To Wipe, or not to Wipe? A Treatise on White Tears

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He will wipe away every tear from their eyes…for the former things have passed away.

—Rev. 21:4

Grace and Peace to you in the name of the beloved parent G-d, and their anointed offspring, Jesus! I come in peace! Also in anger, shame, and exhaustion. I come to you now as an expert in a highly specialized field—wiping White tears. Through a lifetime of jobs in the service industry, I have worked in nursing homes, schools, hospitals, churches, and private homes. I have ministered, in a variety of ways, over births, deaths, confirmations, gender transitions, weddings, proms, funerals, skinned knees, and the general joys, sorrows, and vicissitudes of human life. I have wiped kitchen tables, exam tables, precious family heirlooms, and altars. I have wiped asses of every age. And especially, I have wiped tears, and because of our nation’s demographics, nearly all of them have been from White cheeks.

Most of the time I spent wiping those tears has been a tremendous blessing—to be permitted to share in those moments is an extraordinary gift. To be trusted enough to be considered a safe presence where those tears can emerge is nothing short of sacramental. But I must admit that in recent weeks my relationship to that role has shifted, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be quite the same again.

This past fall I attended the first annual Decolonize Lutheranism conference/revival. Then, also this fall Donald Trump was declared the President-Elect. Both of these events have caused me to carefully evaluate my role as White tear-wiper, and have left me with some difficult conclusions about myself, my church, and my place in the world. First, the good news—Decolonize Lutheranism, is a movement which, I believe, can revolutionize the church for the better by creating a Holy Disturbance that will leave in its wake the very best of who we are.

I served as one of the chaplains for the conference/revival event that took place on October 22nd, 2016 on the campus of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and I was deeply honored to do so. So many of my fellow Lutherans trusted me enough to share their lives with me, and I will be eternally grateful. During the conference and in the weeks to follow, especially in the wake of the presidential election, two distinct types of pastoral care (this is what I do, attend to the spiritual, emotional, social needs of people) needs emerged. The first was from people in marginalized groups, whose treatment by the church that I love so dearly is nothing short of evil. Time after time, I heard stories of dreams dashed, calls censored, voices silenced, hearts and bodies broken. To the people who shared these stories, I give the most authentically Lutheran answer I can think of—“Here I Stand, but this shit most assuredly will not.”

The second type of pastoral engagement that emerged during, and especially after the conference, went something like this:

White Person A: “I know I need to do something about the oppressive structures of our church, but I don’t know where to start!”
Me: “Well, I find the best place to start is usually with one’s self. How are you racist? Sexist? Classist? Homophobic? What are you doing today that is crucifying Christ in our midst?”
White Person A: … … … (Insert tears here.)
Me: … … … … … (Silence. Lots and lots of uncomfortable silence.)

These conversations, though awkward, are exquisitely holy to me. To the people who participated in those conversations with me, I say, “Thank You. Bless You.” I have to admit that while I think I put on a good game face when I forced those folks to sit in silence, every fiber of my being was silently screaming out “Do Something!!! A White Person is Crying!! Make them feel better before the world slides off its axis!” I realized in those conversations how deeply I, as a woman of color, have been acculturated into the belief that White guilt, especially when accompanied by tears, is my problem to fix. I have been taught, time and time again, that White guilt is almost always followed by White rage, so I’d better provide some absolution, post-haste. “It’s not your fault, don’t worry about it! It’s a systemic issue!” But there, at that conference, and in the phone calls and online conversations afterward, my job was to let white people cry, and to proclaim, with fear and trembling, “actually–it might be your fault.”

It was in those holy conversations that I realized the true sacramental beauty of tears of guilt, the cleansing power of crying, alone and publicly, when you’re truly sorry and humbly repent. I discovered that when we rush to absolution, we abort the work of the spirit, replacing authentic incarnational presence with a sickeningly sweet pablum, tasty on the tongue, but which satisfies none of our true hungers.

I know that experience was profoundly uncomfortable. For many of your reading this now, I know it still is—the idea that the evils of oppression might belong to you, not to your grandparents, not to a faceless, nameless “system,” but to you, personally, is unsettling in the extreme. It is for me too, and make no mistake, my sins, my failures, my evils are writ just as large as yours in the annals of history and the Book of Life. I exist, as we all do, in a vast web of privilege and oppression, and I have finally come to see that trying to dis-entangle myself is a pointless distraction from the simple fact that when I use my privilege to harm someone else, I need to be sorry for it. It is incredibly uncomfortable, incredibly visceral—a mental, emotional, and physiological disruption that rocks me to my very core. And that, I’m pretty sure, is the point. When we feel the weight of our sins, we are tapping into the very Christ event. We are becoming, blessedly momentarily, one with the version of ourselves who crucified our Savior, because we know, somewhere in our bones, that whenever we cast ourselves, however subtly, as more human, more worthy than any other, we are crucifying him all over again. In John’s depiction of the last supper, Jesus goes to great lengths to explain to his disciples, over the course of 3 full chapters, just how it is that they, and the disciples who will come after them, are connected to him. George Carlin managed to sum that final discourse up pretty succinctly though–“Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, because basically it’s the same damn guy.” Our fate is inextricably tied up with the Messiah’s–his salvation is our salvation, his death is our death, and what we do to one another, we do to him.

And Yet. (Lutherans are known for their “and yets”) … When we are engaging in the act of being sorry, when we acknowledge our sin and we humbly repent, to G-d, and to those who we have wronged (knowing in our hearts that those are actually the same person), then, the kingdom of God begins to become manifest. Right there in our tears, in the very moment where we trust G-d to rip us open, root around in our guts and cause some Holy Disruption. Because when we are #AllShookUp, that is the only position from which we can actually hear the voice of the divine out of the mouth of the oppressed. It is then, and only then that we experience true repentance, that state of being through which the kingdom of God draws near (Matt. 4:17) And then, out of the darkness of guilt and despair, there begins to be a glimmer on the horizon, a light shining through and revealing the silhouette of a “rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.” I can see it now, reflected in your tears, and I am exceedingly glad.

Jessica Davis is a Christian Educator and Chaplain for Decolonize Lutheranism. She lives in the Philadelphia area, and her primary areas of focus are the theology of trauma and developmental incarnation across the life span.

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