Life is too Short to Be White

Ancient Testimony - Psalm 40

January 16, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Delivered at Memorial Church at Stanford University

Life is too short to be white.  By white, I mean its exaggeration into something that even it is not.  By white, I mean that prideful tendency of the human to be right, or at least to be wrong in a way that no one notices.  By white, I also mean that tendency to imagine we are normal, even though I swear to you it is not 10:00 a.m. in Sri Lanka right now nor do the Chinese speak English.  I tried to teach my kids to fail and even failed at that.  I have tried to teach my congregations and my students to fail and failed at that, too.  My three grown kids all have jobs and insurance and friends.  My congregation is relatively happy, in that deliciously miserable way it is to be a Progressive Christian these days, as we eat political failure for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I want you to be a high-class failure, a high-functioning abnormal, and a happy flunk-out of exaggerated American culture.  My objective with you today is to learn to fail better, longer, and with more clarity.

Your model will be Jesus, who teaches us to love our enemies, even those who hurt us.  One of our enemies is in our own mirrors and it is she I hope you will love more after our few moments together.  I hope you will understand that life is too short to be right and that you will excel at being wrong.   When you learn to love that mirrored face, you will be well on your way to loving your enemies.  You may even find a GPS guiding you out of the world of blame and shame, in which grip we are now grinding.

A congresswoman is shot and the entire nation turns to the discourse of finding out who is to blame.  The left thinks it is the hate speech of the right-wing noise machine.  The right-wing noise machine thinks it is the left.  Both rush to exterminationist language, whether in the language of targets or crosshairs, blood libels or patronizing putdowns of Sarah Palin.  The blame game is the most non-partisan sport we know.  If we could just find out whose fault it is, we could go back to being right; we could return to the land of safety, where life is understood, where mystery is mangled, and where the same violence will spurt forth again.  Not that it hasn’t happened before.  We cannot neglect the King assassination today.  Nor Oklahoma City.  Nor the Kennedy’s.  Nor the two wars being waged in our name, in response to the 9/11 attack.  We believe that bullets can resolve things and the more bullets the better.  If we just get rid of the wrong people, the bad people, the ones who are not normal or worthy, we will get back to our numb and dumb world where you can get a bad tomato any time of the day and fight traffic to buy it.  Some people feel so badly about themselves that they put flesh from their butt onto their faces, to be beautiful, to be accepted, to be loved.  If we just got rid of the bad part of ourselves and fixed ourselves, then we could be loved.  And yes, the average New Year’s resolution lasts one week.  We want desperately to be loved and we sacrifice to be worthy.

I want to attend to today’s Psalm.  Such a quaint Psalm.  So old-fashioned.  So otherworldly.  Imagine those ancient innocents thinking they needed to offer burnt sacrifices to their God, and those spiritual leaders needing to write psalms to correct them.  God, says the psalmist, does not desire your burnt offerings or sacrifices; instead, God has an open ear.  We moderns and post-moderns are way beyond that, right?  We use guns, not fireplaces; we use bombs, not wood, to burn up something to show God that we respect God.  They burned real goats; we scapegoat.  Scapegoating is the sacrificial substitution of someone else for our sin and our soul.  We imagine that God desires such behavior.  And the psalmist whispers, you are wrong about God.  God does not desire scapes or goats.  God has an open ear.  I don’t know about you, but for me the terror of that—that we are wrong about God, that we have been wrong about God, and that we continue, both right and left, to be wrong about God—terrifies.  God has an open ear.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies.   Spirit promises the hope to be able so to do.  There is a magnificent love and peace paralleling this mess we live in—and we don’t see it, so urgent are we about being right.  Or beautiful.  Or worthy of love and attention.

I want to be as right as the next person.  I’ve been married for twenty-nine years to the same man, and every fight we have is about who was right—about directions, about the price of a persimmon, about the way to raise a child or buy a car.   I beg to be approved.  So does he.  We can make absolute fools of ourselves, right in front of each other, about who is right and who’s not.  We desire the appreciation of God’s open ear—and the only way we can get it is to give it to each other.  But when he makes a wrong turn, or acts like he is an expert on a subject on which I am actually an expert, we both get out the firewood.  It is time for a burnt offering or eliminationist politics.  Somebody has to go.  You all see how successful this is, I am sure.  How simple, how terrifyingly simple it would be to turn toward the other and say I am wrong and you are wrong and our mutual urgency to be right is even more wrong.  We are wronging each other by trying to be right.  As Bill Coffin summarized the Gospel so well, isn’t there humor in knowing that I’m not okay and you’re not okay and that’s okay?

I could do the usual problem-saturated, finger-pointed sermon here and tell you in a way that would probably bind us together that I hate the violence of hate speech and its holsters and hooligans.  I even debated Bill O’Reilly on this very subject two years ago, arguing with him that if he kept the sneer in his voice on air, immigrants would be killed in the street.  By the way, I was right with O’Reilly.  GRIN.  I have no doubt that hate speech yields violence.  For me, the subject starts here but it doesn’t end here.  Just because I can find an O’Reilly to blame does not mean I have resolved my concern.  In a way, the most wrong thing I can do is to find a blame and name it.  I am doing a sophisticated form of denial of my God.  God has an open ear.  Jesus wants me to love my enemies, even the ones that hurt me.   God does not want me to be right or to expiate my sins on a fire of rightness or whiteness.  God wants to listen to what I love.  God wants to love me, even though I’d probably prefer God to say I was loved because I was so worthy.  We can make fun of plastic surgery all we want, but many of us do constant spiritual surgery to become worthy of God’s love.  When we burn offerings, we are usually just showing our résumé to God and hoping we get the high-paying job.  God is amused at how much we misunderstand God—and doesn’t even punish us for that.  God refuses punishment.  We punish ourselves enough.

Progressive Protestants have a long way to go before we understand that we ourselves are part of the problem.  We don’t solve problems by pointing fingers, laying blame, or burning our enemies on the op-ed pages or talk shows.  We resolve by learning that we ourselves have been wrong and have distanced ourselves from our enemies, and that we stand in need of God’s open ear, God’s astounding grace, God’s refusal to be fed up with us no matter how right we think we are.  No less a sage than the 4th century North African spiritual genius, St. Augustine, said it this way: “Si comprehendis, non est Deus.”  “If you think you understand, it’s not God you are talking about.”  The self-righteousness of the left is the moral equivalent of the self-righteousness of the right.  It is the same pattern of blaming and shaming, ridiculing and distancing.  I wish I could tell you my side was at least better, or at least not so bad, but even that pattern of thinking is the problem. It asks the wrong question, about who is most wrong.  The better question is, how do I learn to love what is unlovable in me and in so-called them?

Let me give you an example.  I was at a training with 100 or so Manhattan congregations on Friday.  We were learning social networking.  A graphic appeared on the screen of thirty or so small fish arranged in a group with their mouth wide open.  They were chasing one large fish and they were going to eat it.  I wish I could show it to you.  The point was something politically correct about how small is beautiful and decentralized is wonderful and how the open-sourced net would help us eat the big fish.

This graphic is a form of burnt offering, a sacrifice, that if we could just destroy someone or something, then everything would be okay.  Nothing will improve by destroying our enemies; everything will improve if we can drop the enemy idea itself.  The only enemy is our shame.  We create enemies because we feel so powerlessness in the face of life that we project this powerlessness onto some “other.”  We hate ourselves, so we hate others.  James Carroll wrote a remarkable book about being raised as a Catholic.1  What is the one thing he said he learned from the Church?  He learned, in his words, that “I am unworthy.”

Scapegoating has a long and proud history.  Ask the Jews.  Ask the witches.  Ask the gypsies.  Ask Park 51, in downtown Manhattan.  They can’t build a cultural center there because some people like them bombed “our” buildings.  Our?  Yes, “our” buildings.  The primitive thought about sacred space in lower Manhattan parallels the primitive thought that had the psalmist concerned.  Okay, two goats and one lamb, skewered and burned, and God will be back on our side.  God begs to object.  God is never going to be on your side, no matter how right you are.  The project has been tried, and the project has failed.  How do we find God?  By understanding we have the capacity to be both right and wrong, worthy and unworthy.  How do we become worthy enough to refuse the blame game?  We accept the grace of God to warm us and help us be truly abnormal and truly strange and so capable of our mistakes that we can learn to love others who make mistakes.  We begin to understand there is no revenge.  We can’t get revenge for 9/11.  We can’t get revenge from our partner for making a wrong turn.  We can’t get queer people to have sex the way we think God thinks it is right to have sex.  We can’t hate Muslims because they don’t hate Jesus, nor can we hate the people who burn the Quran or picket funerals or walk around with signs that say “Jesus Hates Muslims.”  We can’t hate the haters.

Worse, or better, we must love the haters.  We must love love and hate hate.  We must move beyond the land of blame and shame, and move into the land of grace and the open ear.

In that land, we have to learn how to be wrong and wronged.  There is nothing quiet about this humility.  It takes the sneer out of its voice and puts a smile in its voice.  We stop saying things like, “I’m not a racist but…”  Why?  Because we have decided not to burn goats any more, even sophisticated goats like the word but.  Every time we say and rather than but, things change.  Listen:  “I know we are late for the dinner party and you just took a wrong turn.”  “I know we are late for the dinner party but you just took wrong turn—again.”   My husband also likes to respond to my saying I am hurt about something by saying, “It’s not my fault.”  He’d rather burn me than be with me in a world where we are probably both wrong about the next turn for the dinner party or our lives.  This is the cul-de-sac we are in.  We circle and circle, offloading the responsibility for things as large as racism and as small as directions.  Stokeley Carmichael: “Racism may not be your fault but it is your responsibility.”  Responsibility is quiet.  It says “yes” to doing what is hard, like loving your enemies.  Fault is loud, defensive, and finally, boring.  Faulting and blaming is finally sinful: it leads us away from God’s promised forgiveness.

Repentance, one really big word, is turning away from sin and toward freedom from it.  Sin is missing the mark of our true humanity.  According to Martin Luther, it is “incurvatus in se,” “curved in on ourselves.”  White people are so curved in on ourselves that we are in a personal prison.  We hold the key to get out of the jail. The key is repentance.

“The good that we would do, we do not; the evil that we would not do, we do,” said St. Paul.  Aung San Suu Kyi said, when asked by a British reporter if was she ever afraid, “I did not hate them and you cannot really be frightened of people you do not hate.  Hate and fear go hand in hand.”

The real casualty in white racism is white spirit.  It de-energizes us and keeps us paying the bill for things long ago done wrong.  Burnt offerings keep the status quo, status quoting.  We need not be anti anything in order to change.  Note the creeping negatives.  Because if you ain’t against nothing, who you going to blame?  I mean scapegoat.  How are you going to run away from God’s open ear and precious love for you if you can’t find a way out of it in negativity?  Most people are pretty numb. Because we can’t face the pain of the terror of having misunderstood God’s love, we run and hide, numb and dumb.  Emotions aren’t selective.  The price we pay for not facing our terror about misunderstanding God is joy.  Liberation for white people is liberation from guilt for joy.  We are unnecessarily bound by our racism and it hurts us as much as it hurts those we abnormalize and distance and fear.  We are eliminationists toward Almighty God, not each other.  The right hates gay people and immigrants and Muslims; we hate the right.  Are we having fun yet?  We live with the toxic consequences of second-hand hate… and we don’t have to.  We could live with the clear air of God’s open ear, which loves us and knows how to break open our hearts so that we could love each other.

Life is too short to be right.  We don’t need to offer burnt offerings to our God.  We need to love our enemies and be good to those who hurt us.  We need to break the cycle of the blood flow of violence into a blood flow of joy. We need to let blood libel become blood truth—and the truth is God has an open ear, even now, after all the violence.  Amen.


1 James Carroll, Practicing Catholic (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2009).

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