power in every pillar of society handed over. When I describe it as “impossible” I mean, in my experience the handing over of power to my father-in-law — just one person, by the way, who still has very little over me — was the hardest thing I ever had to do. And to put it bluntly, I don’t think any individual in power would willingly hand over their power. No matter the level of “love” they profess for a person or community. Even if God himself commanded it — which he does, all over scripture — there’s a singular stumbling block to that kind of love. “What’s in it for me?” The benefit story follows along with the logic of love. It’s so incredibly illogical, but to love is to give someone your power. Imagine a family where there is a spouse withholding love from their partner. There would be a clear power dynamic, situationally complicated from there, but certainly no Godly love. It follows the same elsewhere, and among communities.
What is it to give away power? What does it mean to love? Christians agree that Jesus lived the life we should have lived. Safe is the system of love in the world, where we can help from a distance, without giving anything we can’t get back. It’s rent-seeking love, in economic terms. The analogy would be, as in the Bible, Jesus withholding his future, annual atoning acts depending on how much he benefits from our relationship with him. Maybe this month, this year he finds a new people to sacrifice himself for. The whole problem is, so much of love is motivated by guilt, and limited by what we have to give — we have limited power, resources, time to give. The other assumption being, some peoples in the world need more atonement than others. “We” are better than “them,” after all. I don’t know believe it was accidental that Jesus had eternal, unlimited love for us, and I believe that we have as unlimited love to give as well. Without distinction among us, or outwardly. Love that is safe, free, easy — that isn’t love. Holding onto power is going to hold back love, and our ability to receive it. Anyone with a serious long-term relationship, marriage or partnership, knows the equation. Anyone with kids sees the kind of love-power frustration, how messy it gets. Yes, it’s hard to give away power as an individual, to love on that Godly level, and it’s infinitely harder as a whole community. What kind of community gives power away, inside and out, in love?
The “Love your neighbor” story echoes into the roughest, darkest neighborhoods in a different way. What God spoke to his bride was the kind of sacrificial love that lowers one’s position. This love steps away from thrones to live in “that neighborhood.” The Father chose to raise his Son in a bad neighborhood. It was a dangerous place; they ended up murdering his son. God sent his Son to a school, and eventually a lowly career, where he wouldn’t be protected or popular. Carpentry was way below his potential — he had some obvious kingly qualities. The adult involvement in the neighborhood was not always positive; they would chain up men in graveyards to solve some of the problems. It was a high crime world that year. What did God benefit? What did we benefit? Somewhere along the line, the ongoing separation is justified by putting ourselves in the place of God. I won’t sacrifice my kids, business, time, life, future, investments, and so on — when in reality, “we,” myself included, are not as good as we think we are, and they are not that much worse. Whoever “they” are. Regarding our neighbor, it was said by God himself, “Go and do likewise,” and I will add, on the other side of the risk of love is an “oh, I get it” moment. This is where the invisible benefits, the spiritual needs met will suddenly be visible, and clear. As safe as the dividing lines make you and I feel, they are ultimately limiting the work of God by putting us in the place of God. This is what happens without love. Sure, call it “sin.” It will be tough to explain to your friends, your neighbors, why you, your family, your community gave away love and power, but that’s okay. Love anyway.