This past Sunday David McKee gave a wonderfully Benedictine homily on the well-known passage from Matthew 16. All the quotations in this reflection are from his homily of August 30.
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
David says that Jesus “then follows up by turning the disciples’ view inward, to the deeper truth of his ministry and his life. He explains to them what it really means to follow him: to…deny themselves and take up their cross…. And Jesus continues, deepening further to give us a more personally challenging truth. He tells us that, in order to find ourselves, we have to lose ourselves; that to keep from forfeiting our life, we consciously have to lose it.”
I am of the same stripe as David, hearing this as a call to a spiritual journey of letting go of the ways I define myself, letting go of my ego. As he says, though it sounds simple and even clichéd, it is difficult. “It runs against the grain of so many deeply conditioned tendencies in ourselves.” My mind at this point turned to the racism that is so deeply ingrained in our culture, and thus, in us as individuals. In me.
David reminds us that “for any Jew in that time of Roman hegemony*, there was the ever present threat of losing one’s life, of being executed for the slightest disruption of imperial order. Everywhere people were hanging from crosses; constant reminders of the absolute, arbitrary power wielded by their Roman rulers.”
Here is where my mind went when I heard this. For any black person in this time of white hegemony, there was the ever present threat of losing one’s life, of being executed for the slightest disruption of white supremacist order. Every day black people were being murdered; constant reminders of the absolute, arbitrary power wielded by a white racist culture.
It occurs to me that in addition to giving up my personal ego, I also have to give up my cultural ego. I have to let go of my sense of entitlement to status, dominance, power and privilege that comes with being white in America.
What does this mean? I think it means first, recognizing that racism exists as the cultural milieu in which we’ve all been raised. It’s in our bones. We can’t avoid being socialized into a racist system, and benefitting from it, even though we didn’t choose it. But what we can choose is what to do about it.
Second, it means being willing to walk the path that Jesus walked, to the cross. A path of infuriating education that brings to my awareness the parts of American history that were not taught in school and government policies that gave my family economic advantage over black families. A path of painful humiliation as I discover the blind spots I have around the way I’ve spoken to or treated people of color, oblivious to how I have hurt them.
I cannot not hear this message from Jesus, calling us to walk the path of racial reconciliation.
I agree with another of David’s statements. “Losing our life means giving up…a host of… fantasies.” Among those fantasies may be the thought that I, personally, have nothing to do with racism. Or I am not racist. If it’s true, as David says, that “many (many!) of us share the belief that we need to be especially good to be deserving of love…, that parental affection was contingent on whether we were good…whether we were “naughty or nice,’” then of course it is mighty hard for most of us to willingly admit to being complicit with racism. That is why it is liberating to understand racism as the way we were socialized and not as individual acts done by morally inferior people. We have to let go of the desire to see ourselves as ‘not racist,’ or as free of racism; we can no more be free of racism than we can be free of sin.
Jesus is calling us, white America. “To keep from forfeiting our life, we consciously have to lose it.”
*(I had to look that word up again. The fitting definition is ‘dominance of one social group over another.’)