Wednesday, May 17, 2017

confess (v.)

I am still learning to admit that my white privilege gets in the way of my Christian discipleship all day. I am steeped in the company of progressives passionate about concepts and institutions, all proud of our liberal ideals. I am a white person who loves to shout into my echo chamber of like-minded people about how woke and forward-thinking I am when compared to those other white people over there. My greatest fear is that I'm advocating for racial justice all wrong and that I, too, am part of the problem. And I am embarrassed of that fear because it is pretension and self-protecting. (And because it is, of course, true.)

A letter from the St. Olaf Board of Regents a few weeks ago held a mirror up to all of this. Let me back up.


Students had been rising up with their voices and hearts, telling their personal stories about oppression on campus. To be taken seriously by the system and the public, they painstakingly organized their experiences and emotions into heady talking points. The students created a website and a list of demands. They translated their hearts so people like me could digest their feelings and experience and wisdom more easily.

The Board of Regents met with the students and responded with a heady list of their own. This letter was for the students, but it is also for alumni, parents, donors, community members, and the general public that is watching St. Olaf's spirit in question.

The dominant verb was "reaffirm", which is the language I use whenever I feel my self-identification as a woke champion of diversity is threatened by my lack of understanding, empathy, or action. But doing the same thing we've been doing with a renewed commitment does not require anything new from me, nor does it hold me accountable to regret thus far. If these concepts and ideals are not supplying safety and value for students of color, why would we reaffirm them?

There's a stark difference between an achievement-fueled, "We'll try harder," and an empathetic, "We are so sorry this is happening to you." I am convinced that reaffirmation is not an adaptive change or real solution.

We've been reaffirming for decades.

I'm guilty of merely reaffirming ALL.THE.TIME. Try harder. Do better. Fix this. Explain it. Check the boxes. But sometimes the stakes are too high and the tools are insufficient for the boundaries of that verb. Sometimes the stuff we are trying to affirm again is broken or wasn't there in the first place. 

This is when my Lutheran theology reminds me that I cannot save myself, live only in my head, or make the discomfort go away. I am called to surrender and be made new, which happens whenever I return to the very beginning, the foundation of my conversation with God, creation, and humanity: confession. And, while it requires seeing myself in less-than-ideal terms, the vulnerability invites me to move back in my heart again.

St. Olaf's mission is to "challenge students to excel in the liberal arts, examine faith and values, and explore meaningful vocation in an inclusive, globally engaged community nourished by Lutheran tradition". After weeks of reflection about my own student experience, visits to campus this month, and the formal correspondence with alumni, I offer another verb: confess.

I confess that I have often reaffirmed with my head instead of apologizing with my heart, a defense mechanism that allows me to retain my privilege while merely acknowledging your pain and quietly deeming your experience less valuable than mine.

I confess that I have needed the Black Lives Matter movement to translate their hearts into their heads so that I can be more comfortable while hearing their message and better assume how to insert myself into the movement without risking too much. I have felt entitled to their translation instead of changing myself.

I confess that I have cared more for the concept and ideals of liberal values and education than I have cared for my neighbor in the cafeteria or classroom.

I confess that I was primed for distraction from the cause when I learned that one of the racist threats was fabricated by a student desperate to bring this issue to light. 

I confess that I am self-conscious about current students at my alma mater raising their voices about sexual assault and racism on campus, not because they are wrong but because they are right.  They are like prophets telling the hard truth about a place I love and a reputation I am quick to protect.

I confess that I am working on all of this. I am being changed. I am starting over each day, repenting my distance and trying to meet people in their hearts.

What have you been reaffirming to no avail?
What are you ready to confess, 
   even though its truth will make a mess in your own heart?

1 comment:

Bruce Jensen said...

I'm an alum who has been working on sexual abuse at St. Olaf since the protests there a year ago. I've learned so much on this journey, not the least of which is how difficult it is to facilitate truly meaningful change. Your reflections are a step in the right direction. I encourage you to continue raising your voice, stay engaged. We need voices like yours. Thank you.